Where am I?

Daniel Dennett’s classic story raises deep philosophical questions about identity and consciousness.

From the MIT Press Reader: When Daniel Dennett’s essay collection “Brainstorms” was published in 1978, the interdisciplinary field of cognitive science was just emerging. Dennett was a young scholar who wanted to get philosophers out of their armchairs and into conversations with psychologists, linguists, and computer scientists. “I tried in ‘Brainstorms’ to write about the problems in language accessible to all serious thinkers, as jargon-free as possible, with lots of examples,” he writes in the preface to the 40th-anniversary edition of the book.

Some of the chapters contained in the collection cast longer shadows than others. “Where Am I?,” featured below in its entirety, has had a remarkable trajectory. In 1979, it was nearly turned into a Hollywood film (ultimately abandoned when it was found that a sci-fi magazine with a faintly similar storyline published a few years earlier). In 1981, the main scene from the essay was rendered in a BBC science documentary “in which,” Dennett writes, “I appear, looking at my own brain in a fabulous fountain/vat on a pedestal in front of whirring computer tape drives (remember those?), and wondering why I am saying ‘Here I am staring at my own brain in a vat’ instead of ‘Here I am, in a vat, being stared at by my own eyes.’” Later it was represented in both a Javanese shadow puppet play and a feature-length film starring Dennett and the computer scientist Douglas Hofstadter.

Dennett is quick to admit he didn’t invent the concept of the brain in the vat, nor was he the first philosopher to entertain the idea. That credit goes to Gil Harman, he believes, whose 1973 book “Thought” includes this brief passage that put the idea in his head:

More here.