The year is 1974. Harvard philosophy professor Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia has just hit the shelves. A few dozen pages in, Nozick prods you to consider a simple thought experiment: Imagine you had a choice between everyday reality and a fabricated, alternative existence provided by what he called “the experience machine.”
This apparatus, invented by neuroscientists, could be set in advance to provide you the feeling of all your desired experiences over the course of your life. Nozick assures us that this simulated existence would seem entirely real, although you’d merely be floating in a tank, attached to electrodes.
Hedonism is the view that pleasure (sometimes also labeled “happiness”) is the chief good humans strive for. If hedonism holds, then, by definition, all human action would be strictly a means to that end. When prompted with the opportunity to pre-program a lifetime of pleasurable experiences, hedonists would rejoice: they would strap into the experience machine. However, most people, feeling a deep unease even contemplating the choice, indicate they would decline the offer. From this we are left to conclude that people value more in life than felt experience alone. Nozick’s clever hypothetical is generally viewed as convincing among contemporary philosophers as a robust challenge to hedonism and utilitarian theories in moral and political philosophy based on it.
Now let’s flash forward forty years from the thought experiment’s formal philosophical introduction and have a look at the current state of affairs. Does the experience machine, or something like it, exist?
The world we live in is digitized and connected like never before and it just so happens that a lot of people spend a lot of time taking advantage of that. Some of today’s widely used technologies can feel like low-level experience machines, although none come close to being a proxy for Nozick’s. That is all about to change. Oculus, a kickstarter-launched company has created what might be the next screen to claim its place in the pixilated lineage of groundbreaking electronic devices. Its virtual reality (VR) headset, dubbed the Rift, provides an immersive first-person sensory experience that will have a wide range of applications in the future. Facebook executives thought so highly of the technology that they speculated it could become the globe’s “next major computing platform” and promptly coughed up two billion dollars to make it their own.
While virtual reality has been around for quite some time in various forms, this recent innovation represents a large shift towards real-life experience machines. Call it Nozick’s axis:
While the Rift is impressive, any possibility of realizing Nozick’s famous thought experiment depends on how well VR matches up against certain characteristics of the conceptual machine.
Nozick’s machine satisfies two important criteria in order to maximize the usefulness of the thought experiment. The first, and most important, is the realism of the felt experiences the machine generates. Nozick explains that “Of course, while in the tank you won’t know that you’re there: you’ll think it’s all actually happening.” This is clearly crucial to the integrity of the experiment. The second, supporting criterion is one of a comprehensive inventory of experiences to choose from: “we can suppose that business enterprises have researched thoroughly the lives of many others. You can pick from their large library or smorgasbord of such experiences.”
This second requirement is inserted to ensure the respondent’s answer hinges on the main intent of the hypothetical. If Nozick’s machine does not provide the entire range of reality-based experiences, then we would not be able to confidently determine those who do not plug in truly value something beyond felt experience. They may prefer experiences in reality that the machine is not able to provide.
Virtual reality technology is closer to satisfying the realism requirement than most thought possible at this stage. Those who have tried the Rift have expressed nearly universal surprise and praise for just how real the whole thing seems. The view is 3D and 360 degrees. The interaction is dynamic and real-time. You look over a virtual cliff and feel your knees weaken. It is this increasingly authentic experience that sets VR apart.
Have you ever battled persistent feelings that you were the main character while reading a good book? Have you ever questioned whether or not you actually acted out the plot of your favorite movie? Do you know of anyone who, after playing a first-person shooting game, feels guilty of violent crimes? These questions are nonsensical precisely because there is no effort required to distinguish what is real in such mediums. These issues will not only arise in the VR world, they will be central to it. As the author at the previous link notes, “all entertainment before required some effort for us to be immersed.” VR turns this relation on its head, tricking your brain into a sense of presence from the get-go while leaving it up to your conscious willpower to convince yourself otherwise.
Mark Zuckerberg described his use of the Rift as follows: “The incredible thing about the technology is that you feel like you’re actually present in another place with other people. It’s different from anything I’ve ever experienced in my life.” That praise is heaped upon the product of a company founded less than three years ago. So is it all that difficult to imagine that at some point in the next five or ten, when your colleague asks you if you’ve ever been to Europe, you might answer yes. After all, no one knows that your trip to Barcelona only cost you $19.99 and twenty hours of your weekend with a screen strapped to your face. At some point, perhaps, neither will you.
