Robert Nozick was an American philosopher who put forth the “Experience Machine” scenario in his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia. The “Experience machine” is one of the best known attempts by Nozick to refute claims of ethical hedonism; by imagining a choice between a simulated reality and the everyday reality. The essay will summarize Robert Nozick’s ‘Thought Experiment’, present his reactions to the questions of “plugging it in” and finally give my own critical analysis to the “Experience Machine”.
In the book Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Nozick presents us with the thought experiment entitled “The Experience Machine” which the author believes that it will demonstrate falseness of hedonism. In the book, Nozick presents us with the following scenario: "Suppose there were an experience machine that could give you any experience you desired. Super-duper neuropsychologists...”. He goes on to describe the machine as one that could stimulate the brain such that one could think and feel great. He goes on to ask the question, “Should you plug this machine for life, preprogramming your life’s experiences?” (1974: 42). If being worried on missing out on desirable experiences, the experiment should have researched thoroughly the lives of others and, therefore, can pick and choose the next life, of say two years. After two years are over, there are 10 minutes or ten hours (out of the tank) to make a decision for the next two years. In the tank, one does not know he/she is in the tank, but actually think that all being experienced is happening. Nozick asks the question if we can “plug in”. He asks in an ironic tone of what can a few moments of stress be compared to a lifetime of bliss (Nozick 1974; 43).
Nozick further describes the “Experience Machine” as having been used as a thought experiment in numerous classrooms all over the world to test if there is more life than just feeling happy. He then asks if we could accept the offer of such a machine, get connected to it and feel constantly happy enjoying pleasurable sensations and get more satisfactions with our lives. This imaginary machine for the thought-experiment machine will allow us to strip away practical questions and test our willingness to live in a blissful state of getting disconnected from reality.
NOZICK’S REACTION TO HIS OWN QUESTION
Nozick’s question is “would you want to plug it in?” He, however, opposes his own question by using three different reasons: 1) “we want to do certain things and not just have the experience of doing them”, 2) we all want to be a certain kind of person, and 3) we are only human and nothing deeper than we can construct. Nozick’s answer to the hedonistic argument is that we should simply not accept to connect to such kind of a machine. Pleasure is not the only thing.
According to Robert Nozick, what gives meaning to life is more than just the experiences one can have as an individual. He explains that a meaningful life is spent as an active agent who is able to shape his life accordingly to adopted plans and not just by just as a passive recipient of experiences. Nozick’s thought experiment is purely intended to discredit the utilitarian’s claim that all that matters are the experiences. In a scenario where Nozick asks us to have the option of plugging into machines that can make use have nice experiences; the question is if we should plug into such a machine. Utilitarian will be willing to be committed to plug into such a thing, as the machines will allow us to maximize pleasurable experiences and that is all what matters to the utilitarian. However, Nozick argues that it is wrong to plug into such a machine as it will imply that we are subjects of pleasurable experiences. Such action will undermine people’s status of being active agents who lead their own lives. Nozick notes, “What is more disturbing about them is their living of our lives for us” (Nozick, p.44). This simply means that as a person, we are not just a passive locus of utility or even a subject of experiences, but autonomous human beings who decide on their own volitions how to live their own lives, setting and pursuing different ends.
MY OWN CRITICAL RESPONSE
First, I agree with Nozick’s answer that human beings are not objects of pleasure and we should instead take into account the importance of being able to shape our lies for a more meaningful life. Such experiments will only add to violate our rights and fail to treat us as human beings, but end to undercutting our ability to impart meaning to our lives and treat us as sheer tools with no real meaning or significance of life. I also believe that happiness can only be attainable through action but not through handcrafted experiences. Nozick clearly demonstrates to us that it is important to live in a life that we believe in; that which has reality and truth in it. This will allow us to appreciate our differences and uniqueness than use of methods that will escape us from reality.
In this thought experiment, Nozick wants to demonstrate a claim against utilitarianism, thereby raising the question of what matters other than experiences. He thus makes readers realize that we cannot plug into such experience machine even if it was possible. This arouses the question of why felt experiences will dictate what can and cannot be done to an animal.