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.