1. Definition of “brain in a jar”

Let’s say we could model all the functionality of a human with just a brain. Imagining the physical parts of human beings, including body and brain, as “hardware”, and the thoughts that run in our brain as well as other functionality defining muscle movement, sleep and hunger, as “software”, this idea just involves reducing the hardware to just a brain. Taking it one step further, what if the brain was just a computer hardware? Assuming all physical inputs, like a sandwich, and physical actions, like eating the sandwich, could be modeled virtually, this model of a human being would be no different than a physical human being.

Would there be any difference between our physical state of being and this virtual state of being? At first, I’d say no. For all we know, we could be living in a virtual world right now and just not know it. This lays the foundation for the famously known “brain-in-a-vat” philosophical debate. But this post is about something slightly different. The difference is that now, we’d know we’re living in a virtual world, because humans created it just like any other technology, and we can therefore exploit the virtual world. Whereas on Earth, there are more or less fixed amounts of food and water that can only be changed through farming, advanced water purification methods, etc., in this virtual world, we could change the global variables that define amounts of food and water to ensure that no one is hungry. We could regulate finances to make sure no one is poor, or take them out of the picture completely. We could essentially rewrite any part of the foundation of our world, and simplify our existence by taking out some of the complications. Of course, we could do that right now too, if a) we are living in a simulation and b) someone figured out how to exploit it. The question of who has authority to do so is besides the point of this thought experiment.

Let’s go ahead and reduce some complications in our virtual world. Let’s say we take sleep, transportation, and the concept of money out of the picture. Let’s say we make hunger and disease a thing of the past. Now, everyone’s physiological and financial needs are met. We keep the virtual counterparts of food, pleasure, reproduction, and everything else in the picture. Humans are now “brains in a jar” (computers), who experience everything normally but have lots more time because we’re awake 24/7, can teleport anywhere, and don’t actually have to work for a living because medicine, world hunger, and finance, and safety are no longer problems that need to be solved. Simply put, in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the bottom two tiers would be satisfied for everyone. I’ll use this concept synonymously with “virtual world” in the rest of this post. The capacity of thought in our brains could remain the same, or we could rewrite the software to be much more powerful. It doesn’t matter anymore because we’d live forever, so we’d have unlimited time to think, and the concept of efficiency goes away.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs - Wikipedia
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

2. Implications

Would this world be superior to our current world? At this point I usually get the following response:

No, it wouldn’t be better because now humans have nothing to do. We don’t have any problems to solve, like disease or poverty. We don’t know good because we don’t have bad. We’d have no purpose in life.

Why do some humans have to suffer to give “purpose” to more privileged human’s lives? Interestingly enough, these are the same people that are bored during the coronavirus pandemic, even with all the current problems still existing in the world. That’s a sufficient counterargument. But even otherwise, there are a few things wrong with this response. The top three tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy are actually enough to occupy humans for the rest of eternity. Issues with love and belonging or self esteem are pretty much enough to cause drama between friend groups. Humans are social creatures, and will continue to be social in this virtual world. People would find ways to create problems for themselves and others, regardless. And there are more than enough ideas to give people a purpose in this virtual world.

We haven’t advanced our species enough to travel to distant galaxies yet. There are still things to invent and create, even in this virtual world. We still haven’t unified the theories of physics yet into the Theory of Everything. In this virtual world, some people would become pleasure machines, watching Netflix and eating virtual junk food until they die, while others would become thinking machines, using all their time to think original thoughts or solve the unsolvable problems. Just because all our worldly problems are gone, doesn’t mean that’s all there is to do. In fact, worldly problems are what seem to stimulate lack of interest in universe related questions today. When I bring up existential topics with my peers, they argue there are more important things to worry about in the world today than the origin of the universe. This is completely reasonable.

But what if the worldly problems were solved? Would people become enlightened? Would we be any closer than we are now to solving the more abstract and theoretical problems, or would we be in the exact same position as we are now? How many people would care enough to solve these problems? What proportion of people would become pleasure machines vs. thinking machines? And what if a large proportion of the thinking machine group spends all their time fascinating themselves with chemistry, for example, just because it’s so interesting, even though it’s not relevant anymore in the virtual world? Or what if the people that care about doing rather than consuming, spend time creating content for the pleasure machines to enjoy, because that’s what interests them?

