Early in my research and writing, I stumbled upon a brief article that introduced me to the experience machine. The idea left an impact, burning the concept in my mind for over a decade. The author, who I have long forgotten, related the experience machine a concept originally presented by Robert Nozick (1974, pp. 42-45).
What is Robert Nozick’s Experience Machine?
Nozick directs readers to conduct an experiment by imagining a machine that could give you any experience you desired by simply plugging into it and allowing the machine to implant the feeling of experience.
“Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Super duper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain” (p. 42).
Nozick follows the supposition with the rhetorical question, “would you plug in?” We could plug into this virtual reality machine (something far from reality in 1974) and experience feelings of wonderful accomplishments. We could skip the pain and bathe in the beauties without ever leaving the lab.
The idea struck me as preposterous, even silly.
Humans Want Autonomy
Nozick answers his own question, arguing we wouldn’t exchange true experience for these mutants of reality. He explained, “first, we want to do certain things, and not just have the experience of doing them. In the case of certain experiences, it is only because first we want to do the actions that we want the experiences of doing them or thinking we’ve done them” (p. 43).
When I first read about the “experience machine”, I was in the middle of a divorce, losing a lifetime of equity through the collapse of the housing market, and being sued by a major bank over for my second mortgage. Life was failing on all fronts. But the idea of plugging into a machine to experience financial and marital success didn’t appeal to me. I wanted the real thing, not a counterfeit, even if the feelings were identical.
Fast forward to 2019. I stumbled through the years. I Regained financial security and found relationship security. The path was difficult. I worked more hours than I thought humanly possible. The dating game, the second time around, was fraught with frustrations and disappointments, far from the idealistic joys I dreamed single life would bring. Yet, I made it, eventually achieving what I would have wished for back then—without the machine.
The Experience of Being
The experience wasn’t pristine. The path not straight. Sorrows accompanied the joys. Frustrations spoiled some of the hope. Yet this path is the experience of being, living fully engaged in experience with the freedom to choose and adjust each step along the dusty road.
Erich Fromm considers a similar choice in his book To Have or To Be. “Faith in having mode is a crutch for those who want to be certain, those who want an answer to life without daring to search for it themselves” (2013, p. 31).
Fromm describes the Being mode as:
The mode of being has its prerequisites independence, freedom, and the process of critical reason. Its fundamental characteristic is that of being active, not in the sense of outward activity, of busyness, but of inner activity, the productive use of our human powers. To be active means to give expression to one’s faculties, talents, to the wealth of human gifts with which—though in varying degrees—every human being is endowed. It means to renew oneself, to grow, to flow out, to love, to transcend the prison of one’s isolated ego, to be interested, to “list”, to give. Yet none of these experiences can be fully expressed in words. The words are vessels that are filled with experience that overflows the vessels. The words point to an experience; they are not the experience (p. 76).
A Few Final Words By Psychology Fanatic
While no one has yet evented such a machine, we have many substitutes for the reality of experience. Perhaps, the Meta Universe, is similar to Robert Novick’s experience machine. Some narcotics alter brain functioning to provide peace when turmoil should prevail. Defense mechanisms convince with deception, claiming success when in reality one has failed. Many are lured to chase fast answers to life’s tough questions, using the crutch of ‘having’ instead of the stability of ‘being‘.
So, I ask, do you plug in?
Fromm, E. (2013) To Have or To Be? Bloomsbury Academic; Reprint edition
Nozick, R. (1974). Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Basic Books