The Benefits of Being a Brain in a Vat

I’m wondering if people think there are plausible cases in which a person’s life would be prudentially better if they were to turn out to be a brain in a vat. Obviously there could be some possible rosy situations in a vat that would be prudentially better than the worst possible life in reality. But I have in mind pairs of cases that are experientially identical and yet we think it better to be a brain in a vat. Is it plausible that there are such cases?

Here is one such possibility. It is not uncommon to think that significant immorality is a prudential harm to the immoral person. And if so, it is plausible that the degree of immorality is correlated with the degree of harm. It is also plausible that it is morally worse to be a murderer than an attempted murderer, other things equal. If we combine such claims, we seem to get the result that a serial killer would be benefitted, at least in this respect, to be a brain in a vat rather than living in reality. Is that an implication of such views? Are there other plausible cases where is is prudentially better to be a brain in a vat (keeping one’s experiences otherwise equal)?

14 Replies to “The Benefits of Being a Brain in a Vat

  1. In *The Ship Who Sang*, Anne McCaffrey hypothesized a future in which people born with unsurvivable deformities and the potential for high intelligence were encased in nutrient pods and wired into circuits that gave them sight, hearing, and mobility; essentially, they became brains in vats. Some of these eventually became the intelligences operating interstellar spacecraft. It would seem, in such a case, that being a brain in a vat would bring more freedom than remaining in even a “standard” body. Of course, this is based on an abililist and utilitarian approach to disability.

  2. I imagine many would think that it’s bad for you to experience really convincing by actually apparent backstabbing and infidelity, but even worse for you to experience the real deal. FWIW, I think Kraut discusses these cases in his most recent book.

  3. 1) Objective List Theory is true and you have a really crappy life!

    2) Not sure if this violates the spirit of the example, but if you learned you’re a BIV you’d have to update your credences about a whole lot of things, including about the probability of resurrection, an afterlife, etc. Some of these updates might be quite good!

  4. I think it all depends on what the subject cares about. Most people would be devastated to discover that they were brains in vats. But we can imagine strange cases and strange people who would not be devastated to discover this. To take an extreme case: suppose that Agatha hates the universe, and wishes that she was brain in a vat. She would be very happy to discover that she is a brain in a vat. So I find it intuitive that Agatha is better-off if she is in fact a brain in a vat.

    Here is another case. Suppose that Andri is a humane and sensitive person—someone who is deeply sensitive to the suffering of others. In particular, Andri is sensitive to the suffering of his family members. And suppose that, throughout his (otherwise uneventful) life, Andri is forced to watch his family be subjected to terrible suffering. Andri would be very relieved if he turned out to be a brain in a vat. He would prefer to have no family, rather than a family subjected to terrible suffering. And I don’t think that Andri’s preference can be purely explained by moral (rather than prudential) considerations. So I find it intuitive that he is better-off if he is in fact a brain in a vat.

  5. All interesting replies. There are no doubt many interesting avenues to think about regarding the connection between well-being and being a BIV and I am happy for folks to pursue any of them here. But I myself was drawing attention to cases where we are comparing two versions of me who are complete psychological duplicates–one a BIV and one not. So we cannot appeal to how I would react if I believed I was a BIV in one case without assuming I have similar beliefs and reactions in the other. Nonetheless, we could well say, with Daniel, that getting states of the world one wants, rather than states of mind one wants, benefits and there could be odd folk who do have intrinsic prefs to be BIV and in such a world that desire is in fact satisfied–thus they are better off. But, as he says, these would be quite esoteric cases. Daniels other case is better in this respect–the person who does not want their family to suffer has that desire trivially satisfied when they actually have no family because they are a BIV. Brad’s case (and perhaps Kraut’s) seems broadly of the initial sort of type I meant to outline.

  6. Dave, I think Daniel’s Andri case is close to what you’re looking for. When I read your initial post, it struck a bit of a real life chord with me as my aunt (67 years old or thereabouts) is in the hospital. She has stage 4 colon cancer that has metastasized and is inoperable with tumors on her lungs and small intestines. This suggestion of yours made me think of my parent’s reaction (I was visiting this holiday season).

