By Roger Crisp
In other words, the real objection against hedonism is not the experience machine. What is wrong with hedonism, if anything, is that it leaves out values other than pleasantness. And Nozick could have made that point without the machine, as had many other philosophers for thousands of years. Further, once we realize that even if we’re in an experience machine many non-hedonic values are available, it starts to become questionable whether the metaphysical distinction between the real and virtual world matters to our well-being at all.
It may be easier for the young to believe that it doesn’t matter. I have a friend who is involved in a consortium which invests in non-fungible digital tokens (NFTs) of valuable artworks. These tokens can be worth huge amounts of money, and I expressed surprise that people would be willing to pay these amounts for something which is, in effect, a copy of ‘the real thing’. My friend pointed out that many younger people, who no longer see any sharp distinction between the real and the virtual world, would take the NFT as the unique virtual equivalent of the real object, and so an item of great value, though perhaps, at present, less than that of the original. In future, as the real/virtual distinction breaks down further, the NFT may even be seen as preferable to the real but decaying Van Gogh, which is increasingly difficult to protect and insure.
This case shows that the experience machine objection can be made not only against hedonists, but against the proponent of any view which does not insist that being in the real world matters in itself (and note that there’s nothing to stop a hedonist changing their view and attaching value to ‘pleasure in the real world’ rather than just ‘pleasure’). How powerful an objection it is may depend on the nature of the values in question. For example, it might be thought that deep friendships in a virtual world are no less valuable than in the real world, or that understanding in a virtual world is of no less value than understanding in the real world, even if it is understanding of that world and not, say, mathematical principles true in all possible worlds, virtual or real. But it might then be said that climbing the real Kilimanjaro is more valuable than a virtual climbing of Kilimanjaro — what’s so impressive about merely appearing to climb a non-existent mountain? This, however, is too quick, and requires attention to what is meant by ‘appear’. In the virtual world, one is not merely appearing to climb Kilimanjaro; in the virtual world, one is really climbing it. The virtual world, we should assume, is as independent of one’s self as the real world — one is not making it up — and the challenges in climbing the virtual Kilimanjaro — the planning, skill, decision-making, risks, and so on — are the same.
I take hedonism about well-being or welfare to be the view that the only thing that is good for any being is pleasure, and that what makes pleasure good is nothing other than its being pleasant. The standard objections to hedonism of this kind have mostly been of the same form: there are things other than pleasure that are good, and pleasantness isn’t the only property that makes things good.
In recent decades, one version of this objection has received a great deal of attention: Robert Nozick’s famous ‘experience machine’, described in his Anarchy, State, and Utopia. The main problem is best taken to be that a hedonist must accept that a life on a machine which will create a certain amount of net pleasure for the person attached to it is no worse for that person than a life with the same amount of pleasure in the real world.
On the machine described by Nozick, the person will have no true personal relationships, achievements, genuine autonomy, deep understanding, and so on. It’s all just a playback of such experiences had by others. But we can imagine another, more sophisticated machine, which creates a single virtual world just like ours, in which those connected to the machine participate together. People make choices, have relationships, achieve things, and so on; but all in a virtual rather than a real world.
(Thanks to Theron Pummer for discussion.)
The experience machine’objection to hedonism has been a distraction, partly because it applies to non-hedonist theories, and partly because it is hard to see why being in the real world matters. What does matter is the question of what other than pleasure might increase well-being, whether in a real or virtual world. As time goes on, these aspects of the experience machine may be more widely recognized, and the objection’s reliance on the significance of the distinction between the real and the virtual may consign it for ever to the dustbin of the history of philosophy.
By Roger Crisp