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The Experience Machine or Pleasure Machine is a thought experiment put forward by philosopher Robert Nozick in his Anarchy, State, and Utopia. It is one of the best known attempts to refute ethical hedonism, and does so by imagining a choice between everyday reality and an apparently preferable simulated reality.
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, but most famously by some classical utilitarians. Nozick attacks the thesis by means of a thought experiment. If he can show that there is something other than pleasure that has value and thereby increases our well-being, then hedonism is defeated.
The thought experiment
Nozick 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.
Who would run the machines if everyone plugs in? Nozick asks us to ignore this concern, since it does not adversely affect the thought experiment. One could simply stipulate that the machines have been so well designed as to be fail-proof.
The experiment is also open to multiple interpretations. For instance, Nozick claims that you could either map out the rest of your life in the machine before plugging in, or you could unplug periodically to choose your programming for the next cycle. While interesting, these variations do not directly affect the argument.
The argument is along these lines:
- P1: If experiencing as much pleasure as we can is all that matters to us, then if we will experience more pleasure by doing x than by doing y, we have no reason not to do x rather than y.
- P2: We will experience more pleasure if we plug into the experience machine than if we do not plug into the experience machine.
- C1: If all that matters to us is that we experience as much pleasure as we can then we have no reason not to plug into the experience machine. (P1&P2)
- P3: We have reason not to plug into the experience machine.
- C2: Experiencing as much pleasure as we can is not all that matters to us. (C1&P3, by MT)
Reasons not to plug in
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
- "It is only because we first want to do the actions that we want the experiences of doing them." (Nozick, 43)
- We want to be a certain sort of person
- "Someone floating in a tank is an indeterminate blob." (Nozick, 43)
- Plugging into an experience machine limits us to a man-made reality (it limits us to what we can make)
- "There is no actual contact with any deeper reality, though the experience of it can be simulated." (Nozick, 43)
Nozick is using this thought experiment to illustrate his claim against Hedonism. It raises the question of what matters other than experiences, by making readers realize that they wouldn't plug into the experience machine even if they could. This raises the question of why only felt experiences dictate what can and cannot be done to an animal.
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 October 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."
- Simulated reality
- Anarchy, State, and Utopia
- Droud, a similar fictional device in Known Space stories