Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Lotus Eaters & The Experience Machine

Robert Nozick's famous thought experiment may be losing its meaning among today's youth
Screen Shot 2021-10-04 at 10.41.23 AM

In my subscription-only Substack newsletter (please subscribe!) the other day, I wrote about a thought experiment:

Have you ever heard of the philosopher Robert Nozick’s “Experience Machine”? He wrote:

What matters other than how people’s experiences feel “from the inside”? Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience that 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? If you are worried about missing out on desirable experiences, we can suppose that business enterprises have researched thoroughly the lives of many others. You can pick and choose from their large library or smorgasbord of such experiences, selecting your life’s experiences for, say, the next two years. After two years have passed, you will have ten minutes or ten hours out of the tank, to select the experiences of your next two years. Of course, while in the tank you won’t know that you’re there; you’ll think it’s all actually happening. Others can also plug in to have the experiences they want, so there’s no need to stay unplugged to serve them. (Ignore problems such as who will service the machines if everyone plugs in.) Would you plug in? What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside? Nor should you refrain because of the few moments of distress between the moment you’ve decided and the moment you’re plugged. What’s a few moments of distress compared to a lifetime of bliss (if that’s what you choose), and why feel any distress at all if your decision is the best one?

Would you plug in? This is the concept behind The Matrix — the idea that everybody lives inside a mass hallucination, when in fact their bodies live in a kind of suspended animation. This is the substance of the red pill vs. blue pill choice in the movie: would you prefer to live within a pleasant lie, or within the unpleasant truth?

A subscriber sent me a great response, and has given me permission to publish it:

Your latest Substack letter about the Experience Machine got me thinking.  I was born in 1982, and video/computer games (I’ll just call them “games”) have always been part of my life.  That “Experience Machine” concept — that’s games!  I don’t have time to write a carefully thought out email, but I think my experiences may help you with the task you’re dealing with: arguing why people should prefer reality to “reality”.  If what I have to say interests you and you’d like more detail, let me know.  I apologize in advance for the length: “I wrote you a long letter because I didn’t have time to write a short one.”

  • I had a lot of growing up to do in my thirties, and a lot of it had to do with putting games in their proper place.  I was a successful attorney with a wife, children, a house I bought with the money I earned (in California!), I was a leader at our church, I had all the outward trappings of maturity.  But the thing I usually wanted to do in my spare time was sit down at my computer and play games, as I had done all my life.  That caused me to be a distant husband and father who wasn’t very involved in my kids’ lives and who largely left my wife to deal with all the work of running our house.  It took years of counseling and slow, painful growth — think of that chapter in Voyage of the Dawn Treader where Eustace Scrubb, having turned into a dragon, has his dragon skin peeled off to become a boy again — and I’m not there yet for sure, but I’m getting better.

  • When I was a child, games were an important way my friends and I spent time together, and relative skill at whichever game we collectively decided was the most important to us at the time was a means of establishing position in the social hierarchy.  If you were the best in your circle of friends at, say, Street Fighter II in 1993, you were respected for that.  Modern online games offer all sorts of ways for players to distinguish themselves and attempt to impress other players.  In other words, games offer the possibility of prestige among your peers – either your real-life friends or other people who play the same games – which is something real and not just a simulated experience.  The catch, of course, is that the thing that gets you that prestige – your mastery of a game – has little to no utility in the real world.

  • Getting better at a game usually involves learning real skills – coordination, decision making, memory, strategic thinking, reflexes, pattern recognition, planning – and so there is genuine satisfaction for the player because there is genuine improvement.  I’ve experienced that satisfaction countless times.  Again, however, while the skills learned from games may be partially transferable to the real world (I think of the people who coordinate dozens of fellow players in MMO raids – that takes real management skills), mastery of any game is largely useless outside of the game environment itself.  I’m skilled at many games, but none of them help me feed my family or keep my house clean.  (Yes, I know some exceptional people can make a living as professional competitive gamers or streamers; but most people cannot parley gaming into a living any more than most people can make a living playing professional basketball.)

  • What I’m trying to get at in the above paragraphs is that games are so addictive – at least, they are for me – because the fantasy, the virtual experience, is admixed with real things – the development of skills and respect from other people.  It’s a heady brew.

