The Experience Machine

The thought experiment referred to as “the experience machine” was first put forth by Robert Nozick in his 1974 book Anarchy, State, and Utopia in an attempt to destroy the hedonistic and perhaps the utilitarian position that pleasure, happiness, and avoidance of bad is the only good. In this experiment, Nozick asks if given the choice to be hooked up to a machine that can recreate any reality the user wants, would they do it? This machine would be able to recreate an artificial and incredibly pleasurable experience that is so realistic, one would not be able to distinguish it from reality. 

This thought experiment is an increasingly interesting one because the rapidly improving virtual reality technology making it less fiction and more of an eventual actuality. What once was entertaining fiction – such as in movies like Total Recall and in books such as The Last Book in the Universe, where “mindprobes” offer the subjects an alternate reality – is quickly becoming more and more possible. And, under further examination, we can see that people already attempt to evade the cage of reality though drugs, alcohol, exciting experiences, and even suicide. Indeed, there will always be people, due to environment or mental illness or even rationality, that desire suicide or to have never been born. Because of this, there will always be those who want to escape – everyone does at some point. But with increasingly progressive technology, it is not so bizarre to imagine a world where people can hook up to an experience machine. This leads to the question, do people have a moral or ethical responsibility not to hook up to the machine or do people have a duty to live in reality? 

When posing this question to myself, I would refuse to be hooked up to any experience machine assuming it is permanent. For once, I am not in the minority in this answer but for good reasons. My duties as a father and a husband keep me bound to reality to ensure that my family has everything they need. I  would have a duty to stay bounded to this reality no matter how difficult or unpleasurable it is as long as my family needs me. But let us assume that I have no family, no job, no responsibilities where another person relied on me extensively – jobs and other duties do not exactly need us anyways, everyone is replaceable in that regard. Let us further assume that I am in an extremely horrid position in life and want nothing more than to leave. That is my, and everyone else’s, right for “no man ever threw away life while it was worth keeping” (Hume 2008, 323). In this situation where life was not worth living, there is no duty or moral and or ethical reason to stay in this world. Let’s first look at the nature of human understanding and experience and then the moral and ethical implications of such a decision.

At our base, humans are simple beings in that we brains stimulated the world around us and biases inside our own brain and are thrown into nature with limited rational tools to use. We are a conscious brain attempting to make sense of the world around us. In this search for survival and meaning, people have developed evolutionary tools to survive and thrive – but these tools were not necessarily crafted to increase well being. Remember, the Theory of Evolution was never survival of the fittest, but survival of the good enough. Good enough to survive long enough to pass on our genes to the next generation. So we have developed these tools to experience and feel the world around us. This existence we feel is merely our brain interaction with the world around us. In fact “all arguments concerning existence are founded on the relation of cause and effect; that our knowledge of the relation is derived entirely from experience; that all our experimental conclusions precede the supposition that the future will be conformable to the past” (Hume 1988, 37). We are just products of what we see around us reacting with cause and effect. We also rely strongly on what we are taught by our own tribe leading us to think we know what we should do next and what we should believe. All too often we are “aware that [we] have these beliefs and approve of having them” but we “do not quite know why [we] have them” – additionally, under some quick observation, we find that our brain is surprisingly primitive leaving us with a bounded freewill dependent on how, where, and in what culture we were raised (Rini, 1441). Additionally, what we do see with our senses is never quite accurate, but “the senses themselves neve deceive us” it is the misleading of our beliefs “by some unconscious interpretation – the element of belief superimposed on a percept” (Epicuris, 23). We also have natural moral sentiments that force us to feel that something is good or bad. Humans are not born with a clean slate – there are Platonic truths that most humans can agree on because “we are born with a rudimentary moral sense, and as soon as we build on it with moral reasoning, the nature of moral reality forces us to some conclusions but not others” (Shermer, 2). In this way, we can assume that we are all made relatively the same and are programed to feel some things are bad and some things are not bad – the fact that we have so little control over our moral sense, and indeed over our own minds, forces some to feel doxastic embarrassment and something of a nihilistic crisis. But it is a good realization that can force one to step out of Plato’s Cave to see reality for what it is: an environment where people have similar wants and needs and that if consciousness is all that we can know, why not find a common ground to collectively raise our general well-being – a common ground we were all born with hardwired into our brains?

