07 August 2006

The Experience Machine

Yesterday during breakfast my friends brought up the Experience Machine (EM). I thought the EM was some sort of new Jimi Hendrix-based roller coaster or something that the kids are into; but it's actually a thought experiment, which Nozick inaugurated in Anarchy, State, and Utopia.
Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you 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, preprogramming your life's desires?...Of course, while in the tank you won't know that you're there; you'll think it's all actually happening. Others can also plug in to have the experiences they want, so there's no need to stay unplugged to serve them. (Ignore problems such as who will service the machines if everyone plugs in.) Would you plug in? What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside? (43)
The EM was brought up in a political context, but as things developed (i.e., my friends and I ate our food and sobered up) things got more punchy, and we tried to figure out what people would really do and what the differences are between the EM and reality?

I have a friend who's a total dork; and he thinks the EM is perfect, like the perfect video game. He wishes it upon his family and friends. He seems to think that experience is experience of phenomena, i.e., mental states. And I think this commits him to a Berkleyan-type idealism. For the move Kant makes seems to require something actually there, objects about which we can never know absolutely everything; and Husserl's method requires the human to give meaning to already present objects, both historically and personally; and neither idealist wants to go as far as Berkeley. I think my friend wants to say, though, that rather than human understanding imposing a meaning upon the necessarily-given world, the human understanding simply creates the given world. For he says there's no difference between the EM and reality, and in fact, the former is better than the latter.

This answer to the thought experimentseems to defy tradition, so I'm down with it. But I think my friend is rather callous and inhuman. Under the way I was thinking about things, speaking about the EM is a different language-game than speaking about reality as such. Speaking about the EM is a different language-game than speaking about video games, or reading realistic, Zola-esque novels. I.e., you would want to say that it's OK to kill people in the EM because they're not really people--you're not creating any victims (in the hotshit parlance of whatever). Even though there's no epistemic difference, there is an ontological difference. And that difference in language-game means that something is different. If the words themselves are the same, and the meaning is different, then you can be certain that the context, use or practice is different. This difference in action is the difference between the EM and reality.

Is it OK to kill someone in the EM? Why don't skeptics commit more atrocious crimes? (Or become priests, mediums to the other world of which ours is a poor reflection.) In another world in which, say, there is no ethics, can you act in whatever way you want? How would your actions be different in this non-ethical world and our (supposedly) ethical world?