  • I really was good at the games I chose to play, and that skill was a big part of my self-image.  A big part of growing up – and something I still have to remind myself about most days – is that being good at games is worth very little in the real world.  At best, it gives me a way to entertain my friends and children.  At worst, it drives me away from them to isolation.

  • In my mid-thirties, I was really into a certain online military game.  I played it in every spare moment I had, and I was genuinely good at it; like I was among the top 50 players on the North American server.  It was also ruining my marriage; it drained my time and attention away from everything else.  Ultimately I had to walk away from the whole thing cold turkey – deleted my account and everything – and I haven’t been back for a couple of years.  That was really hard to do, and painful, but man, am I glad I did it.

  • Nozick is right: we don’t just want to feel like we’re doing things, we want to actually do them.  Or perhaps it is more precise to say we want to be able to honestly say we have done them.  (Why do people put themselves through hell climbing Mount Everest?  Surely it is not because it is a pleasant experience in the moment, but because they want to be able to say they did it.)

  • Nozick is also right that we want to be a certain way, and a person hooked up to the Experience Machine is just a blob.  Well, for most of my life, I was a high-functioning blob: I got good grades, I got a good job, I made good money, I married and had children, etc., but in my heart of hearts I just wanted to plop down in my chair in front of the computer and blob out.  I have been realizing that I don’t want to be a blob, I want to be a man.  I don’t want to look at myself from the outside, with my mind’s eye, and see a pasty dude sitting in a chair staring at a screen for hours at a time; I want to see a man teaching his children, helping his wife, praying, giving of himself to the people around him.

  • I became an Orthodox Christian around the same time video games began to loosen their grip on my life.  I think the two things are related, but I’m not quite sure which came first.  I think they work synergistically; probably the real first mover in all this was the Holy Spirit.  Certainly, Orthodoxy’s focus on spiritual growth, discipline, and practice offers me a satisfying real alternative to the mostly illusory achievements offered by games.

  • Why should I care more about reality than the “reality” of games?  Well, the obvious answer that you and I can agree on as Orthodox Christians is that reality is reality, and we are made for union with God, not to sit as blobs in chairs amusing and pleasuring ourselves.

  • But there’s another reason that I think any honest person who plays a lot of games – or who spends a lot of time in the Experience Machine – will have to admit: the more you do it, the deeper into it you get, the more boring and job-like it gets.  (Gamers have a term for when playing a game feels like a chore or a job: we call it “grinding.”)  There’s a point in every game, no matter how deep and complex, where it ceases to surprise and delight and it becomes boring and familiar.  You reach the other side of it and it is no longer a trackless forest, just a shabby little wood (so to speak).  So you move on to another game, or you try to invent challenges for yourself to keep the game interesting, but it never works for long.  At bottom, the Experience Machine is shallow and empty, and the harder you throw yourself into it, the harder that bottom hits you.

  • I’m a “geriatric millennial” – almost 40 years old – so I’m an old fart and I don’t really have my thumb on the pulse of what people in their teens and 20’s are into now.  But I’ve witnessed games grow from the crude, simple Nintendo games of the ’80s to the massive, complex, always-on, always-expanding online games available today.  I can’t imagine the temptations I faced growing up are anything but more intense now.

  • I should hasten to add that games serve a healthy purpose in my life, too.  My wife and I live in a large metropolitan area, and between all of the responsibilities and scheduling problems of adult life, the omnipresent traffic, and sheer geographic distance, it is really difficult to see our friends in person.  We average maybe one face to face visit every two to three weeks, and seeing our friends in person is a high priority for us.  Online games and the Discord app have bridged the gap and enabled us to hang out with our friends at will, as much as we want to.  We play with a regular group an average of four evenings per week, two hours per evening, and then we usually spend another hour just shooting the breeze.  (That last hour is where we really get to know each other and bond, but it wouldn’t happen without the first two hours playing games.)  That group includes friends from our former church and people we met online who live on the other side of the country.  Those people are our closest friends now.  Our lives would be poorer and we would be much more isolated if we didn’t have the Internet and games over which to bond with these people.

