The first question is based on Robert Nozick's famous Experience Machine thought experiment.
(2) Suppose there were an experience machine that could stimulate your brain so that you felt as if you were living any life you wanted. You could choose whatever you wanted--the ideal life of a surgeon, an entrepreneur, an actor--whatever. Brilliant and trustworthy scientists could program the machine to stimulate your brain so it seemed as if you were living that life. After choosing to plug in, your body would wind up floating in a tank, but you would feel as if you were living just the life you wanted. You wouldn't remember plugging in--it would just feel as if life continued, only better.Comments about that formulation most welcome.
Would you choose to plug in to the Experience Machine? YES NO
The next question is inspired by a paper by Felipe De Brigard. The general idea is to compare people's willingness to plug in to secure happiness (the original scenario), with their willingness to unplug to secure happiness. People are asked to believe they are already living a virtual life -- they plugged in many years ago, and their memory of doing so was erased. Here's the way we've formulated this question--
(3) Guess what? You actually were given the choice in question (2) 10 years ago. You've been plugged in to the Experience Machine for all these years. You chose an option called "normal life," which is why things haven't gone quite perfectly for you. In fact, you are plugged in right now. You are not looking at a real computer screen, but only experiencing an illusion generated by the Experience Machine. Brilliant life-forecasting scientists can tell you if your dreams will be fulfilled if you decide to unplug from the Experience Machine and start living a real life. Suppose your dream is _______ (imagine the blank filled according to your personal dreams). The scientists tell you that your dreams will be fulfilled if you unplug.
Would you choose to unplug from the Experience Machine? YES NOThe question has to say something about the real world people will be returning to and we've done that differently than De Brigard does. In one version, he simply said life in the real world would be very different from life in the experience machine. In another version, people were told they would get to be an artist living in Monaco. We've created a version that's more the mirror image of the original. Like in the original thought experiment, the choice to change (now from the Experience Machine to reality) gives you the life of your dreams.
De Brigard found that people are as reluctant to leave the Experience Machine as they are to plug into it. He attributes that to "status quo bias." That's what's making them refuse to unplug in the second scenario and refuse to plug in to begin with. So much for Nozick's view that we want contact with reality, he thinks.
But I think our question is fairer, since it preserves the temptation to switch that was part of the original thought experiment. Without that, status quo bias is being elicited more strongly in the second scenario. It's not fair, then, to reason that if it's behind people's reactions to the second scenario, it's also behind their reaction to the first.
Suppose people say NO to both questions. Perhaps status quo bias is the reason, and Nozick was wrong about our desire for contact with reality. But there's another possibility. Status quo bias could swamp people's reactions. They just want life to go on as usual. They're change averse. It's possible that they also do want contact with reality. Do they? Perhaps we can find out by offering a choice between two highly novel options, so there's no possibility of going on as usual. That's the idea behind this choice--
(4) You've always wanted to go to Antarctica, and a wealthy benefactor has decided to pay for the $20,000 super-deluxe trip. At the last minute, the donor offers you a choice between the best real trip to Antarctica that money can buy, and plugging into the Experience Machine for an even more flawless trip. It's all the same to the donor, as the cost to her is $20,000 either way. She advises you that on the real trip, there are possible negatives that cannot be controlled. You will take a ship from Peru to Antarctica, possibly experiencing sea swells. If you plug in to the Experience Machine, it will seem as if you are having a perfect trip. There will be no sea swells. If you plug in, trustworthy scientists will unplug you at the end of the trip. They will also erase the memory that you plugged in and it will seem to you as if you remember a real -- and perfect -- trip.Granted, if people think they start off in the real world, and they choose REAL here, they're preserving the status quo in some sense. But not in an experiential sense. So it seems to me this ought to reduce the role of status quo bias. A good showing for REAL will at least strongly suggest that Nozick was right, and people do desire contact with reality.
Would you choose the real trip or plug into the Experience Machine? REAL PLUG IN
That's what I'm thinking, anyway. Your thoughts about it welcome.
Very interesting. I'm a graduate student at the University of Toronto, and we were discussing Nozick's Experience Machine in my tutorials today. I polled the students before we started the discussion. I had them put their heads on the table, close their eyes, and then raise their hands if they would not plug in, then if they would plug in. Each class had about 25 students, and consistently only a 1/3 in each tutorial said they would plug in.
One thing that came up in each tutorial, however, is how we should understand continuity with our current relationships. For example, would we continue to have relationships with family and friends if we plugged in to the experience machine? Or are we somehow taking on a new life? And if we do have relationships with these individuals, is it actually with THEM, or is it some programmed version of them that isn't a conscious, subjective individual making decisions.
