What’s in a name?

Neurophilosophy has a fantastic post on The Matrix and the famous philosophical thought experiment that inspired it. Rene Descartes’ “Evil Genius” argument posits that our experience of the outer world is not accurate, and that false perceptions are being fed to us by an omnipotent being. A modern incarnation of the thought experiment asks us to imagine that our brain is sitting in a vat somewhere with a computer controlling our experience via an electrode interface. That’s where I got the name for this blog.

Would such a scenario mean that our experience is illusory? That’s the question philosopher O.K. Bouwsma raises in his wonderfully written essay, The Evil Genius. In Bouwsma’s thought experiment, the evil genius makes two attempts at tricking a poor mortal named Tom. In the end, both attempts fail and Bouwsma concludes that the skeptical doubts behind the Evil Genius argument are incoherent. In the first attempt, the Evil Genius turns the world into origami:

He took no delight in common lies, everyday fibs, little ones, old ones. He wanted something new and something big. He scratched his genius; he uncovered an idea. And he scribbled on the inside of his tattered halo, “Tomorrow, I will deceive,” and he smiled, and his words were thin and like fine wire. “Tomorrow I will change everything, everything, everything. I will change flowers, human beings, trees, hills, sky, the sun, and every-thing else into paper. Paper alone I will not change. There will be paper flowers, paper human beings, paper trees. And human beings will be deceived. They will think that there are flowers, human beings, and trees, and there will be nothing but paper. It will be gigantic.

But Tom is not deceived. He knows that he isn’t looking at real flowers because they don’t look or feel or smell like real flowers. In other words, he is able to detect the illusion with his senses. In the Evil Genius’s next attempt at deception, he decides to create a more convincing illusion. He destroys everything in the world and replaces it with with a mere replica. This time he builds it not out of paper, but out of “the stuff that dreams are made of.” For Tom, this replica is indistinguishable from reality. But this is not enough for the Evil Genius, who, swollen with pride, encourages Tom to doubt what he sees.

In contrast to the paper flowers which did not exhibit the sense properties associated with real flowers, the new flowers do look, smell, taste, sound and feel like real flowers. The Evil Genius explains that the paper flowers were merely thin illusions, whereas the new replicas of flowers are a thick illusions. The Evil Genius explains that a thin illusion corresponds to what Tom sees when he looks in the mirror, because he realizes such objects are fake as soon as he reaches out to touch or smell them. Then the Evil Genius asks Tom to imagine a sophisticated mirror that is capable of reflecting not only the appearance of an object, but also its taste, touch, sound and smell. The reflection cast by this mirror would constitute a thick illusion, since it would be indistinguishable from reality using sense perception alone. This kind of illusion, the Evil Genius contends, is what Tom currently experiences.

But Tom was not asleep. “I see that what you mean by thin illusions is what I mean by illusions, and what you mean by thick illusions is what I mean by flowers. So when you say that my flowers are your thick illusions this doesn’t bother me. And as for your mirror that mirrors all layers of your thick illusions, I shouldn’t call that a mirror at all. It’s a duplicator, and much more useful than a mirror, provided you can control it. But I do suppose that when you speak of thick illusions you do mean that thick illusions are related to something you call flowers in much the same way that the thin illusions are related to the thick ones. Is that true?”

The evil genius was now diction-deep in explanations and went on. “In the first place let me assure you that these are not flowers. I destroyed all flowers. There are no flowers at all. There are only thin and thick illusions of flowers. I can see your flowers in the mirror, and I can smell and touch the flowers before the mirror. What I can-not smell and touch, having seen as in the mirror, is not even thick illusion. But if I cannot also cerpicio what I see, smell, touch, etc., what I have then seen is not anything real. Esse est cerpici. I just now tried to cerpicio your flowers, but there was nothing there. Man is after all a four- or five- or six-sense creature and you cannot expect much from so little.”

Tom rubbed his eyes and his ears tingled with an eighteenth century disturbance. Then he stared at the flowers. “I see,” he said, “that this added sense of yours has done wickedly with our language. + You do not mean by illusion what we mean, and neither do you mean by flowers what we mean. As for cerpicio I wouldn’t be surprised if you’d made up that word just to puzzle us. In any case what you destroyed is what, according to you, you used to cerpicio. So there is nothing for you to cerpicio any more. But there still are what we mean by flowers. If your intention was to deceive, you must learn the language of those you are to deceive. I should say that you are like the doctor who prescribes for his patients what is so bad for himself and is then surprised at the health of his patients.” And he pinned a flower near their nose.

The evil genius, discomfited, rode off on a corpuscle. He had failed. He took to an artery, made haste to the pineal exit, and was gone. Then “sun by sun” he fell. And he regretted his mischief.

The attraction of Bouwsma’s argument is it’s common sense conception of what we mean when we say something is real. We say something is a real flower if it looks pretty and smells good, and something is a real chair if we can sit on it. Claiming that these objects are illusory means nothing if they satisfy our functional definitions, even if the Evil Genius claims that he cannot cerpicio them.

Bouwsma’s argument works because of the emphasis he puts on how things appear to our senses. But in fact our judgments about reality tend to reach beyond the bounds of the senses. In his original essay, Descartes provides plenty of examples to support the thesis that judgment can go wrong if it is based merely on the senses. When watching wax melt, its appearance changes so dramatically that we might be inclined to judge that the wax no longer exists. However, Descartes rightly contends that “the wax remains.” So our our understanding of reality is more complicated than mere sense perception.

Today, we know that the wax remains because we can run scientific tests to confirm that both solid and liquid forms share the same molecular makeup (spectrometry, NMR). These tools can be conceptualized as cerpicioscopes, ways of augmenting sense perception using our intellect. Bouwsma’s critique of the Evil Genius argument fails because we can never assume that our current sense data provides a complete picture of reality. There is always the possibility that tomorrow we will invent a new cerpicioscope that exposes our perceived reality as illusion. By ignoring this possibility, Bouwsma sells short the powers of the human intellect.


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