  • Tellingly, I think, out of all the people we knew at our former church we only truly befriended the ones we played with regularly (because they were the only ones we regularly spent time with outside of Sunday morning), and those friends are still playing with us on Discord every week.  I don’t think it is a coincidence that those same church friends are the only ones we continue to see face to face despite the difficulty of doing so.

I like that Orthodox argument against “virtual culture”: we are made for unity with God, so anything that seriously gets in the way of that should not be in our lives — or should not dominate our lives. I’m not a Puritan, and I don’t think fun is inherently ungodly. To the contrary, feasting can be part of what helps us participate in the life of God.

Sometimes artificial things are needed to integrate us more fully into reality. In my case, reading Dante’s Commedia harrowed my soul, and turned up ugly things buried in the rocky soil of my own heart — things of which I had to repent in order to be spiritually healed. I could not have seen those things if I had been told about them in non-fiction. It took art — the artifice of art! — to bring me to reality.

One of the things you learn in the Commedia is that Hell — the Inferno — is populated by people who are all radically disconnected from each other. Communion is impossible in Hell, because everybody who dwells there lives in isolation. Only in Purgatory (Purgatorio, the second book) do we begin to see the rebuilding of community among the penitents. If a technology exacerbates our isolation from others, as well as from the world outside our heads, is it not an Experience Machine?

And if that’s true, what is the difference between a passive gamer who spends his days enmeshed in the artificial world of the game, and somebody like me, who spends his days — often very long days — online reading and writing and trying to make sense of the world … but who, in the end, doesn’t often leave the house, because he’s so caught up in the world inside his head?

I think there is an important difference — one is about total escapism, and the other can be productive — but in terms of what’s good for my soul, there’s less difference than I wish.

Another reader sent me this argument against the Experience Machine:

