Robert Nozick’s experience machine is commonly invoked to argue that there’s more to life than pleasure. This article outlines the thought experiment, and discusses why hedonists think it’s deeply flawed.
What does it mean to live a good life? What makes a life intrinsically valuable? If we were to describe someone as ‘happy’, what quality or qualities would their life include?
To answer such questions, a common stance philosophers take is that of hedonism.
Not the kind of folk hedonism whereby someone indulges in endless carnal pleasures, but prudential hedonism, the philosophical position which states that, ultimately, when it comes to personal wellbeing, pleasure is the only intrinsic good, and pain the only bad.
While there are different types of hedonism, hedonists generally assert that, when you get right down to it, everything we recognize as ‘good’ — say, friendship, love, kindness, growth, solving problems, high achievement — is underpinned by feeling good. And everything we recognize as ‘bad’ — say, loneliness, vice, fear, shame, failure — is underpinned by feeling bad.
So, though living a good life can often seem like a very complicated matter, hedonists cut through this complexity to point out that, actually, it’s rather simple: living a good life means feeling good within ourselves. ‘Happiness’ is simply the preponderance of pleasure over pain.
Our approach to living well should thus be built around this insight: the good life involves experiencing more pleasure than pain.
This ‘pleasure principle’ is very influential in philosophy. It underpins, for instance, the philosophy of the ancient Greek thinker Epicurus, who advises us to approach our lives according to a hierarchy of pleasures (with long-term mental tranquility being the highest, and short-term physical pleasures being the lowest).
It forms the basis, too, of 18th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s ethical theory of utilitarianism, that “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.”
While hedonism is a popular and influential philosophical theory, however, it is not without its critics.
Isn’t there more to a good life than simply feeling good?
The philosopher Robert Nozick certainly thinks so, and in his 1974 book Anarchy, State, and Utopia he introduces a famous thought experiment aiming to knock down hedonism (along with other mental state theories of wellbeing) once and for all.
“Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience that you desired,” Nozick writes in Anarchy, State, and Utopia:
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 question is:
Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life’s experiences?
What do you think? Would you plug into the machine?
Nozick thinks most of us wouldn’t (and indeed shouldn’t).
And several empirical studies back up Nozick’s intuitions. Weijers (2014), for instance, found that 84% of the participants asked about Nozick’s machine were averse to plugging in.
But, if the good life is only about having good experiences, as hedonists and proponents of other mental state theories of wellbeing claim, then why don’t we want to plug into a machine that guarantees good experiences?
Of course, the simple answer — and the one Nozick wants us to have — is that we don’t want to plug into the experience machine because there is more to life than pleasurable experiences.
In other words, hedonism is false, for the good life is not just about feeling good, Nozick observes: we want to actually do something. We don’t just want to be a free-floating bundle of empty pleasures, we want to actually be a certain type of person. Nozick writes:
Someone floating in a tank is an indeterminate blob… Is he courageous, kind, intelligent, witty, loving? It’s not merely that it’s difficult to tell; there’s no way he is. Plugging into the machine is a kind of suicide.
The good life, then, is not just about having certain experiences, Nozick thinks: we want contact with reality. We want our lives to be rooted in the real.
As Nozick summarizes:
We learn that something matters to us in addition to experience by imagining an experience machine and then realizing that we would not use it.
However, while the experience machine is often taken as a knock-down argument against hedonism, some philosophers point out that the thought experiment exploits a number of psychological biases.
Sure, we might not want to plug into the machine — but that doesn’t mean not plugging in is the right answer, nor that hedonism is false; we are simply clouded by bias.
Once we expose that bias, the argument goes, we can see how Nozick’s thought experiment is no threat to hedonism whatsoever.
One immediate thing to point out is that Nozick’s thought experiment isn’t just about pleasurable experiences; it’s about giving ourselves over to a big scary machine that we do not understand.
By rejecting the machine, we are not necessarily rejecting pleasure, we are simply expressing our unease with technology.
Related to this worry is what philosophers call the status quo bias: that we irrationally tend to prefer the way things are.
This bias reveals itself when we reverse Nozick’s thought experiment, notes the philosopher Lorenzo Buscicchi in a 2022 essay:
Imagine that a credible source tells you that you are actually in an experience machine right now. You have no idea what reality would be like. Given the choice between having your memory of this conversation wiped and going to reality, what would be best for you to choose?
Empirical studies show that most people, given these circumstances, would choose to stay in the experience machine. Buscicchi observes:
Comparing this result with how people respond to Nozick’s experience machine thought experiment reveals the following: In Nozick’s experience machine thought experiment people tend to choose a real and familiar life over a more pleasurable life, and in the reversed experience machine thought experiment people tend to choose a familiar life over a real life. Familiarity seems to matter more than reality, undermining the strength of Nozick’s original argument.
According to the status quo bias, then, we reject the experience machine not because we reject pleasure for reality, but because we are uncomfortable with such a radical departure from our familiar lives — including the abandonment of all our existing commitments.
