Rage Against the (Experience) Machine


People, for the most part, enjoy being happy. It would hardly be contentious to claim that human beings are pleasure seeking creatures who pursue situations that make them feel good, but the extent to which we seek out such experiences is still a matter of philosophical debate. A large part of that debate centers on hedonism, a school of thought which dictates that pleasure and happiness are the goals of human existence. In an effort to refute this argument, which is obviously more complex than the succinct explanation I have provided, philosopher Robert Nozick created a thought experiment entitled “The Experience Machine” sometimes referred to as the “Pleasure Machine.”

The experiment poses the following hypothetical: imagine there is a machine that can simulate anything you desire in such a way as to make it indistinguishable from reality. The exact workings of the machine are unimportant, however, it is important to note that the subject is aware that what they are experiencing is a simulation.

Nozick states that if pleasure is truly the goal of human existence, then no one would hesitate to utilize such a machine, assuming of course that they implicitly trust it to work properly. Nozick then goes on to claim that there are several reasons why an individual would not wish to use such a machine, thus rendering the hedonism premise invalid. Nozick provides three distinct reasons as to why he believes an individual may not wish to enter the machine. The first is because individuals wish to actually do things, not simply experience them. The actions that make up the experience are what we desire, the experience is a byproduct of that and on its own is not sufficient. His second belief is that we wish to be a certain type of person, not simply a motionless “blob” who experiences things through a simulation. Lastly, Nozick thinks that a simulated reality would be limited to whatever humanity could create or imagine and, despite the machine’s ability to make us happy, we should still prefer the world in its natural state.

The conclusion Nozick draws from his experiment receives a fair amount of pushback from other scholars. Some, such as psychologist Felipe de Brigard, claim that the thought experiment relies heavily on  “status quo bias.” The status quo bias simply refers to a general human preference for how things are. We tend to prefer choosing options that don’t radically change things, regardless of which option is truly the better one. Brigard is therefore arguing that Nozick’s argument relies on our desire to not extensively change our lives, or essentiall our reality. Brigard presents his own version of the thought experiment which asks us to look at the experiment from a different angle. I will conclude this column by presenting Brigard’s experiment, verbatim, for your consideration:

“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?”