The Experience Machine

Imagine, as philosopher Robert Nozick did, a machine capable of producing, in the mind of any willing subject, any conceivable conscious experience. The experience of the cold wind against your snow-bitten face as you snowboard down the face of a mountain, carving the snow like butter, butter that sprayed — ever so satisfyingly — every time you slice it, Swiss alps in the background. Easy. Or say you wanted the experience of being the first human on Mars, the overwhelming sense of significance, of accomplishment, of history, of having just carried the entire human race forward. Done. You name it, all you have to do is program the experience — don’t worry how — plug yourself in, and the experience would play in your mind. A kind of perfect virtual reality, completely indistinguishable from Reality. And importantly, when you’re plugged into the Experience Machine, you’re not aware you are so. Every experience is as subjectively convincing and authentic as the real knock-on-wood deal. In other words, in the Experience Machine and the “real world”, the inner experience of any experience, as it were, is perfectly identical. The only difference is the external circumstances — the conditions of the world — that are producing those experiences.

Nozick’s Experience Machine raises some interesting questions. For starters, if we are agreed that it’s consciousness that gives the cosmos meaning, consciousness that’s the source of all value, and if we are also agreed that improving the subjective experience of conscious creatures is — or at least should be — the sole aim of our moral efforts, then what’s wrong, if anything, with the Experience Machine? Would it not be the ultimate moral technology? Forget all practical questions of how it would work — this is a philosophical thought experiment not an engineering project — and just imagine that your life in the EM would be a significant improvement upon your real-world (RW) life. And, in case you’re worried about how it would affect those around you, just imagine it was also a significant improvement for all your family and friends. Given this, would you opt for life in the EM — remember, life as good as you could imagine — or your life in the real world? If you’re like most people, you’re thinking something along the lines of, “No way would I give up my real life! My real life is REAL — the EM life is nothing but an illusion, false, superficial!” And then you think about it some more. “Shiiit, any experience imaginable? Life as good as it gets… life of my dreams… God damn.” “No… stop it *slaps face*…. I want the real thing, not some dream, so what if it’s not perfect, at least it’s REAL, at least it’s mine.” You’re a little less convinced than at first, but nevertheless you opt for Reality.

Now perhaps you opted for the EM. If so, you’re a rare exception, and it’s possible you’re one of the only sane among us. That, or you’re in real trouble….

While our intuitions are certainly convinced it’s the right choice, it’s not immediately clear why we should opt for our real lives over the Experience Machine. The reason can’t be because there is more to life than experiences. For our experiences are precisely what makes our lives matter. It’s experience that gives our lives significance, indeed experience that our lives are made of. It’s also hard to take philosophical issue with the Experience Machine itself without inadvertently taking issue with the world. For what is the world but one big Experience Machine? That is, one we have very little control over. The appeal to free will is similarly slippery. It’s hard to pin-point what exactly it is and where it plays a role in our real lives, therefore so what if were can’t identify it in the context of the EM. In neither scenario are we ‘truly free’. What about the claim that the RW is somehow more ‘real’ than the world provided by the EM? In both cases, they’re simply environments that produce reactions in our brains, stimulating neurons, creating action potentials and all the rest. They’re also both taking place within the same spatio-temporal structure that is Reality. ‘But the RW is natural, whereas the EM is artificial, man-made,’ one might claim. First, it’s not clear to what degree this point is metaphysically significant. But let’s say it is. What, then, if we found out that Reality was created, artificial, perhaps a simulation created by our future descendants or some alien race? Would we then conclude our lives had no meaning. More tellingly, would we act as if our lives had no meaning? Probably not, I suggest.

It’s all in your head, man.

As thought-provoking as the Experience Machine is, for the most part, it amounts to little more than a bit of fun; philosophy’s equivalent of Fortnite. In at least one respect, however, the EM is a rather useful tool for illuminating the question of how to live. If we were just about to plug ourselves into the EM — for life, let’s imagine — what kind of experiences would we program beforehand? What would our days look and feel like? Would it be one constant toe-curling orgy? One long string of indulgent pleasure after indulgent pleasure? Or is there more that we would like to experience? Ever wondered what self-respect feels like? What about those ‘transcendent’ states everyone’s talking about? What would it feel like to endure great hardship to then achieve some lofty life goal? Imagine directing a movie, wouldn’t that be cool. Or climbing and then carving down the face of Shangri-La, Jeremy Jones-style, inventing a powerful and life-saving new technology, or roaming the cafes of early 20th century Paris with the likes of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Joyce, Pound. Once one gets going it’s hard to stop. What this exercise reveals to us, besides whether or not we have an active imagination, is that there are many things that we’d like to experience, provided the opportunity. In the face of an infinitude of possible experiences — again, if you’re like most people — the prospect of one life-long sugar and sex high, though not exactly terrifying, is far less desirable than one might expect. And that’s not because a life of sugar and sex would not be enjoyable; on the contrary, it would be one of the most pleasurable kinds of existence imaginable. Instead, it seems rather unattractive for all the other equally rich and fulfilling experiences that such a life would invariably foreclose. This is the ‘in principle’ problem with the narrow brand of hedonism that is the orientation of so much of the world: it values simple pleasure to the exclusion of so many other desirable states of consciousness. There are of course many other problems with hedonism in practice, but this in-principle objection makes it a non-starter. What the EM makes salient, then, is that we want a philosophy of life that maximises the quantity as well as qualitative diversity of positive experiences. We want a philosophy, in other words, that opens the world to us, rather than one that shrinks it.


*This is not to say that there are no valid objections of principle (there are certainly lots of problems in practice) to the EM, there almost certainly is, it’s just to say that such objections are less obvious than one might think.




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