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The Experience Machine: A Survey

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In collaboration with the BBC’s Radio 4 show ‘The Philosopher’s Arms‘, we are running a series of short opinion surveys on the Practical Ethics blog as a way of promoting discussion on issues in practical ethics.

This week The Philosopher’s Arms discussed the problem of the Experience Machine, Robert Nozick’s hypothetical scenario about the machine that could simulate a happy life:

Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience 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.

The following survey explores some of the ethical themes raised by the Experience Machine.



To all our visitors from the BBC Website: if you found ‘The Philosopher’s Arms’ interesting, you may be interested in reading other posts on this blog, the Practical Ethics blog hosted at Oxford University’s Uehiro Center for Practical Ethics. Blog posts are contributed by philosophers and philosophy students from Oxford and other major universities around the world.
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7 Comment on this post

  1. This seems like a good opportunity to ask people about 'The Reverse Experience Machine", e.g. as Felipe De Brigard has:

    Essentially, imagine you've been told that you''ve accidentally been plugged into 'The Experience Machine' (or at least something similar in concept) and that your current life experience is created by the machine. Would you disconnect from this experience in order to experience 'reality'?

    According to De Brigard's survey, people generally prefer to remain connected, suggesting that there is a "status quo bias" rather than a desire to know/experience "the truth" or "reality".

  2. I guess the reverse experience machine is a bit like Mr Reagan's choice in The Matrix. Of course, he was informed – the status quo steak actually tasted better to him than the real world chicken goo.

    I wonder how far one can push the experience machine. Since many valuable experiences are intellectual, it would need to be able to provide them and not just sensory experiences. I want to understand quantum mechanics – would it make my brain able to understand it, or just create the delusion that I now get it?

    If the later, what if I then try to solve some quantum physics problems? It would seem that it would now need to create the delusion that I have indeed solved them and got the right result, consistent with all the math and physics I know, despite the fact that my thoughts were not truly like that. Then I can go on trying to come up with a grand unified theory: again, unless it can make me able to actually do it, it would need to instil a delusion that I both know and understand the theory and its implications, and that I made a correct deduction from my (false) understanding. As I go on building on it, the machine must turn more and more of my experience into a delusion about what is actually happening inside and outside me: the input I get has very little to do with the delusions the machine maintains about what it means. So in principle I could be thinking about wet paint drying, and all it would need to do is to make me think – my internal experience to the contrary – that I am now doing amazingly rewarding and elegant theoretical physics, checking its internal consistency and drawing nontrivial conclusions. I wouldn't go so far as to say this is an impossible level of delusion, but it seems very problematic.

    But if the machine instead allows me to think previously unthinkable thoughts, then there is plenty I could do if I was ambitious. I could desire to visualize for example Graham's number (an *absurdly* large number) directly. That number is already big enough to encode (in some suitable way) all literature that could ever have been written or all thoughts any normal human could ever have thought – and I could of course ask the machine to make me understand this directly too. In fact, it would be possible to run entire simulated universes in my extended head, and at least if you are a functionalist the entities inside these universes would be as real as we are. To a functionalist this kind of experience machine – if it is powerful enough – is not at all unreality, but a device that could make anything real.

    In practice most people's intuitions about the machine are fairly pedestrian. This might affect their willingness to plug in: they do not consider just how astronomically good things could be if the machine is truly unlimited. Which it of course could be if the maker of the thought experiment allows it to be.

  3. Why were you discussing Aristotle when the quote "consider no man happy until he is dead" comes from Solon in Herodotus?

  4. Anders, I've just listened to the radio 4 show.

    There seems be some pretty major confusion between hedonism and utilitarianism. It's a shame you weren't willing/able to clarify the difference before it was stated that many politicians and economists seem to be utilitarian in thinking. Generally though, it's great to see that government ministers are getting involved in these sort of discussions. Kudos to David Willetts.

    As to your final point above, it may be that they are unaware how astronomically good the experience machine could be, but if that's the case then it may simply be that most people are already reasonably happy with what they have got. From a practical perspective, your points about quantum mechanics etc are completely irrelevant (though they are very interesting nonetheless) , since we don't have an actual experience machine. What we do have are drugs, and genetic engineering. So we should be using the experience machine thought experiment to consider what we value, and why. Then we should be looking at what real tools we have that can help us achieve such things. Thus, I always read Nozick's first sentence above as meaning "Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired, provided it is something that can be experienced by people in real life".

  5. Two points I'd like to make:

    1. The desire for more and more intellectually, to me, is the same as any greed. Greed is not a good thing. It neglects our need for intellectual balance. Balance helps us retain perspective.

    2. The survey and it's results were extremely interesting. I think that the 'truth' and 'reality' are the best ways to attain true happiness. If you can learn to accept the good and the bad in life, this can lead to enlightenment/happiness.

  6. My comments are only about the survey.

    What is a "worthwhile" life?
    How do we judge other people's lives and should we try to do so anyway?

    Sorry, but I found it interesting only at the surface level. Unexpectedly, there were misspellings and misuses of words.

  7. This fails to stipulate whether the machine is tricking you, or giving you real simulated experiences (example, victory in a game is still an achievement, a novel written in a simulation is still a product of skill). If the machine is merely forcing your brain to not notice you are being rail-roaded through a choiceless script, that is quite different from providing a context for your own expression.

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