Hedonism, the Experience Machine, and Virtual Reality

By Roger Crisp

I take hedonism about well-being or welfare to be the view that the only thing that is good for any being is pleasure, and that what makes pleasure good is nothing other than its being pleasant. The standard objections to hedonism of this kind have mostly been of the same form: there are things other than pleasure that are good, and pleasantness isn’t the only property that makes things good.

In recent decades, one version of this objection has received a great deal of attention: Robert Nozick’s famous ‘experience machine’, described in his Anarchy, State, and Utopia. The main problem is best taken to be that a hedonist must accept that a life on a machine which will create a certain amount of net pleasure for the person attached to it is no worse for that person than a life with the same amount of pleasure in the real world.

On the machine described by Nozick, the person will have no true personal relationships, achievements, genuine autonomy, deep understanding, and so on. It’s all just a playback of such experiences had by others. But we can imagine another, more sophisticated machine, which creates a single virtual world just like ours, in which those connected to the machine participate together. People make choices, have relationships, achieve things, and so on; but all in a virtual rather than a real world.

This case shows that the experience machine objection can be made not only against hedonists, but against the proponent of any view which does not insist that being in the real world matters in itself (and note that there’s nothing to stop a hedonist changing their view and attaching value to ‘pleasure in the real world’ rather than just ‘pleasure’). How powerful an objection it is may depend on the nature of the values in question. For example, it might be thought that deep friendships in a virtual world are no less valuable than in the real world, or that understanding in a virtual world is of no less value than understanding in the real world, even if it is understanding of that world and not, say, mathematical principles true in all possible worlds, virtual or real. But it might then be said that climbing the real Kilimanjaro is more valuable than a virtual climbing of Kilimanjaro — what’s so impressive about merely appearing to climb a non-existent mountain? This, however, is too quick, and requires attention to what is meant by ‘appear’. In the virtual world, one is not merely appearing to climb Kilimanjaro; in the virtual world, one is really climbing it. The virtual world, we should assume, is as independent of one’s self as the real world — one is not making it up — and the challenges in climbing the virtual Kilimanjaro — the planning, skill, decision-making, risks, and so on — are the same.

In other words, the real objection against hedonism is not the experience machine. What is wrong with hedonism, if anything, is that it leaves out values other than pleasantness. And Nozick could have made that point without the machine, as had many other philosophers for thousands of years. Further, once we realize that even if we’re in an experience machine many non-hedonic values are available, it starts to become questionable whether the metaphysical distinction between the real and virtual world matters to our well-being at all.

It may be easier for the young to believe that it doesn’t matter. I have a friend who is involved in a consortium which invests in non-fungible digital tokens (NFTs) of valuable artworks. These tokens can be worth huge amounts of money, and I expressed surprise that people would be willing to pay these amounts for something which is, in effect, a copy of ‘the real thing’. My friend pointed out that many younger people, who no longer see any sharp distinction between the real and the virtual world, would take the NFT as the unique virtual equivalent of the real object, and so an item of great value, though perhaps, at present, less than that of the original. In future, as the real/virtual distinction breaks down further, the NFT may even be seen as preferable to the real but decaying Van Gogh, which is increasingly difficult to protect and insure.

The experience machine’objection to hedonism has been a distraction, partly because it applies to non-hedonist theories, and partly because it is hard to see why being in the real world matters. What does matter is the question of what other than pleasure might increase well-being, whether in a real or virtual world. As time goes on, these aspects of the experience machine may be more widely recognized, and the objection’s reliance on the significance of the distinction between the real and the virtual may consign it for ever to the dustbin of the history of philosophy.

(Thanks to Theron Pummer for discussion.)

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9 Responses to Hedonism, the Experience Machine, and Virtual Reality

  • Géraud Lernais says:

    I think you made too easy a work for yourself here. Of course the experience machine “is not” — whatever that means — the objection to hedonism. But to say that the objection to hedonism is just that hedonism cannot accommodate other sources of value does not capture the point of the experience machine, which is arguably that hedonism cannot accommodate the intimate connection between truth (and derivative properties, such as authenticity, sincerity, etc.) on the one hand, and the good life on the other hand.

    What this post suggests, admittedly, is that a clear formulation of the objection to hedonism should not burden itself with notions like “virtual”, “real”, etc, and stick to the essence of the argument from the experience machine (namely, the requirement of truth and truth-dependent properties for the good life).

    I don’t think this constraint on a clear formulation of the objection is difficult to secure:

    P1. If hedonism were true, then one could live a good life despite one’s experiences, cognitive states and attitudes being never, or almost never, veridical, respectively satisfied or correct.
    P2. The consequent in (P1) is false.
    C. Therefore, the antecedent in (P1) is false.

    The last step is to show that these truth-dependent properties (veridicality, satisfaction, correctness) can in principle apply to a reasonably large sample of one’s experiences/mental states/attitudes even when one’s life is lived entirely in a virtual reality. This seems to be possible if:

    (a) at any point one knows, or is able to become aware of the fact, that one is living in a virtual reality; and
    (b) one’s total experience of the virtual reality does not alter our capacity to know whether, for any part of that experience, it was not veridical.

    (a) entails that if at some point one loses the disposition to become aware that one is living in a virtual reality, experiences of the virtual reality past that point can no longer contribute to one’s life good. As for (b), it entails that determining whether one’s experiences/mental states/attitudes towards the virtual states of affairs are veridical should never be more difficult than determining whether one’s experiences/mental states/attitudes towards real states of affairs are veridical, on pain of making these experiences unable to contribute positively to the good of one’s life.

