The Experience Machine
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | May 31, 2019
In 1974, Robert Nozick posed a question. Would you plug into an experience machine that provided all the feelings of desired experience without the struggles of reality?
Early in my research and writing, I stumbled upon a brief article that introduced me to the experience machine. The idea left an impact, burning the concept in my mind for over a decade. The author, who I have long forgotten, related the experience machine a concept originally presented by Robert Nozick. (1974, pp 42-45)
Nozick directs readers to conduct an experiment by imagining a machine that could give you any experience you desired by simply plugging into it and allowing the machine to implant the feeling of experience.
“Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Superduper 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.” (p. 42)
Nozick directs readers to conduct an experiment by imagining a machine that could give you any experience you desired by simply plugging into it.
Nozick follows the supposition with the rhetorical question would you plug in. We could plug into this virtual reality machine (something far from reality in 1974) and experience the feelings of all the wonderful accomplishments a lifetime of effort could produce. We could skip the pain and bathe in the beauties of a fulfilling life without ever leaving the experience lab.
The idea struck me as preposterous, even silly.
Nozick answers his own question, arguing we wouldn’t exchange true experience for these mutants of reality. He explained, “first, we want to do certain things, and not just have the experience of doing them. In the case of certain experiences, it is only because first we want to do the actions that we want the experiences of doing them or thinking we've done them.” (p. 43)
When I first read about the "experience machine", I was in the middle of a divorce, losing a lifetime of equity with the collapse of the housing market, and being sued by a major bank over the second mortgage.” Life was failing on all fronts. But plugging into a machine where I could experience financial and marital success didn’t appeal to me. I wanted the real thing, not a counterfeit, even if the feelings were identical.
Fast forward to 2019. I stumbled through the years. Regained financial security and found security in a happy marriage. The path was difficult. I worked more hours than I thought humanly possible. The dating game the second time around was loaded with frustrations and disappointments, far from the idealistic joys I hoped freedom would provide. Yet, I made it. I eventually achieved what I would have wished back then—without the machine.
The experience wasn’t pristine. The path not straight. Sorrows accompanied the joys. Frustrations spoiled some of the hope. Yet this path is the experience of being, living fully engaged in experience with the freedom to choose and adjust each step along the dusty road.
Erich Fromm considers a similar choice in his book To Have or To Be. “Faith in having mode is a crutch for those who want to be certain, those who want an answer to life without daring to search for it themselves.” (2013, p.31)
Fromm describes the Being mode as:
While such a machine has yet to be invented, there are substitutes to the reality of experience. Some narcotics alter brain functioning to provide peace when turmoil should prevail. Defense mechanisms convince with deception, claiming success when in reality one has failed. Many are lured to chase fast answers to life’s tough questions, using the crutch of having instead of the stability of being.
So, I ask, do you plug in?