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Posts Tagged ‘Matrix

Fixing the Experience Machine

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Recently, David Sosa, dragged out one of philosopher’s favorite thought experiments, the experience machine.  The original model, created by Robert Nozick in 1974 looks like this:

Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Super-duper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life experiences? […] Of course, while in the tank you won’t know that you’re there; you’ll think very that it’s all actually happening […] Would you plug in? (Anarchy, State, and Utopia, p. 3)

The point of this thought experiment is to raise the question of whether happiness is a state of mind or whether it depends on state of the real world as well.  As Sosa notes, this question plays out in the film The Matrix, with Cipher selling out his friends in exchange for a “happy” life as a famous actor in the Matrix.   Most people think that Cipher makes a bad choice and that eating gruel in the real world is what a decent person would choose; it is actually the better, even happier life, since it is a real life.

Although this experiment has been run thousands of times by very smart people, it’s actually not that well designed by philosophical standards.  The problem is that although the experiment is designed to test one thing, it actually changes two.  The experience machine robs the participant of both the external world and the power of her choices.  Now it may be that the actual world is a choiceless (determined) world, but while philosophical enthusiasm for determinism runs high, few people would actually stake their lives on it (see earlier post on determinism).  Thus if we choose to plug in, we give up a world that is one that possibly includes choice as well as being real for one that we know is determined and also fake (but pleasant).

Now of course part of what makes the experience machine a plausible choice is that you don’t know you are in the machine.  Cipher says something like “I don’t want to remember anything” to which the controllers the Matrix agree.  So you would still feel like you are making choices.  Indeed if we live in a determined world, this is exactly our situation.  However (and I admit this gets a little tricky here) when comparing our real life to the experience machine, we are comparing a world that might include choice to a world that we know only feels that way.   Let’s see if we can fix the experience machine to get rid of the real world but keep choice.

If the experience machine runs more like a video game in a virtual world (where you control your character, no way am I going to say “avatar”) and not like a movie (yes, it’s 3d but where you are just watching the action) then I think a better case can be made for plugging in.  It’s true that your life in the real world is pimpled and unpopular, but in the virtual world you are a god or have a million hit points or some other incredible talent or wealth in virtual terms.   Keep in mind to make the experiment legitimate, this virtual world must be just as rich in sensory experience as the real world.  Indeed since there is supposed to be some reason to tempt you with the experience machine, it should be a better experience.  You should either be able to do amazing things in this virtual world or you should experience the same things better.  In other words, virtual surfing must feel just like or better than real world surfing.  If I am the one directing my experiences and if the set of fake “experiences” was better than the set of actual experiences (and of course I wouldn’t know which world I was in) I could see why plugging in might be a happier life.  So what would you do?  Would you plug in?

But wait, there’s more…  The original experience makes it sound like the experience of making friends is just the same as a few prods from a scientist.  Let’s look at this more closely (since who wants to live a lonely virtual life); consider two possibilities: single human or multi-human worlds.

Let’s start with the multi-human world, a world where there are many virtual players that all correspond to some real body somewhere.  This seems to be like the Matrix.  We’re really batteries but we think we’re living in late 20th century America.   Although we are deeply deceived about our physical existence, it actually doesn’t seem that such lives are that bad and may be happy.  We are, after all, still interacting with other real beings in potentially meaningful ways, just in a non-physical space.  It isn’t really all that non-physical.  That is while it takes places inside of a computer, it obeys physical rules and given its sensory richness feels very much like a physical world.  In this virtual space people could genuinely fall in and out of love, meet new friends, and have rather rich and varied experiences, all of which are central to having a genuinely happy life.  The fact that it takes place inside a machine is perhaps not as important of a fact as it might at first seem.  Yes it’s true that you never actually interacted in the same physical space as your best friends, but you did share ideas, feelings and experiences.  What’s so great about the physical world anyway?   Why should we consider it more real if all the meaningful stuff happens in the machine?  Why not opt for upgraded experiences?

What might seem like a harder case is the single player mode.  In this case, you make choices but you play inside a machine generated world with machine generated beings.  While this might seem like a lonely existence, these would have to be rather robust machine generated beings.  They would need to fool you not just once, but over the course of an entire lifetime.  Now here’s the leap, but I don’t think too ridiculous of one, although they are computer generated and therefore artificial they are nonetheless genuine minds, maybe even persons, albeit not human persons.  Yes, your computer generated spouse is made of silicone not flesh (and exists only in virtual space), but would that be a deal breaker?  She is not just spitting out preprogrammed responses, because remember that (at least) you still have genuine choices and so are not following a script.   So her responses (to be convincing) must respond to what you are saying and doing.   And we’re not just talking about a spouse but friends and acquaintances and strangers that do the same.  Thus, even a single human world does not look like a geek at his Atari playing space invaders.  It involves rich interactions with other caring (and sometimes uncaring) beings.

I know this sounds like an excuse for game playing geekdom, but it’s been 25 years since I played a computer game.  Remember that the point of the original experience machine was to raise a question about happiness.  Is it just an experiential state or does it depend on having some real relationship to the world.  I think what the souped up experience machine shows is that happiness is an experiential state, but that this sort of experience is not a thin passive state but a rich authorial and interactive one.

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Written by sturgis

October 9, 2010 at 8:01 am