The Experience Machine: Pleasure Is Not the Good

Updated: Aug 24

The other day when I was researching euthanasia, I came across an interesting thought experiment called the ‘Experience Machine’. This experiment was created by philosopher Robert Nozick. It asks the reader to imagine a world where there was ‘a machine that could give you whatever desirable or pleasurable experiences you could want. These experiences would be indistinguishable from real life but allow you to experience the best of all imaginable realities’ presumably without realising that you were in a simulation.


Full disclosure, I have yet to read Robert Nozick’s books, so you are warned that I am basing this discussion on online articles and the entries in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Nozick argues that a life lived in a simulation, while it would (presumably) be more pleasurable, is inherently less good. This he postulates is as it is ‘good’ “to do certain things, and not just have the experience of doing them”, “to be a certain way, to be a certain sort of person” and not just to be an “indeterminate blob” floating in a tank. “To make a difference in the world rather than merely to appear to oneself to do so”. In conclusion, Nozick says that “something matters to us in addition to experience” (Nozick, 1974; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2013), i.e. that pleasure or experience without consequence is meaningless.


I fundamentally agree with Nozick here. The Hedonist/Epicurian-lite idea of following your bliss and doing what feels good at the time inevitably leads to unhappiness for the same reason that games and movies fail to satisfy us in the long term. When we play games, read fantasy or watch great films, we are transported briefly into another world. This escape is pleasurable yet, as we move from childhood into adulthood and finally into full maturity, these escapes wear thin. We begin intuitively to understand that no matter how often we kill the bad guy, conquer the world or build our dreams, nothing really changes. What’s worse is that we realise there is no real potential for change.


This potentiality for change is core to the meaningfulness of life. In the machine, as in our games or movies, all progress is illusionary. We can enjoy the thrill of the illusion, yet at the same time, we are forced to taste the bitterness of knowing that when we turn off the machine, we will be in the same situation as before. This is because, as we talk about in The Code, life is agency, or having at least the potential to influence the world around you. In a real way, life ends when that potentiality of effect ends. In the case of Nozick’s Experience Machine, where the experience is identical to real-life, and presumably, you will really think it is real, this objection does not go away.


For in choosing to enter the machine, you would be consciously choosing death in a real way. Yes, you would continue to exist in the machine, but all potentiality for agency would disappear except inside of the simulation. This ‘agency’ is the “something [that] matters to us in addition to experience” (Nozick, 1974; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2013). Nozick uses this experiment to argue against the ancient and persistent idea that pleasure is the summum bonum (greatest good) of life. This idea permeates many of the great western philosophical traditions from Epicurius and the utilitarians to the growing anti-natalist movement. Instead, Nozick appears to suggest that there is something more to life than pleasure and pain.


I would go one step further and say that pleasure and pain are themselves meaningless. The idea that pain is bad and pleasure is good is simplistic in the extreme. Most of the truly wonderful and terrible things in life contain some of each. The birth of a child is one of, if not the most wonderous and joyful experiences in life. Yet, birth involves significant pain. War can only be described as horrible, yet for many soldiers, the horror and pain are mingled in their memories with moments of joy and happiness that they would not trade. Even exercise, while often pleasurable, mixes pain with pleasure.


So, to suggest that pleasure is the ultimate good and pain is the ultimate evil is thus foolish. This remains so even if we argue that all these behaviours are pleasure maximising, i.e. trading pain for greater pleasure. The pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain are hard-wired evolutionary traits, but like breathing or eating, they are a means to an end, not ends in themselves. This can be seen when we consider how pleasure without purpose is meaningless and often causes pain and unhappiness later (such as with drinking). In contrast, pain with a purpose (such as in childbirth) often leads to greater happiness/pleasure.


In other words, pleasure and pain, while sometimes indicating good and bad things, are unreliable guides in and of themselves. Rather than follow their blind dictates, we would be better to seek after our true purpose in life. To us, that purpose is to provide for and promote the welfare of our families and communities. This is not an easy task as it requires both sacrifice and effort. Yet the rewards are great, and unlike the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain, our path offers us a real chance to change the world for the better.


Nozick’s thought experiments value lies primarily here, in that it forces us to ask what is irreplaceable in this world. The thought machine could give you every experience imaginable, but it could never replace the mix of pleasure and pain, which constitutes a life well-lived. It could never allow you to achieve anything real, and in the end, we all crave meaning and purpose. The experience machine fails not because we do not desire pleasure but because we desire meaning to our lives more.


Sources

(2013, 10 17). Retrieved from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/hedonism/#ArgAgaPsyHed


Nozick, R. (1974). Anarchy, State, and Utopia,. Oxford: lackwell.


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