No Thanks, This Experience Machine’s Fine.

The Hammond Society, a body of philosophy graduate students at Johns Hopkins University, is proud to present Garrett Lasnier as winner of this year’s essay contest “What is a Good Life?”.

What is a Good Life?
When asked, ‘What do you want from life?’, or ‘What is a good life?’, many respond with the slogan, ‘All that really matters is that you’re happy’. Does this slogan capture all that is relevant to a good life?
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Imagine that in the future, scientists and engineers develop an ‘experience machine’. People can program into the machine whatever experiences they want to undergo, and hook themselves up to this machine such that once inside, the experiences are indistinguishable from reality. Subjects can choose to live out their entire lives in the machine, experiencing whatever joys and achievements their hearts desire just like it were really happening.  Once in the machine the person is ignorant of the fact that they are really just lying in a vat or on a table having their brains manipulated according to the plan they had previously invented.
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A machine like this seems sufficient to ensure a person’s happiness, but would a life in the experience machine be a good life?  Assuming that the machine is without flaws, would you agree to be hooked up to the machine and live out your dreams? Why or why not?

Prometheus welcomes the opportunity to publish Garrett’s essay in this issue’s online journal. Enjoy.

By Garrett Lasnier

In this paper I will first and foremost answer the question as it is stated: given the opportunity, would I allow myself to be hooked up to a machine that makes me feel as though I am authentically living out my wildest dreams? If it were actually the case that I were given this choice, considering that I would be basing my decision on personal and psychological factors (essentially telling them that this life was not good enough, how would my family and friends feel if I entered the experience machine? Even if they would be brainwashed after I did it, I could not bring myself to do this in the first place), I would not go into the machine. I am too attached to this life to follow through with this decision, even if I were to coldly reason out that it was in my best interest, even with the knowledge that my decision would be irrelevant once in the machine. However, while my philosophical reasoning would be largely irrelevant in my actual decision-making process, I will argue that, philosophically, based on my conception of the ‘good life’, I would still not enter the machine.

From a solely hedonistic position, it is highly unlikely that one would even be happier in this experience machine. The psychological research overwhelmingly shows, as is the thesis of Daniel Gilbert’s book Stumbling on Happiness, that human beings are largely ignorant of what will make them happy in the future. As a 19-year old, the “wildest dreams” that I program into the machine are vastly different from what will make me happy when I am 40, 50, or even 75. I may program the machine so that I find the cure for Aids, I become President, and am the first person to travel to Mars but, as hard as it might be for me to imagine now, perhaps my values will change. Perhaps after the first great achievement I may be more inclined to live a life outside of the spotlight, perhaps I would rather live a simple life with my family. I have no idea what will make me happy in the future; I can only extrapolate from the present state of my 19-year old existence. While in this life I will not be able to control other variables so that I can live out all of my wildest dreams (although I do have a high level of self-efficacy), at least I will be able to make choices that are relevant to my constantly changing attitudes and values. Thus, making me happier in the long-run.

Moreover, happiness is a completely subjective state. Assume that our current relative life satisfaction rating, on a 1-10 scale, is a 7. We are fairly happy. Now, if we were to lose the ability to use our hands and feet, we would assume that our life satisfaction rating would go down to a 2-we imagine that our lives would be miserable by comparison. But, if a quadriplegic claims that his life satisfaction is a 7 out of 10, who are we to claim that what he is experiencing is actually a 2 out of 10? We have this dogma that happiness is directly related to the circumstances of our life. “If I could just accomplish this or do that I would be happy.” The truth is, a person’s relative happiness scale is generally stable over time. If one person were to win the lottery and another person were to lose a loved one, the common knowledge is that the lottery winner would be significantly more happy while the other would be significantly less happy. And while this common knowledge may be true in the short term, the psychological evidence suggests that as early as 2 years after both events, both individuals would revert, with almost no discrepancy, back to their base life satisfaction rating. Therefore, as it relates to the experience machine, there is evidence that living out my wildest dreams would not even make me significantly happier. So, if I were to consider a virtual experience machine from a solely hedonistic perspective, it would be more appropriate to have a machine that would make me a person who would feel happy in any situation in the simulator.

While hedonistic calculations certainly are a factor in deciding whether to enter the experience machine, there are more factors that need to be considered-the good life consists of far more than pleasure and pain. I think that the good life is strongly tied to making authentic choices. I do not understand how I could possibly have a sense of free will in the experience machine if all my life was predetermined beforehand. But, more interestingly, I do not know how I have this sense of free will right now. Neurologically, or even philosophically, there may be no way to prove that we are free agents. After all, can you point to the neuron that constitutes the you that is choosing to do x or not to do x? We are just a compilation of independently acting cells, which are just a bunch of atoms, which are just a bunch of subatomic particles. That we are free agents is an absurd notion. Still, I feel that I have free will and I would not give that up for all the pleasure in the world. So what if there is no way to prove (considering it is ‘indistinguishable from reality’) that I am not in this machine right now? Even if I only think I have free will, I would rather hold on to this sense of authenticity than go into another machine, even if in that machine I would feel the same authenticity. So, considering that this sense of authenticity is at the core of my being, I would be unwilling to part with it, even if it were to be restored once in the machine.

So, if I am currently in an experience machine that is indistinguishable from reality, I have a few things to say to my former self. First and foremost, you must be a heartless jerk for abandoning your previous family and friends. Even if they were to be brainwashed of your existence, how could you ever follow through with such a decision and not feel too much guilt? Second, you must have had a really lame life if you consider this to be your wildest dreams. I am very happy with my life, fortunately enough, but so far the evidence shows that you are a very uncreative person. Thirdly, you must have quite the naïve conception of how human beings account for pleasure; pleasure is a relative phenomenon and is largely irrelevant to life circumstances. And finally, I am utterly disappointed that you gave up your fundamental sense of agency, perhaps you did not deserve it in the first place.

Garrett Lasnier (’12) is a Philosophy and Psychology major at Johns Hopkins University.

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