The late Robert Nozick advanced a famous thought experiment about something he called the Experience Machine. Imagine that there were an amazing machine that you could plug into. Your body would float in a tank somewhere, and super-duper neuroscientists would stimulate your brain so that you would think that you would be having any fabulous, fantastic experiences you want. Would you want to plug into the machine for the rest of your life? Most people wouldn’t. Nozick believed that this was because we care intrisically about “real” life and “real” accomplishments, and not just our experiences. Stepping into the Experience Machine would be, in Nozick’s words, “a kind of suicide.” (Some readers of this blog might be justified in retorting “And that would be bad why?”) Many people think that the Experience Machine thought experiment refutes hedonism, the doctrine that all we do (or should) care about is pleasure and the absence of pain.
Now as someone out there on the Internet has already pointed out, the way Nozick set up the thought experiment is a cheat, and what it refutes is a a straw man. Hedonism doesn’t maintain that we should have the experiences that we want. Hedonism is the doctrine that we should have the experiences that we would most enjoy. That’s a huge difference. Because if we consider the whole range of things that might be possible as experiences, most likely you have no idea what those experiences would be.
Wanting and liking are not the same thing. This should be pretty obvious on reflection. Haven’t you had the experience of not really wanting something until someone cajoled you into trying it, and then discovered that you really liked it? Lots of people have had that experience, of experiences from raw oysters to absinthe to anal sex. Conversely, almost all of you have doubtless had the experience of really, perhaps even desperately, wanting something, only to find in the end that it was a disappointment: that promotion, that new car, that hot date that wasn’t so hot. It’s pretty clear from common experience that our domain of ignorance about what we would really like is vast.
And the realm of possible experiences is really vast, especially when you consider that there’s no reason to think that what might enter consciousness need be limited by actually possible technologies or real-world physics. What might it be like, do you suppose, to swim naked for hours under warm tropical waters without ever having to come up for air. Or to actually have the body of someone of a different gender — really have it, not just the construction of transgender surgeries and hormones but have it with all the organs and all the fine nerves as if they had always been yours. Or have an animal body? Or an alien body? What would it be like to have a splendid leisurely dinner with David Hume? What would it like to have an organ lesson with J.S. Bach? What would it to be a high-ranking aristocrat in Slaveworld? (Or a slave in Slaveworld?) Or to actually experience some of the really bizarre sexual fetishes that now can only be experienced as Internet fantasies?
We don’t know. But out there there are endless things which you haven’t experienced and haven’t even thought of as possible experiences. It seems improbable that, as long as you are capable of experiencing pleasure, that there aren’t some that are amazing.
Imagine, then, something different from what Nozick imagined. This one, unlike the Experience Machine, is not a cheat. Let’s call it the Hedonic Machine. Instead of picking out some experiences you want, you simply plug into the machine. The machine reads what kind of person you are and responds by giving back experiences which you will maximally enjoy. You don’t know what these experiences will be ex ante. Because we’re pretty ignorant of what among the vast range of possible experiences we would really most enjoy, here’s a lot of room for surprise in the Hedonic Machine. People who temporarily plug in to the machine routinely emerge with awestruck expressions and amazed exclamations. “I never knew that there was such a thing as X. And even if I had known, I could never have imagined that X was so amazing.” (Needless to say, “X” frequently turns out to be something quite surpassingly obscene, people being what they are. I shan’t try to specify beyond that This is a family antinatalist-friendly blog.)
Would you plug into the Hedonic Machine for the rest of your life? No? Still afraid that it’s a kind of suicide? Then answer this: would you allow yourself to plug in to the Hedonic Machine for just a day?
And once you’ve plugged in for just that day and then gone back to your life, how likely do you think it is that you wouldn’t plug in again? How much appeal would there be in your “real” life, your labors of cold spreadsheets or hot stoves and commuting and bills (and maybe bratty kids and stale, aging spouse), once you’ve experienced your mind-blowing X in the Hedonic Machine.
If offered the chance to go back for a week next time you wouldn’t jump at the chance?
And a month after that?
And that if everyone had a Hedonic Machine that in they end, they wouldn’t have gone there, step by step, to the point where they really are plugged in for the rest of their lives? Do we really think that many of us would turn away from the experience, spurning the Hedonic Machine like so many Calypsos, to go back to the Penelopes of our jobs and our mortgage payments and our tax returns?
Do you think anyone would? Really?