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Nozick's Experience Machine: The Fallacy of Hedonism

Nozick's Experience Machine: The Fallacy of Hedonism

Libertarian Country |

It's generally true that humans seek pleasure and avoid pain, but is pleasure all that matters?

In his award-winning book Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Robert Nozick offers a thought experiment called the experience machine. An ultra sensory deprivation tank, the experience machine causes the submerged subject to experience a virtual reality indistinguishable from real life.

Observing the philosophy of axiological hedonism, let's assume that the user of this experience machine would select a virtual reality inducing an overload of pleasure and a complete absence of pain.

Swallowing the "blue pill," the egoist fades out of reality and enters a Matrix-like simulation program, immersed in the worldly pleasures of food, fame, recognition, recreation, sex and drugs.

The philosophy of hedonism suggests that the mere experience of pleasure is suitable, and he will wish for nothing beyond a life suspended inside a tube hooked up to electrodes.


There is a caveat to Nozick's thought experiment, however. The user must emerge from the experience machine every two years to select a new simulation to run--or choose not to reenter the tank.

Nozick's caveat is an important one to consider. While the subject is submerged inside the experience machine, they are unaware that they are naked inside a water tank. Essentially, there is no way to determine the validity of hedonism's claims while the subject is unresponsive.

(Do we know if he is perpetually enjoying the simulation or suffering from tedious boredom?)

Emerging from the tank, the egoist must confront the painful realization that the fame, status, wealth, recreation and numerous sex partners he experienced were only, in essence, a dream. (They forget they are in the tank.)

As long as immense pleasure is enjoyed, the philosophy of hedonism suggests that the subject would immediately sign up for another two years in the experience machine, avoiding displeasure and pain at all costs.

I'm sure some people would undoubtedly swallow the blue pill and sign up for another two years inside the experience machine, but most human beings reject the idea of perpetual simulated bliss, discrediting axiological hedonism.

The experience machine thought experiment alone could leave people with a sense of regret, emptiness, sorrow and displeasure, depending on how earnestly they delve into it. Most people say they would prefer a real life--with a mix of pleasure, struggle, virtue, merit, pain, and worldly things.

But why?

 

The Virtue of Merit

Though axiological hedonism claims that only pleasure has intrinsic value, those who indulge in hedonistic behavior often experience intense remorse, lending validity to the paradox of hedonism. If one desires only pleasure intrinsically, one will be prevented from obtaining it.

Humans enjoy pleasure and reward, but a lack of merit can dissolve the blissful experience, so many people would avoid a prolonged dip in the experience machine.

A musician might dream of standing before a large audience, receiving the standing ovation of a lifetime. Envisaging the thunderous applause is motivational. However, even if indistinguishable from reality, experiencing a simulation of the event is hollow and empty. For most people, it has to be real.

On stage, receiving their ovation, the musician must have reference points of struggle (countless hours of practice, rejection, blisters, fear of never reaching their goal, misery or depression) for the reward to have substance. Merit is essential.

If a pill were offered to instantly transform an obese man with no muscles into a sculpted Adonis, some would grab a glass of water and swallow it without hesitation.

But beneath the fleeting ecstasy of appearing like a GQ model, the man must confront the reality that he did nothing to earn it. This factoid may even be brought to his attention by onlookers. He receives neither praise nor applause for his cheating, inevitably leading to regret, guilt and humiliation.

On the other hand, an athlete who has spent thousands of hours in the gym and years of pulsating pain and suffering to achieve and maintain an alpha-male physique will receive authentic praise.

In pursuit of pleasurable rewards, the individual is willing to endure pain and suffering--so long as there is an empirical benefit. Our observations here lend credibility to motivational--yet perhaps not axiological--hedonism. However, the willingness to suffer and endure pain is not always in pursuit of pleasure.

 

The Intrinsic Value of Suffering

Motivational and axiological hedonism claims that humans are driven only to pursue pleasure and avoid pain, but the argument is flawed.

In a non-masochistic way (that is, devoid of pleasure), humans embrace suffering and struggle for different reasons because it has value.

By practitioners of such, spiritual or religious fasting is believed to expose the individual to a heightened state of connectivity with nature, the universe or God. This is sometimes called divine suffering. Spiritual fasting aims to gain clarity, empathy, compassion, understanding, truth and wisdom.

While these are, in essence, rewards, they are not uniquely defined (or typically viewed) as pleasure. Much can be learned from struggling that is independent of feelings of bliss and euphoria.

For example, a person who has fasted for 14 days understands the wretched, burning, painful exhaustion of food deprivation. As such, they may become more empathetic to other people starving and be motivated to offer them food and provisions.

While there is a reflective joy to charity and philanthropy, the motivation was not self-indulgent bliss. The reason was to rid someone else of their suffering, empathetically understanding their pain.

Parents who endure years of stress and misery raising children may one day enjoy a moment of reverent celebration, but they were motivated by a selfless investment into the future generation (duty, if you will), not necessarily by bliss or euphoria.

Through suffering, we learn and deepen our wisdom. Our struggling years are how we build character and become intelligent, complex and enriched people. It is something that should be embraced.

French novelist Marcel Proust famously said, "We are healed of a suffering only by experiencing it to the full." Proust believed suffering was an invitation to explore the depths of human consciousness, which would scarcely lead to an abundance of pleasure, bliss or euphoria.

In Proust's early 20th-century novel In Search of Lost Time, he effectively illustrates that the hedonistic pursuit of pleasure will only leave a person constantly searching. Rather, like an artist, one should cultivate a childlike appreciation of the world around them and enjoy the simpler things in life.

Constantly indulging in pleasurable moments builds tolerance to pleasure. Take, for example, the habitual consumption of opioids. The second high is never quite as euphoric as the first. Greater and greater dosages will be necessary to achieve a high similar (but weaker) to the last--until eventually it kills you.

 

Closing Statement

If axiological hedonism is correct in its assertion that pleasure is the only thing of intrinsic value, why does the idea of the experience machine repulse so many people?

It's because pleasure and struggle both have intrinsic value. The two form a symbiotic relationship--perhaps even a co-dependency--where balance is key. Too much pain is debilitating, but so is a surplus of pleasure. Nature rejects hedonism. The brain, however designed or evolved, self-regulates chemically induced dopamine production.

In my opinion, pleasure is optimal when it's sporadically enjoyed. In Plato's Republic, Socrates states that there is no communion between hedonism and virtue. Between periods of work and struggle, intervals of pleasure are more satisfactory than constant overstimulation--which can dull the sensation of pleasure and, at worst, become destructive or fatal.

In conclusion, I believe an addiction to pleasure and euphoria will inevitably lead to displeasure and disaster, thereby diluting its intrinsic value and thus creating a fallacy in the philosophy of hedonism.

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