A Priori

Abstract
Hilary Putnam has famously argued that we can know that we are not brains in a vat because the hypothesis that we are is self-refuting.1 While Putnam’s argument has generated interest primarily as a novel response to skepticism, his original use of the brain in a vat scenario was meant to illustrate a point about the “mind/world relationship.”2 In particular, he intended it to be part of an argument against the coherence of metaphysical realism, and thus to be part of a defense of his conception of truth as idealized rational acceptability. Putnam’s argument has drawn a good deal of criticism already, but it will be argued here that these criticisms fail to capture the central problem with Putnam’s argument. Putnam’s conclusions about the self refuting character of the brain in a vat hypothesis, rather than simply being a consequence of his semantic externalism, will be shown to be actually out of line with central and plausible aspects of his own account of the relationship between our minds and the world. Reflections on intentionality and semantics ultimately give us no compelling reason to suppose that the beliefs expressed by claims like “I am a brain in a vat” could not be true,3 but (pace Putnam) this supports neither skepticism nor metaphysical realism.
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