The Experience Machine – a thought experiment on how real we want our pleasures to be
October 30, 2018
In his famous hypothetical scenario, philosopher Robert Nozick asks us to imagine a machine that could give us whatever pleasurable experiences we might want. The assumption is that psychologists have figured out a way to stimulate a person’s brain to induce pleasurable experiences that the subject could not distinguish from those he would have in real life (whilst disconnected from the machine). He then asks us whether, if given the choice, we would prefer the machine to real life.
“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, pre-programming your life experiences?… Of course, while in the tank you won’t know that you’re there; you’ll think that it’s all actually happening…Would you plug in?” (Anarchy, State and Utopia, 1974)
Asked if they would happily plug into this kind of ‘hedonistic Matrix’ simulation, first-year students in Liberal Studies give a wide range of responses…
Please click here to read all students’ responses.
I would not plug into the hedonistic machine. As much as everyone desires pleasurable moments, I believe that what makes one appreciate life is the ups and downs. One would not know the value of joy without experiencing pain or sadness. We would not appreciate sunny days if we do not experience rainy or snowy ones. I believe that a life that pursues pleasures only is a vain one. Real-life is about going through hills and valleys and learning something from every experience. A person who is plugged into such a machine cannot discover anything that helpful to other human beings because, for him, life would always be bliss. The efforts to develop the coronavirus disease vaccine were put in high gear because people were suffering, and everyone was at the risk of getting it. There was a bad experience that needed to be addressed. Someone plugged into this hedonistic matrix simulation machine cannot relate to the painful experiences of others. A big part of life is the pursuit of happiness, but it should not be just individual happiness. By going through pain, we get to understand what other people go through and seek a lasting solution that will cause happiness to many.
This idea would obviously looks appealing to some people, it is something that people always wanted, to have a life-time pleasure experience. However, is it only as good as it sounds on the surface, because if look closer into this scenario we can say that this type of experience is not the real-one and therefore we are not living our real lives. This thought of having a fake life can drive one crazy, because make a rational choice of giving up your real life to a fake experience is a big step and a big decision. This decision would come down to the question of value, where people would weigh up the different values in life, for example one could say that there is no good without bad, or good things come from bad things, and of course, some bad actions or mistakes help us to find our own way in life, therefore being connected to this machine would mean that we will lack that opportunity to be able to find ourselves from our previous actions. Furthermore, this would mean that the machine is limiting our experience and infringing on our rights to have the full experience of life, moreover this leeds to an idea that being connected to the machine we are not only unfree human beings by the physical definition, but also in mental experience.
To conclude, i think that although it is good to be fulfilled with happiness and to experience pleasure at all times, I am still opposing this idea of Nozick, due to the fact that I strongly believe that we need pain in life and there is pain in life for a reason such as the guidance in our own pathway of life and in addition to that I believe that I am free as a person, and do not wish for something to infringe on my liberty.
this is a well-reasoned position and you highlight your main argument well, i.e. the idea that opting for Nozick’s ‘experience machine’ would amount to giving up one’s real life, in favour of a fake one. But given how essential this distinction is, in your line of arguments, you should carefully define your terms. What does a ‘real’ life or experience mean, as opposed to a ‘fake’ one, especially when one doesn’t realise the difference – because, once connected to the machine, one’s brain would not perceive the new experiences as ‘fake’. To a person plugged into the machine, the resulting experiences would seem as real as those of a person unplugged. So where does the difference lie? Do we have to believe in some ‘objective’ reality (independent from our perceived experience) in order to justify it? You ned to establish that (with arguments), in order for your position to hold.
The idea that you could achieve and experience everything you have ever wanted or dreamed of is certainly an enticing one. Would it not be amazing to live out your wildest dreams, take amazing adventures, experience the greatest feelings of life on a constant basis? Who wouldn’t want to live a life where you never feel unhappy or ill, never experiencing low points in your life? But it is those low points in our lives, the times you wish never happen, that help us grow. If you had only a perfect life it would only ever seem mediocre, unsatisfying, or lousy. Without the low points, one could never see how great the high points in our lives are. Both the good and the bad times in our lives are necessary for growth and reflection. As enticing the offer to plug into a machine would be I do not think I could give up reality.
Nicely put, Daniel. Good arguments too, especially the one about the bad times working as a contrast against which we better appreciate the good ones. Can you think of any other reasons? How about the fact that too much happiness might become boring or predictable? Or the fact that a life like that might not seem real (or authentic) anymore?
There are various TV shows and movies which have presented this idea as a form of entertainment. Two being Adventure Time, an American cartoon, and Black Mirror, a Netflix original. Within both the cartoon and netflix series this was used as a means to escape tragic realities. These included escape from a deteriorating society, which had become uninhabitable and for the elderly to escape fatal illness. Under these circumstances I could understand the appeal of wanting to "plug in" to such a machine. However, the argument then arises, if people become stuck in such realities, have their ‘lives’ truly been saved or have they been robbed of their lives in the physical world.