Notes of a Degenerate Dreamer: A Defense Of The Experience Machine
By Sebastian Vice
With Mark Zuckerberg’s latest abortion in the works (The Metaverse—What an unoriginal name), perhaps it’s time to revisit the question: Should be plug into virtual reality?
For the purposes of this essay, I won’t focus on the extensive cyberpunk literature, Philip K. Dick’s musings, nor The Matrix. I’ll operate under the plausible assumption anyone reading this is versed enough with literature and film culture to know these. Rather, I’ll meditate on the philosophical thought experiment by Robert Nozick, and conclude by saying: There are good reasons to plug in.
In his 1974 book Anarchy, State, and Utopia Robert Nozick proposes a hypothetical machine commonly called “The Experience Machine” or “The Pleasure Machine.” Robert Nozick’s aim was to pump the intuition that pleasure isn’t the only intrinsic good (philosophical hedonism). The thought experiment goes roughly like this.
Suppose you’re presented with two options.
Option One: Nothing changes about your present circumstance.
Option Two: You plug into a machine that gives you unlimited pleasure (think of pleasure in a broad sense—the carnal to the sublime to contentment and equanimity). Moreover, built into this hypothetical is a complete absence of pain and suffering. In other words: Pure pleasure (defined how you like), with none of the dopamine withdrawal side effects. However, the stipulation is that in plugging in, all your external world perceptions are fake, and all your beliefs about the physical world are false. In other words, by plugging in, you trade pleasure for living a lie (this is suppose to be bad, I guess).
Would you plug in? If you pick option one over two, you’re rejecting hedonism, and claiming that there are other fundamental goods besides pleasure (such as a commitment to truth).
The experience machine has many conceptual problems. First, it ignores the Buddhist, Taoist and Hindu insight that pleasure and pain are poles of the same thing. That is, you can’t have one without the other. For a great modern text on the link between pleasure and pain, consult Dr. Anna Lembke’s book Dopamine Nation. However, for the sake of argument, let’s pretend those who constructed the experience machine divorced pleasure and pain.
The first assumption Nozick makes is people, generally, value truth. But do we? I wager not. We value what we believe to be true. Few us of value truth if it goes against what we believe. We might say we are committed to truth seeking, but few of us make good on this commitment in practice. Aristotle said man is a rational animal, though it’s more accurate to say man (or humans) are rationalizing animals. We don’t so much value truth, as we value the illusion of being right to boost our shallow egos and identity. If what we believe happens to be true, that’s merely incidental.
One also might worry that by plugging in we live a façade. Nothing is “real.” Our actions are devoid of meaning and significance (so one might think). But are they? They can be meaningful to us, so who cares if they have no relation to external reality? Second, and this is a starting point of existential philosophy: We are all strangers to one another. My perception of any person isn’t of that person per se, only the mental model I’ve constructed based on external stimuli of that person cut with my own experience, prejudice and preconceived notions. So we never know a person. Not really. All we can know is the mental model we’ve constructed. So is the experience machine really all that bad if everyone we meet doesn’t exist—for all intents and purposes—in external reality?
Given cellphones, snapchap, tinder, YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, Pornhub, etc. How many of us engage in existence in a meaningful way right now? At least in the modern technocratic hellhole we live in, very few I suspect. Marx, among others, outlined four alienations that occur within capitalist societies. Alienation from nature. Alienation from others. Alienation from work. Alienation from self. Looking around, it’s not hard to see that on a macro level, we hold nothing but indifferent contempt for the natural world (Climate change). On a micro level, many, or most of us are content filtering our experience through flickering screens. And when we do venture outside, how often do we just BE with nature?
We are aliens to one another. Again, many, or most of us, are content with shallow human connection with flickering screens. We FaceTime. We Snapchap. We Zoom. We Text. I can’t be the only one who’s had the depressing sight of two people on a date, not talking, just texting. That’s enough to make any person with a heart search for the gun they don’t have to blow their fucking brains out.
Most of the work we do is trivial and worthless. Read David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs for a nice analysis of how meaningless and pointless a large percentage of jobs are (Kafka, eat your heart out). Do corporate lawyers serve a useful function? No. Wall Street brokers who’s job isn’t to produce anything, but just rapidly transfer money. Or, consider bloated academic administrators whose job is to leach off the backs of people actually doing important work (you know, the fucking poorly paid and mistreated teachers). If these jobs vanished tomorrow, would we miss them? I don’t think so. In many cases, I wager even those in these braindead professions would rejoice.
And we are alienated from ourselves. We are more a mystery to ourselves than anything else in the universe. Do we really trust ourselves? We are full of all sorts of insecurities and don’t really, deep down, know what we REALLY want or REALLY need. We fumble around like children with chainsaws.
All this leads to: I don’t see a compelling reason NOT to plug into the experience machine. Hell, the contortions we go through to escape reality already boggle the mind. In some sense, we’re already living in a perverted experience machine. The only difference is we’re constantly chasing it, rarely getting its full effect, and as a result, end up miserable resentful pricks.
Sebastian Vice is the founder of Outcast-Press, an indie publishing company specializing in transgressive fiction and dirty realism. His poetry and short fiction has, or will, appear in Punk Noir Magazine, A Thin Slice of Anxiety, Close To The Bone, Terror House Magazine, and the anthology In Filth It Shall Be Found.