If you could be hooked up to an "Experience Machine" that keeps you in a state of permanent happiness (or take a drug with the same effect) would you do it?
I came across this intriguing question in Thomas Metzinger's "The Ego Tunnel," a book that I've been blogging about recently. This thought experiment was suggested by Robert Nozick.
...He [Nozick] insisted that we would not want sheer happiness alone if there no actual contact with a deeper reality -- even though the subjective experience of it can in principle be simulated.
When I first read this, I wasn't sure what my choice would be. I took a lot of psychedelic drugs in my youth, being the baby boomer that I am (as the saying goes, "if you remember the '60s, you weren't there").
So, like most of us, I've got a strong leaning toward if it feels good, do it.
On the other hand, I enjoyed those psychedelic experiences because they weren't permanent. The first time I took LSD, another guy and I became convinced that we were permanently crazy. It wasn't a pleasant feeling. The best spin we could put on it was, "Crazy isn't so bad."
But what if we were in a permanent blissed-out state and didn't have any way of remembering what had gotten us into it? This would be the Experience Machine.
I'm pretty sure I wouldn't want that. I can't say for sure, because some circumstances -- like being in severe intractable pain -- probably would make me want the suffering to go away, no matter the existential cost.
On the whole, though, I think Nozick is correct.
We humans are meaning-seeking creatures. We want our happiness to be grounded in reality, though we're perfectly willing to take temporary excursions into la-la land via drugs, alcohol, imaginings, movies, fictional books, and such.
Religion also. There's no problem with embracing religious fantasies that make us feel good, so long as we keep in mind what opiate we imbibed.
However, many true believers end up plugging themselves so strongly into the Experience Machine of religious dogma that they forget a crucial fact: their blissful feelings of divinity are being cranked out by their brain's fantasy generator.
Nothing wrong with this. Like Janis Joplin sang, "Feeling good was good enough for me."
But is feeling good good enough, when it isn't grounded in reality? This was one of the first questions I asked myself when I started this blog in 2004. Then, as now, for me genuine faith isn't blind at all.
Which is why I prefer reality over religion. This is some of what I said back then -- pretty much the same conclusion Robert Novick came to.
Here's how to tell the difference between true faith and false faith: Imagine that you are standing in the middle of a bare windowless room. Two doors lead out of the room. Both are closed, but can be opened with a turn of the doorknob. The doors are marked with signs that describe what awaits on the other side: (A) Reality, (B) Belief
After you open a door, you have to walk through it. The door then will shut and you never will be able to leave the place you have entered. Choose Reality and you will know things as they really are, from top to bottom of the cosmos. You will know whether or not God exists and, if so, the nature of this ultimate divinity. You will know whether death is the final end of your existence or if it is the beginning of another form of life. You will know whether there is a meaning to the universe beyond what human beings ascribe to it.
Or, choose Belief and you will know only what lies within the confines of your current suppositions about the nature of the cosmos. For the rest of your life you will be confident that what you believe to be true, really is. Any evidence to the contrary will not make an impact on your mind. You will remain doubt-free, faithful to the beliefs you now hold about God, creation, life, death, and the purpose of human existence.
Which door would you choose to walk through?
Before answering, consider carefully the potential ramifications of your choice. Reality is an unknown, a mystery. It could be frightening or fabulous, painful or pleasurable, warmly loving or coldly uncaring. Do you want to embrace absolutely real reality? Or would you rather hold on to your beliefs about what is real?
Someone with the type of faith extolled by the Church of the Churchless would unhesitatingly choose Door A and boldly stride into Reality. For their faith is not in anything particular, but is a faith that truth can be known, should be known, and, indeed, must be known.