The Right Coast

Editor: Thomas A. Smith
University of San Diego
School of Law

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Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Nozick's Experience Machine revisited again

Nozick's experience machine is probably not original. The idea of an illusory reality better than the one we live in was doubtless popular in science fiction before Nozick borrowed the idea in his 1974 book Anarchy, State and Utopia.  The popular series Star Trek featured in an episode in 1966 the mentally powerful Talosians, who had lured Captain Pike underground by making him think that his female companion was beautiful and not horribly disfigured.  He ends up entering the world of illusion full time, having been injured himself and confined to a high tech wheelchair. 

Whether original or not, Nozick's experience machine is supposed to be a knockdown argument against hedonism or other forms of internalist ethics, by which I mean an ethics that says we ought to judge how well our life is going by how it is experienced from the inside.  Are we very happy, for instance.  Nozick asks us to imagine a machine that gives us the experience of being happy, experiencing pleasure or whatever we wish.  We have the experience of reading an interesting book, inventing a great invention, or whatever we please.  But we supposedly would not choose this because what we actually want to is to actually experience these things, not experience the illusion of these things.

This seems like a much better argument than it is.  It is in fact like an illusion of a good argument. Suppose I want to have the experience of what it is like to really understand higher mathematics. I don't now.  But I would like to have that experience.  No problem.  I am hooked up to the experience machine and crawl into the tank.  Is there a difference between understanding math in the tank and not in the tank?  It seems not.  Perhaps we want to limit what the experience machine can do. But that rather defeats the whole point.  It might be that the highest pleasures I can experience in the experience machine are better than the best I can hope for outside of it.  Am I not allowed to make this judgment?

Take the more mundane case.  I want to spend my life skiing, climbing mountains, and generally adventuring.  Instead I am stuck in a dead end job accounting in a widget factory.  I get the chance to go into the experience machine.  Nozick asks whether what we really want is to really have these experiences, not the illusion of them.  That might be.  But many people do not have the chance to really experience their, well, dreams. I'm never going to be able to afford the life of an adventurer, and besides, I'm old and tired. I might prefer the experience machine to the constraints of my real life, given that choice.  Not everyone is a dazzlingly brilliant and handsome and single professor at Harvard, FFS.

The real point of the experience machine hypothetical is of course that we want the real experience not a facsimile thereof. But wait a moment.  Couldn't the experience machine offer lessons that were as good as or even better than real life?  Suppose, as the band Switchfoot says, we want more than this world's got to offer?  One can imagine an experience machine that put one in a universe with a better moral order than the one we happen to live in, perhaps Tolkein's universe, or Hannah Arendt's for those of you from the Upper West Side.  Perhaps a few years in the tank would improve one, like going to a good college, back when that meant something. The experience machine would presumably still instill experience, wouldn't it?  You could come out of the tank with the benefit of what you learned in the tank, correct?  Or would it be more like Las Vegas?

July 8, 2014 in Games | Permalink | Comments (0)