Red Pill or Blue Pill?

Missing the good old days of adolescent existential angst?

“Researchers at UCLA found that cells in the human anterior cingulate, which normally fire when you poke the patient with a needle (“pain neurons”), will also fire when the patient watches another patient being poked. The mirror neurons, it would seem, dissolve the barrier between self and others. [1] I call them “empathy neurons” or “Dalai Llama neurons”. (I wonder how the mirror neurons of a masochist or sadist would respond to another person being poked.) Dissolving the “self vs. other” barrier is the basis of many ethical systems, especially eastern philosophical and mystical traditions. This research implies that mirror neurons can be used to provide rational rather than religious grounds for ethics (although we must be careful not to commit the is/ought fallacy).

MIRROR NEURONS AND THE BRAIN IN THE VAT [1.10.06]
by V.S. Ramachandran

Introduction

Six years ago, Edge published a now-famous essay by neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran ( (known to friends and colleagues as “Rama”), entitled “Mirror Neurons and imitation learning as the driving force behind “the great leap forward” in human evolution” [2]. This was the first time that many in the Edge community heard of mirror neurons which were discovered by Iaccomo Rizzolati of the University of Parma in 1995. In his essay, Rama made the startling prediction that mirror neurons would do for psychology what DNA did for biology by providing a unifying framework and help explain a host of mental abilities that have hitherto remained mysterious and inaccessible to experiments.”

Ramachandran poses the following thought experiment based on an extrapolation of discoveries since the neuroscience revolution – the corollary of which was that “even our loftiest thoughts and aspirations are mere byproducts of neural activity. We are nothing but a pack of neurons.”

“Consider the following thought experiment that used to be a favorite of philosophers (it was also the basis for the recent Hollywood blockbuster The Matrix): Let’s advance to a point of time where we know everything there is to know about the intricate circuitry and functioning of the human brain. With this knowledge, it would be possible for a neuroscientist to isolate your brain in a vat of nutrients and keep it alive and healthy indefinitely.

Utilizing thousands of electrodes and appropriate patterns of electrical stimulation, the scientist makes your brain think and feel that it’s experiencing actual life events. The simulation is perfect and includes a sense of time and planning for the future. The brain doesn’t know that its experiences, its entire life, are not real.

Further assume that the scientist can make your brain “think” and experience being a combination of Einstein, Mark Spitz, Bill Gates, Hugh Heffner, and Gandhi, while at the same time preserving your own deeply personal memories and identity (there’s nothing in contemporary brain science that forbids such a scenario). The mad neuroscientist then gives you a choice. You can either be this incredible, deliriously happy being floating forever in the vat or be your real self, more or less like you are now (for the sake of argument we will further assume that you are basically a happy and contended person, not a starving pheasant). Which of the two would you pick?

I have posed this question to dozens of scientists and lay people. A majority argue “I’d rather be the real me.” This is an irrational choice because you already are a brain in a vat (the cranial cavity) nurtured by cerebrospinal fluid and blood and bombarded by photons. When asked to select between two vats most pick the crummy one even though it is no more real than the neuroscientist’s experimental vat. How can you justify this choice unless you believe in something supernatural?”

Read the whole essay.



Categories: ethics & philosophy, Life, Science

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