Sunday, August 2, 2015

The experience machine thought experiment in an increasingly virtual world: Will we be faithful to our philosophical methodology or our moral values?

The experience machine thought experiment is widely thought to be part of an important objection to Internal Prudential Hedonism. Internal Prudential Hedonism (henceforth IP Hedonism) is an account of what wellbeing consists of. In other words, it is a view of what ultimately makes our lives go well for us. According to IP Hedonism, only the experience of pleasure ultimately makes our lives go well for us, and the opposite for pain. Things that we tend to like, but aren’t themselves experiences, such as money, are only good for us to the extent that they bring us pleasure or help us to avoid pain. Experiences of pleasure include all positive feelings, regardless of what caused those feelings, or what those feelings might lead to in the future.

The experience machine thought experiment, made famous by Robert Nozick in Anarchy, State, and Utopia, invites readers to assume that they has been offered to spend the rest of their lives in an amazing machine that perfectly simulates a life full of wonderful experiences. When in the machine, any memory of deciding to get into the machine is erased, and no one ever realizes that they are in a machine as opposed to living in the real world.

Most variations on the thought experiment ask readers to ignore their moral responsibilities to their loved ones and dependents, i.e., don’t decide for anyone else, just yourself. Readers also needn’t worry about missing their loved ones, as they will be recreated in the machine (and probably with some improvements!).

Despite the amazing experiences on offer, it is widely believed that the vast majority of people would not forego their real life for a life in the experience machine. Theories as to why this is abound. Indeed, since the inception of philosophy, one of philosophers’ main tasks seems to have been to point out that life is about more than pleasure. But this is not my focus here. I want to investigate the method used in the related argument, which goes like this:

If hardly anyone would connect to an experience machine, then there must be more to life than how our experiences feel on the inside. Why? Well, the machine offers the very best version of how our experiences could feel on the inside, and yet the vast majority of us still don’t go for it. And, if there is more to our lives than how our experiences feel to us on the inside, then IP Hedonism, which claims the opposite, must be false. This is the experience machine argument against IP Hedonism.
For philosophy geeks, here is a rough formalization of the argument:

P1) We have good reason to believe that the things which really matter to the vast majority of us are constitutive of everyone’s wellbeing. 
P2) If the vast majority of us don’t wish to connect to an experience machine, then we have good reason to believe that something other than the internal aspects of our experiences is constitutive of everyone’s wellbeing. 
P3) The vast majority of us don’t wish to connect to an experience machine. 
C1) Therefore, we have good reason to believe that something other than the internal aspects of our experiences is constitutive of everyone’s wellbeing.
P4) IP Hedonism includes the claim that only internal aspects of our experiences can be positive constituents of wellbeing. 
P5) When a central claim of a theory contradicts a vast-majority judgement derived from a thought experiment about what matters, then we have good reason to believe that the theory is false. 
C2) Therefore, we have good reason to believe that IP Hedonism is false.

I, and others, have many gripes about this argument, but we needn’t go through them here. Indeed, the weaknesses of this kind of reasoning does not prevent it from being the dominant form of reasoning in normative ethics. So, let’s go with it this time and see where it leads us.

Now for a bold empirical claim: over the next 25 years, the responses of people who live in the developed world to the experience machine thought experiment will change so that the vast majority would connect to the machine. In some of my previous surveys on the experience machine, close to half of student respondents indicated that they would connect to the machine. I suggest that this number has been increasing due to the expansion of science fiction, virtual reality (VR), and massively immersive computer games. VR seems exceedingly likely to get better, more immersive, and more popular. Young gamers will become VR-sympathetic adults, and older people will be introduced to virtual reality rooms in their rest homes etc. These trends will make a life connected to an experience machine seem less weird, less scary, more realistic, and, most importantly, more acceptable. Our values will change such that living our lives in close connection with reality, really living our lives for ourselves, will not be considered important for our wellbeing, at least for the vast majority of us.

Of course, we don’t know yet if this empirical claim is true (we’ll have to wait for a planned empirical analysis!) But, for the sake of argument, imagine it is true. How would philosophers, and especially normative ethicists, react to P2 from above being flipped around? Would they reject their previous methodology and still think that IP Hedonism is false, or would we stay faithful to the methodology and accept that IP Hedonism might be true, or at least that, if it is false, then it is for some reason not captured by the experience machine objection to IP Hedonism? And, finally, if the methodology is to be changed, then how?

My hunch is that the vast majority of philosophers will continue to do what they have nearly always done: argue against IP hedonism’s main claim that only the internal aspects of experiences matter for our wellbeing.

