Putnam’s Argument that the Claim that We are Brains-in-a-vat is Self-Refuting


In Reason, Truth and History, Putnam provides an influential argument for the materialist view that the supposition that we are all “actually” brains in a vat [BIV’s] is “necessarily false”.  Putnam admits that his argument, inspired by insights in Wittgenstein’s later views, is “unusual”, but he is certain that it is a correct.  He argues that the claim that we are BIV’s is self-refuting because, if we actually are BIV’s, then we cannot refer to real physical things like vats.  Although the present author agrees, fundamentally, with Heidegger’s view that we are essentially “in a world” (a real world, not a private “vat-world”), and, therefore, with Putnam’s conclusion that we cannot possibly be BIV’s, the paper argues that Putnam’s argument is fallacious. The proper conclusion to draw from Putnam’s argument is that asserting that one is a BIV is beyond the limits of a BIV’s (private) language.  That is, Putnam only shows that if we actually are BIV’s, then we cannot think or assert either that we are or that we are not BIV’s.  It does not show that we are not “actually” BIV’s.  The cogency of this criticism is illustrated with a concrete “science-fiction” example.

Keywords: Putnam, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, brains in a vat, intrinsic reference, private language

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