The Experience Machine

From Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia:

    Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life’s experiences? If you are worried about missing out on desirable experiences, we can suppose that business enterprises have researched thoroughly the lives of others. You can pick and choose from their large library or smorgasbord of such experiences, selecting your life’s experiences for, say, the next two years. After two years have passed, you will have ten minutes or ten hours out of the tank, to select the experiences of your next two years. Of course, while in the tank you won’t know that you’re there; you’ll think it’s actually happening. Others can also plug into to have the experiences they want, so there’s no need to unplugged to serve them. (Ignore such problems as who will service the machines if everyone plugs in). Would you plug in?

To see what Nozick thinks, read on.


5 thoughts on “The Experience Machine

  1. I would.
    I’ve heard that Nozick didn’t think people would want to, is that right? If so I think that’s more and more beginning to show that’s not the case. Sorry I didn’t read the link.

  2. Nozick leaves the question open-ended, but suggests that most people have the intuition that we value “doing” things more than just experiencing them. For example, person A and person B have the experience of seeing the Grand Canyon. Both of their sense experiences are identical. Yet A is plugged into an experience machine while B travels there and sees it via sight. Most people find B’s experience more valuable than A’s, or it is hard to argue that B’s is just as valuable as A’s.

  3. I think if you can have the same experience either way then you would pick the one that actually happens most of the time (I’ll come back to that). However most can’t experience everything they could ever want in the real world so given the choice between living an average life that is real or an extraordinary life that isn’t but feels just as real, I think people would choose the extraordinary unreal life, since it feels exactly the same and they can’t tell the difference. I think this is even more true if they can unplug frequently or have knowledge that it’s unreal, maybe like the holodeck on Star Trek.

    In cases where I think people would prefer the experience apart from the actual doing is when it comes to things that may be more perverse, violent, shameful, crazy, or just different. That way they can experience something without the actual consequences. For example maybe a man wants to know what it’s like to be a woman, to experience sex as a woman and giving birth. Or perhaps someone wants to know what it feels like to get into a fight or even be shot or stabbed. Maybe they want to experience shooting a bunch of people in a war like a first person shooter video game, but don’t want to actually get killed or know that they killed any real people. Heck someone could just wonder what it’s like to die in various ways or what it feels like to do whatever they want even if it ruins their life (and maybe even what it’s like to ruin their lives). Yet in all those cases they would never have to live with the actual consequences or the shame of knowing they actually did some of those things.
    In fact, some could even look at that as a positive experience, where you choose to go through actual events you may never really want to go through in real life so as to know what it’s like walking in someone else’s shoes and to be able to sympathize with people who have gone through those things. Going even further I could imagine if that technology ever existed, being incorporated into seminary training (or ethics classes) to better train pastors and theologians in their professions to help make them better at what they do. Maybe it sounds far fetched but those are situations where I could imagine people preferring the experience without actually doing in the real world.

  4. Very interesting thoughts, Brian!

    Nozick’s thought experiment is generally taken to be a refutation of hedonism, the view that all our choices are aimed at experiencing pleasure and avoiding pain, so it would be odd to construe it as a theater for people to experience painful instances like being stabbed. This construal would probably satisfy Nozick in that it presupposes that hedonism is false, and that the machine could be used to experience pain.

    Remember, the experience machine isn’t like Star Treck’s holedeck in that mock realities are briefly staged for the education of the participant. It is something we plug into for long periods of time as a way of life. We live our lives “in” the machine experiencing the kind of life we want (perhaps there is a holedeck in our experience machine).

    If you saw Inception, think of husband and wife’s life in their constructed dream world, and how they ended up being dissatisfied with it. That is the general idea.

    The overall point is to show that the “knowledge of it not being real” is sufficient to prove that mere experiences of pleasure are not enough for a life well lived. I think that is pretty profound.

  5. Couldn’t people take pleasure in painful or horrifyingly exciting experiences because they enjoy the rush and thrill? I know it’s not the normal idea of pleasure but for some the normal idea of pleasure is boring and unpleasurable. What if people were able to enter these machines for a limited duration of time and as they enter their knowledge that it was fake was wiped out and they believed it was real and their life? Only after leaving the machine would they realize it was all fake, but have complete recognition of it as if it was real. This would be more like the machine you are describing and less like the holodeck.

    I think where Nozick does have a point is that I don’t know that people would want to spend their whole life in this machine and only come out after a number of years. I could see living in it for different periods of time or maybe taking vacations in it. Now I could see some wanting to live their whole life in it if they’ve lived enough of their life to know that it would never be as pleasurable and wonderful as what the machine could offer them. I could see people who live a dreary life choosing to live out the remainder in this machine. If we compared their life lived in reality to what they were able to achieve in this machine which turned out to be much greater, which life of their’s would be better lived? That makes me wonder about something else. What if the person who entered the machine wasn’t guaranteed all the pleasure they wanted, but maybe a better starting point with which to experience their life this time. So instead of living in the slums in a 3rd world country where their chances of a good life might be very small, they were born into an upper middle class family in America. They would still have to play by the rules set up by the machine that mimic this world (rather than programing their pleasures into it) and they could very well end their life off bad, but now they were given the opportunity to do much greater things. If the person ended up with a much greater life in this machine because of the good choices they made would their life be considered well lived, and at least better than had they continued to live the life they were born in?

    If all this comes down to the good being a life well lived I’m not sure what the point about experiencing unreal pleasure has to do with it. Maybe I should read Nozick. A podcast I listen to, “The Slate Culture Gabfest”, one of the participants is a Nozick fan and brings up his theories from time to time, although he says he disagrees with almost everything he says, he still thinks he is brilliant. Definitely sounds like he’s worth reading.

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