Moral realists, such as Sam Harris, argue that science could determine morality based on this common ground we are born with. Harris continues our train of thought by suggesting “the moment we admit that consciousness is the context in which any discussion of values makes sense, we must admit that there are facts to be known about how the experience of conscious creatures can change” and that each individual’s actions do not operate in a vacuum – they affect other conscious beings (Harris, 41) (Paul and Elder, 4). And because our actions can alter another’s well-being, we can determine that some actions can lead to better or worse experiences in reality. Harris continues, “if our well-being depends upon the interaction between events in our brains and events in the world, and there are better and worse ways to secure it, then some cultures will tend to produce lives that are more worth living than others; some political persuasions will be more enlightened than others; and some world views will be mistaken in ways that cause needless human misery” (Harris, 191). It is the needless human misery that people continually work to avoid – and we have done a pretty good job of it this far by continually improving. Micheal Shermer, when told that science cannot determine morality because scientific tests cannot be run to determine good and bad, responded, “excuse me? We have, in fact, been running such experiments for centuries – the natural experiments of societies and their social, political, and economic systems” (Shermer, 3). Indeed, it can be observed throughout human history and culture that we all collectively possess “natural endowments that include a moral sense – some capacity to distinguish between kind and cruel actions; empathy and compassion…a rudimentary sense of fairness…a rudimentary sense of justice – a desire to see food actions rewarded and bad actions punished” (Shermer 2015, 44). And it is with these universal sentiments that mankind has been able to consistently improve our moral landscape.

The nature of human understanding and the natural enlightenment we have obtained leads me to my biggest objection of the experience machine: whatever reality that is simulated will be limited by the imagination, morals, and understanding of us at this moment. Additionally, whatever pleasurable experience thought of would in turn be limited to our own imagination. In the film 500 Days of Summer, a character is asked, is your wife your dream woman? To which he responds, no, because his wife is better than he could have ever imagined. I think this response encapsulates the idea of an experience machine perfectly regarding how reality and real human experience can overcome our wildest imaginations. These limitations of imagination also limits the moral and intellectual progress people have made. Through science and collaboration, the human race has fought very hard for the moral progress we have now – and though we seem to be extremely enlightened compared to the superstitious humans of the past, in a few hundred years we will seem just as credulous and ignorant as we see ancient humans. With our moral progress, “we will embarrass our descendants, just as our ancestors embarrass us. This is moral progress” [italics my own] (Harris, 179). And this moral embarrassment is not a bad thing – unless one is hooked up to an experience machine that would be limited to whatever our limited understanding can come up with. 

Science could possibly explain many basic universal goods. But there is no guarantee that the experience machine would work as we think for everyone. There are peaks and valleys in the moral landscape, and one would likely pick a higher peak, but not necessarily the highest. One would probably program the simulation in a way that is fitting to their own world view. If asked, the average person in the US would probably want the experience machine to be made so that the Christian world-view is prominent. To drive the limitations of these morals, lets focus on Christianity only because it is what I am most familiar with, but any ideology, religion, or superstition could easily be replaced in this comparison.

The Christian world-view offers one where morality is determined by a book written by illiterate dwellers in bronze-age Palestine – and it shows. The bible is filled with horrible evils, all of which is supposed to be the perfect word of god. Abraham, the father of the three major montheist religions, heard voices in his head and immediately mutilated his own genitals and those of his son and proceeded to bring his child to a mountain to offer him as a sacrifice to said voices that claimed to be god (Genesis 22: 1-18). If this happened now, he would be in a straight jacket. Not to mention the rape, sex slaves and slavery in general, human sacrifices, and thought crime to name a few blatant immoral actions encouraged by the god of the bible.“Then there is the very salient question of what the commandments do not say. Is it too modern to notice that there is nothing abour the protection of children from cruelty, nothing about rape, nothing about slavery, nothing about genocide? Or is it too exactingly “in context” to notice that some of these very offenses are about to be positively recommended?” (Hitchens, 100). Who would want this to be true? Hitchens puts it best when considering the immoral and unethical position of wishing these were a reality where there is a god similar to the god of the bible. The following is from a 2008 debate between Christopher Hitchens and his brother Peter Hitchens at Grand Valley State University:

Religion is a totalitarian belief. It is the wish to be a slave. It is the desire that there be an unalterable, unchallengeable, tyrannical authority who can convict you of thought crime while you are asleep, who can subject you to total surveillance around the clock every waking and sleeping minute of your life, before you’re born and, even worse and where the real fun begins, after you’re dead. A celestial North Korea. Who wants this to be true? Who but a slave desires such a ghastly fate? I’ve been to North Korea. It has a dead man as its president, Kim Jong-Il is only head of the party and head of the army. He’s not head of the state. That office belongs to his deceased father, Kim Il-Sung. It’s a necrocracy, a thanatocracy. It’s one short of a trinity I might add. The son is the reincarnation of the father. It is the most revolting and utter and absolute and heartless tyranny the human species has ever evolved. But at least you can fucking die and leave North Korea! Does the Quran or the Bible offer you that liberty? No! No! The tyranny, the misery, the utter ownership of your entire personality, the smashing of your individuality only begins at the point of death. This is evil. This is wicked preachment (Hitchens, 2008).

So if one were to try to create the best experience and programmed in the perfect christian simulation, you would find a rather nasty experience – much different than even our own reality now. So to say that it would just make everyone happy is a mistake. Most do not understand the gravity of what they believe or even absorb all the good positive and suspiciously secular ideas from their religious texts while ignoring the bad. Not to mention the immense suffering that god allows. If one thought they would escape evil in the experience machine while programming a god into it, then they would be sadly mistaken, Epicurus’s old questions are yet unanswered: “Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? The he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?” (Hume 1990, 108-109).

It is this sort of fixed and holy ordained morality that man seeks to escape from if he ever wishes to experience moral progress. If we were to program an experience machine with outdated or seemingly modern moral systems, we would be stuck with those moral principles. Martin Luther King asserted that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice and morality and if we were to simulate based on the limitations of our faith, understanding, and biases of today, then progress experienced too would be limited (Shermer 2015, 2).

The next objection to the experience machine would be the fact that what was experienced is not real. Our whole experience in reality is our consciousness and its relation to the world and people around us. And since our conscious actions are the only moral values we have, any moral action would then be diminished because we are not acting with other conscious beings – the meaning to that moral action is gone without our ability to critically reflect, judge our actions, and simply being empirically informed (Schweda and Schicktanz, 221).

And no matter how real the machine could be and regardless of if the subject is aware of the experience, the result would be an interaction outside of reality. In discussing this very issue, Sam Harris describes this same objection, “the uncanniness of the experience machine isn’t gonna get me to balk here. I really do think consciousness is the reservoir of value. The only reason why the experience machine would be undesirable from my point of view would have to be things that would be a matter of conscious thoughts and attitudes and associations that I would have that would diminish the quality of that experience” he continues “reality matters whether you’re aware of it or not. Reality is what’s there determining the future state of your conscious experience and it’s a thing you’re gonna bump into the dark when you’re unaware of a terrain. So all things being equal, you want to have your beliefs about your circumstances to be in some register with your actual circumstance” (Harris, 2015). 

Of course people choose to bypass reality and conscious experience every day through mindless and immersive gaming or reading, drugs that alter consciousness and or increase happiness, and alcohol which, when used to excess and in a way to escape, can be seen as a sort of temporary suicide like Bertrand Russell aptly describes it, “A man may feel so completely thwarted that he seeks no form of satisfaction, but only distraction and oblivion…he seeks to make life bearable by becoming less alive. Drunkenness, for example, is temporary suicide: the happiness that is brings is merely negative, a momentary cessation of unhappiness” (Bertrand, 178). But the difference with the experience machine thought experiment is that it is not temporary. If it were temporary and the simulation could be stopped at will, then there would be very little to object to.

