The Experience Machine Thought Experiment

Imagine scientists have come up with an amazing new technology called the Experience Machine. It works like this:

You go into the lab and sit down with the staff and talk to them about everything you’ve ever wanted to do in life—you describe your perfect, most ideal, most pleasurable, most joyous, most satisfying possible life. Then they induce you into a coma that you’ll never emerge from. They put your unconscious body into a tank of fluid in a pitch black room and cover your head with electrodes. Here’s an artist’s rendition:

Experience Machine P

Once you’re in the tank, the simulation begins. You’ll experience everything you said you dreamed of, for the duration of your life (or what can feel like a lot longer if you choose), and you’ll have no memory of going into the experience machine or knowledge that your world is only a simulation. You will experience your perfect life in its entirety, exactly as if it really happened—but in reality, none of it is real and you’re actually floating in a vat of fluid in a pitch black room. You’ll never again wake up to experience the actual world or interact with actual people, but you won’t know that, and you’ll feel like you did.

The question is: If the experience machine were available to you and guaranteed to work flawlessly, would you do it? If not, why not?

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Tim’s Answer:

This is a thought experiment proposed by philosopher Robert Nozick in order to refute the philosophy of ethical hedonism. Hedonism suggests that the only thing that matters is human pleasure, and that the only goal should be to maximize pleasure. If hedonism is legit, said Nozick, then everyone would immediately elect to plug into the experience machine. But Nozick thinks most people wouldn’t do it, and to him, this proves that there are things humans value more than their own pleasure, and that pleasure for the sake of pleasure leaves us lacking something important.

My first thought when I heard this was, “No, I wouldn’t do it.” I thought about the real world going on all around me while I lay unconscious in a vat forever, missing everything. Meanwhile, all the people I’d think I was interacting with would be nothing other than figments of my imagination. If I designed my experience to be the life of a rock star, or a scientist who solved the cancer puzzle, or someone who can fly through the universe exploring everything—or all three—doesn’t it matter that there aren’t any real people hearing my rock star music and no actual cancer patients being saved and everything I’m exploring is just rendered in a lab?

Further, I like feeling like I have free will, and in the vat, everything I think is my own free will is all pre-determined—the second the simulation begins, everything that I’m about to experience is already written, like a video playing. I won’t know that, but that’ll be what’s happening.

But am I being irrational? Once I’m plugged in, I won’t know that the whole thing is fake, so who cares? And what if all humans could plug into experience machines, ending all suffering and letting everyone live in their own utopia. Isn’t that a much better world than we live in now? Or is it horribly depressing?

As I thought about this, I also went down the inevitable rabbit hole of wondering if I’m currently in a simulation. What if I had previously been living some terrible life of suffering and I got out of it using an experience machine, leaving me with my current pleasant existence in New York, a city that doesn’t actually exist. That would be kind of an upsetting thing to learn, right? But if, after learning that, I was given the option to permanently opt out of the experience and go back to my real life of suffering, would I do it? I might be inclined to stay here—and if so, wouldn’t that be an argument in favor of doing the experience machine in the first place?

In the end, I think I probably would skip the machine. And that’s probably a dumb choice.

How about you?

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Oh also: I didn’t forget about the spanking survey—more on that coming soon.

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