• The Experience Machine Revisited

    One of the very first blog pieces on ATP from the early days when we were Skeptic Blogs was The Experience Machine: Would You Live In A Utopian Virtual Reality? I am now going to revisit this a little, based on a random philosophical experience I had the other day whilst walking at the beach.

    Is it better to live a life plugged into a machine which gives you some kind of utopia (think benign Matrix) than to live a life of ‘reality’ with all the misery, pain and suffering, as well as happiness, joy and success? If this virtual reality gave us a life where we were successful and supremely happy with no poverty or any other commonly understood negative aspect to life, would this not be preferable to our real life?


    There are asides to be made on this thought experiment. For instance, is it that the person is cognisant of being plugged in or not? Is ignorance bliss, so that not knowing that everyone hates you and thinking happily that you are popular may be more attractive? Does having negative things in life provide useful experiences for that life? If so, then I suppose these experiences could themselves be built into the machine to create an optimal life / happiness.

    Now the philosophy gets really interesting, and we get a good argument against living in ‘reality’, that we should plug in This is the argument that suggests we already live in a virtual reality. Now I don’t mean by this that we already live in The Matrix but that our brains already form a representation of objective reality. Our brains are experience machines as it is, just not ones which guarantee utopian happiness.

    This works on two levels. Firstly, we live in denial of the impact of our lives and decisions on others (we live only a mile away from death, our decision to buy x means that children have to work in a sweat shop, eating meat causes the death of x animals, voting for x government causes more trouble in the world than if we had voted for y, unbeknownst to us etc etc). In this manner, we are already in a machine which is denying us full access to true reality – how do we get out of it?!

    Secondly, and more in line with my being an argument against living in reality is that our brains act already as the experience machines in a more mechanistic way. 80% of the input into our visual cortex comes from the rest of our brains and not from our eyes [1]. We interpret everything from the external world into the paradigm of our subjective understanding. The biological machines that are our brains are not guaranteed to do a great or accurate job of this. I don’t want to get on to Idealism, Kant, phenomena and noumena, but you get the picture. Psychology also defends such an idea that we are already in such a machine. When asked about our ability / state of affairs in a number of things, including happiness and driving, the majority of people answer that they are above average (known as illusory superiority). Of course, this is problematic since a majority of people cannot easily be above average. We have a subjective distortion of reality (which actually allows us to function successfully). Positive illusions are good for us (and this has been found to be true in psychology such as in research into views of partners in marriage). If we were to have an accurate appraisal of reality (of who we and the people around us were really like and what the real consequences were to all of our decisions and the real nature of our state of existence), then we would be more likely to tend towards depression. Sadder but wiser. It seems evolution has constructed and selected in mechanisms to help us cope with the real world. However, who is to say we should let evolution dictate our interpretation of reality? Why not bypass this anyway? Enough people spend enough time absorbed in computer games so let’s just take that reality one step further!

    The other day, my partner, twin boys and I were walking down the promenade by the beach. Helen suddenly took off her glasses and said, “Wow! That’s not nearly as nice!”

    It turns out that for the whole walk Helen had been wearing her sunglasses which had distorted her perception of reality. It improved it quite interestingly. I tried them on and the lens’ colours really brought different colours into play and made the whole environs markedly more impressive. It is hard t put such a perceptual thing into words.

    I started wondering whether we should all walk around with such lenses on since it was distinctly more aesthetically impressive. What would be the problem with this? That we would not be accessing ‘reality’ ‘properly’? But someone with defective corneas, or corneas or a brain which were even ‘better’ at perceiving colour qualifies each person as their own experience machine. What would be the ‘proper reality’ anyway – how would it be qualified? By being hungry, drunk, tired etc etc, we are altering our neurotypical perceptive qualities. And why should our neurotypical qualities be rendered the norm?

    But where would this end? You could, perhaps, conceive of a pair of Google Glasses-type gadgets which could delete graffiti, rubbish, dodgy looking gangs from your perception by deleting those visual stimuli before those things reached your eyes. Or they could add wildlife and biodiversity now extinct before your very eyes.download2

    Again this brings into question, in quite a real, hands-on way, that same question as to whether living in such an experience machine is better or worse then ‘reality’, and whether that question is inherently flawed since there is no objective reality as such.

    So does it really come back to a moral evaluation of life so that it is utilitarianism vs a more Aristotelian outlook: do we value our lives in relation to the things that we put ourselves towards doing, and in so doing can achieve happiness and tangible outcomes, a more flourishing life?

    What would you do – machine or no machine?

    Category: AestheticsFeaturedPhilosophy


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce