Academic journal article Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy

Our Intuitions about the Experience Machine

Academic journal article Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy

Our Intuitions about the Experience Machine

Article excerpt

FELIPE DE BRIGARD, Adam Kolber, Wayne Sumner, Dan Weijers, and Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek and Peter Singer have argued that our intuitions about Nozick's experience machine are untrustworthy because they are distorted by biases and irrelevant factors. De Brigard and Weijers recently conducted empirical studies regarding people's intuitions about versions of the experience machine to test which of our intuitions are not distorted by such biases and irrelevant factors. They claim their results show that our intuitions about the experience machine do not undermine hedonism (section I). I argue, on the basis of further empirical studies, that De Brigard and Weijers fail to establish that our intuitions about the experience machine do not undermine hedonism (section II).

Hedonism is the view that the only thing that is noninstrumentally good for us or that noninstrumentally improves our well-being is pleasure. Nozick famously asked us to consider the following thought experiment:

Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any
experience you desired. Superduper 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. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your
life's experiences? (1)

Nozick presumed that upon considering the experience machine the vast majority of people would judge that they should choose to remain in reality rather than plug into the machine, and that this gives us strong reason to reject hedonism. And our intuitions about Nozick's experience machine are widely held to give us strong reason to reject hedonism.

I

De Brigard, Kolber, Sumner, Weijers, and Lazari-Radek and Singer argue that our intuitions about Nozick's experience machine are prone to some of the following misleading factors and biases:

(a) Imaginative resistance to the possibility of such an experience machine, such as worries that the machine might not work as well as we think it does.

(b) The fact that we find it hard to give up responsibility for our loved ones in the way that we must if we plug into the experience machine.

(c) Overactive imaginations overreacting to the scenario and being overly horrified by Nozick's characterization.

(d) Status quo bias--that is, an inappropriate or irrational preference for an option because it preserves the status quo. (2)

According to these philosophers, the fact that our intuitions about the experience machine are prone to (a)-(d) directly or indirectly establishes that these intuitions do not give us strong reason to reject hedonism. (3)

This argument is made most strongly and plausibly by De Brigard and Weijers, who each develop versions of the experience machine our intuitions about which are supposedly not prone to (a)-(d). Call De Brigard's and Wejiers's versions of the experience machine Undistorted Experience Machines. De Brigard and Weijers conducted studies of people's intuitions about Undistorted Experience Machines and Nozick's experience machine. They found that, although a majority judge that we should choose reality rather than Nozick's experience machine, it is not the case that a majority judge that we should choose reality rather than an Undistorted Experience Machine. De Brigard and Weijers conclude that this shows that our intuitions about the experience machine do not give us strong reason to reject hedonism.

In De Brigard's Undistorted Experience Machine cases, we are asked to imagine being told by a reliable source that we have been living life inside an experience machine and are given the chance to unplug to lead a different life in reality. De Brigard's cases are intended to prevent status quo bias from influencing our anti-experience-machine intuitions. …

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