Dan Weijers
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State


  1. Nice post Dan, thanks. One of my issues with the EM thought experiment (a problem I have with a lot of philosophy) its its all-or-nothing flavor. Even though Nozick originally gave people a chance to revisit their decision, he required a very large initial commitment. As I see it, we have been embracing experience machines ever since the advent of story-telling, and increasingly so with literature, plays, radio, television, cinema, online gaming, etc, which are all are just increasingly better manifestations of it. So it seems to me that, of course, we would incorporate experience machines into our lives just as we do now. The question is just to what extent.

    The other thing I don't like abut the EM thought experiment is that it doesn't really allow us to express the real reason for our trepidation, which is the total loss of control if we were to hit the "forever" button. It basically asks us what we would do if we were guaranteed of excellent experiences for at least as long as we would normally expect to live, but there are no guarantees in real life. The reason I would only want to use it in a recreational way is the same reason I currently only want to use current machines in that way, viz., that I don't want to grant total power over my life to someone or tsomething else.

    1. I agree Randy. The thought experiment is really just beyond our imaginative potential. Surely we should give up the power over our life to someone else if we could be 100% sure that they would give us a much better life (and the perfect illusion of controlling it ourselves). The only way that could not be true is if there is some prudential value in controlling it ourselves, but surely "self-control" is just an instrumental good that makes it more likely that we will experience some ultimate good, like pleasure. Imagine having real control over your choices, but only being faced with various painful options. I'd trade that real freedom for some good options.

  2. Hi, Dan

    I don't think most people would after reflection choose to connect to the EP, but assuming they did, I tend to agree with your hunch that the vast majority of philosophers who are interested on the matter will argue against hedonism's main claim.
    Perhaps, a way of doing so would be to refrain from asking people to ignore their moral responsibilities. One alternative scenario would be as follows: "You have the choice of connecting to the EP, but the cost is that everyone you love - your children, parents, siblings, spouse, etc., depending on the case - will be horribly burned to death. But you're never going to know that, your memories will be erased, you will believe your loved ones are okay, etc."

    Given that variant, I'm pretty sure almost no one would choose the EM.

    Then, one can argue as follows:

    P1) We have good reason to believe that the things which really matter to the vast majority of us are constitutive of everyone’s wellbeing.

    P2') If the vast majority of us don’t wish to connect to an experience machine at the cost of horrible suffering for their loved ones, then we have good reason to believe that something other than the internal aspects of our experiences is constitutive of everyone’s wellbeing - namely, something related to the suffering of at least some other people.


    I think P1 may be questioned: perhaps, there are things that really matter to the vast majority of humans, but which are not constitutive of their own wellbeing.
    However, questioning P1) seems to be a different sort of challenge to the argument against IP Hedonism.

    1. Hi Angra, thanks for your comment! I certainly would not kill my family for a lot of amazing experiences (even if I forget that I did it). But this shows another weakness of the argument I am critiquing. Most of us do care A LOT about our family, but those "mattering" are not obviously constitutive of our wellbeing. (Hopefully) The vast majority of us would not sentence our family to death for amazing experiences. It would be immoral to do so, which seems to act as a strong deterrent. But the moral aspects of our decisions are not obviously relevant to our wellbeing (what makes our lives go well for US), which is a prudential matter. If I were put into an experience machine without my knowledge, and my family were killed, I never had a choice about the matter. In my machine life, my family would still matter to me, but I would have a wonderful family life in the machine! So, prudentially, my life would be going very well. Unless, of course, there is something valuable for our wellbeing that comes from having a REAL family life, and not just the perfect illusion of a really great family life. But, for those who think the REAL family life is better: how can you be so sure that what you think of as reality is even real? If we can be sure of anything, it's whether our experiences feel good or bad on the inside.

  3. Dan, thanks for this post. Your final two paragraphs surprised me a bit. You seem to think that the opinions of philosophers would remain stable against IP hedonism (or at least lag considerably behind the fluctuating opinions of the general population here). But it seems to me that we philosophers are often pretty quick to go with the changing flow, at least to the extent that we are immersed in the cultural changes of our environment. This can be a good thing or a bad thing, of course; but if we grant that it's a real thing, on most issues, is there a special reason for thinking that it won't carry over the the (assumed-for-the-sake-of-discussion) transitions of intuitions you forecast for most people in the next 25 years? (A possible reply for you here: philosophers are unlikely to themselves have much better internal experiences in the next quarter-century; philosophers are not going to admit that their lives have low well-being; so philosophers are going to do whatever it takes to avoid tying well-being to internal experiences, come what may…)

    1. Thanks Russell! Most of the philosophers I know don't change their minds about much, and especially not about philosophical positions. E.g.: "How could it be the case that me, I, a professional thinker, could be wrong about something I have thought about quite a bit? Sure other people's opinions might change over time, but that is because they are swayed by fashions and emotions as opposed to reason (like me)!" And philosophers are often pretty smart, so we can easily spot a problem in a methodology or a counter-example to a principle or theory if we want to. Anyway, the real issue for me here is that I think philosophers, and especially ethicists, tend to give their intuitions about cases more credence than their intuitions about theories or principles... and I don't think that is wise when so many of our well-known cases are misleading in tricky ways. But don't take my word for it. See a discussion here:
      I, starting with my MA, and many others, have written about this for years now, but so many philosophers still seem to assume that they never, or only very rarely, make biased judgments when thinking about thought experiments.