I’ve been a grad-student in philosophy since 2016, first at [university] (for an MA), and now at [university] (for a PhD).  So I’ve had to lead discussion sections as a TA, and have also taught classes as the instructor of record for undergrads where we’ve talked about Nozick and his Experience Machine.  My experience is much as you say, that the thought experiment doesn’t really work anymore, because students think that being in the machine is just fine.  From talking to professors who have been teaching students for more than 30 years, they say there’s been a steady decline over the years in students who respond to it in the way you and I do.
However, I did find a similar thought experiment, I forget where I read it, though it might also be from Nozick, which tends to bring some students over to the other side.
Imagine two lives, Life A and Life B, which internally to the subject, let’s call him “Rod Dreher,” are identical.
In Life A, Rod is a successful columnist for The American Conservative.  His readers really appreciate his work, his wife loves him, his children respect him, and his employers really value his work.  He feels that he has a pretty good life.
In Life B, everything seems the same to Rod, but His readers think he’s a clown, though they respond just the way they do in Life A, his wife stopped loving him years ago, and has been cheating on him, though she perfectly hides her infidelity.  His children have nothing but contempt for him, though they’re outwardly respectful.  His employers keep him on, but they mock him behind his back.  But Rod B feels exactly the same as Rod A.
So the question is:  Is one life, A or B, better than the other?  Which life would you rather have, given the choice?  If you think Life A is better, why do you think so?  If you think they’re equivalent, why do you think so?  If it’s because the affective experience is the same, I would ask: Does it matter to you that your wife really loves you, or just that you think your wife loves you?
A lot of students who say they would be plugged into the Experience Machine will come over to the other side given this thought experiment.  I think they start to get the intuition that there’s something important about reality—that we’re genuinely valued by others, or that we have legitimately accomplished something, that matters.  For some reason, the Experience Machine example doesn’t bring this intuition out anymore.  Figuring out why this is would be an interesting project, which fortunately for me, is outside of my bailiwick.
I forget where I saw it, but somebody on Twitter said that if you raise young people in a culture where they have their faces in their smartphones all the time, you get a generation that would prefer the Experience Machine to reality. This is actually a profound observation. Culture is the barrier between raw experience and the individual. That is, it is what helps us to make sense of raw experience, and to integrate ourselves into the world. Technology is both a product of culture and a producer of culture. The fact that most of us in the West live in a televisual culture matters enormously, because most of our experience of the world is mediated electronically. This causes weird distortions, like the fact that I, with my face buried in my laptop, have a better idea of what’s happening in Washington right now than what’s happening in my own city. I’m not trying to be holier-than-thou here. I am deeply implicated in this too.
It becomes easy to substitute the simulation of the world that exists inside our heads for the real world. I was astonished to hear over the weekend from two friends who have recently been down on the Louisiana coast, in the area hardest hit by Hurricane Ida, how much destruction and suffering is still happening. A friend from Ohio who is here doing relief work said that every day, he and his crew discover poor people in St. Charles Parish who are living in the ruins of their own houses (or trailers), because they have nowhere else to go. This is no longer in the news, or at least in my news feed. Imagine that: people in the United States of America living in the ruins of their houses after a hurricane because they are too poor to go anywhere else. It’s happening about 100 miles from where I sit. But I wasn’t aware of it until I spoke to actual flesh-and-blood people who had been there.
OK, back to the Experience Machine. Whatever my own personal flaws are regarding plugging into the EM, I do it because I am on a constant search for the Truth, which ultimately means for God. I want to participate more fully in the life of God, which means not simply knowing what is true (True), but living it. This is what Orthodox Christianity tells me I should desire and should pursue, but all my life I have been driven by an insatiable curiosity for knowledge. This is part of what it means to be human, and it can certainly be misused. In Dante’s Inferno, Odysseus (Ulysses) is in Hell as a False Counselor, because he used his gift of fine speech to convince his crew to abandon their duties to their families and go with him to a forbidden place, beyond the Pillars of Hercules, in search of knowledge. It ended with their deaths. The search for knowledge is not unfailingly good. The search for Truth, though, is.
The Experience Machine experiment is a deliberate retreat into a comfortable, pleasurable lie. It involves choosing to live within a lie because it is more pleasurable. As with students today who don’t recognize Huxley’s Brave New World as a dystopia, those who would accept the Experience Machine of Nozick’s thought experiment surrender their human dignity, and become neutered animals. I think of a physician friend who told me a couple of years ago that he is seeing more and more cases of young men with failure to thrive. He said these are middle-class, even upper middle class, young men who have had lots of advantages in life. They don’t want to go to college. They don’t want to do anything but play video games and smoke dope.
That’s an extreme example, but what kind of society do we build when many people believe that there are no ultimate Truths to be learned in Nature or anywhere else; that life is about maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain (to oneself or to others); and that the material world is filled with stuff that we can rearrange in whatever pleasing ways we like?
We are going to find out.
Remember my story about the Harvard professors who adjusted their teaching to prevent students who didn’t want to hear things that made them anxious from hearing them? The meaning of this is that we have a student generation of elites who deliberately wish to cut themselves off from information that makes them anxious, and a generation of older people abandoning their responsibility to prepare the young for the world as it is, and instead allowing them to believe a more comforting lie. This is corruption. Mind you, it’s human nature to want to believe things that satisfy our prejudices and make us feel good, as opposed to things that upset us. But in this case, you have students at one of the world’s greatest universities deciding that they would prefer not to know certain things, because it makes them too anxious … and professors honoring that request.
Catholic philosopher Jennifer Frey encountered a version of this on a visit to Yale. Excerpts from her essay:

Laurie Santos, a cognitive scientist, is a star psychology professor at Yale. She is world-renowned for a course she taught in 2018 titled “Psychology and the Good Life,” which made headlines when over a quarter of Yale’s undergrads enrolled. Santos assures young Yalies—and now, through online coursework and a popular podcast, the rest of us—that we can all live happier lives with the scientific, “evidence-based tricks” she teaches. This is critical since—as Santos is quick to inform us—students at Yale, despite being poised to take over the levers of wealth and power in this country, turn out to be anxious, depressed, lonely and adrift. With good-hearted cheer and solid technique, Santos aims to change this—indeed, she claims to have transformed thousands of lives through her lectures.

I came to know of Santos by way of an invitation to participate in a dialogue with her, which was extended to me by some Christian student organizations at Yale. I am a philosopher who works at the flagship university of the state of South Carolina, where we were, at the time, at the tail end of a multimillion-dollar grant project bringing together philosophers, theologians and psychologists to explore how virtue, happiness and meaning in life might be plausibly related. I am also a Roman Catholic reasonably well-versed in my own intellectual tradition. Presumably, I had been summoned to remind students that Christian philosophers and theologians have concerned themselves with the question of happiness for over two millennia now, and this too is worthy of our attention.

