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Against Brain-in-a-Vatism: On the Value of Virtual Reality


The term “virtual reality” was first coined by Antonin Artaud to describe a value-adding characteristic of certain types of theatrical performances. The expression has more recently come to refer to a broad range of incipient digital technologies that many current philosophers regard as a serious threat to human autonomy and well-being. Their concerns, which are formulated most succinctly in “brain in a vat”-type thought experiments and in Robert Nozick's famous “experience machine” argument, reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of the way that such technologies would probably have to work. They also considerably underestimate the positive contributions that virtual reality (VR) technologies could make to the growth of human knowledge. Here, we examine and critique Nozick's claim that no reasonable person would want to plug into his hypothetical experience machine in light of a broadly enactivist understanding of how future VR technologies might be expected to function. We then sketch out a tentative theory of the phenomenon of truth in fiction, in order to characterize some of the distinct epistemic opportunities that VR technologies promise to provide.

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  1. Note also that children with congenital strabismus, the inability to exert appropriate muscular control over an eye, do not see a moving landscape through the wandering eye. Instead, they develop amblyopia, which is standardly understood as the brain's being unable to process the information provided by the eye.

  2. A referee for this journal has called our attention to the way that optogenetics might eventually bring about such a transformation. Researchers in this field have already had some success at helping lab mice to better navigate mazes (see Zackaib 2013) and at modifying the behavior of nonhuman primates (see Berdyyeva and Reynolds 2009, p. 159) by introducing microbial rhodopsins directly into brain tissue and then activating the neurons there with pulses of laser light. We remain skeptical about whether future iterations of these technologies could be used to generate the types of virtual environments that would qualify as “interactive” in Heim's sense of the term, but to the extent that they could, what we have called “passive” VR would not end up being quite such a counter-intuitive prospect.

  3. Let us be clear: this is only meant to apply to (actual and virtual) agents who use language and is only meant to be a necessary condition for intelligence even then! Neither of us thinks the test is remotely plausible as a necessary or sufficient test for intelligence: not necessary because nonhumans such as crows and humans such as non-linguistic deaf adults and aphaisics are clearly intelligent and not sufficient for reasons to do with what we have already described as the “enactive” nature of much human thought and perception.

  4. This argument raises many broader issues about computationalism that would take us much too far afield. However, we have put forward the argument in detail and considered many of its surprising ramifications in three other publications: Silcox and Cogburn (2006), Cogburn and Silcox (2008), and Cogburn and Silcox (2011). See also Cogburn and Silcox (2005). For further discussion of Nozick's “experience machine” argument in a slightly different context, see Silcox and Cogburn (2009).

  5. For a useful survey of the debate, see Bruekner (2012).

  6. One important exception to this generalization is Gaut (2007). See especially chapters 7 and 8.

  7. Unfortunately the hogwash has affected Wikipedia. Rand’s Nathaniel Taggart is based on James J. Hill, creator of the Great Northern Railway. Both Hill’s Wikipedia page and the page for the Great Northern Railway (echoing misleading claims in the objectivist blogosphere) make much of the fact that the Great Northern was privately financed and didn’t receive land grants. But this is extraordinarily misleading, since the Great Northern was initially created by changing the name of the Saint Paul and Pacific Railway, which Hill purchased in a fire-sale. But the Saint Paul and Pacific was formed initially from the Minnesota and Pacific Railway, which (and it is to Wikipedia’s credit that they continue to admit this) was a public railroad formed out of massive land grants and a five million dollar bond in taxpayer money. Without “loans, bonds, subsidies, land grants” and “legislative favors” the Great Northern would never have existed.

  8. Their plausibility might depend upon the somewhat delicate question of whether Rand's work is better classified as realistic or fantasy fiction, since a crucial difference between these two genres might (or might not: the authors disagree) be the degree of flexibility in imagination that each demands from its readers.

  9. For detailed arguments to this effect, see Brown (2010) and Sorenson (2008).


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Correspondence to Mark Silcox.

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Cogburn, J., Silcox, M. Against Brain-in-a-Vatism: On the Value of Virtual Reality. Philos. Technol. 27, 561–579 (2014).

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  • Virtual reality
  • Brain in a vat
  • Nozick
  • Artaud
  • Enactivism
  • Truth in fiction