The experiment was a way to challenge hedonistic ethics. Of course, there are many people who would assert that happiness is the only good. Robert Ingersoll provides a great summary of hedonistic utilitarianism when he said that “happiness is the only good. The time to be happy is now. The place to be happy is here. And the way to be happy is to make others so” (Ingersoll, 1944) But to think that hedonism is purely happiness in the immediate moment is a mistake. Epicurus, the legendary hedonist asserted that “an act that in the long term tends to produce an excess of pleasure over pain or neutralizes pain and tends to produce a state of psychological well-being and spiritual serenity is to be considered morally good and right” (Epicurus, 30). He goes on to describe a moral act as something that creates a surplus of pleasure over pain and advises to use long-term effects as pertinent to judgments of the moral and immoral – and in a letter to his friend Herodotu, he advised that “we must keep all judgments in line with our sensations (specifically our immediate perceptions, either of the mind or of any particular sense organ) and also in line with our actual feelings of pleasure and pain, in order to have the means with which to interpret a sense datum awaiting verification or a problem involving imperceptibles” (Epicurus 28). People could inject heroin or a similar drug and enjoy themselves very much, but this does not increase the general well-being in the long run. Epicuris would agree that immidentent happiness or enjoyment does not outweigh long term happiness and enjoyment. Even his introverted escapism would be at odds with the fact that an experience machine would not keep one abreast of reality and what he called the tests for truth which include sensations, direct perceptions of the mind, feelings, and general conceptions – all of which would fail if one decided to be placed in an experience machine. In this way, the attempt to use the thought experiment to destroy hedonism fails because of the misunderstanding of what hedonism really is.

One who would quickly dismiss consequentialism as an equally flawed theory in this case would also be mistaken. One may assert that if consequentialism merely focuses on the consequences of something, they would most likely claim that everyone being hooked in to the experience machine would result in more happiness than if they would not be plugged in. Utilitarianism may also be plagued by this same assumption. But consequentialism and utilitarianism, especially in with John Stewart Mill’s version of it which focuses on pleasure, happiness, and avoidance of pain, would also focus on the utility of everyone involved, not just the one hooking up to the experience machine. Those who chose to be pulled away from reality would also be pulling away from their real-world responsibilities as a parent, a partner, and a real life person who could give back to and bring further happiness to the people around them. In this case, and certainly if the consequentialist asserted that one has a duty to try and increase general well-being to those around them, one would have a duty not to hook up. Mills actually commented on this when he wrote about how actions ought to increase the utility of pleasure and avoidance of pain for everyone involved – that is, one ought to focus on the net happiness that is increased, not just the pleasure for one individual (Mills, 19).

Deontology, in stark contrast to consequentialism, judges rightness and wrongness based on an action rather than the consequences of the actions. Deontology is not impressive when one thinks about how malleable the judgments of actions can be. That is, who ever makes up the rules could and often do bend them to their own values then enforce them in such a way as the basis for judgment is very much inflexible. Extreme ideologies, totalitarian regimes, religion are all an obvious example – in fact, before I can finish writing this sentence, the reader would probably have thought of a few more. But, then again, “it is not the fault of any creed, but of the complicated nature of human affairs, that rules of conduct cannot be so framed as to require no exceptions, and that hardly any kind of action can safely be laid down as either always obligatory or always condemnable” (Mills, 25). In the case of the experience machine, deontologists would most likely hold that no one should hook up, especially if it was a permanent decision, primarily because everyone has a duty to someone or to something – primarily family, job, or society. Immanual Kant added to deontology by asserting that everyone is “obligated to act only in ways that respects human dignity and moral rights of all persons” and that everyone should act in a way that they would find acceptable if applied universally (Valesquez, et al., 2) (Honderich, 438). In this respect, unless asking someone completely immobilized by misery, all ought to decline to be hooked up and deny others to hook up to the machine.

Virtue ethics, too, would seem to guide one very much in the direction of not hooking up to the machine. Virtue ethics, at face value, almost as unimpressive as deontology in that it appears to be subjective to the time, culture, and particular beliefs of the one utilizing it for judgment. The saving grace of this theory of ethics is that it focuses on what people should be rather than what people should do (Velasquez, et al., 2). In this case, people work and develop their virtuous character by constantly learning  and reasoning through situations to gain experience and wisdom as to what habits one ought to obtain. In Aristotle’s view of virtue ethics in his work Nicomachean Ethics, he argues that “neither by nature, then, nor contrary to nature do the virtues arise in us; rather we are adapted by nature to receive them, and are made perfect by habit” and goes on to explain that to be virtuous, one should “enjoy the things we ought and to hate the things we ought” emphasizing that this principle “has the greatest bearing on virtue of character” (Aristotle, Book X). Aristotle shakes his finger at those who would chase pleasure for pleasure’s sake and instead focuses on a civil duty to community and those inside that community and if this version of virtue ethics is used, then again, one would reason that they not hook up to the machine because they ought not to chase the pleasure of the machine and go through life no matter the misery.

