On Nozick's Experience Machine

Updated: Dec 27, 2020

Robert Nozick argued that we wouldn’t want to be plugged into an experience machine because-

1. We want to do certain things, not just have the experience of doing them.

2. We want to be a certain kind of person, not an indeterminate blob. We want to feel like we are.

3. We don’t want to limit ourselves to a man-made reality.

People instinctively dislike the notion of an experience machine. They instinctively know it to be incomplete and fake. The idea of getting plugged into one is depressing to most. And they are right. An experience machine can never produce a real experience because there is no such thing as an experience.

When a young man asks a woman on a date, part of his excitement is the anxiety of rejection. If we want to create the same experience in the machine, we would have to add that anxiety. But it still wouldn't be a complete experience because we lack the uncertainty of the day before when he decided whom to ask out. We still need to factor in his [the man’s] previous history with women, which defines his dating experience. Thus, his experience of dating can't be isolated from his general experience of life.

Just like a word needs a context and a picture needs a canvas, an experience needs a background story for it to mean anything. The experience of friendship requires the experience of not having friends. It gets enhanced if you have experienced fake and unreliable friendships. The joy of winning a trophy requires the despair of trying and not winning a thousand times and not knowing if you would ever win. Thus, if you plug yourself into the machine to experience victory, it would not feel real because you have not yet experienced failure. If you add the experience of failure, you still wouldn’t enjoy victory because you are certain you’ll win. If you add the desperation of possibly never winning, you would realize suddenly that real life is already like that. Life is exactly how it should have been.

There is no such thing as an experience that is categorically separate from life. There is only one great experience, in which events are sprinkled like chocolate chips on icecream. If you only eat the chips, you would fail to enjoy the ice-cream. They enhance each other. Similarly, life is not the sum of its parts, from which you pick some and reject the rest. They all come together to complete one another like a puzzle.

Some may want to plug into the machine because it appears to be an easier and happier version of life. This is fundamentally fallacious. If winning easily made people happier, they would not discard consolation prizes. Sportsmen will never look for stronger opponents, but we know they do. There is a reason why children born to really wealthy families are prone to depression because everything is given to them. Just like highs and lows both are important on a roller coaster ride, victory and rock bottom are equally important. We can see it in cancer survivors. Once they beat the seemingly unbeatable, they live more joyfully. The same can be seen in people who have had near-death experiences. The joy they live with cannot be found even in highly spiritually developed individuals. Thus, if life in the machine is not bad, it can't be good either. If there is no sadness in it, there can’t be any happiness either. They both go together, just like crest and trough, north and south, right and left, full and empty, 1 and 0. If you add all the lows to the experience, why would you get plugged in? You already have that opportunity. It’s called life.

Consider the internet-- an experience machine. People shop, make friends, date, etc, but they know something is missing. When you shop online, you log in, compare prices, and pay for the product. This is considered “the shopping experience”. The actual experience of shopping includes how the store clerk treats you, the possibility of meeting someone at the store, and sliding down the stair railing at the mall. Online retailers can’t make it feel real because the shopping experience is tied to the rest of our lives. The experience machine is bound to fail.

Consider the friendship experience. On social networks, you log in, add people, and talk about things you already agreed on. This is “the online friendship experience”. But the actual experience of friendship is vastly different and unpredictable. People have different stories about how they met, where they met, and what they faced together. They often make friends with people they did not agree with, to begin with. A rich man and a poor man experience friendship in different contexts. We make friends unexpectedly. We even make friends with animals. How we experience friendship has to do a lot with the rest of our lives. Unable to produce the rest of our lives, the experience machine fails again.

Consider the dating experience. Tinder is a good example. Girls don’t want guys to know they like them unless those guys already like them. They may not want to attract poor and ugly men. On Tinder, they wouldn’t have to make excuses to reject poor and short guys. They can flirt with only those guys they find attractive. Behind the screen, they can control it all. Yet they are not satisfied because this is not what they wanted. Tinder reduced dating to a few variables-- how good someone’s camera and editing skills are, how much he earns, and tall he is. Dating became pretty much a useless simulator game. Girls blame guys and guys blame girls when the problem is that the internet has failed here, too.

By the way, are we surprised the internet has depressed its users? Didn’t I mention that people find the idea of an experience machine depressing? They are instinctively right. Now, unplug yourself.

More food for thought -

If a machine can get you anything, will you ever be satisfied? Chances are, no. It is a trap. You’ll never be satisfied wanting things because it is the very nature of want to keep you wanting. It’s like putting out fire with fire. People don’t get happy by getting things (hedonism). They get happy by letting go of wanting, which is fundamentally a state unfulfilled.

Reference -

Nozick, R. (1974). Anarchy, State And Utopia. Retrieved from https://archive.org.

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