Another way philosophers defend hedonism from Nozick’s thought experiment is by claiming that, far from counting against hedonism, our aversion to plugging in is in fact motivated by hedonism.
Nozick suggests we have a desire to remain rooted in the real world — but what motivates us to have this desire? Why do we want to remain attached to reality? Might it not be because we think that, by staying attached to the real world, we will ultimately feel better within ourselves..?
The so-called ‘paradox of hedonism’ is instructive here: pleasure is often best pursued indirectly.
We rarely set out to simply grant ourselves pleasure; instead, we go for a walk, we spend time with our loved ones, we read a book, we work on a favored project — and thereby obtain pleasure.
As Epicurus observes, going after every single promise of immediate, short-term pleasure is not a good strategy for maximizing our pleasure overall, and so we often forgo short-term pleasures — and even tolerate pain — in order to secure longer-term pleasures like mental tranquility.
Nozick’s experience machine exploits this gap between short-term pleasure and longer-term pleasures. We are suspicious, perhaps subconsciously, that it offers pleasures only of the instant gratification kind, and thus reject it because we think that by staying attached to reality we have a better chance of attaining longer-term peace of mind — failing to realize that this longer-term peace of mind is itself a form of pleasure.
The philosopher Matthew Silverstein nicely articulates this view in his 2000 paper, In Defense of Happiness (note: he uses ‘pleasure’ and ‘happiness’ interchangeably):
[O]ur experience machine intuitions reflect our desire to remain connected to the real world, to track reality. But… the desire to track reality owes its hold upon us to the role it has played in the creation of happiness…. Our intuitive views about what is prudentially good, the views upon which the experience machine argument relies, owe their existence to happiness. We miss the mark, then, if we take our intuitions about the experience machine as evidence against hedonism…. Even though it leads us away from happiness in the case of the experience machine, our desire to track reality points indirectly to happiness…. The mere existence of our intuitions against the experience machine should not lead us to reject hedonism. Contrary to appearances, those intuitions point — albeit circuitously — to happiness. And as a result, they no longer seem to contradict the claim that happiness is the only thing of intrinsic prudential value.
So, according to this position, we reject the experience machine because we think our lives would feel better outside of it. Far from a rejection of hedonism, then, our response to the experience machine reveals our deep-rooted hedonic motivations.
Finally, some philosophers argue that, regardless of whether we choose to plug in or not, our response to the experience machine actually says nothing about the truth or falsity of hedonism whatsoever.
We might not want to plug into the experience machine, but that doesn’t suddenly mean we can conclude that hedonism is false. That’s like arguing that (i) since we wouldn’t plug in, we aren’t hedonists and that (ii) since we aren’t hedonists, hedonism is false.
Harriet Baber expresses this argument well in her 2008 paper, The Experience Machine Deconstructed. She writes:
Regardless of what subjects choose, the Experience Machine cannot either confirm or disconfirm any philosophical theory of wellbeing. It merely tests the empirical hypothesis that informed choosers prefer hedonically optimal states.
In other words: all the experience machine thought experiment tests, Baber says, is whether we ourselves would choose lives of maximal pleasure / happiness.
Our suspicion towards this kind of life says nothing about whether pleasure / happiness is the only intrinsic good; it merely reveals that we are not very good at choosing what is best for ourselves.
In response to the concerns just raised, some philosophers offer staunch defenses of Nozick’s experience machine, tweaking the conditions of the thought experiment to account for certain biases, and to make it less focused on our own individual preferences.
Eden Lin, for instance, in his 2016 paper How to Use the Experience Machine, suggests that we can refocus the thought experiment to turn up the heat on hedonism as follows.
Suppose A and B have exactly the same lives, and go through exactly the same experiences. The only difference is that A lives in reality, and B is plugged into an experience machine.
Who has the better life?
If hedonism is true, then we must answer that the quality of A and B’s lives, the value of their lives, is exactly the same.
But Lin thinks most of us would say that, in terms of their personal wellbeing, A’s life is better than B’s — because A’s life is actually happening. If we had to pick one, we would prefer to live A’s life than B’s.
While Lin’s new version of the thought experiment protects against the status quo and hedonistic biases, a hedonist might take issue with it in a different way: it exploits the so-called ‘freebie problem’.
If faced with two identical options, but one includes an extra bonus, we are likely to choose the extra bonus even if we’re not convinced it will make any difference; we pick it just in case.
So, in the context of Lin’s thought experiment, we say A has a better life not because we’re convinced, but because we’re hedging our bets that ‘living in reality’ has some kind of intrinsic value that increases A’s overall wellbeing. As Buscicchi puts it,
Most people will choose the life with the free bonus just in case it has intrinsic value, not necessarily because they think it does have intrinsic value.
If you’re interested in learning more about Nozick and how other philosophers approach ethics and the good life, you might enjoy the following related reads:
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