Nozick's experience machine

Robert Nozick, famous American philosopher and former Pellegrino professor of philosophy at Harvard University, is famous for many reasons, one of which is his “experience machine” thought experiment. It will probably strike a familiar cord. Imagine a very mature virtual reality machine. Mature in the sense that it is able to fulfill all of your basic needs as well as provide entertaining virtual experiences. One very interesting feature of this experience machine is that it causes you to completely forget that you are hooked up to a machine at all. In effect, you feel quite like you do right now (presumably)—completely normal. While hooked up to this experience machine, you feel as if you are actually living your life as you always have; walking around campus, having lunch with friends, and engaging in riveting philosophical debate with your colleagues. However, in reality you are immobile, hooked up to the experience machine. Putting aside the possibility that we are all already hooked up to such machines at this very moment (ignore the red pill), let us consider the positive and negative affects this may have on human beings.

We must know a little more about Nozick’s postulation first. Given that this machine is able to create a more pleasant atmosphere for human beings, it is able to increase overall happiness of people that plug into it. The obvious question then becomes should we plug in? Should we opt to escape from what we consider to be reality, and enter into a new, happier, virtual reality?

A utilitarian such as Mill or Bentham would be the first to say, “plug in!” Adhering to classical utilitarian principles, whatever action promotes the most amount of happiness is the action that we should follow. In this case it certainly seems that plugging in will yield the most happiness.

Should we object to this utilitarian decision? Why or why not?

If you have read A Brave New World then the question at hand is quite a familiar one. And the fact of the matter is, technology will probably—sooner rather than later—provide us with a chance to actually make this fascinating decision. What would you choose? What will you choose? Continued existence in what we refer to as “reality” or an altered state of virtual bliss?


Anonymous said...

plug me in man, plug me in

Eriatlov said...

Indeed it is a fascinating proposition, and not one that originated with Nozick. In fact, evidence of a similar situation can be seen all the way back in Plato's allegory, in which the masses live chained in a cave convinced that the only reality is a series of shadows playing on the wall in front of a fire (it's incredible how far ahead of his time Plato was in this regard). I am in full support of such an endeavor from an individual egoist perspective as well as a utilarian one (yes, I sympathized with Cypher in the Matrix). The burdens it could ease, with the possibility of goods that don't have to be manufactured, people who cannot get diseases driving cars that never crash on roads that never need to be maintained, is astounding. It does raise a question, however, on how far such a system should go to ease existence, and how far it should try to imitate some of the struggles of reality that perhaps are the key to our growth as individuals. Nietzsche for one strongly resents those who opt for an easy life, claiming that ultimate self-improvement can only come from confrontation and conquest. To those who would claim that such an endeavor would be "turning ones back to reality" or something similar, I would argue that we define our own reality through our experience, and there is nothing to stop the virtual world from becoming a new reality, even if is not strictly "true".

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Laura said...

You commenting on my blog yesterday. I was just checking yours out. Very interesting. Are you a philosophy major? I will read more when I have more time. I was interested in the "why I am not a christian" link. I am a Christian, so this really caught my eye. I would like to know more about your philosophy. Thanks again for visiting my blog.

Albert L Berriz said...


It is nice to see a Christian person enticed by the link "Why I Am Not a Christian" rather than turned off by it. If you have not read the article already, I would highly suggest it. Russell clearly and concisely explains the moral and theological problems with being a Christian. This article is a must read for all Christians and Atheists alike.

j00|{z said...

That would be so sad. There's probrably a chance we don't even exist. We're just all little ideas that became embodied and think we have lives. Cool.
Your blog is awesome.

Outlightened said...

The dilemma posed here is that of reality versus unreality. However, one must realize that nobody can fully and comprehensively perceive reality. What us humans see as reality is only our each individual perception of events happening around, and, therefore, everybody's reality is different. With this in mind, one then comes to a crossroads: since our reality is only perception, what is the difference of what it is that we are perceiving, essentially, if it is "real" or false. The easy answer is: if our minds accept a false reality and we are happy, then there is no reason to discard this happiness. On the contrary, another easy answer is: we have the right as human beings to experience true reality (whatever that is). A facet of this issue that often goes undiscussed is the importance of a real reality. If we lived in a false reality that was perfect in every way ("people who cannot get diseases driving cars that never crash on roads that never need to be maintained"), there would be nothing left up to chance, which I believe is what reality is. Chance holds such a strong bearing in our existance for a multitude of reasons. If no mistakes were made, significantly less would be learned. Natural disatsers could only be read about in textbooks at the most expensive Universities, which no one would have trouble paying for. Competition would be eliminated, and everyone would be equal. Eventually, or, arguably, immediately, everybody would be the same. Withh everyone being equal in every way, no one could learn from one another. There would be no room for expansion, growth, and intellectual stimulation. We would not be reading or posting on this blog right now out of lack of necessity. There would be no happy, and no sad. All perceptions would be bland and insipid, there would be no ups to appreciate because of the absence of downs. No yin and yang. There would be no balance, just tunnel-visioned, centered, median.

In respect to "The Matrix," this perfect false reality that was once offered to the world in the movie was rejected. Although this never happened, would it be rejected or accepted? To begin, lets consider the former. It would be rejected, ostensibly, because of the problems with perfection aforementioned. Humans own drive for growth and enlightenment caused a crash in the system. Now, the latter is difficult to discuss. Some people do not even accept the flawed reality we find ourselves in currently. Perhaps this lack of acceptance only leads humans to question and strive for knowledge.

Overall, reality is only what each of us make of it. Happiness is a feeling, regardless of how it is achieved. But is happiness real if the stimulus is not?

Anonymous said...

in that case, plug me in if unreality is more fun than reality

xanadian said...

Perhaps completely off-topic...

Every see the movie Brazil? If you have, you may remember the ending where the "hero" gets strapped to the chair, then is rescued and goes on a rampage. He finds his true love and they head off to some house away from the urbanized world he left behind.

Except it was all a deluion, created by the shock of his best friend getting ready to do his dirty work on him in that same chair.

Once upon a time, I kept a very detailed dream journal. This had a good aspect and a bad aspect. The good aspect is that it gave me insight to what was going on inside my mind. The bad side of it was I could no longer really be sure what it was I had dreamed or if I had experienced it in a wakeful state. It was a bit disturbing.

Anyway, thought I'd mention these two things, as this thread reminded me of them.

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Ron said...

"Overall, reality is only what each of us make of it."

Is this true? My bank account balance isn't what I make of it in my mind but what is actually there. When it comes to deeper matters of religious belief this correspondence between the ideas in my mind and the way the world really is matters much more. Those who define happiness as only something to do with sensation will no doubt love this machine. However, those who believe that happiness is more than pleasure will find such a life intolerable.

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