My hunch that part of what explains why people wouldn't want to unplug has to do with relationships that we are currently in. Often this part of the thought experiment isn't specified, but it gets at another potential problem with a Hedonistic account of the good. Perhaps we wouldn't unplug ourselves because we don't want to give up certain relationships. If this is the case, it isn't just the experiences we care about, but actual/real relationships with other individuals.
I've told students that in the "real" world it is 2075, they are in a nursing home, and have chosen to use a virtual-reality machine to re-experience the most wonderful time of their life: being a student in an intro philosophy class way back near the beginning of the century. But I like the idea of asking them whether they would want to unplug -- not to be old and in a nursing home, but to be still young and back in the "real" world. (The fact that I keep putting scare quotes around "real" indicates that I'm quite prepared to consider that this life may indeed be less than ultimate reality.)
By the way, I also pull a similar trick when I'm talking about Nietzsche's idea of eternal return: Just think, you've sat in this class listening to this lecture an infinite number of times before -- and will have to endure it an infinite number of times in the future! Now that's scary.
In the 1970s, I thought if a trumpet player could combine the physical technique of Doc Severinsen with the style of Dizzy Gillespie, then someone would really be playing trumpet. And I would fantasize I would be that player. But now I realize Dizzy's protege Jon Faddis plays like that, and I find it relatively uninteresting.
I also told my Dad, "I wish I could wake up at age 23 and play like Freddie Hubbard." And my Dad said, "You don't want to think like that."
Looking back on those two fantasies or preconceptions, my reality has turned out so much more interesting - partly because I finally realized I have physically squishy lips that stick inside the mouthpiece farther than most players, and once I realized that, and I had a custom mouthpiece made for that, my physical technique and resulting sound have become far more interesting than I could have fantasized or preconceived.
So the fact that we are physically embodied turns out far more interesting to me than being a brain in a vat.
Put another way - Miles Davis wanted to play like Dizzy, but he "failed" at that, and the reality of Miles turned out far more interesting than a copy of Dizzy.
Nice. And I'm as interested as you in having cases that would work in class. Some random thoughts:
The first experiment. While one could still debate just what a NO answer shows (and here I'm not just thinking of the possible status quo bias), this sounds fine to me. I suspect it does matter what the examples of a possibly ideal life are: Had you you suggested "the ideal life of a someone doing grassroots work for the poor, or taking care of loved ones", it's likely you'd get fewer YES answers. What does that mean for how the case ought to be described? Depends on what you want to do with it.
The next one. If the point is to test if the direction of one's choice means anything, or if there is a status quo bias - in the original experiment - I think you're right that you would have to try to make the offer as tempting as the first one. But i's not clear to me that the temptation therefore ought to be the same - basically, to live a life that feels good. I take it that in this scenario my dreams could still be living a "normal life", but the way you have set it up, it might sound to people as if this turned out to be a loser's choice. And anyone thinking a life of ups and downs - albeit a fake one - is a better life than one where you get everything you ask for, would stay plugged in for that reason. I don't know, what would happen if the offer was to continue living a normal life, although now one that was for real?
The last one. I think this is a nice experiment. But perhaps more limited in what it could show. I guéss we might have reasons to allow ourselves to be deceived - or for that matter to endure seasickness or whatever - on a single occasion, without this saying much about how we would like to our lives in general.
More generally speaking, whether the formulations are problematic obviously depends on what exactly the thought experiments are supposed to test. One would like to isolate the factors that might come into play, of course, and we all realize this is virtually impossible. What factors could be confounders, as it were, in cases like these? Some that come to mind:
How did you end up being plugged in or unplugged? By choice (actual or hypothetical?) or by being forced into this condition? If the former, is there a commitment effect? If the latter, you seem to have reason to revert it just because you feel that have been wronged.
We might have a preference for lives that we feel are ones that turn out they do partly because of our own choices. The more one stresses the brilliance of the forecasting scientists, the more people might feel that the life they are predicting will be one where there is no free will.
While happiness is welcome, we might have a preference for lives that involve some frustrations. Such a bias would not necessarily be a preference for reality over experience.
Will the order in which the cases are presented (and choices made) matter? How might this order guide intuitions? Any effects of a desire to be "consistent"?
Sorry about these ramblings.
Thanks for all the comments. Made me both think & laugh!
Daniel, Yes, I get that response too--people want to know if they're going to be leaving friends and family behind. Question (4) is aimed at filtering out that concern. You're just going on a short trip alone, whatever you do (I think I'd better make that clearer).
Linus, Yes, it really is hard to say how to construct the "reverse" scenario. It does depend on what we're testing. What I'm aiming for is to test DeBrigard's hypothesis that status quo bias underlies both the reluctance to unplug and the reluctance to plug in. To test that, we need to make sure one scenario doesn't elicit that bias any more than the other. That's a tricky thing to pull off, when in one case you're going into the EM and in the other you're returning to reality. I'm trying to give people just as much ability to predict & control their future in the second scenario. But yeah--to pull that off, I wind up introducing some distractions--what's with those life-forecasting scientists? Does their existence mean I won't have free will? Hmm--not sure how to avoid that!
