A Brief Refutation of BIV Skepticism

Gerald L. Hull -- 25 December 2010 -- ghull@stny.rr.com

The skeptic poses the possibility that everything we experience is systematically misleading in an undetectable way, e.g. the brain-in-a-vat scenario (BIV). "Undetectable" because the evidence would be the same, whether or not the scenario is true. And because undetectable, there is no way to prove that BIV is false. By the same token, there is no way to prove it true; but the skeptic is okay with that -- it suits that the jury is hung. After all, it remains a significant matter whether everything one holds dear were actually a figment in some kind of virtual reality computer program. It should be clear that the skeptical argument gets a boost from posing a scenario that seems really possible. Of course, it's beyond today's neuro- and computer-science, but it represents an imaginable achievement sometime in the future, a la The Matrix. Suppose we take this apparent realism seriously, and start probing into the current state of neural science, and the practical and theoretical aspects of virtual reality programming. For, while e.g. according to quantum physics we can never directly witness a photon in superposition, we can nonetheless obtain circumstantial evidence that that's the case. Hence, the plausibility of BIV might seem open to indirect empirical evaluation. The skeptic will reply that this misses the point: all the evidence we can possibly uncover, whether directly or circumstantially, is untrustworthy. Were BIV the case, the evidence would point only where the BIV programmers wish it to point. Again, the supposition is that we are systematically misled in an undetectable way. However, while we may be incapable of detecting the deception, the skeptical account suggests we at least have an idea of what it is we are unable to detect: viz., the brain-in-a-vat scenario. This detail helps make the skeptical challenge seem a substantive concern. But if the deception itself is undetectable, then necessarily the means whereby it is carried out will also be undetectable. There are an indefinite number of different skeptical scenarios -- BIV, Descartes' malicious demon, a cabal of telepathic monks, higher-dimensional beings double-parked in our synapses, hallucinations of a schizophrenic asylum inmate, etc. -- and an infinite number of ways in which those scenarios might take form. For, while the skeptic supposes that we are systematically misled, the undetectability of that deception precludes any assumptions about what form it might take. This drains the illusion of substance from the skeptical challenge. We find ourselves choosing between (1) things being more or less as they appear, and (2) things being systematically different from how they appear, but in a completely undetectable and completely unspecifiable way. Now we may legitimately be concerned whether future experiences might wreak important changes in our beliefs about how things are; it is even conceivable that (a la Neo) we might discover that those beliefs are systematically wrong in significant respects. But what possible concern can we have for an unidentifiable fraud that in principle can never be discovered? Matters that cannot be determined one way or another through empirical evidence, nonetheless can be resolved rationally through pragmatic considerations. Parsimony, utility, and (dare we say) sanity concur in the judgement that there is no need for concern about things which cannot be identified and can never be detected. It is always possible for experiences to be misleading; but the evidence of being misled will come from other experiences. The skeptic will counter that we have fallen right back into the trap. It is undeniable that our experiences are untrustworthy guides to how things are. So it is pointless to go to other experiences for validation -- they suffer from the same untrustworthiness. But that's the wrong picture. It is from experience that we get our beliefs about how things are. Putting aside considerations of consistency and simplicity, it is only from other experiences that we can learn when those beliefs are wrong. It is only on the authority of experience that experiences are shown to have been mistaken. Since the skeptical scenarios are perfectly experience-free, they cannot provide any reason for mistrusting our beliefs about how things are. [Thanks to Stephen P. Schwartz for innumerable illuminating discussions on the topic. He is not liable, etc.]