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: http://www.cas.umt.edu/phil/documents/exper_machine_nozick.pdf