  4. Hi Dan,

    Sorry for coming so late to this discussion. I’d like to stick a metaphysical oar in.

    You don’t have to be a Freudian to think that the pleasure of a given experience is a contingent property of that experience; nor is it an intrinsic property, but a relational, and even contextual, one. That a given experience is pleasurable rather than neutral or painful is not settled by any intrinsic feature of the experience itself, but by its connections to its content of the experience, to its causes, as well as to other experiences.

    It’s no accident that Anarchy, State, and Utopia appeared around the same time as the foundational works of externalism in semantics (Kripke and Kaplan), philosophy of mind (Putnam), and epistemology (Goldman, Burge). It betrays that influence at every turn.

    One of the major lessons of this externalist revolution is that the subject of the experience is no authority on its content. Is Oscar’s remark about water or twin-water? There is nothing internal to Oscar or his mental state that can settle the matter.

    Putnam does, however, speak of ‘narrow content’: what an experience of water and an experience of twin-water have in common. Using the notion of narrow content, the pleasure of writing the Great American Novel and the pleasure merely of having the experience of doing so are the same pleasure.

    But what if narrow content is an illusion, a survival of Cartesian and empiricist assumptions long past their sell-by date?

    Then the supposed common content is not common after all. The two experiences have nothing in common, including their pleasure. And one may not be pleasure at all.

    Externalism can then be used as a new argument against Hedonism. Generally, things that redound to our good give us pleasure; harms cause us pain. That is, things are pleasurable because they are good, rather than the other way round.

    That this feature of experience, a product of our natural and cultural history, frequently goes wrong (leading to addiction and other evils) does nothing to weaken the force of such an argument.

    Referring to your admirable formalization of the argument against IP Hedonism, this would be an argument in support of (C1).

  5. Hi Tom, thanks for this very interesting comment. I understand that the term experience best refers to both external and internal features, i.e., something about how it feels to us and something that the experience is about. I was not trying to say that pleasure is intrinsic to some experiences when the term experience is understood in this way. What has intrinsic value for the IP hedonist is just the good feeling part of an experience. On this view, the good feeling is the pleasure. So pleasure is a contingent part of an experience generally speaking, but pleasure is a necessary part of the intrinsically valuable internal aspects of an experience according to IP hefonists. In fact, it is best cast as the identity claim: pleasure = feeling good = the intrinsically positive aspects of the internal features of our experiences. On this view, pleasure is necessary to the relevant kinds of experiences. As such, something that never results in us feeling good (or in not feeling bad), cannot be said to be good for us. Another consequence of the view: it doesn't matter if my pleasure comes from the internal aspects of the experience of quenching my thirst with water, with twin-water, with soda, or with well-placed electrodes.

    I'm not sure what to make of the idea that thin content, like my feeling good after quenching my thirst (or however else it comes about), is an illusion. On my view, one of the ONLY things I can be sure about is whether I am feeling good or bad. There may well be some kind of external world, but I am on much wobblier epistemic grounds trying to make any claims about that. So, I either don't really understand the idea of that narrow content being an illusion, or that claim is not, on my understanding, remotely plausible.

    As for pleasure being caused by good and pain by bad, this view seems, at heart, to support the idea that success at natural selection is the good life... unless we are somehow using our advanced intellect to find other goods pleasurable (perhaps possible over time with enculturation). Regardless, this kind of view does not seem to get the right answer to a group of thought experiments in which the good thing is achieved but no pleasure or reduction in pain results. Is that thing good for you? Why? Can any theory provide a good explanation that works across all the examples? While responses are possible, non seem nearly as plausible to me as the IP hedonists' explanation that feeling good is good for us.

    But maybe I should think more about this... over a beer because it's international beer day and my birthday on Sunday!

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Happy Birthday, Dan!

      It seems correct to say as you do that ‘experience’ has a double aspect to it. First, there is what it is an experience of, or its intentional content. An experience of seeing water has as its content the water itself. Second, there is the ‘what it’s like’ to see water, what some philosophers call the ‘qualia’ of the experience.

