Rebirth of Reason


Of Brains, Vats and Stolen Concepts
by Cameron Pritchard

Sceptics have all sorts of arguments they use to try to persuade us against having certainty in an objective reality. One in particular is the story of the brain in the vat. In various forms it has been used throughout the history of philosophy. From the idea of an evil demon tricking us into believing there’s a world outside of our heads to The Matrix, the idea is that we can never be certain about anything because we can conceive that all the world is an illusion and that we’re really just a brain in a vat hooked up to all sorts of equipment that tricks us into perceiving the world of sights, sounds and smells.

It is a difficult one to refute unless you have the powerful thinking tools of Ayn Rand’s philosophy at your disposal. Philosophers are familiar with the fallacy of begging the question, i.e., assuming the very thing you’re trying to prove. Rand pointed out what she called “the fallacy of the stolen concept” defined as “the fallacy of using a concept while denying the validity of its genetic roots, i.e., of an earlier concept(s) on which it logically depends.”[1] In other words, it’s the mistake of making an argument by relying on the very concept you intend to disprove.

In this case the concept the sceptics try to cast doubt on is that of certainty, i.e., certainty of the world we perceive around us. But in order to cast doubt on this world they rely on it. They use, in their premises, concepts of brains and vats. They point out that science now makes it possible to play around with the sensory apparatus and create so-called perceptions, which are in fact illusions (forgetting that we can only form the concept of an illusion by distinguishing it from a perception, and thus that an illusion is not and never can be a perception). They are certain that there are such things as brains to trick and vats to put them in. But where did they observe brains and vats, if not in reality? They are certain of the evidence of science. But where did they observe this evidence, if not in the world out there? From this, they then try to “prove” that one can’t be certain of anything. Yet they need to be certain of something in order to get the whole argument off the ground. For this reason, the argument never does get off the ground. It’s invalidated because you can’t use a concept in the very argument you’re constructing to deny that concept.

This is really just an example of the axiomatic status of the concept of existence. By axiomatic Objectivists mean that the concept is implicit in any act of awareness and that it must be used even in an attempt to deny it. Any argument that asserts that nothing exists, is assuming that something exists. To present an argument one needs to present evidence. And where did that evidence come from, if not existence? To understand an argument one must be conscious. But of what is one conscious, if not existence? The idea of being conscious only of your being conscious begins an eternal regress that makes no sense.

Now one could spend years trying to refute arguments like the brain in the vat on their own terms. But you’d never get anywhere without recognising that the whole argument is based on fallacious reasoning that refutes itself. With good philosophical tools in our hands, life is made so much easier. So long as we know how to use these tools, there are so many arguments we barely even have to refute because they do the job for us themselves.

[1] Leonard Peikoff, editor’s footnote to Ayn Rand’s ‘Philosophical Detection,’ in Philosophy: Who Needs It, 26; pb 22.
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