    Put different both conditions imply that one’s control over one’s life is not impaired by the fact that one’s life is lived in a virtual world. The virtual world can obfuscate reality, but never be substituted for it. Thus one should still be able to stand back and distinguish the real from the virtual (a). And one should still be able to exercise one’s regular epistemic capacities in ascertaining whether one’s experiences about virtual states of affairs are veridical or not, so that the virtual world should not cause experiences that impair one’s abilities to ascertain the veridicality of one’s experiences in general (b).

    • Roger Crisp says:

      Thanks, Géraud. I think you have made things unnecessarily difficult for yourself! One can argue that knowledge matters as well as pleasure for well-being without using the experience machine, simply by comparing the lives of two (imagined) people with the same overall net pleasure, only one of whom has a great deal of knowledge.
      If one thinks knowledge does matter, then there will be some interesting questions about what counts as knowledge (e.g. whether one can have it and of what if one is on an experience machine, or is a brain in vat, or if Berkeley is right about metaphysics, or ….). But these questions seem independent of the objection to hedonism.

  • Géraud Lernais says:

    Ethical hedonism has difficulties to countenance knowledge as an source of intrinsic value. We got that. Nozick got that. Everyone working on ethical hedonism got that. But if the piece means to use Nozick’s infamous ‘experience machine’ to go beyond this common ground (common between ethical hedonists and their opponents, one may add), if the piece means to make an interesting comment about this dialectic context in which this particular thought experiment was put forth, you cannot avoid to say something about the angle of attack which Nagel-Nozick used to attack hedonism.

    That angle of attack is interesting because it emphasizes the important contribution of truth and authenticity to the value of one’s life (what I’ve tried to capture in the above comment about the distinction between unreal vs. untruthful). As I understand it, it says that even if value and pleasure were necessarily correlated, it would not follow that the contribution of pleasure to the overall value of one’s life is grounded, or metaphysically explained by, the value that pleasure represents. Instead, even if there were a necessary correlation between pleasure and value, the contribution of pleasure to the overall value of one’s life could be — and indeed it appears to be — derivative upon a larger state-of-affair, i.e. pleasure-felt-in-being-a-truthful-person.

    If that is true, it is indeed to easy to stop the buck at the limited range of sources of value that ethical hedonism can countenance. The real deal is about the connection between truth and character.

  • migraine in the brain says:

    “knowledge as an source of intrinsic value”

    Sounds vaguely plausible in the abstract but seems to fall apart on inspection. What kind of knowledge is intrinsically prudentially valuable enough to outweigh the disvalue of a severe migraine? I can’t think of one.

    • Géraud Lernais says:
    • Géraud Lernais says:

      The claim you’ve quoted does not say anything about the relation “value x outweighs value y”. To say that knowledge is an intrinsic value is to say that knowledge is (at least sometimes) worth pursuing for its own sake, and not just as a means for realizing other values.

      • migraine in the brain says:

        Yeah yeah, but if the knowledge objection to hedonism is to have any real practical bite then knowledge would need to have some real such normative power to outweigh hedonic experiences. If hedonism and a hedonism-but-knowledge-also-has-some-intrinsic-value view gave indistinguishable recommendations in all practical cases, because when push comes to shove knowledge always yields normatively to reducing pain or promoting pleasure, then the knowledge component would be an interesting theoretical point perhaps but otherwise completely irrelevant. It sounded to me that the aim of your previous words was not merely to make such a vanishingly small point. But perhaps it was? I guess hedonists would faced with that could shrug their shoulders and then go on with their days as if nothing new really happened.

        • Géraud Lernais says:

          Ethical hedonism entails more or less the following claim:
          – Nothing but pleasure contributes to a good life.

          In other words, if you compare two lives X and Y, you need to look no further the total (net) pleasure they involve.

          Both the ethical hedonist and their opponents agree that is difficult for hedonism to countenance the fact that there are other sources of value to a good life.

          In other words, they agree that it’s a prima facie problem for hedonism that, intuitively, two lives with the same total net pleasure are not (morally) equally good. The Nobel Prize in Medicine, for example, intuitively has had a better life than the couch sloth, even if both have had an equal net amount of pleasure.

          But this is not even what is at issue with respect to Nozick’s experience machine. What is at issue is whether the truth / veridicality / correctness of one’s experiences makes a difference to the contribution of that experience to a good live, and if yes, how to explain this without giving up on the claim of ethical hedonism.

  • Harrison Ainsworth says:

    People buy NFTs for same reason as for art. A painting is a bit of wood and canvas with some smears of coloured oil ‒ the material fact of it is worth nothing. What they are buying is a particular position of status within a community ‒ they are buying the acknowledgement, in other people, that they are the one with some authority. And the community overall are acting out a theatre of ‘respect for authority’, which is a mechanism of cooperation (ie valuable for survival), and so grounds the implicit moral judgement that the whole game being played is ‘good’.

    Well-being of the individual is not definable except generally, as a kind of measure or ‘rule’, held by multiple agents. And such a rule is not meaningful to those agents except by its material consequences to them. Every moral judgement is a judgement of whether an individual action pleases the community (otherwise there is no imperative, no imposition of demand). That is the true impetus, in the background, in our efforts to assess and compare hedonism/experience-machines.

    So the question is: does inhabiting experience-machines have a material effect on the community? In the pure hedonism-machine it is most, but in any it is fairly obvious, that humans cannot survive without connection to the material world. Consider: the machine does not merely give the pleasing sensation of breathing, but actually supplies air. Nozick says: “(Ignore problems such as who will service the machines if everyone plugs in.)”, but that is the core of this!

    There is not some subtle special value that the machines cannot provide. It is the simple, dull, but rather nagging fact that we would all die.