In 1974, Robert Nozick introduced one of the most famous thought experiments in philosophy:
“Suppose there was an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Super-duper 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 experiences? […] Of course, while in the tank you won’t know that you’re there; you’ll think that it’s all actually happening […] Would you plug in?”
In the scenario above, Nozick is exploring the one of the ideas of the social philosophy of utilitarianism here. The utilitarians claim that human pleasure should be maximized and pain minimized. Here Nozick imagines a machine which would do just that.
You might know it from similar depictions in movies like The Matrix.
Thought Experiments and Why People Hate Them
Would you plug in? If you were plugged in, would it be worthwhile to unplug yourself? Whether you say “yes” or “no” you betray elements of both your metaphysics (what is reality?) and your ethics (what is a good existence in that reality?).
Thought experiments like the experience machine are philosophical puzzles which are either excruciating or impossible to solve in a way that’s satisfactory to most people. They highlight inconsistencies in our beliefs about ethics, our epistemologies, and our language. That’s uncomfortable and embarrassing, and if you engage honestly with most thought experiments, you will be uncomfortable and embarrassed.
Naturally, people hate thought experiments. Don’t even mention the Trolley Problem.
Thought experiments like the experience machine have gained a bad rap. They’re often seen as impractical, unrealistic abstract mind-ramblings of armchair philosophers. I’m here to suggest otherwise. I think the experience machine thought experiment neatly summarizes a question we all have to answer every day.
Why the Experience Machine Experiment Matters
Whenever we find evidence that our beliefs are wrong, we face a choice. We enter an unknown but real landscape of reality, or we can remain within the known but unreal landscape of our beliefs.
Our known landscapes matter a lot to us as humans. They help us navigate the world and survive. They give us pleasure as a result. There are real stakes attached to them, so it’s not surprising that having to change our visions of the world is a painful process. Most of us wish we could ignore the need.
When we ignore evidence that our worldviews are incomplete or broken or destructive, we are plugging in to an experience machine. We remain within the known unreal, and it may continue to meet our emotional needs for certainty and perceived stability. But is that stability and safety real? Or are we missing out on something?
If we think we’re missing something, we face the difficult choice of unplugging from our experience machine – our prior beliefs and all the pleasure and satisfaction they provide. Through the process of bringing our beliefs closer to our most honest interpretation of evidence, we actually become better at surviving and thriving because we’re aware of real dangers and real opportunities in life.
Yet even while we recognize this, we often choose to remain inside our experience machines. And we have plenty of “experience machines” we’re plugged into at any given time, from our current political views to our current religious views to our current views on aesthetics or metaphysics or ethics. The point is not that some belief structures are unreal and others aren’t – it’s that all provide us with a particular framework for experiencing reality. When we’re certain our current structures are the final structures, and when we’re opposed to changing them when honesty demands, we begin to be slaves of our own machines. You know, like in The Matrix.
Even if you don”t want to go that far, it’s clear that refusing the call to change your understanding of reality means missing out on a big part of what reality can be. Isn’t this a problem we all face dozens of times a day? From realizing our ignorance at work to realizing we don’t know how to change a tire, we’re constantly confronting the unknown real. We’re left with the same question we ask of the potential experience machine user: are we plugging in or out?
The value of the experience machine thought experiment is not just to question utilitarianism. It’s not just to highlight a futuristic scenario of human existence. It’s not just about our metaphysical ideas of what reality really is.
The experience machine thought experiment reflects one of the most basic questions of philosophy: will you actually do philosophy in good faith? It asks us a question about what we’ll do with our many experience machines – our ideas and idea systems – now and when they stop working. That’s for you to decide.