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Robert Nozick’s Experience Machine

The Harvard philosopher's ideas on why we should prefer hard reality to pleasing illusions warn against the temptations to escaping into tech or psychedelic drugs
Screen Shot 2023-01-14 at 3.27.19 PM

I've been going back today over old issues of Rod Dreher's Diary, my subscription-only newsletter about spirituality, and ran across one from 2021, on an idea the philosopher Robert Nozick had. It's worth sharing with you here, because it has profound implications for the "false enchantments" offered by technology and psychedelic drugs. That image above of Nozick, a Harvard political philosopher who died in 2002, is from this short animated clip describing the basic views of Nozick. Here's my Diary entry:

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?

I found out about the Experience Machine thought experiment today by seeing this tweet:

In the 1974 passage where he introduces the concept — see here — Nozick gives three reasons why we would not want to hook ourselves up to the Experience Machine:

  1. We want to do certain things, and not just have the simulated experience of doing them.
  2. We want to be a certain way, to be a certain kind of person. A person living in a tank hooked up to the Experience Machine is just a blob.
  3. Being plugged into the machine limits our experience to man-made reality, and cuts us off from anything outside of it.

All of this is true, but remember, Nozick wrote this nearly fifty years ago. I wonder if young people today, raised on the Internet, would grasp Nozick’s points. Clearly Megan Fritts’s students don’t! Why is that, do you suppose?

My guess is that technology and tech-driven cultural norms have created a generation more open to the idea that there is no real difference between “real life” and “virtual life.” Nobody ever talks about metaphysics, but we are living through a profound metaphysical shift, don’t you think? If people accept (without thinking about it) that the world outside their heads is nothing but dead matter, then why should they prefer that world to a magical one? That is to say, if people believe that there is nothing to learn from encountering reality, why should they not choose an invented reality that is more pleasurable?

What if Nozick’s “blob” is not a creature to be pitied and despised, but rather someone who looks a lot like your friends who stay jacked in to the system playing video games and participating online? When virtual reality technology gets even more sophisticated, the enblobbification of WEIRD humanity is going to accelerate. I cannot get too judgey about this. Here in Louisiana, I spend almost all my time online writing and reading, or offline reading so I can be informed about what I will write when I get back to the computer. The world I have created for myself online is so comforting. But it’s not the same thing as real life. This is something I wrestle with internally.

Plus, if you don’t believe in God, and don’t believe that life has a purpose and meaning that is waiting for you to discover it, why not the Experience Machine? Let’s say that you were convinced that there is no God, and that the planet is descending into climate apocalypse. You have decided that it would be wrong to bring children into this world. What if someone from Google came along and offered to hook you into the Experience Machine for the rest of your natural life. You could order up the adventures you want to have for the remainder of your days, and Google would give it to you. Google would guarantee that your body would remain comfortable and nourished. The rest of your natural life would be lived within a simulation that gave you constant pleasure.

Would you do it? I presume most readers of this newsletter would not do it. But if you were a young person with no real religious beliefs, no people depending on you, and a darkly pessimistic outlook, on what grounds would you say no?

The Experience Machine thought experiment makes me realize that the work I’m going to do on this new book is going to be more complicated than I initially thought. The social science research today reveals that even as Millennials and Gen Z are walking away from institutional religion, they aren’t becoming atheists. They are cobbling together their own personal faith from a little of this and a little of that. What this shows, though, is that they don’t actually hold a strong belief in sacred order, or transcendence. If you are conscious that your “spiritual” orientation is not based on accepting an authoritative tradition, but picking and choosing what “works” for you, then you must be aware at some level that your spiritual belief is all a matrix you have chosen not because it is objectively, ontologically true, but because those concepts please you at some level. Right?

If that’s the case, then generic religious belief of this kind is not going to keep you safe from the Experience Machine. In fact, DIY spirituality might in fact prepare you for the Experience Machine, because it has taught you that “reality” is in some sense malleable, and can be massaged to suit the sovereign will.

Plus, this is the myth of technology, isn’t it? The idea that we can use it to control reality and bend it to our will. How is the Experience Machine not a version of that? It says, “We can’t yet use technology to create paradise for you, but we do have a technology that gives you the experience of paradise, at a level so real you won’t know that it’s a simulation. Interested?”

I realize now that I have assumed that most people would refuse it, even then. But maybe my confidence is unwarranted. Yes, of course it’s unwarranted — look at all the educated people today who cannot bear to hear information that challenges their view of reality, and so suppress the bearers of bad news. Remember my story about the Harvard professors who allowed students to dictate to some extent what could and could not be taught in courses, for therapeutic reasons (that is, the students didn’t want to feel unsafe)? Is that not Experience Machine stuff? Is that not consciously preferring a reality you know is false (or at least not fully true) because it is more pleasant? Coming to believe that living like that is normal is to prepare yourself to accept the Experience Machine.

Bottom line: in this book, I’m going to have to argue for why we should prefer reality to “reality” — and why that is a fundamental question in front of us now.


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There's nothing wrong with taking an occasional vacation to recharge the batteries, but life needs to be lived in the Here-and-Now.
schedule 1 year ago
Theodore Iacobuzio
Theodore Iacobuzio
In my opinion it’s a tie between this and “Imagine” for the worst record ever made:

schedule 1 year ago
Giuseppe Scalas
Giuseppe Scalas
I think that there's a deep malaise in the answer of prof. Fritts' students.
I'm afraid they believe that their lives have no transcendent value. And this is truly sad, because they do.
schedule 1 year ago
Daniel Baker
Daniel Baker
I admit I would find the tank tempting, but I don't think I would go in. As I understand it, the tank would give me "the experience of writing a great novel," but at the end I would not actually have written a great novel. Someone else would have to have written the novel first, and I would merely think it was mine. Perhaps I wouldn't know the difference while in the tank, but I would know the difference before I went in, and that would be enough to dissuade from going in. My words will never be as great as Shakespeare's or Omar Khayyam's, but they are mine, and that's irreplaceable.

The tank does not make me immortal. Death comes, sooner than we think. I want to have left something, even something ephemeral, behind in the real world, when my own being and consciousness are annihilated. I carry in me thoughts, habits, and personality traits from my father, that have survived him. I hope to pass at least some of the best of them, plus some of the best of my own, down to my son and daughter. I can't do that in a tank.

I think Andrew Niccol was pointing at this in the best scene of his flawed movie, Simone. Victor, a genius movie director tired of dealing with spoiled-diva leading ladies, starts casting a holographic computer actress called "Simone" as his star. Simone is infinitely manipulable and utterly obedient; he can make her do anything he wants on the screen. But late in the movie, one of his former diva leading ladies comes back to him, humbled and much improved in her art, and auditions for a minor role. It's a knock-'em-dead audition, bringing insights and power to the bit part that Victor could never have imagined himself, and he realizes that the human woman would be better in the lead than Simone would. The diva, for all her previous bad attitude and unreasonableness, is a person, with her own personality and unique viewpoint to bring to her role, which Simone can never do. But the audiences are in love with Simone, not with Victor or his art; he can't cast this now-unknown in the lead without tanking his movie. He has become the prisoner of his own creation. I think many of us are in for Victor's tragic discovery in the future.
schedule 1 year ago