And finally, pragmatism admits the flaws I pointed out in the principles above in that “all value ideas, all notions of things that are held to be valuable, are revisable in the same sense that a scientific theory or hypothesis is regarded as revisable” (Garrett, 7). So it admits that moral decisions are flexible and dependent on the specific situation at hand. But, this also means moral decisions is limited to experience. So if one is navigating life, they will be learning what is good and what is wrong. Evolutionary biologists have asserted that “you can make some inferences about a man’s character if you know something about the conditions in which he has survived and prospered” and in this sense, mankind has developed a moral sense to what is right and wrong (Dawkins, 2) But, just like with pragmatism, one can only make appropriate moral judgments based on what they have experienced before so every single person would be ill equipped to make a decision based on normal experience. No one has seen or experienced an experience machine so it would be difficult to rationally reason if they should hook up or not. Perhaps this uncertainty would lead most to avoid the machine unless they are so desperate to escape reality that they are considering suicide, then hooking up would probably not be advisable.

And finally, my last major objection to the experience machine – I have not seen it noted so it is worth pointing out that this thought experiment is the perfect modern day rendition of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. The somewhat disturbing scenario of the allegory is that there are people chained to a wall deep in a cave in such a way as they can never leave or even turn their heads. They watch shadows from a fire above and behind them and that is their reality. In the allegory, one does escape and goes out into the real world for the first time. When he returns to the cave, his fellow prisoners do not believe him and are actually angry with him that he would insult their reality. The final lesson Socrates draws from this incredible and classic tale is the following: 

“the final thing to be perceived in the intelligible region and perceived only with difficulty, is the form of the good; once seen, it is inferred to be responsible for whatever is right and seen, it is inferred to be responsible for whatever is right and valuable in anything, producing in the visible region light and the source of light and being in the intelligible region itself controlling source of truth and intelligence. And anyone who is going to act rationally either in public or private life must have sight of it” therefore, “It is the task of the enlightened not only to ascend to learning and to see the good but to be willing to descend again to those prisoners and to share their troubles and their honors, whether they are worth having or not. And this they must do, even with the prospect of death” (Plato, 240 – 244)

This final objection makes the most reason and is probably the primary reason people reject the machine in this thought experiment. For no one would ever claim they want to be those chained in the cave just like most would not want to be hooked up to the machine. If truth is to be lived and experienced, then an experience machine cannot be the answer. And, in agreement with Socrotes’ conclusion, there is a duty not to be hooked up to the machine if one wished to deal with truth, reality, and intelligence. One may even have the duty to steer others away from the machine as well because “it is the task of the enlightened not only to ascend to learning and to see the good but to be willing to descend again to those prisoners and to share their troubles and their honors, whether they are worth having or not. And this they must do, even with the prospect of death” 

Assuming one has no real-world responsibilities that cannot be replaced (a father, mother, etc – otherwise our jobs can easily replace and forget about us), and assuming that hooking up to the experience machine is permanent as the thought experience does, it is not best to hook up to the machine. One would not necessarily have the best experience, we would not want to live in a world where people could hook up to machines, and people generally desire to live in reality. No one has a duty not to hook up unless they wish to seek truth and intelligence as the allegory points out. Additionally, just like suicide, if someone else wanted to hook up, they have every right to do so. Regardless of ethics or morals, I would not want to be hooked up based on my duty as a father and husband. There is little inherent meaning to anything in life except the meaning we put into things, and my family’s well being possesses more meaning than anything else and I would not abandon it for anything.


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Shermer, M. (2015). The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom. Henry Holt and Company, New York. 

Shermer, M. (2017). “Mr. Hume: Tear Down This Wall! A Response to George Ellis’s Critique of My Defense of Moral Realism” The Journal of Theology and Science. December 22, 2017. 1474-6719 DOI: 10.1080/14746700.2018.1413806.

Schweda, M. and Schicktanz, S. “Why Public Moralities Matter – The Relevance of Socioempirical Premises for the Ethical Debate on Organ Markets” Journal of Medicine and Philosophy (2014) 39: 217-222.

Velasquez M., Andre, C., Shanks T., and Meyer, M. J. “Ethics and Virtue” Issues in Ethics 1(3) (Spring, 1988).

Featured image is “Disconnected” (2015) by me

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