The first stop on my trip to Yale was to visit Santos’s famous class. The topic that day was procrastination, and its upshot was the demonstration of a technique for students to reprogram their brains for better time management, enabling them to be more successful and productive. Santos, like most social and cognitive scientists, thinks of happiness within an entirely subjective frame. Happiness is about feeling good, which means experiencing more positive than negative psychological states over a period of time. This suggests, of course, that a life is nothing more than a series of moments we might call good or bad depending on how they made us feel, and the good life one with more good than bad in the final tally. What Santos calls “life hacks” and “science-based tips”—in this case, to enhance students’ time-management skills—are mere techniques for ensuring, as much as one can, that one’s psychological perspective has a net gain on the positive side. As Santos herself admits, it makes no difference whether the objects that make you feel happy are even real, let alone tethered in some way to the demands of morality.

Santos made this commitment plain during a dialogue that night with me in front of about six hundred Yale students. To test how wedded she was to the idea that happiness was fundamentally a subjective state, I posed the following hypothetical: if we could design a virtual-reality machine that was sophisticated enough to guarantee that we could no longer tell the difference between real goods and their simulacra, would she choose a “happy life” plugged into a machine over the complicated mess of a real human life? Without skipping a beat, Santos replied that she would certainly choose the solipsistic “happiness” the machine offers. This was when I realized that Santos’s vision was much darker than the gimmicky self-help she had offered earlier that afternoon.

Frey makes a distinction between Santos’s version of the good life, and the one she offers, through philosophy. And then:

As much as I disagree with Santos (who was kind and generous to me on my visit), I am less interested in particular professors than in the institutions that have indelibly shaped their minds and careers. Santos’s popularity at Yale tells us something about the contemporary university, an institution not only structured so as to produce Santos’s class, but also to promote it with the sort of devotion that I, as a philosophy professor, can only look upon with a mixture of envy and despair. Philosophy, the traditional home of serious reflection about the good life, is marginalized in most American universities, including Yale. Treated as just one discipline of study among many others, it is not understood as central to a university education; the prevailing assumption is that it can be safely ignored by most students.

Universities, more than any other institution, shape our conception of what constitutes worthwhile knowledge. Therefore, if we want philosophy to thrive in the contemporary university, we will need to clearly articulate a very different vision of what a university is for, one that does not instrumentalize the life of the mind to pragmatic ends and that does not hold up expertise as the paradigmatic form of knowledge. The best philosophers were never experts or specialists, but broad and deep thinkers who strove for a unified knowledge of the whole of reality—at least to the extent that they saw this as possible. They did not seek this with an eye to improving the world, but from a deep and natural desire to understand. There was a time when such desires were not only recognized but respected and honored. We do not live in those times, and our universities are in some measure to blame for this.

A unified knowledge of the whole of reality. I understand what Jennifer Frey means here, and agree with her. But if you are the sort of person who believes that there is no knowledge to be found embedded in reality, or at least that there is no such thing as a “right relationship” to the material world, because it’s just stuff, you may not be able to see the point of Frey’s strivings. Homer wrote about this kind of person in the Odyssey, when Odysseus visits the Land of the Lotus Eaters — lost men who have become addicted to eating a narcotic plant that causes them to forget about going home, and to live in this timeless sense of pleasurable apathy.

From a Christian point of view, our true home is Heaven, and the purpose of life is to live so that we will spend eternity there united with God. The goal is not simply to avoid Hell, but to participate fully in the life of God — and that starts right here, in this life. Noble pagans who did not have a god, but who held strong views about living out one’s ideals, understood the danger of the Lotus Eaters. Do we? Or have we professionalized lotus-eating? Every middle class person knows that a slob who does nothing but smoke pot and play video games is a failure, but what happens if lotus-eating — living within a pleasurable simulacrum of life — becomes professionalized?

