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.
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.
Department of Philosophy