Brains in vats, causal constraints on reference and semantic externalism

Jesper Kallestrup

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review


Putnam’s proof (1981) that we are not brains in vats (BIV) is often construed as a semantic response to epistemological skepticism. In particular, the proof has typically been assumed to rely on semantic externalism, i.e. the view that the semantic contents of referring terms depend on features of the external environment in a constitutive sense. This paper provides a critical assessment of that assumption. Crucially, all the best formulation of the proof relies on is a causal constraint on reference, which should be distinguished from a causal theory of reference. Some semantic internalists accept such a constraint in virtue of combining their view with the claim that reference is determined by satisfaction of causal descriptions. It turns out the semantic content of such descriptions constitutively depends neither on internal features of speakers nor on the sorts of environmental features which semantic externalists typically point to. So, if semantic externalists can appeal to Putnam’s proof as a semantic response to epistemological skepticism, then so can those semantic internalists who endorse causal descriptivism.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Brain in a Vat
EditorsSanford Goldberg
Place of PublicationCambridge
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages17
ISBN (Print)9781107069671, 9781107643383
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2016

Publication series

NameClassical Philosophical Arguments
PublisherCambridge University Press

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