I contend that this is what is happening in a world that believes it can free itself from suffering if only the right technologies can be deployed, and the wrong people can be crushed. This is where soft totalitarianism is going to come from.

It also has something to do with why cinema is dying, according to Angela Nagle, who writes:

[T]he Internet has created a fundamental and possibly fatal dilemma for cinema: namely, if real people today live their lives in an entirely internal way, scrolling on phones and staring at screens, where little to no observable physical action is taking place, what is there for cinema to do? Like all forms of cyberutopianism, early claims that the Internet would revitalize art and culture don’t seem to have aged well. The Internet has caused a decline in art in general but particularly in cinema, which makes experimental forms of adaptation to this new reality all the more important. Cinema is technologically advanced theater. If it were to portray much of the younger generation accurately today, the viewer would be watching a world largely without expository sound or physical movement, with a stream of text appearing awkwardly on screen.

Yeah, anybody trying to make a documentary about me would have to contend with a subject who lives 95 percent of his life online.

Tanner Greer has an interesting comment about how Xi Jinping is using his authority as China’s dictator to break the Chinese people of these habits. Excerpt:

That is the thread that ties all of these crackdowns together. Each targets an industry that seems to strip people of their agency and rob them of their dignity. Each seems to hijack healthy behavior with a set of short term incentives whose end results are self destructive and degrading. [Emphasis the author’s — RD]

This is how Chinese have been describing these industries themselves. I was interested to see one crackdown explainer state that the after school tutoring industry was “guǒ xié-ing our people.”7 Guǒ xié (裹挟) means to coerce or compel a behavior or attitude; it carries with the imagery of being swept away by a natural force, like the wind or a riptide. It is an apt metaphor for an industry that urban Chinese hate to pay for yet feel like they cannot opt out of. One does not wish to waste a child’s youth away on 18 hours of evening cram school a week, but to do otherwise is to risk falling behind. It is a classic arms race problem: no player can stop the game from the inside, even though all players would benefit from a cap on the game. An outside force is needed to halt the madness. Xi Jinping has decided to be that force.

Very similar rhetoric has been used to describe the cultural crackdowns (as on video games or online fan clubs). In an interview posted on the Central Commission on Discipline Inspection’s website this summer, Jiang Yu blames both on the “irrational expansion of capital.” He argued that “‘Fan culture’ is capital using its power to create a consumption culture, and to manipulate youth spending habits and influence public culture.” Under this framework, the popularity of video games, celebrity rankings, K-pop forums and the like are an unnatural social contagion. The instant gratification provided by their consumption hijacks healthy development and produces disgusting excess. In this sense, computer games or fan forums are similar to narcotics–but worse, for narcotics are illegal, peddled in the shadows under threat of death. Today’s addictions, in contrast, have billion dollar conglomerates behind them. But the video game developers, executives, and admen are only doing what they are incentivized to do. Within the system there is nothing to stop these conglomerates from enmeshing their citizens even further in addiction. An outside force is needed to halt the madness. Xi Jinping has decided to be that force.

Greer points out that you aren’t helping people when you free them from one kind of slavery only to deliver them to another (that is, to state bureaucracies). Still, it is interesting that Xi Jinping sees this sort of thing as a threat to China’s prosperity, and is acting to rein it in. He believes it is self-destructive and degrading for Chinese citizens to hook themselves up to Experience Machines. But of course the man behind the Social Credit System is not against the Experience Machine per se, only against one he doesn’t control. That said, Xi is not wrong in his diagnosis, is he?
So: from a Christian perspective, as well as from the perspective of traditional philosophy, “happiness” is not simply about feeling good, but about living a meaningful life grounded in reality. Our confusion about that is the source of so many of our problems today in the West. I was talking not long ago to a woman in her twenties who was unhappy, and rushing from this thing to that thing to outrun her unhappiness. I told her that her method is guaranteed to produce happiness only as a fleeting chimera. The way to be truly happy is to seek truth and meaning; happiness will follow. But why is that? People like me, we have to convince young people today that true happiness requires them to accept suffering, and to transform it. Because that is how things are in the real world.
I have my work cut out for me in this new book I’ll be starting work on soon, that’s for sure.
How about you and the Experience Machine? Would you do it? Would your friends? Why or why not?