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The Experience Machine
Some thoughts, a family argument, and a poll
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[The first few paragraphs are adapted from my book The Sweet Spot; the rest is new. Big thanks to Zach Bloom for comments and discussion.]
What do we really want out of life? A common answer is that people are hedonists. We want pleasure.
The Epic of Gilgamesh nicely captures the spirit here: “Let your belly be full, enjoy yourself always by day and by night! Make merry each day, dance and play day and night! . . . For such is the destiny of men.” Also, the Canadian rock band Trooper: “We’re here for a good time / Not a long time / So have a good time / The sun can’t shine every day.”
Psychological hedonists—from here on in, just hedonists—are no dummies. They know that people sometimes willingly do non-pleasurable things. We stagger out of bed at 3 a.m. to feed the crying baby, take the 8:15 into the city, undergo painful medical procedures, and so on. As Trooper put it, the sun can’t shine every day. But for the hedonists, there is always a long game—unpleasant acts are the costs that must be paid to obtain greater benefits in the future.
Hedonists are aware as well that we have goals that don’t feel hedonic. The usual example here is morality. We do kind things for one another, such as giving money to charity instead of spending it on ourselves, and this leads some of us to think that hedonism is mistaken. But the hedonist sees this as an illusion. We might think we want to help others, but really, we just want the happiness boost that comes from being good.
There is a story about Thomas Hobbes walking through the streets of London with a friend and then stopping to give money to a beggar. His friend challenges him, saying that Hobbes has long argued for the selfish nature of man, and Hobbes responds by saying that his action was thoroughly selfish—giving to the beggar gave him pleasure, and it would have made him feel bad to pass him by. This is the sort of thing you will hear when you talk to a hedonist.
I’ll have more to say about hedonism in a later post—mostly negative. I think it’s a terrible theory of human nature. But here I want to introduce you to (or remind you of) a thought experiment published by the philosopher Robert Nozick in 1974, in his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia. This is the Experience Machine:
Suppose there was 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 many 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 would 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.
I first read this a long time ago and forgot how weird some of Nozick’s details are. Isn’t it odd that the best experiences he can think of are “writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book”? And the idea of choosing my own experiences ahead of time makes me nervous; I’d fret about making the wrong decisions.
So let me clean it up a bit—the new-and-improved Experience Machine.
Suppose superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would have experiences of immense pleasure and satisfaction—far more than you would ever have in your own life. And not just corporeal pleasures—you will have the experiences of being deeply and passionately in love, having exciting adventures, creating great empires (if that’s your thing), being honored and respected. Your life will be filled with challenges and excitement and you will never be bored. And, of course, you would not know that you are plugged into this Experience Machine. You will live as long as you would have otherwise lived, and at the moment before your death, you will think back with great satisfaction on an extraordinary life.
You might think things could be simpler. Why not just have the machine zap the pleasure areas of the brain or give you a never-ending heroin high? The worry here is that a hedonist might see these substitutes as somehow deficient. Maybe there’s something to certain real-world pleasures that pleasure-zapping or heroin can’t match? Maybe a hedonist wants specific hedonic experiences, like falling head over heels in love, making a great scientific discovery, winning respect and adoration, the very best food, the very best sex, … and, uhm, reading an interesting book. If the Experience Machine can provide all of this, the hedonist is living the very best life.
Nozick says he wouldn’t plug in, and many people, including me, wouldn’t either.
We are not all hedonists, then. There are other things we want. I want to have relationships with real people, not just have the illusion of having them. I want to make a difference in the world, not just imagine that I’m doing so. For Nozick, “someone floating in a tank is an indeterminate blob”—and who wants to live their life as an indeterminate blob?
I’ll admit, though, that not everyone has the same reaction. This post on Twitter made me laugh, but some people do think this way.
Philosopher Robert Nozick: “Now this experience machine can perfectly simulate a life in which you get everything you ever want—”
Me: “Sign me up.”
RN: “No, see, it won’t be real; you’ll think it is, but—”
Me, already plugging in: “Bye nerd.”
After all, there are those who choose to take drugs that blot out any chance of meaning and authenticity, hoping to achieve hedonic bliss. Surely they would sign on to the machine. And when I tell people in my classes about the Experience Machine—many of them affluent young university students with promising lives ahead of them—many opt to plug themselves in.
Also, even for us non-hedonists, some experiences are worth it for their own sake. Would you pay for an extended dream where you had a vivid experience of leading a mission to Mars, or being with someone you loved very much who has since died, or winning the Nobel Prize, or having sex with the person you are most attracted to? I haven’t asked around, but I bet most people will say: Hell, yes.
I wouldn’t lose my life to the Experience Machine, but I might plug myself in on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
There is a problem with the Experience Machine. Nozick assumes that those who refuse to plug in are expressing a preference for real-life—experience is not enough. Some sharp philosophers, though, have noticed there might be a Status Quo bias going on. People are cautious and conservative; they might not want to plug in because they don’t want to give up the life they’re having. If they were in the Experience Machine to start with, they wouldn’t want to leave that either.
