Experience Machine


poor yorick

The Experience Machine or Pleasure Machine is a thought experiment put forward by philosopher Robert Nozick in his 1974 book ‘Anarchy, State, and Utopia.’ He describes a choice between everyday reality and an apparently preferable simulated reality as a refutation of ethical hedonism, the idea that people have the right to do everything in their power (that doesn’t infringe on others) to achieve the greatest amount of pleasure possible to them.

If the primary thesis of hedonism is that ‘pleasure is the good,’ then any component of life that is not pleasurable does nothing directly to increase one’s well-being. This is a view held by many value theorists (who study how, why, and to what degree people value things), but most famously by some classical utilitarians (who believe that the morally best action is the one that makes the most overall happiness or ‘utility’ (usefulness). Nozick argues that if he can show that there is something other than pleasure that has value and thereby increases our well-being, then hedonism is defeated.

He asks us to imagine a machine that could give us whatever desirable or pleasurable experiences we could want. Psychologists have figured out a way to stimulate a person’s brain to induce pleasurable experiences that the subject could not distinguish from those he would have apart from the machine. He then asks, if given the choice, would we prefer the machine to real life? Nozick also believes that if pleasure were the only intrinsic value, people would have an overriding reason to be hooked up to an ‘experience machine,’ which would produce favorable sensations. Nozick provides us with three reasons not to plug into the machine: We want to do certain things, and not just have the experience of doing them; We want to be a certain sort of person (‘Someone floating in a tank is an indeterminate blob’); and Plugging into an experience machine limits us to a man-made reality.

Before it became a philosophical thought experiment in the mid seventies, the pleasurable but simulated experience versus reality dilemma had been a staple of science fiction; for example in the short story ‘The Chamber of Life,’ published in the magazine ‘Amazing Stories’ in 1929. The novel ‘Infinite Jest’ by David Foster Wallace involves a similar formulation of the experience machine. The novel revolves around a film titled ‘Infinite Jest’ that is lethally pleasurable: the film is so entertaining that, once watched, the viewer will desire nothing else but to watch the film over and over. It also is a running theme of the 1999 film ‘The Matrix.’ Agent Smith’s account of the early history of the Matrix includes the idea that humans reject a virtual reality that offers them paradise; however, later his informant Cypher is willing to betray his colleagues because he would prefer to be reinserted into an (arguably less perfect) Matrix as a wealthy and successful man than continue to live in the harsh realities outside the simulation. While this later version of the Matrix is not a paradise-like reality in the literal sense, it may be argued that it is a lot like a pleasure-inducing Experience Machine, since Cypher is given the opportunity to have a prominent position of power and wealth in this new simulation. As he says while dining at a simulated restaurant: ‘You know, I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy, and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize? Ignorance is bliss.’

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