A month ago I came across ‘The Experience Machine’ – a theory by the American philosopher Robert Nozick – and since then I’ve been meaning to write up a blog post on it because I find it really interesting and I miss studying philosophy!
The idea he puts forth is this:
“Suppose there was an experience machine that would give you any
experience you desired. Super-duper 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 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?”
On first thought, this kind of reminded me of the book ‘More Than This’ by Patrick Ness (you’ll know what I mean if you’ve read it). It’s weird to think that you could experience something exactly as reality but it to not actually be reality. I guess the closest we can get to this sensation is in our dreams, and yet we never feel completely alive – it’s never quite the same.
I love thinking about ideas like this because it’s interesting to debate with people and I think it tells you a lot about a person in how they respond to this kind of thing. They may not be interested; they may give you a really long in depth answer; they might say “yeah I’d give it a go why not”; or maybe they’d say “no way” and that would be it. Either answer is nice to hear because it reminds us of how we all think differently in terms of the world and what our own individual priorities are.
If I was in the position of trying out The Experience Machine, I probably wouldn’t take it. It definitely intrigues me and I’d almost want to try it out with something simple like eating a doughnut just to see if it actually works, but there’s no way I would want to go any further with it. I feel like creating a false reality is quite a dangerous thing to do, especially if it’s a higher and anti-suffering reality. That kind of world screams reliability, and once you become reliant on something like that you’d never want to come back to the real world.
However, in a way, if The Experience Machine was eternal, then couldn’t you eternally live inside it? Then you wouldn’t even have to return to reality and so it wouldn’t matter if you relied on it. I guess this would work for some people. I know I’d definitely be too paranoid to even want to risk it. After all, it’s not hard for a machine to break down or malfunction.
Nozick’s argument following this is:
- If all that mattered to us was pleasure, then we would want to plug into the
- However, we would not want plug-in.
- Hence, there are things which matter to us besides pleasure.
Obviously the second point is a slight assumption – I’m sure a few out there would want to plug-in – but Nozick does genuinely make a good point. The fact that we would reject ultimate pleasure says so much about us. In a way, it’s kind of an acceptance of our suffering; that we’re at peace with our lives even though it’s hard. Perhaps if you would choose to enter The Experience Machine that says you’re dissatisfied with how you’re feeling. In a way, entering it is a form of “suicide”. Nevertheless, it shows that pleasure isn’t all that we crave, even when we think it is. Many set out their life aim to be happy, me included, and yet it seems that it could be a lot more than this.
What do you think of The Experience Machine?
Would you try it?