    The general reaction of family and friends has been pretty intense with lots of worry and extreme amounts of stress. From a practical point of view, certain members of my family are very prone to anxiety and often jump to the worst conclusions so there has been a lot of “preparing” in the sense that several people are nervously praying (for hours, even), calling local relatives and friends to make sure they have a place to stay “just in case” and etc. There is a general sense from some (thankfully only a ‘few’), that she is about to die any minute. All in all, what I would call a great deal of prudential angst.

    Now, I would not extend this out to an entire lifetime, but I think that for my aunt, or even for myself really, it would be better to be a BiV. This is not because of a fulfilled desire, however (as you mentioned) but rather avoiding something that I (and I assume many other family members) consider worse than the status quo. It would be better if this were all a dream, or computer generated experience, or whatever.

    Though, let me reiterate that I would not want to be committed to extending this out past a short term set of experiences. This one experience (among many others, like Andri’s), it seems to me, is objectively worse than simply not having this experience. I doubt this would hold true for an entire lifetime’s worth of experiences as I have difficulty imagining a world where the inauthenticity of all the positive value would not outweigh the inauthenticity of the negative value.

    And just one more reiteration: I do not think that this should be counted as Andri (or my aunt, or me, or my Father or whoever) FULFILLING a desire (a desire for their family to not experience pain, for example). Instead, I think that this is a matter of fact. The BiV world is simply worse, at least for this short period of time. Not because Andri (or whoever) gets something they want, but because the world contains less prudential bad (all else equal) than the BiV world. My family would not be an anxious wreck, Andri’s family would not be experiencing great pain. And these do not seem to have a moral bent to them. It’s just that one world has more negative value than the other and that world happens to be the BiV world.

    Just RE: My aunt – The doc is confident that this is just due to a mandatory stoppage of treatment for a month while she is switched over to a new one. Point is, the doctor is very optimistic so everything should be fine – for now anyway. Just in case anyone was wondering.

  7. Nathan et al,

    So to me the unifying thought is that if one is a BIY, the bads in your life are less real and that can be better for one. This could apply to one’s own moral badness or to the harm to loved ones.

  8. Thanks, Dave, I appreciate your concern.

    On topic, though, on thinking about this a little more, I’m not really sure if the more brief-type, single experience examples are quite fair.

    My concern is with your final statement in the original post: “keeping one’s experiences otherwise equal.” What I mean by that is that it might be better for an individual experience to be “less real” (whether it be one’s moral badness or harm to loved ones), but it would be difficult to extend this out to an entire lifetime’s worth of experiences except in some rather extreme cases. Perhaps one might be SO BAD for an entire lifetime, such as your serial killer example, that the total positives are outweighed by the extreme total badness, in which case the BiV is unequivocally worse for that individual, but I get the sense that cases of this sort (where one’s total set of experiences would be worse if they were real rather than a BiV) would be extremely marginal.

    Is this what you’re after? Or would, say, a case where someone wasn’t originally a BiV, but was plugged in for some reason, and from the point they were plugged in things were worse be informative for your purposes? Imagine some nefarious neuroscientist plugging in my aunt only a year ago, or a week ago, for example (unbeknownst to her).

  9. Nathan,

    I think I agree that the cases we have come up with are cases where it is better for a person at a time to be a BIV, not yet clearly cases where it is an overall better life to be one.

  10. Sorry to ask a tangential question, but does anyone have any references for (more or less) contemporary philosophers who argue specifically for/against the view that “significant immorality is a prudential harm to the immoral person.” It does seem to be a common view in conversation, but I’ve struggled to find people who give the view a detailed treatment in print.

    The only contemporary authors I am aware of are Victor Tadros and Kim Brownlee (who are pro). Objective-listers often mention the idea in passing (and typically they are talking about the idea that *virtue* is prudentially good, which is distinct from the idea that acting [sufficiently seriously] morally wrongly is bad for the wrongdoer). Brad Hooker also has an interesting paper on the virtue-based version of the view.

    Any suggestions gratefully received!

  11. Jonathan,

    I have a paper trying to explain away the intuition that we necessarily have a reason to avoid, and/or are harmed by, immorality. The paper is “Subjectivism and Reasons to be Moral” in my From Valuing to Value, OUP 2017.

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