So now imagine a very different situation.1
Suppose you are living a rich and satisfying life— and poof!, you find yourself lifted out of a tank and feel electrodes being gently unplugged from your head. Some lab tech tells you that you have just spent the past two years in the Experience Machine. All your satisfactions, accomplishments, and relationships have been neural hallucinations. This is your regular check-in, mandated by the government, where they ask you whether you want to stay in the Experience Machine or return to the real world. If you decide to stay in the Machine, your memory of this check-in will be wiped, and you’ll go back to your illusion believing that it is reality.
I know I wouldn't plug into the Experience Machine in the original case —but I’m less sure here. You see, I’m fond of my life, and I love my wife and my children and don’t want to leave them forever. In this scenario, I would appreciate that I don’t really have this life or this wife or these children—illusions all. But I would nonetheless feel this powerful desire to return to them, to, more honestly, return to the illusion of them, as if seeking to get back to a dream of true happiness.
I also have a question for the government employee in front of me: What’s the real world like? I wouldn’t unplug from the Experience Machine to end up in a post-apocalyptical hellscape of the sort envisioned in The Matrix. But what if it’s a Star Trek world with no poverty, excellent health care, and the chance of a long life of scholarship and adventure? (I’ve always been a sucker for the Star Trek world.)
In a clever study, the philosopher Felipe De Brigard gave people the flipped Experience Machine situation, getting them to imagine that they were already connected to the machine and could now choose to stay connected or return to reality. He also gave three different versions of reality to his subjects—here they are; the descriptions are followed by the % of people who would stay plugged in:
You are a prisoner in a maximum security prison (87%)
No information—you don’t know what your life will be (46%)
You are a multi-millionaire artist living in Monaco (50%)
The maximum security answer is a no-brainer—I would also stay plugged in. But it is surprising that even when given what seems to be a great life, about half will keep their own illusory one. Maybe most people are happy and appreciate that even rich European artists might be miserable. Or maybe, like me, they have relationships—or “relationships”—that they don’t want to give up on, even if they are unreal.
Conclusions so far:
We are not all hedonists. Many people will not plug into the Experience Machine. Even when they are already in the Experience Machine, many people—about half, when they have no idea what their life will be like—will leave it. (Then again, about half would stay).
Even for the non-hedonists, pleasure matters as well. I don’t think I’m unusual in saying that I would occasionally plug into the machine, and the De Brigard study finds that the quality of life waiting outside of the machine influences how likely people are to unplug.
My son, Zach Bloom, is skeptical about our intuitions about the Experience Machine. Armed with a graduate degree in Philosophy, he’s been arguing with me about this for a long time.
He’s not a hedonist; he accepts that we might value things other than pleasure, such as friendship and knowledge. But he believes this principle:
If something is worse for me, it must feel worse for me. It can’t be worse if it makes no psychological difference.
Maybe we value things like friendship or knowledge, but if so, Zach argues that all this means (all this can mean) is that we value the experience of friendship or knowledge.
So why do some of us, like his father, refuse to get plugged in? He argues we’re not thinking properly about the hypothetical. When we imagine being plugged into the Experience Machine, we imagine it wrong; we’re not fully simulating not knowing that we’re in the machine.
Here’s an analogy. Imagine that behind your back, people mocked and disrespected you. Nobody really loves you. But you never learn about this, and it has no effect on your life. How do you feel about this situation?
My own reaction is that this would be terrible; I wish very much that this isn’t the case. But Zach argues that I’m confused here—I’m only upset at the prospect, he argues, because I’m failing to fully put myself in a state where I don’t know it’s happening. He wrote this to me:
I think that if you imagine nobody loving you, you imagine being lonely. Because we (rightly) know that the internal and external worlds are related, it’s pretty much impossible for us to get on board with a thought experiment like
nobody loves you
but the experience of all your relationships is unchanged
This seems totally impossible, and when we try to imagine this, we fail. Same with the Experience Machine. People who don’t want to be plugged aren’t truly accepting the premises that (a) there is nothing external going on and (b) you are having all the same experiences as if there really was an external world.
I just think it’s incoherent to have preferences about things that don’t affect our experience. It means we are in a constant state of having all these preferences that are desperately important to us—that the world be real and not a simulation, that people care about us in ways that we will never find out about—but we will never know if these preferences are satisfied or not, and there’s no way we can ever know. Isn’t that weird?
Zach would plug into the original Nozick machine for sure. Actually, he is indifferent to the whole real-world/simulation contrast. (As Mr. Spock once said, “A difference that makes no difference is no difference.”—though this has also been attributed to William James.) All that matters to Zach is the quality of experience.
To make his point, he once asked me to imagine a choice:
My real life. At some point in this life, I’m hungry and eating some M&Ms from a small bag. There are four M&Ms, and they are very tasty.
I’m in the Experience Machine, and my experiences are identical to those in my real life—with one exception. There are five M&Ms in the bag, and I eat the fifth with pleasure.
I would choose (1)—reality. Zach would choose (2)—the Experience Machine, because it’s just a little bit better.