There’s nothing wrong with any of these outcomes at the level of the individual. But the reason I think about the implications of this scenario is to understand whether they’d allow for us to find the answers to the universe’s seemingly unanswerable questions. In a virtual world, I would imagine we’d get closer to answering those questions. Eventually, the small percentage of people focused on solving the Fermi Paradox will actually solve it, considering they have eternity to do it. And the goal of this thought experiment would be achieved. And once that, and everything else is done, like learning and understanding quite literally everything there is and ever was to understand, that can be understood by humans (excluding visualizing the fourth dimension, for example), we’d be enlightened more than we ever could be enlightened in this physical world. And then, we could become pleasure machines for the rest of our lives or self-destruct whenever we please.

3. Could the same effect be achieved by designing supercomputers?

What’s the difference between turning ourselves into the thinking machines (“virtual world”) versus creating machines to do the thinking and provide the answers for us (“real world”) ? The goal is the same. The goal is to solve the world’s problems, either by getting rid of them all by hitting delete in a virtual world, and allowing humans to pursue knowledge and understanding of the universe, or by creating machines and processes in the real world that are aided by supercomputers to simultaneously solve problems and pursue understanding of the universe. Right now we do research in pharmaceuticals to solve diseases and build particle accelerators to study the universe in tandem, whereas in a virtual world we’d focus on just the latter.

4. How does the concept of a virtual world change our humanity?

Let’s start with the increasingly difficult challenge of maintaining humanity in this world.

First, anyone who wants to maintain a somewhat limited definition of humanity will do so, in this world or in a virtual world. Anyone who wants to engage in simply “living in the present” all the time, will do so for their whole life on Earth by traveling constantly and hanging out with their friends all the time, or become a pleasure machine in the virtual world. These people don’t have a challenge of maintaining their humanity either way, because that is their only job.

The present real-world dilemma is for people who consider knowledge and understanding of the universe an important part of their own humanity. In my sophomore year of college, I took classes in digital system design and linear circuit analysis. And during that time, I was forced to think deeply about what humans are doing with, and whether we’re doing it for the right purpose. I spent every waking hour of the day on those classes, learning how to speak the computer’s language, so much so that I felt like a robot myself. Why? I stopped to ask myself why I and so many other students are depriving themselves of their own humanity in the short term for what feels like working to give computers a better life in the future. For those months I sacrificed eating, sleeping, talking to other people, core aspects of what it means to be to “be human”, just so that I could learn how to speak computer. Why the rush? So I could learn it fast enough to do something useful with computers in this lifetime. To tell computers to diagnose our diseases and solve our problems, we must first learn their language, which is not a trivial task given the layers of abstraction and complexity that go into even a simple microcontroller. The way computers have advanced, no one person can understand every layer of abstraction in detail. But that’s a topic for another day. The point is, I always find myself choosing between the desire to talk to my friends and family, or to learn more about our universe, its technology and its limits while I am still alive. And that dilemma exists only because I’m limited by my body.

The real world forces us to choose, to ruthlessly prioritize, to deal with problems caused by Earthly constraints that sometimes destroy our happiness and productivity, while a virtual one wouldn’t. In a virtual world, no one who cares enough about something would have pressure to choose between one thing or another because there’s always tomorrow. So the dilemma goes away.

Would we still be human, though? Well technically, no, we weren’t human since the whole premise was “brain-in-a-jar” to begin with. But I’ve tried to keep the rest of humanity intact. The answer really depends on how you define humanity. Some people define it as the collective sum of emotions and experiences a human is capable of feeling in this world, and now that we’ve taken out some worldly pain and the fear of death, humanity by that definition is reduced. But in my opinion, a better, more evolved version of humanity wouldn’t require that we should experience worldly pain. This TED talk sarcastically references the idea of our bodies becoming transport for our minds. In the talk, people laughed at this, but this idea is not really that funny. In recent centuries, our bodies have become less and less necessary for survival. Humans are advancing way faster than our monkey-like bodies can keep up. Our minds are really all we are, so why should we be limited by our bodies?

So to sum it up, if we could get rid of the physical and reduce ourselves to just that, our minds, we could be, just maybe, a better version of humanity than we are now.