Ever since I was teenager and read Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars, I’ve been fascinated with the idea of a machine that could satisfy all of our needs and provide us constant pleasure. This is also the topic of a well-known thought experiment developed by the philosopher Robert Nozick in his 1974 book Anarchy, State, and Utopia.
Nozick asks what if there was an experience machine that we could plug into that would provide us with pleasurable experiences that were undistinguishable from reality? Would we prefer the machine, or would we prefer reality?
If you are not a philosopher and already wondering who operates the machine if everybody is plugged into it, stop doing that. We don’t ask those sorts of troubling questions in philosophy. We make bold assumptions so that we can get to the fun stuff. The machine works. Maybe the technicians designed it to be fool proof or maybe Harry Potter waved his wand. It doesn’t matter.
So back to Nozick, he argues that if we only care about experiencing as much pleasure as possible, then we have no reason to not to plug into the machine. However, he believes that we do care about more than pleasure. Most notably he makes a distinction between experiencing and doing and argues that ultimately we will prefer the latter over the former.
On Nozick: “We want to do certain things, and not just have the experience of doing them … we want to be a certain way, to be a certain person … plugging into the machine is a kind of suicide …”
I’m not so sure. Given our increasing ability to create, and willingness to place ourselves in, immersive alternative worlds I question if Nozick’s arguments have the same credence in 2021 as in 1974. I tend to believe that we are becoming more like Cypher in The Matrix, eating the virtual steak and sighing “ignorance is bliss.”
What is your opinion? Leave a comment.