Have you ever seen The Matrix? Even if you haven’t, the premise is well known: what if the world around us were just a simulation? What if we were just brains being tricked into thinking we were walking, eating, talking, etc., while our real bodies did nothing?
In philosophy, this thought experiment is often called the brain in a vat. In this scenario, we consider that if someone were to remove our brain from our body and wire up exactly the right electrodes to exactly the right neurons, they could simulate all the senses by which we currently know reality. Thus, how can one ever be sure that this is the “real” world and not just a series of electrical impulses on a brain in a vat?
Many philosophers have tackled this problem in numerous ways, but that’s not what I want to do. I want us to consider a problem that is hiding underneath the brain in a vat thought experiment: what are we?
The brain in a vat thought experiment is predicated on an assumption that perhaps we are our brains, that perhaps what all our lives amount to is a series of electrical impulses, and that there is something deeply unsettling about the possibility that what we all know as “real” could be no more than these electrical impulses. On the one hand, that we are our brains seems correct; if I lose a limb, I’m still me, but if I lose my brain, am I still me? My body is just a means to move my brain around, to sense the world around me; it’s the medium by which my brain, by which I, understand the world. The brain in a vat thought experiment just shows us that the body as a medium is replaceable.
On the other hand, there’s something unsettling about resigning the body to such a minor role, especially in the case of mental illness. When you imagine a person as equivalent to a brain in a vat, as a brain that happens to have a body, or to use a trope of the ancient Stoics, “a brain carrying around a corpse,” mental illness is bound to have a stigma. If we are no more than brains, then mental illness, a dysfunction of the brain, is a dysfunction of the entire person. If what defines us, what makes us people, is just our brains, then when mental illness strikes, our very personhood is at stake. Under this way of thinking, mental illness earns its stigma by being a dysfunction of the very thing that makes each of us a person, makes each of us human.
However, Christianity refuses to accept that we are just brains. Rather, Christianity also believes in a body and in a soul. We must not reduce ourselves to one particular piece of flesh and its electrical impulses, by no means; we are our bodies and we are our minds and we are our souls. What makes us human, our personhood, is not defined only by our brain, but also by our body, and most of all by our soul, by being something individually loved by and created by God, a God who Himself took on flesh — that is, took on a body and a brain and once joined us on this earth. He is the God who recognizes the importance of body and brain and soul, who recognizes we are something more than brains in vats.
With this in mind, Christians living in a culture with a stigma towards people with mental illnesses should be among the first to fight against this stigma. Christians, knowing we are all more than our brains, knowing we are all loved by God, should be among the first to recognize that people are not defined by their mental illnesses, and that all people, regardless of mental illness, are worthy of respect and love. Christians should be at the forefront of ending the stigma of mental illness.
Gregory Scalise ’18 lives in Canaday Hall.