Tuesday 3 March 2015

A Closer Look at Nozick's Experience Machine (2015)

From The Philosopher, Volume CIII No. 1, 2015

Perspectives and Speculations

Clockwork Eyes, by Michael Ryan


By Brian Jortner

In his classic 1974 book, entitled Anarchy, State, and Utopia, the Twentieth century American philosopher, Robert Nozick, offers a thought experiment to disprove the claim that the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain are the only factors that contribute to a person's well-being.

In his thought experiment, Nozick imagines that there exists an 'experience machine' that feeds sensations and impressions into people's brains. When people are plugged into the machine, they can experience anything they want, and are blissfully unaware that the experiences are not genuine. Such a machine could flawlessly simulate the experience of eating a delicious meal, writing a great novel, and falling in love. It could perfectly simulate every possible human experience, and the person plugged into the machine would believe their experiences to be genuine. However, in reality, the person's body would be floating in a tank with electrodes attached to their brain.

For the purposes of the thought experiment, Nozick asks us to assume that the participant would constantly be experiencing an immense amount of pleasure while plugged into the experience machine.

At the same time, he concedes that someone’s decision to plug themselves into the machine for the rest of their life could very well cause them a certain degree of anxiety between the time that they makes this decision and the time that they are plugged into the machine.

The knowledge that the rest of your life would not be 'genuine' could certainly be unsettling. However, it seems obvious, at least  to Nozick, that the immense pleasure the person would feel for the rest of their life in the experience machine would be far greater than the amount of 'pain' that they would feel during this brief interval of anxiousness. And yet, Nozick is certain that a large portion of people, given this opportunity, would decline the opportunity to be plugged into the experience machine. He maintains that this intuition demonstrates that there must be something other than the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain that contributes to our notion of well-being - and of simple-minded hedonism.

The notion of hedonism in general and what is sometimes called welfare hedonism, in particular, is based on the assumption that the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain are the only factors that contribute to a person's level of well-being. Furthermore, the hypothetical experience machine that Nozick imagines does, in fact, yield far more pleasure for an individual, and far less pain, than that which results from a typical life lived in the real world. Yet, intuitively, it seems plausible that many people would, in fact, choose not to plug into the experience machine. It seems like it could be a difficult decision to decide whether or not to abandon the real world for a life of deceptive bliss.  Nozick is demonstrating that many people would choose not to plug into the machine because they have the desire that their experiences actually be real. And this is, in fact, a desire that is completely independent from the notions of pleasure and pain.

However, I would argue that neither the likelihood that many people would choose not to plug into the experience machine, nor the fact that there exists at least one common human desire apart from seeking pleasure, necessarily implies that the view that there is nothing other than the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain that contributes to well-being is wrong, Or, to put it in more formal language, in order for Nozick's argument to be deductively valid, it must contain an additional premise, which is  that people necessarily desire the state of affairs that contributes most to their well-being.

The truth of this auxiliary premise relies, at least in part, upon the belief that what makes a state of affairs good for a person is that they desire the state of affairs. So, the premise that would be needed in order to make Nozick's argument formally valid also makes it circular in nature, and thus can scarcely count any longer as a successful argument against the philosophy of hedonism.

Consider another example of my own: a scenario in which the realisation of a person's desired state of affairs intuitively seems not to maximize a person's level of well-being. Consider the case of a drug addict's desire to get high. A large number of people who are addicted to potent narcotics, such as cocaine and heroin, report that they live a miserable existence and some even commit suicide in order to escape the torment of their addiction. Addicts often report that beginning to experiment with drugs was the worst decision that they made in their entire lives. Nevertheless, each time an addict snorts cocaine or injects his or her veins with heroin, they are realising their desire to get high. Every single time the drug user takes a hit, they are realising a desired state of affairs. Nonetheless, it would seem very strange to say that the fulfillment of the addict's desired state of affairs maximises their well-being. .

It is also entirely possible for someone to have a certain desire, but for the realisation of that desire to not have any impact upon anyone's level of well-being. For example, a mother could have the desire that a certain family memento, such as an antique Russian doll, be kept in the family after her death. In this example, we can imagine that this person's children are rather unemotional and unsentimental beings, and do not feel any sort of attachment toward the doll. The presence or absence of the Russian doll has no impact upon their well-being. Despite this fact, it is still plausible that the mother could well have a strong desire for the doll be kept in the family after her death. Whether or not her wish is fulfilled does not have any impact upon anyone's level of well-being. The person who has this desire will not be alive to know whether or not it was fulfilled, and the well-being of her children will not be affected in any way.

