A lot of the thought experiments I have been presenting recently are similar to the experience machine thought experiment that was presented by philosopher Robert Nozick in his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia:

Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life’s experiences? (p. 42)

The experience machine thought experiment is meant to refute the claim that the only things one cares about are one’s own pleasure and pain.

Psychologist and philosopher Joshua Greene says that our intuitions about the experience machine may be affected by status quo bias, which is a preference for the current state of affairs. In order to avoid status quo bias, Greene suggests reformulating the thought experiment as follows:

you wake up in a plain white room. You are seated in a reclining chair with a steel contraption on your head. A woman in a white coat is standing over you. ‘The year is 2659,’ she explains, ‘The life with which you are familiar is an experience machine program selected by you some forty years ago. We at IEM interrupt our client’s programs at ten-year intervals to ensure client satisfaction. Our records indicate that at your three previous interruptions you deemed your program satisfactory and chose to continue. As before, if you choose to continue with your program you will return to your life as you know it with no recollection of this interruption. Your friends, loved ones, and projects will all be there. Of course, you may choose to terminate your program at this point if you are unsatisfied for any reason. Do you intend to continue with your program? (The Point of View of the Universe: Sidgwick and Contemporary Ethics, p.257)

According to Greene, if we feel differently about this version of the thought experiment, this is because of status quo bias.

Suppose I wake up in a plain white room, and find out I have been in the program this whole time. I am told that everyone I love was just a figment of my imagination. I can plug back into the program, or I can live in the real world going forward. If I do not plug back into the program within the next five minutes, then I will never get the chance to plug in again.

Suppose I could somehow be guaranteed that I will experience more pleasure and less pain if I plug back into the program. I still think I would want to live in the real world. This may just be because I value the pleasure I will experience over the next five minutes from knowing that I have chosen to live in the real world. If I plug back into the program, then I will still think I am living in the real world. However, I may experience additional pleasure from knowing that I could have plugged into the program but chose not to. At the same time, I stipulated that I could somehow be guaranteed that I will experience more pleasure and less pain if I plug back into the program. As I said in this post, people seem to value pleasure they will experience in the near-future more than pleasure they will experience in the far-future. It is possible that even if I think I will experience more pleasure and less pain in the long run if I plug back into the program, I value the pleasure I will experience immediately from knowing that I chose to not plug back into the program.

All of this does not refute the claim that all one cares about is one’s own pleasure and pain. It may just be that we value the pleasure we experience from thinking that we are living in the real world, or from thinking that we chose to live in the real world.

In Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Nozick gives three reasons to not plug into the machine. First, he says, “We want to do certain things, and not just have the experience of doing them” (p. 43). In the thought experiment, the person in the program thinks he is really doing the things he thinks he is doing. The amount of pleasure he experiences is not lessened by the fact that he is not actually doing what he thinks he is doing. I think a more accurate statement would be “We want to think we will do certain things in the future, that we are currently doing certain things, and that we have done certain things in the past.” In the case where one has the option to plug in, one’s desires to think that one is currently doing things and that one has done things in the past are irrelevant, since these desires will still be met while one is in the program. However, one’s desire to think one will be doing things in the future can be a reason to not plug into the machine. But is fulfilling one’s desire to think one will be doing certain things in the future just another form of pleasure-seeking?

Nozick’s second reason to not plug into the machine is that “we want to be a certain way, to be a certain sort of person.” He continues, “Someone floating in a tank is an indeterminate blob. There is no answer to the question of what a person is like who has long been in the tank (p. 43). This is true, but the same objections that were given to Nozick’s first reason can be given to this reason as well. While in the machine, one will not be aware that one is an indeterminate blob. It is only the knowledge that one will be an indeterminate blob if one plugs in that can dissuade one from plugging in.

Nozick’s third reason is that “plugging into an experience machine limits us to a man-made reality, to a world no deeper or more important than that which people can construct” (p. 43). This is also true, but one can imagine an experience machine that allows one to experience anything that one would experience in the real world. This reason doesn’t seem particularly strong to me.

With all this being said, I still think I would not plug back into the machine, even if I could be guaranteed that I will experience more pleasure and less pain if I do. However, this may just be because I value the pleasure I will experience from knowing that I chose to not plug back in. My conclusion is similar to the conclusion I made in my last post. It may be the case that we always pursue what we value the most. What we value the most may be the psychological pleasure that results from satisfying one’s moral intuitions, or from choosing to live in the real world.

References

Nozick, Robert (1974). Anarchy, state, and utopia. New York: Basic Books. pp. 42–45ISBN 0-465-09720-0.

Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek; Peter Singer (22 May 2014). The Point of View of the Universe: Sidgwick and Contemporary Ethics. OUP Oxford. p. 257. ISBN 978-0-19-102242-5.