It is the lack of engrossing and reality-blurring features in other mediums on our axis that cause them to fall far short of the experience machine. They stack up much better when it comes to meeting the selection requirement. Human creativity has stockpiled a massive variety of books, TV shows, movies, video games, YouTube videos, etc. There is no reason not to think a similarly diverse selection of experiences will be built for VR, even if it is still very early. There is, however, good reason to believe that the extent to which the realism requirement is met will depend on the desired experience. While developers may trick you into believing you are riding a roller coaster, how will VR ever duplicate the experience of “writing a great novel, or making a friend” like Nozick’s machine is capable of? Can VR ever reproduce experiences in these areas?
Such experiences inherently rely on much more than a quality field of vision and convincing audio; they require an integrated environment and societal backdrop that is difficult to even speculatively imagine. Whether or not VR can achieve this is debatable, even if it might feel like a matter of “when” rather than “if.” More interesting for the philosophical ramifications of early VR however, is that it does not have to match Nozick’s experience inventory to claim the title of “an” experience machine. Once the realism requirement is met in a single experience, any experience, then we have a limited version of the full-blown thing.
Unraveling Nozick’s selection criterion revealed that those who choose not to plug into a prototype machine could be doing so for multiple reasons, which spoils the thought experiment. The flip side is that, by logical extension, those who do in fact choose to plug into a crude, work-in-progress machine have answered Nozick’s fundamental question. If your benchmark for plugging in is already met with the options of experiences A, B, and C, then the additional options of experiences D or E won’t cause you to change your mind. This simple point allows for virtual reality to provide hard data on the thought experiment in the (very?) near future. If there is even one experience that today’s VR can clear the realism hurdle on, then I submit that we are already beyond the hypothetical.
Of course, not all VR use will qualify as hedonistic rejection of reality. It is much more likely that the vast majority, especially early on, will augment or compete with reality rather than replace it. Simply because crude experience machines exist, does not mean they are used as experience machines, per se. Someone who virtually meets their doctor for purposes of convenience can hardly said to be abandoning reality, even if we could prove they truly believe the encounter occurred. On the other hand, is it unreasonable to propose that someone who spends nearly every possible free second absorbed in passive (meaning they don’t control anything) virtual experiences (that satisfy the realism criterion) has answered the thought experiment in the affirmative?
There are other confounding variables worth considering. What if your main reason for hooking up to the VR machine is a lack of resources, (e.g. time, money), even if you’d prefer the same experiences in reality? Furthermore, Nozick speculates that (one reason) we might choose reality is because “we want to be a certain way, to be a certain sort of person.” But what if virtual reality communities allow us to channel our own personality and sense of self through interaction with other users? Should this be viewed as an extension of our being, grounded in reality? Does this mean we are dealing with an even better machine than Nozick’s, or rather does it not qualify as one at all? Many equally interesting questions could be raised.
What is much clearer is that more progress will be made in the VR arena. Massive online role-playing games already exhibit some of the features necessary to build out the selection of trickier experiences. Engineers are likely toiling away on the next set of features that will expand VR’s realism as well, such as incorporating arm motion, 3D acoustics, and the utilization of other senses. Humans fundamentally understand their surroundings through a constant processing of inputs. More effort will be required to continually differentiate the real from the simulated as the quality of those virtual inputs improves. As the ecosystem evolves and attracts more interest and talent, we will therefore find ourselves continuously pushing VR farther along our constructed axis, closing the gap with Nozick’s machine, which is, after all, a largely (though not entirely) static endpoint.
So whether you’re convinced we are already sharing a globe with the first incarnations of the experience machine, or you believe that point is yet to come, virtual reality has the potential to re-invigorate philosophy as we know it (among many other things). Its reach will go far beyond Nozick’s thought experiment, as the ontological and epistemological questions it raises tug at the core of metaphysics. “Now” doesn’t seem too soon to accelerate study of these issues. VR use will not present itself as a clear referendum on reality the way a tidy thought experiment does. That means the sooner the better, because if you’re not looking for it, you just might miss it.
Jordan Zino works in investment research in Boston. His undergraduate studies were in finance and economics. He is a believer in the power of markets, ideas, and coffee.