      On one account the qualia would be the same whether the experience is one of (i) seeing water or (ii) seeing twin-water. Their ‘narrow’ content, prescinding from the difference in their intentional objects, is identical.

      On this view, the pleasure from writing the Great American novel is identical to the pleasure of just having the experience of doing so in the Experience Machine.

      This is the assumption at work, I think, in your argument. Right?

      An analogy: A photograph is a photograph of Barack Obama (and not his Twin-Earth counterpart Twin-Barack) because Barack was present and involved causally in the production of the photograph. That’s why the photograph represents Barack, not Twin-Barack. A photograph of Twin-Barack would not represent Barack even if we couldn’t tell it from a picture of Barack and it could be used in a door-to-door search for him.

  7. ‘Narrow content’ in the supposed feature that both those photographs have in common. But again, this is an illusion. A resident of our Earth would recognize the photo of Barack as such because of its Barackish appearance. A resident of Twin-Earth would recognize a photo of Twin-Barack as such because of its Twin-Barackish appearance. A person abducted from Earth might mistakenly think: (i) that the photo is a photo of Barack, and (ii) that it has a Barackish appearance. But he would be wrong on both counts. He just can’t tell a Barackish appearance from a Twin-Barackish one. Perhaps no one can. But even if true, this would do precisely nothing to render them identical: after all, they have different causal antecedents.

    For an externalist even qualia are ‘twin-earthable.’

    In our natural and cultural history experiences of pleasure are present in conditions of proper functioning, pain present in conditions where something’s going wrong with us. Speaking loosely, that is what pleasure and pain evolved for.

    Pleasure is thus an intentional phenomenon in the same way as a photograph. An experience which features a particular pleasure represents the presence of a particular instance of well-functioning. An experience with a feature that was indistinguishable from that pleasure, but produced by some other instance of well functioning, or by something that is not an instance of well-functioning at all would not be an experience of that pleasure, at least – and in the latter case might not be an experience of pleasure at all. (Compare a computer-generated photograph indistinguishable from a photograph of Barack.)

    The fact that we could not tell experiences with those features apart does not entail that the experiences literally have anything in common.

  8. Externalism does have a consequence that sounds odd to people. (To be honest, it sounds odd to me!) The sentence, “That’s not pleasure; it just feels like it,” becomes coherent. Indeed it might even sometimes be true. Mark Twain once said, “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.” That’s also coherent and true for lots of the same reasons. So on this view you cannot be sure that you are feeling pleasure or pain; so a fortiori you cannot be sure that you are feeling good or bad.

    So the feature of an experience that makes it feel bad is not necessarily or intrinsically an evil; it depends on what that feature refers to, what has caused it. Some people could consider that feature a good-making feature of the experience (masochists, penitents,…). That this is possible shows the contingent nature of the connection. Catholic moral thinking identifies a phenomenon known as 'delectatio morosa', pleasures that are not only not good but which don’t really make you feel good, at least all things considered.

    Your example of feeling good after quenching your thirst is a very good case of that feature of the experience referring to a cause of well functioning, and so a good. So it is real pleasure. And I hope quenching your thirst with beer on your birthday this weekend does not result in any pain. ;-)

  9. We agree on the questionable status of the claim, “success at natural selection is the good life…” But natural selection has brought it about that we are creatures of a particular kind. For any kind of creature there is a truth about what its thriving consists in. For human beings, at least, that thriving notoriously parts company with inclusive fitness.

    You’ll get no argument from me about that.

  10. Hi Tom, thanks for your responses. I see what you mean now. I have read arguments to the effect that pleasure is necessarily intentional (it has to be about something), but I think space remains for pleasure as a brain state that, although caused by something or some things, need not be understood as being about those things, at least in terms of working out what has intrinsic value for us. The feels good part of an experience of pleasure is probably a multiply realizable phenomena, but the various brain states will be similar, and identical, in various important ways. They may all require stimulation of the opioid receptors in the pre-frontal cortex. Various kinds of activity in other (more ancient) brain structures is usually required for that kind of brain state in the pre-frontal cortex, but it is not necessary. The right machine might circumvent the normal course of things. My point is that in terms of what is intrinsically valuable to us, a certain narrow range of brain states might fit the bill. All of these brain states have something in common (the aspect of certain neurological states that corresponds with feeling good). That aspect of neurological states of pleasure is what is intrinsically good for us (according to my version of IP hedonism). Importantly, the causes of that aspect of the relevant brain states are in no way represented in the aspect. In this way, there is just one thing that is intrinsically good for us. It is a natural thing. And, it does not matter for our wellbeing how it was caused.