Your Brain In A Vat
When the French philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes published his Meditations on First Philosophy in 1641 he inadvertently created a science-fiction/fantasy sub-genre. How? The Mediator (Descartes’ narrator) methodically reasons from known falsehoods he once believed to the unreliability of his sensory perception, and finally concludes that abstract truths such as mathematics could be false. Why? According to The Mediator it’s possible that an omnipotent demon could be preying upon his mind and senses, feeding him falsehood built upon falsehood.
This idea of false reality is not original to Descartes. It dates back to the dawn of human history from Gnostic religious movements like Greek and Roman dualism, Taoism, and Buddhism. Belief systems supposing that the material world is inferior or illusory, and that our senses in fact obscure this reality, existed well before the philosopher. However, Descartes’ innovation was to uncouple this false reality from the salvation, or gnosis, of any particular religious or philosophical path. Enter the Cartesian nightmare.
Now, there’s so much more to the concept of “learned doubt” that Descartes offers. I will exclude here how he attempts to answer this doubt and the further responses and criticisms of other philosophers. But, for storytellers, this nightmare provides incredible and intriguing potentialities.
Victims of a false reality usually play the story’s heroes. Descartes’ demon is greater in evil than even the evilest of evil corporations manipulating world markets and orchestrating the rise and fall of nations. The Matrix’s (1999) villains and or the Black Mercy in the Superman story For the Man Who Has Everything intrinsically communicate evil to the audience because they harness all human connection, emotional and rational, to their own ends. Your life is a lie but only they know it.
In my mind, the major problem with nearly all of these stories is motivation. Why bother, really? Yes, a mad scientist could trick the a man into believing he sits under a tree when his brain is in fact submerged in slimy liquids, diodes suction-cupped to the prefrontal cortex, and no such thing as a “tree” actually existing. But why? A ‘humans as batteries’ plot is insufficient. The villains are sentient machines with flying squid ships. Nuclear clouds obscuring the sun seems much less difficult an obstacle compared with the expense required to keep humankind bottled up. Just sayin’.
Even when a story’s plot doesn’t rest on this “Brain in the Vat” premise, the characters in any story inhabit a vat of their own kind. We, as their storytellers, put them through their paces to expand our horizons, stretch our imaginations, and entertain ourselves and others. There is no hope of them knowing they live in a false reality unless we enlighten them. We make them fly on the backs of dragons when no such things exist. When we write stories, we reverse the roles. We become Descartes’ demon, creating our character’s realities for our own entertainment.
Whenever you or I create a story we invest ourselves in an imaginary world with our experiences, emotions, and, yes, even our rational minds. If successful, a story maintains the “suspension of disbelief,” which we readily volunteer the moment we step in line to purchase the tickets, buy the book, or download the media. Only afterward, if at all, do we reevaluate a story to scrutinize a character’s strange or deficient motivations or plot holes that jack the wheels off a storyline.
We have incomplete knowledge, so creating a story that’s both competent and compelling requires a lot of skill to mask over those deficiencies. Every story bends, but hopefully doesn’t break, under the falsehoods we inevitably weave into our narratives.
It just makes me wonder what glaring plot hole makes my life story so unbelievable to those watching me.