You know how it goes – you’re standing in some dark student garden with your friends, or if you’re a fresher, round the back of one of your 60s blocks and one of them pipes up, all Edgar Allen Poe: ‘Imagine if this was all a dream, or an illusion’. Thus begins a pseudo-philosophical conversation which, surprisingly, relates very closely to a philosophical theory. The brain in the vat theory (based on earlier Cartesian philosophy) supposes that all of our perception, every experience we have, comes about at the hands of some scientists elsewhere in the ‘real’ world. In a fairly physicalist manner these philosophers see it as perfectly possible that an entire world can be simulated simply using some scary electrodes and some glass tanks full of preservatives. Our physical reality is redundant – all we know is what we perceive, and all of that is subject to an unsightly mass of neuronal tissue manipulated by a mad scientist. The central argument of it is that, if it is possible to simulate a world so that you cannot tell that it isn’t real, how can you say that you know anything at all?
Such profound theories can be seen in all sorts of daily dilemmas. A common example is the delayed, long-distance cross-country train journey. There’s just no way it could really be happening to me. Upon stepping onto the train, avoiding the gap, and making it into this liminal reality, you are initially optimistic. There you are, sat in seat 52 A coach D (Everyone is always in coach D, I find this fascinating –Ed.), having frivolously splashed out on some rosé and a sandwich, when the timely appearance of a clinically overweight passenger occurs. Of course they’re booked in right next to you.
The train stops, the lights flicker, and over the intercom comes a voice with an almost incomprehensible Northern accent: ‘Sorry, there appears to be some technical difficulties with the tracks’. As you sit there questioning your misfortune and the use of semantics on the part of the conductor, you’re beginning to become a little skeptical. Time passes, you move on, the soft buzzing of the train’s electrics and mumbled conversation creates the perfect atmosphere for that nap you’d been anticipating since waiting on the platform, and with the help of the 4 pound rose you finally manage to drift off to sleep. It must have taken them 5 minutes to decide that the best mode of action was to awaken you sharply from your slumber. ‘Tickets please!’ Again. Just to make sure you haven’t somehow climbed on in the last 40 minutes while the train was hurtling through the midlands at god-knows-miles-per-hour. You fumble in response to the kind of shrill demand that reminds you of year 2 handwriting class in your Catholic primary school and show them your credentials. At least you didn’t forget your 18–25 railcard. Now you’re beginning to wonder what else is in store for you.
You decide to brave the carriage toilet and refresh yourself. Of course, this is when you’re exposed to the next set of experimental conditions. It’s as if someone has set up camp and is squatting in there (in the unconventional sense), in protest of the terrible service, you assume. You’re stood there for a good 20 minutes wondering what kind of bodily function could be quite that time consuming until eventually, sheepish, a 6 year old boy emerges, and you begin to fear the worst. Worse still, upon entering there appears to be nothing wrong in there. You begin to doubt yourself, to doubt this journey, you doubt all of your reality. –Maybe someone finds this funny? You ask yourself. You’re beginning to seriously question the existence of a malicious force, or, at very least, an omnipotent being with a cruel sense of humour. Oh, there we have it, Descartes’ notoriously smug expression.
Look at him. He might as well be sitting in the row in front, peering down, asking ‘well what else did you expect from East Coast? I told you so.’.
With this expression fresh in your mind, you make your way back to your seat – they don’t waste any time – immediately you’re faced with one of the simplest misfortunes of your journey, but quite possibly the most sanity-testing. The refreshments trolley has blocked your from your seat. It is sat, like some diabetes-harbouring Trojan horse, with no surprise in store for you but a 20 minute session of standing in the aisle of the carriage like a moronic human-sized potato. Your seat, sitting empty at the other end of the corridor to hell, appears to be pining for your return and instead you stand, purposeless, in a terrible state of transition, waiting for all the coffees and teas and roses in the world to be doled out to what appears to be a small country’s worth of people. It’s like the feeding of the 5000, except everyone’s ordering black coffee with sugar or a breakfast brew at 10.20 pm, or an extortionately priced flapjack, instead of fresh fish and bread. You stand and wonder why everyone in coach D appear to be self-declared caffeine addicts, competing for their first coronary. You stand and debate buying a drink for the wait. You stand some more, and you realise that it’s statistically improbable for anyone to suffer so many misfortunes in a single train journey purely by chance. You realise, in all likelihood, at least some of these tribulations you’ve been tormented by have been done to you on purpose. You realise, to your horror, that you must be the subject of a social experiment, with all conditions controlled simply by your being trapped inside a vast, metal test-tube contained with no one you know to interrupt the test. You are not a physical being with will and determinism of your own, but instead, you are just a mass of neuronal tissue, victim to the cold scientific methods of a white-coat in another reality; just a brain in a train.