The Experience Machine has popped into my life again.
A few years ago I blogged about it in "Choose reality, not religion." Today I read about Robert Nozick's thought experiment again in Julian Baggini's "What's It All About: Philosophy and the Meaning of Life."
Nozick asks us to imagine an experience machine, which works very much along the same lines as the eponymous supercomputer in the film The Matrix. Once plugged into the machine, you can live a life which from the inside feels just like normal life.
Rocks feel hard, the sun bright, coffee hot, and so on. In short, there is nothing in what it is like to 'live' inside this virtual world that makes the experience different from what it is like to live in the normal world. The only difference is that all your experiences are caused not by real objects in the real world, but by computers simulating your brain.
There is one other important difference between the experiences you have in the machine and those in the real world. Before entering the machine you can choose what kind of experiences you are going to have. So if, for example, you want to play in a rock band in front of screaming fans at Madison Square Garden, that can be arranged.
But while you are in the machine you won't know that everything has been predetermined or that the experience is a mere simulation. It will feel real to you. You will be as ignorant of the fact that you are in an experience machine as you would be if you were in such a machine right now.
Imagine that such an experience machine exists. It could be possible to enter into it with the guarantee of a happy life there. The choice you have is between living outside the machine and taking a chance on happiness and living in it and being sure of happiness. And from your point of view, both kinds of life will feel the same.
Would you choose to live out the rest of your life in such a machine?
After I read the passages above this morning, my first thought was "Sure, why not?" However, back in 2009 I argued that usually reality is preferable to fantasy, even if the latter is more pleasurable. So have I really moved away from preferring the real world to an imagined world?
Another great question. On the whole, I'd answer no. What's changed, I think, is how I look upon the notion of a "real world."
During the past three years I've read a lot about what neuroscience knows about the human brain. My wife, a retired psychotherapist, has also. We frequently talk about how brain processes filter, manipulate, channel, and otherwise convert raw perceptual information about the outside world into our impressions of it.
It'd be going too far to say that each of us already exists within (or as) an Experience Machine. But not very far.
We already largely live without a world of our own making. Just listen in on a heated discussion between an avid Republican and an avid Democrat, or an avid atheist and an avid believer in God. You'd find that supposed facts about the world are looked upon very differently by people with different perspectives on reality.
Still, this is a long way from inhabiting a completely different reality, as the Experience Machine promises. So the question remains whether I'd want to be plugged into the machine for the rest of my life.
Baggini says that most people "would not only reject this option, they would be horrified by it," adding:
The problem is that they feel they wouldn't be living a 'real' life in the machine. It is not enough to have experiences of a good life, one really wants to live a good life.
...What, then, are we placing above happiness when we turn down the chance to live in the experience machine? The most plausible answer, to my mind, is that we hold dear a cluster of values which can be summed up under the heading of 'authenticity'.
This is a very slippery concept, but it involves wanting to live life truthfully, seeing the world as it is and not under some deception, being the authors of our own lives, wanting our achievements to be the result of genuine effort and ability on our own parts, interacting with people who are really like us and not just simulacra.
OK. That all rings true to me.
This notion of authenticity is a big reason why I now reject religion. I just didn't feel as real back when I believed in supernatural stuff which had to be taken on faith. There always was a lingering (if almost entirely unconscious) sense in the back of my mind, "This likely isn't true, but I'm acting as if it is."
Still, I can understand why people are drawn to religion. Aside from drugs, what Marx called the "opiate of the people" is one of humankind's best ways of living in a fantasy world that promises a level of happiness and satisfaction that everyday reality can't provide.
Christians believe that Jesus and God are looking after them lovingly at every moment. Followers of Eastern gurus, the same thing -- just different divinities.
Religious belief systems are watered-down versions of Nozick's Experience Machine: if you choose to believe in life after death, heaven, and all that, after spending enough time immersed in a certain dogma, it will come to seem absolutely real to you.
Is this desirable? As I said before, what's wrong with feeling good? For many people, nothing. But for me, I keep coming back to that authenticity thing. I can't tell how often I've done something difficult, maybe even distasteful, and finished up with a smile on my face, thinking "Wow, that was real!"
We crave happiness. We crave reality. The tension between those cravings makes life more entertainingly fascinating than it otherwise would be. I guess this is being human.
Not knowing for sure whether I'd want to be plugged into an Experience Machine.
[Complicating factor: how do we know that we're not already plugged into one? See here -- scroll down to item 2, "Plugging out vs. plugging in."]