Imagine if you could plug your brain into a machine that would bring you ultimate pleasure for the rest of your life. If you were given the choice to sign up for that kind of existence, would you? That’s the question philosopher Robert Nozick posed through a thought experiment he called the Experience Machine. The experiment asks us to consider a world in which scientists have developed a machine that would simulate real life while guaranteeing experiences of only pleasure and never pain. The catch? You have to permanently leave reality behind, but you’ll hardly know the difference.
Your experiences will be indistinguishable from reality. Life’s natural ups and downs will just be replaced with an endless series of ups. Sounds great, right? It may seem like a tempting offer, but perhaps it’s not as ideal as it sounds. The experiment was actually designed to refute a philosophical notion called hedonism. According to hedonists, maximizing net pleasure is the most important thing in life because pleasure is the greatest good that life has to offer. For hedonists, the best choice that a person could make for himself is one that brings him the greatest possible amount of pleasure while bringing him no pain.
Limitless pleasure minus zero pain equals maximum net pleasure, or in other words, the exact scenario the Experience Machine offers. Therefore, if hedonism is your philosophy of choice, plugging in would be a no-brainer. But what if there’s more to life than just pleasure? That’s what Nozick believed he was demonstrating through his Experience Machine thought experiment. Despite the machine’s promise of maximum net pleasure, he still found reason not to plug in, as do many other experimenters who consider the proposition. But what could possibly dissuade us from choosing a future of ultimate pleasure? Consider this scenario. Betsy and Xander are in a loving, committed relationship.
Betsy is head over heels and has never felt happier. However, unbeknownst to Betsy, Xander has been romancing her sister, Angelica, with love letters and secret rendezvous for the duration of their relationship. If Betsy found out, it would destroy her relationships with both Xander and Angelica, and the experience would be so traumatic, she would never love again. Since Betsy is in blissful ignorance about Xander’s infidelity, hedonists would say she’s better off remaining in the dark and maintaining her high level of net pleasure. As long as Betsy never finds out about the relationship, her life is guaranteed to go on as happily as it is right now. So, is there value in Besty knowing the truth of her situation? Imagine if you were Betsy.
Would you prefer to know the truth? If the answer is yes, you’d be choosing an option that sharply decreases your net pleasure. Perhaps, then, you believe that there are things in life with greater intrinsic value than pleasure. Truth, knowledge, authentic connection with other human beings. These are all things that might make the list. By never learning the truth, Betsy is essentially living life in her own personal Experience Machine, a world of happiness that’s not based in reality.
This love triangle is an extreme example, but it mirrors many of the decisions we make in day to day life. So whether you’re making a choice for Betsy or for yourself, why might you feel reality should be a factor? Is there inherent value in real experiences, whether pleasurable or painful? Do you yourself have more value when you’re experiencing real life’s pleasures and pains? Nozick’s experiment may not provide all the answers, but it forces us to consider whether real life, though imperfect, holds some intrinsic value beyond the pleasure of plugging in.