I had many excellent philosophy teachers back in the day, and one of the excellentest of the bunch was Robert Nozick (1938-2002).

Perhaps one thing (among many) for which Bob will be well remembered is a thought experiment, called the Experience Machine, which he first outlined in Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974). It begins like this:

Suppose there were an experience machine that would give any experience you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, pre-programming your life’s experiences?

(Fuller text here for those who wish to pursue the experiment in more depth.)

Bob thought it was pretty obvious that you would not want to plug into the machine: it would be “a kind of suicide.” And he and others have drawn various philosophical conclusions — that positive experiences are not what we do or should primarily value, that pleasure is not the (or even a) cardinal good, and so forth. (Sometimes this all gets amusing: watching conservative lawyers like John Finnis wheel out this thought experiment in hopes of banishing forever the Evil Doctrine of Hedonism reminds me of a character in an old movie brandishing a cross to try to ward off Dracula.)

Now the thought experiment of the Experience Machine does not lack for problems. For one, there really are people who just disagree with Nozick’s intuition. I once knew a woman who, when I told her about the Experience Machine, reacted with “Where can I get me one?” I suspect there are readers of this blog who might feel the same way, since precisely because they are readers of blogs like this one, they have a keen appreciation of all the really cool experiences there are to be had.

Artist: Daniel D. van Winkle

(This woman was a really fun person, by the way, and… Okay, Faustus, enough daydreamy reminiscence. Back to philosophy class.)

There are deeper and more philosophical objections to be made to Nozick’s thought experiment. At least in so far as it’s meant to attack hedonism, it ignores a subtle but really very important distinction between a machine that would give us any experience we want and one which would give us those experiences we would most enjoy. (A refutation of hedonism would require that we would not want to plug into the latter kind of machine, a point which I might try to explain in a later post).

Given my own interest in these matters, I was greatly pleased to see that George Mason economics professor and Marginal Revolution co-proprietor Tyler Cowen (1962 – Forever I Hope), in his intriguing new book Create Your Own Economy likewise sees fit to address the Experience Machine with a bit of skepticism.

…I’m not quite convinced by Nozick’s critique…. Perhaps my skepticism stems from my background as an economist and my profession’s emphasis on “choice at the margin,” to cite that theme again. The choice is not “Fantasy: yes or no?” but rather “How much fantasy do we want in our lives?”

Cowen is writing to defend the virtues of what he calls “human neurodiversity,” the value created by the differences different people have in their ability to have experiences and process information due to different neurologies. He focuses largely (though not exclusively) on the values and virtues of what he calls “autistic cognitive profiles,” and notes that in an important sense he (and perhaps everyone else) is already plugged into an experience machine: we structure our inner lives with stories about ourselves and benefit in real ways from certain kinds of self-deception. If these issues interest you, the book is very much for you (it was for me). You can also see Tyler Cowen in a Bloggingheads conversation with Fly Bottle blogger Will Wilkinson largely about the book here. Do check it out.

But fundamentally I would love to hear from readers about their intuitions in reaction to Nozick’s though experiment. Would you plug in? And if so, for how long?