Sunday, May 6, 2012

Thought Experiment: Robert Nozick's Experience Machine

   Well, I couldn’t go to the Barack Obama rally at OSU due to bad traffic and marathon runners. So, I spent most the day playing with Robert Nozick’s thought experiment, The Experience Machine. If there were a machine that could lock you into a simulated experience, any one you wanted, would you plug in? This thought experiment was first introduced to me in 2005, so my go-to response was from equal parts William Gibson and The Matrix. No, I said. I personally wouldn’t plug in, but I think it’s wrong to assume that no one could benefit from plugging in, since it could help a lot of people, and we’re already half-way plugged in, anyway. Mercifully though, you can log out of the internet. Here, it would be such a waste of my mind, I’d be bored all the time.

If such a machine existed, I think it would have therapeutic potential. One that perhaps Nozick didn’t see. He, in my mind, assumes able-bodiedness, claiming that a person in the machine would appear to us to be a “indeterminate blob”. Remember, this thought experiment was before The Matrix. Or maybe even Neuromancer. That ignores the evolution of the machines along with the humans. When I think of a person today, it seems to me they are more reliant on machines. And certainly I’m reliant on a machine. I grew up with my chairs, and I’ve treated them like new skins every 5 or 6 years. So, I think some of his argument reveals able-bodied bias. I almost consider myself something of a cyborg-like being. Poetics aside, my reliance on my machine doesn’t make me a blob. But, I still can’t imagine a world where Stephen Hawking were plugged in. It would be the loss of a great mind.

I can see that the machine would have therapeutic aspects. For my body it might be good. But not for my mind. I could only imagine what a waste it would be for disabled people who live full lives and want to be with people. Still though, you could leave the machines open for those whose lives are beyond repair. But there’d have to be a long checklist for the requirements. And probably a long waitlist. So, people could decide to cancel it before, but not after you've been plugged in.

Thought experiments reveal how we think. In that experiment, you could see some of my experiences too. But, I think this experiment reveals in me once and for all, that I am a philosopher of disability. In the years I grappled with it, my process has always been the same, and sometimes my love of sci-fi wins out over philosophy. So, this answer is a negotiation between the two. I don’t think that it’s wrong to want to plug in necessarily (as Nozick sets out to prove.), but the want needs to be carefully considered. And like it or not, we’re kind of temporarily plugged in every day to a simulated experience; the digital. Don’t you think it’s best we enjoy it?

Link to original Thought Experiment PDF:


  1. I've never read Nozick's Thought Experiment, and I'm downloading and saving the PDF to my computer now. Without any background context with which to comment on your post from, I still have to say you raise a lot of intriguing points.

    I will definitely agree with you that most people (especially those of us in first world countries) live lives half or mostly plugged in. I'm reminded of exactly how much of my life revolves around technology whenever I go without internet for a few days, or when my smartphone's network is down for a few hours. In these times, I realize how these technologies, which were designed to connect people in new ways that transcend geographic boundaries, can also alienate us from others.

    No matter how much of my hair I've pulled out in frustration on a day without the internet, each of these days has also been a gift to me. Once I get past a self-created need I feel to check Facebook or my email at least once an hour; my eyes open to the world around me. I am able to read the things I've always been meaning to read, go to a place I've meant to go, or sit in the presence of my friends or family and truly pay attention to their company.

    This is only my experience, and I'm sure people may disagree with me.

    The final thought your post raises for me is this: I believe there is a tendency among us to believe that we could be happier, or our lives could be better if they were completely transformed from what they currently are. This plays out into the idea of Nozick's thought machine. I think, though, that if we subscribe to whatever "quick fix" we believe would make us happier ("I'd be happier if I made a 6 figure paycheck", "I'd be happier if I was as thin as a supermodel", "I'd be happier if I was with a different partner") we miss out on the trans-formative process that a gradual change or self-improvement brings. I think it is precisely in this process that we have the potential to find true happiness by discovering more about ourselves.

    Just a few thoughts.

  2. Congratulations Lorelei,

    You've cracked open a nut that took me 5 or 6 years to crack. Just a couple points. 1. You say that that's only your experience that being around the presence of people is better. I happen to agree, but as you say, other people may not; although I do derive a lot of pleasure from my own imagination and sci-fi. Perhaps due to my own dependency on wheelchairs, I'm forced to admit that it would probably be cool for my body, but ultimately not my mind, and that's why I wouldn't do it.
    Different reasons, same answer.

    As far as the "quick fix"; that's why I wanted long wait lists. If something like this were to exist, I think we would be wasting the machine if we didn't use it. As fulfilling as it may be to be around real people, I think it could improve some lives in real ways. The permanance of it is what makes my head spin. But, you sound pretty much in agreement with Nozick that we don't just value pleasure, we want to MATTER. And for the most part, I agree. Although I had to reveal his hidden able-bodied bias. haha. :-)

    Good analysis,