A Stronger Interpretation of Nozick’s Experience Machine

By Jonathan Sim.

This essay was written for an assignment on Normative Ethical Theory. I hope that this paper will be enriching for you as it was for me.

Nozick’s experience machine has been widely understood to show that there are more than just subjective states of affairs that matter to us. However, in this essay, I argue that Nozick was successful in attempting to prove that pleasure is not the only intrinsic good. This can be seen through a closer examination and reflection of the thought experiment, which I shall lay out in the course of this essay.

Imagine an experience machine that could stimulate the brain, thereby providing the user with all the experiences that he could ever want. The machine is so well-designed that the user is unable to distinguish reality from experiences fed from the machine.

There is, however, one condition in choosing to be plugged in – the user must be plugged in for the rest of his life, while his body is left floating in a tank. Nozick assures those concerned about missing out on certain experiences that they can be unplugged every two years so as to choose a new set of experiences.

You do not actually live your own life. The machine “lives” your life for you, and feeds you with experiences as you float in the tank. What you do, who you are, and how you interact with others, are not done by you, but by the machine.
Nozick invites us to reflect on this question: Would you want to be plugged into such a machine for the rest of your life?

One mistake is to imagine one’s self already in it, and then, recognising that one cannot tell the difference between reality and the machine-simulation, conclude that it is alright to spend the rest of one’s life plugged in.

Rather, the focus should be on the process deliberation: Do I want my body to remain floating in a tank for the rest of my life while a machine “lives” my life for me and feeds me with blissful experiences?

If one believes that pleasure is the only good, pleasurable subjective experiences will be enough to satisfy. How real the experiences are, is irrelevant. One should have no qualms in choosing to be plugged in.

If in the process of deliberation, one encounters distress (regardless of whether one has chosen to be plugged in), or if one refuses to be plugged in, Nozick has successfully demonstrated that there are other things that matter apart from just subjective experiences.

Nozick proceeds to highlight three key points as to what else matters: We want (1) to do certain things; (2) to be a certain sort of person; and (3) to actually interact with the real world, with real people.[1]

One could easily conclude that people do not just merely desire to experience something, but to actually satisfy it. Yet, Nozick, unsatisfied with this conclusion, upgrades the experience machine by inviting us to imagine a machine that would “fill lacks suggested for the earlier machine”[2], thereby addressing the three key points.

This new machine will not only feed the user with experiences. It will also actualise (1) what the user wants to do (i.e. the machine will move the user’s body to actualise the works); (2) transform the user to be the somebody whom he wants to be (i.e. he will be programmed with the personality and skills, and maybe even have his body transformed to match whatever he experienced); and (3) to have interaction with actual people outside of the machine (i.e. experiences of talking to someone will be actualised in the real world). In short, the machine will do things such that the physical world corresponds to one’s subjective experiences.

Now, the conditions of reality and of being plugged in to the machine are more or less the same. The only differences between being inside and outside of the machine are: (1) just as how one is possessed by an external entity, the machine will “live” your life for you; and (2) being in the machine will be more pleasurable.

If it is merely the case that people do not desire experiences but to have them satisfied, then plugging in to the machine will be the choice-worthy act. While I may desire to be a pilot, not only do I have experiences that satisfy them, but the machine satisfies my desire by making me into one, and provides many blissful experiences.

And yet, despite what awaits the user, by refusing to be plugged in, one has consciously chosen to sacrifice the satisfaction of desires and the experience of pleasure for the sake of actually being able to live one’s life. One recognises that even if desires are satisfied or pleasures are experienced, they do not matter.

After all, it is not me who is living my life; it is the machine “living” it for me.

This way, Nozick successfully demonstrates how one seeks the good of actually living one’s own life, for its own sake, pursuing it as an intrinsic good.

An objection might be that since the enjoyment of pleasure is worthwhile only if one is actually living his life, the good of living of one’s life is merely instrumental for the pursuit of pleasure. Nozick seems to have failed in proving his point.

The objection raises a valid point, and yet, is not inconsistent with Nozick’s argument. An intrinsic good can also be an instrumental good. Actually living one’s life is indeed instrumental towards the worthwhile enjoyment of pleasure. What Nozick tried to demonstrate with the upgraded experience machine was to put us in a situation where we have to choose between (1) actually living one’s life and (2) letting the machine live one’s life in exchange for the experience pleasure and the satisfaction of desires. If pleasure is the only intrinsic good, we would not mind sacrificing the actual living of our lives for it. However, the refusal to plug in to the machine shows that one would rather give up pleasure for the sake of actually living one’s life, thereby demonstrating that one seeks the living of one’s life in itself, and not instrumentally.

Nozick has therefore successfully shown how pleasure is not the only intrinsic good by bringing to light the point that the actual living of one’s live is desired for its own sake.

Endnotes

[1] Cf. Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, p.43; John Finnis, Fundamentals of Ethics, p.38-41

[2] Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, p.44

Bibliography

Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974), pp.42-45

John Finnis, Fundamentals of Ethics (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 1983), p/p.37-42

Postscript

After submitting this essay, I realised that an easier explanation of the upgraded experience machine can be stated.

What Norzick was trying to get at in upgrading the machine is the equivalent of asking: If you could tell a ghost what experiences you want to have, and later be possessed by it – such that the ghost will be in full control of your entire being as your consciously live it and soak in the pleasurable experiences, thereby actually being who you want to be, doing what you want to do, and interacting with the people whom you want to – would you want to be possessed by such a ghost?

Probably, your answer would be no. If that is the case, you have proven Norzick right by showing that there really is more to life than just pleasure.