Taken together, these two scenarios illustrate that it is possible for the realisation of a person's desired state of affairs to lead to misery and torment, and the fact that the realisation of a person's desired state of affairs may not have any impact - positive or negative - upon anyone's level of well-being, all of which seems to suggest once again that people do not necessarily desire the state of affairs that contributes most to their well-being.

To return to the experience machine thought experiment: it presents a situation that is very different from any situation that we might encounter during our lives. Nozick's critique would have been more effective if, all else being equal, the behavior of the moral agent in the thought experiment had ramifications upon other people, not just upon their own life. We commonly think of moral philosophy largely as a prescription about how one should act toward others. For this reason, a thought experiment in which a moral agent’s behavior impacts the lives of others would seem to give us better insight into the merits and shortcomings of welfare hedonism.

Let me conclude with a thought experiment that might be offered by a supporter of Nozick in an effort to rebut such criticisms of his thought experiment.. This thought experiment is, I think, more realistic than the original experience machine scenario. Furthermore, in this thought experiment, the agent's chosen course of action has important ramifications upon the well-being of others.

Let us imagine a situation in which two high school lovers, let us call them Mariah and Henry, part ways after graduation, and go on to attend elite educational institutions at opposite ends of the country. Mariah ends up attending Stanford, while Henry attends Yale.  Before departing for their respective educational institutions, they realise that they are deeply in love, and decide that they will stay together during their college years, despite the long distance. The two vow to one another that they will never be unfaithful.

Within a few weeks, despite their promises, Henry begins to sleep with numerous females on campus on a consistent basis. He is not able to abstain from his urges. On the other hand, all the while, Mariah remains completely faithful to Henry. Not wanting to end his relationship with Mariah, Henry decides not to tell Mariah about his numerous affairs. The two continue to talk to one another on the phone for hours every single night, while Mariah is deceived into believing that she is in a loving and monogamous relationship with Henry. It does not bother Henry in the least that he is deceiving Mariah, and Mariah is blissfully unaware of her deception. In this way, both Henry and Mariah draw a great deal of pleasure from their continuing 'relationship'.

But suppose that Mariah's older brother, Thomas, has been suspicious of Henry's sincerity for some time. Suppose he has a friend, Chris, who also attends Yale University, and Thomas asks him to investigate Henry's behavior. Chris duly reports that Henry has been sleeping with many women at Yale. Thomas will then be faced with the decision of whether to tell Mariah about Henry's numerous affairs, or to allow her to continue to believe that she is in a loving and monogamous relationship with Henry. (For the purposes of this thought experiment, we can imagine that Thomas is 100% sure that Mariah would never find out about Henry's unfaithfulness if he does not tell her.)

As a result of his belief in the desire-satisfaction account of well-being, Thomas may be able to relieve a great deal of his own anguish over the situation by telling Mariah that she is being deceived by Henry. If, after some sort of hedonic calculus, he was to conclude that the decrease in anguish that he would benefit from by telling Mariah the truth outweighed the resulting decrease in pleasure attributed to Mariah and Henry, then Thomas, like a true utilitarian, may feel that the morally correct course of action must be for him to tell Mariah the truth.

Of course, this does not mean that calculations designed to maximise well-being will never yield unintuitive conclusions in realistic situations, and situations in which the behavior of the moral agent has ramifications upon other people.

In any case, demonstrating that a moral philosophy may yield unintuitive conclusions is not the same as disproving a moral philosophy. If we were obliged to rely solely upon our intuitions, then there would be little purpose in discussing the merits and weaknesses of various moral philosophies. .

In this article, my primary concern has been with the representation of Nozick's thought experiment as an 'irrefutable argument', rather than as an 'intuitive insight'. My impression is that Nozick intended his scenario to provide both. And I agree with Nozick that, intuitively, it does seem like many people would choose not to plug into the experience machine. However, I beg to disagree that this demonstrates the falsity of hedonism, far less provide an irrefutable argument.

E-mail: Brian Jortner brian.jortner2@gmail.com

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