Experience Machines

Gary Basin
4 min readSep 27, 2016

How much do we care about the world beyond our subjective experience of it? Robert Nozick’s Experience Machine thought experiment suggests we do seem to reject hedonism — most people care about things beyond their direct hedonic experience. A weaker version of the argument introduced here makes the conclusion more obvious: Consider a futuristic “experience machine” which plugs directly into your brain and can simulate any experience in a way that is sensorily indistinguishable from the way you previously experienced reality. If all you care about is the subjective sensorial experience of reality, you should be willing to plug into such a machine as long as it is capable of replicating the experience of the life you would have lived outside of it (with no other physical side effects). However, “faced with the choice of a life in the Experience Machine and a qualitatively identical life in reality, most people would prefer the latter”. Since most people seem to prefer their original life, the thought experiment suggests we care about other things besides hedonic experience.

In his original essay, Nozick proposes reasons for why we refuse to plug in. He also suggests that it may be helpful to consider other types of machines, perhaps used in conjunction with the original Experience Machine, to try to better circumscribe our preferences. Nozick’s conclusion is, in my words, that we are repulsed by the idea of using devices to live our lives for us — we would like to do it ourselves, in contact with reality. To the extent this is true, we are still faced with the challenge of defining precisely what this implies. Perhaps we can partially accomplish this by continuing to explore our intuitions about various hypothetical situations and other machines.

A good place to start is with one of the machines suggested by Nozick himself. One of his hypotheses for why we would refuse to plug into an Experience Machine is that it may frustrate a desire for having a tangible impact on the real world. Nozick suggests the idea of a Result Machine which, used in conjunction with an Experience Machine, “produces in the world any result you would produce and injects your vector input into any joint activity”. My interpretation of this is the Result Machine would operate a “zombie version” of you in the real world which acts as your proxy — anything you do in the Experience Machine would be mirrored by your zombie, and hence you would indirectly impact the underlying reality through your virtual actions. As far-fetched as this may sound, perhaps a realistic analogue is possible. Consider the idea of a drug which enables us to feel whatever we want while still being an actor in reality. Further, it would not incapacitate us, nor have other obviously negative side effects which are typically associated with pleasure-inducing drugs we are familiar with. Presumably many would refuse, perhaps because of a concern that the emotional state created by the drug would indirectly impact our desires and actions in a way that our sober mind does not want. In other words, under the influence of the drug or analogously via the Experience + Result machine combo, we are no longer perceiving direct control over our actions.

Next, consider a world where you develop evidence that you live in a simulation, and are further presented a means by which you can communicate with the agents administering the simulation. All other people around you are now known to be simulated, presumably in an equivalent sense as you are being simulated, but still you feel like a mind from the inside — a conscious being. Now consider if you are the only person in this simulation that is able to communicate with the alien agents — are you more likely to feel like you are connecting with an underlying true reality, or that you are simply crazy? Barring the scenario where the aliens give you information which allows you to demonstrate your newfound knowledge to others without stepping on the toes of those in power, it seems your perception of reality might not change. This reveals an intuition that reification is intersubjective. In practice, what seems real to us is what we agree upon with other seemingly conscious beings around us.

Finally, let us explore a machine which we could use in our current world. The Skills Machine would supercharge our capabilities: it would allow us to become effortlessly good and successful at anything we try, thereby becoming a magical device for making progress or bringing about results in our current reality. I predict many people would reject such a machine. To the extent that this is true, we reveal a preference for the experience of growth and mastery through our own efforts. In a similar vein, consider a Mind Control Machine which allows us to precisely influence the minds of others to think or act in specific ways. In some sense, using this machine reduces the extent to which the other person is behaving with what we perceive as free will. To the extent we refuse to use this, and I predict many would upon consideration, we reveal a preference for interacting with agents that seem to possess free will.

There is a big caveat in this analysis which is presented in a slightly different context in How the Experience Machine Works (also linked above). The problem is we are subject to a status quo bias when considering decisions of the sort presented by these thought experiments. We are likely more biased to reject an intervention into our existing reality to the extent that it has larger or more unusual repercussions. I’m not really sure to how to deal with this, but perhaps we can consider what sorts of machines we would use and see what that reveals about the problem.