Some thoughts, a family argument, and a poll
2023: Who knew real life was not worth an M&M!
1823: “Who knew this life was not worth a potato.” (Lord Byron, Don Juan: Canto VII iv. 67)
Zach is right. We do not directly react to what happens to us, only to how our mind feels about what happens to us. In a way, we are already in a simulation because we derive pleasure or misery through how our mind interprets our experience. Which is why, as you know, the same exact sensory input can create very different emotional states depending on the sensory input that preceded it. Same stuff, different interpretation by our minds.
Don’t assume that those who choose the experience machine are hedonists. Maybe their lives suck and they just want something more than despair to look forward to. Also, I have been through the experience of being in a relationship and realizing years later the person never loved me. Not even sure they liked me. It not only changes the experience but it changes everything afterwards. Sometimes, ignorance is bliss.
I don't think this scenario is that far away. We can already read and control minds, so I guess the machine is just around the corner. My fear is that sadist will put me in it and set it in maximum torture mode. Hell. I don't think this is far into the furture either. Imagine the joy sadistic people can wreak on others if they get their hands on a machine like that. When we can control the pain centers, and not just physical but emotional pain.
Zach's friend here 👋 He has tormented me with these arguments for many moons.
He's right that the imagination exercise is flawed. You cannot appropriately evaluate the thought experiment because you cannot imagine yourself in an unreal situation <where what we are evaluating is precisely the fact that it is unreal> without knowing that it is unreal. The whole point is that you don't know it is unreal--this makes it impossible to imagine.
This does nothing to support Zach's actual view, namely: "If something is worse for me, it must feel worse for me. It can’t be worse if it makes no psychological difference." All it shows is that the experience machine is a poor thought experiment for evaluating the principle.
Here is the argument I've levied to Zach before. It's quite simple, really.
1. It's good to get what I want. (perhaps not *all* desires, but all things being equal, the vast majority of them)
2. I want plenty of things which are not accomplished by my experiencing them. I hope, for instance, that Zach has a good week. I hope that my family complete and publish my masterwork after my death.
3. Therefore, It is good for me that things to happen though I do not experiencing them, since they accomplish my desires. It is better, for instance, that my life's work gets accomplished, rather than ruined, after I die.
Zach might respond to this, as Hobbes did, that I want the pleasure of the experience of knowing that he had a good week. But if that were what I was really after, I would seek out evidence to confirm that he had a good week. If that were true, I would ask him how he is doing more often.
The M&M question is interesting, but I would prefer the simulation M&Ms, though I would not enter the experience machine. The pleasure of M&Ms has nothing to do, for me, with the conviction that it is real. The pleasures whose reality matter, I think, are those that are founded on shared experiences. For instance, for many, sex is one of those things. When A's pleasure is founded on a certain representation of how the world is, say, that through her actions B is feeling pleasure, then, if that representation is mistaken, the pleasure is misfounded, and I am deluded. If you only care about experiences like Zach, the delusion doesn't matter. To me, like Paul it matters immensely. Deluded pleasure can be worse than pain.
Hopefully this offers readers some resources to resist Zach's sophistry.
I think self-reporting without having actually gone through the experience of the Experience Machine is potentially unreliable. If I imagine the experience of being in it as completely seamless and reliable I don’t see how one could turn it down. This is our one life. Maximizing the happiness, stimulation, peace and contentment (or whatever positive feelings one considers most valuable) just clearly is the obvious choice. If a feeling of inauthenticity is detracting from one’s experience in the EM the technicians will tweak the settings and eliminate that issue.
Great post. I think the reverse set-up is an important twist on the original thought experiment.
I am stunned that anyone would even consider plugging in. Maybe I have trust issues but I would worry about the machine breaking down or someone replugging me into a pain machine just for fun. I don’t think I’m paranoid but allowing anyone or anything to control my experience of life is just unthinkable.
There is, of course, an extreme scenario where your current life is unbearably painful but even then there is always the option to terminate it. And who is to say that your afterlife won’t be pure pleasure?
I’m on team Zach. We can’t know that the reality we are in right now is *really* reality.
Lately I’ve been going to sleep with a nicotine pouch in my mouth and it gives me the most vivid dreams. They feel very real in part because they’re not especially bizarre. They’re all plausible situations from real life.
It wouldn’t shock me to find that the dream is me typing this comment and I will wake up shortly.
I wouldn't mind being a hedonist but I like a combination of random material circumstance bouncing around this thing I name me.
So I'm a software engineer and a systems guy and I spent half this article thinking about what a Pre-Experience Machine would look like. Now... I'm not trying to say that I prefer the company of AI systems over people, because I don't, but it's very neat having a non-materialist AI scientist friend to bounce interesting ideas off of:
I like the purity of the M&M thought experiment, but when I answered the question I simulated the probable annoyance of booting up the experience machine and weighed it against the marginal value of a single M&M. Maybe it would help to stipulate a really smooth interface, like the ability to pop yourself into and out of Experience Machine Headspace with a password-like thought pattern, making the switching cost trivial enough to be overshadowed by a colorful little packet of sugar.
Is your son’s position that doing something you shouldn’t doesn’t make you any worse off? I remember arguing with Dan Hausman about something like this. I didn’t understand it then either.
Great discussion of the experience machine. I had never heard those variants. On your terms, would coming out of an experience machine mean learning that all your relationships, all the people you have ever known about, don’t actually exist? That would be devastating, and undermine my inclination to go back. A shared experience machine is a stronger competitor with a real world. Not sure it wins… but it’s much more real. Would a hedonist see any difference between a solipsistic and a shared experience machine?
I wonder if the allure of "living in reality" is analogous to that of dualism. If there's nothing "special" about the human experience and everything reduces to brain states, then maybe there's nothing "special" about "reality" and everything reduces to experiences (as Zach seems to argue). In other words, perhaps to people who would enter the Experience Machine, arguments for not entering sound similar to arguments for dualism.
I’m usually smart enough to avoid interjecting myself into arguments between much smarter people, but it seems to me your son’s argument is a bit circular- he claims experience is all that matters while simultaneously discounting the experience of choosing not to plug into the machine.
This is all very interesting but I don't understand why not signing on for the Experience Machine necessarily, automatically makes one not a hedonist. I feel like I'm pretty solidly a hedonist yet am not tempted by that experiment.
For me, it’s seems arbitrary to assume any “real” experiences at all, in the sense of (a) representing ground zero in an otherwise potentially endless regress, and (b) being imbued with some “extra” quality (authenticity) to be valued in itself.
The only reason I can see for preferring one “reality” (source of sensory input and output) over another is how the choice impacts other experiencers. I would like my choice to be compatible with as many positive experiences as possible, for as many experiencers as possible. I suspect one reason many people distrust the EM is that it is perceived as an egoistic and/or lonely choice.
But as Chalmers argues in “Reality+” it could, at least in principle, be the more altruistic and sociable choice.