Another thing that worries me--
The original thought experiment offers people tons of ideal happiness. Given that enticement, a refusal to plug in seems to indicate a very strong preference for contact with reality. To challenge that with the reverse scenario, you need to make the reality option just as tempting as the EM option was in the original scenario, but would should we tempt people with?
Maybe to make things "equal and opposite" we ought to be tempting them with extra contact with reality, not extra happiness. So maybe we should tell them if they unplug, they will have a lot of "contact with reality" goods, i.e. especially high levels of knowledge and achievement???
We don't do that with our "reverse" scenario but instead just try to keep the factors eliciting status quo bias no greater than in the original scenario.
Just a quick addition to how you present the experience machine. Often people don't want to enter the experience machine because they feel like they'd be abandoning their loved ones. Its too selfish. So if you could add the caveat that friends and family will be supportive of your decision and may even happily enter into a pod if you do... Or something similar.
I very much agree with Daniel Hooley that the question of what happens to our loved ones is a key question.
However there are a number of others which I detail at length in a post you can find here.
If my musings are correct then I predict you will get a very high "PLUG IN" response rate for question 4. You eliminate committing to the experience machine for life which is a primary barrier to assenting to the experience machine. Not only that but a simple "trip" is a very discrete and largely passive experience. Therefore there will be no anxiety about "not actually doing" the thing in question.
I think question 3 is somewhat problematic. I know that you want to capture the "fulfilling of dreams" on a one to one basis. However, Nozick works in a substantial amount of negative imagery into his experience machine. If you want the question to preserve a 1 to 1 ratio there are additional elements that ought to be preserved.
For example, as people have noted the question of what happens to loved ones looms large. In your "normal life" experience machine adventure you will have close personal relations. Will you leave these people behind when you go into your new real but ideal life? Are you committing to unplugging from the experience machine FOR LIFE and will be you be allowed to plug back in if choose to visit them?
Furthermore, Nozick's question really focuses on being allowed to choose from a "smorgasbord" of experiences, not just having an ideal life. That alone makes it difficult to make the comparison 1 to 1.
Compare for example your questions 2 and 3. Question 2 reads:
"You could choose whatever you wanted--the ideal life of a surgeon, an entrepreneur, an actor--whatever. Brilliant and trustworthy scientists could program the machine to stimulate your brain so it seemed as if you were living that life."
But question 3 reads:
"Brilliant life-forecasting scientists can tell you if your dreams will be fulfilled if you decide to unplug from the Experience Machine and start living a real life. Suppose your dream is _______ (imagine the blank filled according to your personal dreams). The scientists tell you that your dreams will be fulfilled if you unplug."
I don't find those to be commensurable scenarios--they should read the same. Why not import the text from question 3 into question 2 (the answer is partly that it veers a bit far from Nozick's formulation which is more specific and therefore less appealing).
My prediction is that almost everyone will want the real trip to Antarctica...but we'll see!
Hmm--I see your point about the different language in (2)and (3). The reason for that is because in question (2) it's easy to tell people how it is that the EM will deliver superlative happiness--people will say what they want and programmers will give it to them. In (3) we want to offer a superlative life as well, but how's that going to be arranged? We don't want people thinking there will be secret agents running around adjusting things, because that could seem unpleasant and not quite "real". I went for the idea of simply saying that a superlative life will materialize, and reinforcing that with the idea that life-forecasting scientists say so.
OK, so why not just import the same language from (3) to (2)? That's not a bad idea, actually--except that now we're departing pretty drastically from the way Nozick set things up. That's not really a strong objection though. So--it's a thought.
An additional suggestion for question #4. The question says:
"If you plug in, trustworthy scientists will unplug you at the end of the trip. They will also erase the memory that you plugged in and it will seem to you as if you remember a real -- and perfect -- trip."
I think this needs modification. It should read:
If you plug in, trustworthy scientists will unplug you at the end of the trip. They will also, if you so desire, erase the memory that you plugged in and it will seem to you as if you remember a real -- and perfect -- trip. However, if you want to remember your trip and that you took it via experience machine, they can leave that memory intact.
I think many people will have an adverse reaction to having their memory erased it smacks to much of impure manipulation. I know the point here is to make sure that people can remember the trip as real, but that should be their choice, not an integral part of the question. This problem also infects question 2: "you wouldn't remember plugging in-it would just feel as if life continued only better." Again, this should be a choice to forget. Otherwise your pumping loss of freedom intuitions.
As for mixing 2 and 3 I agree that as stands it brings 2 closer to Nozick's original formulation, flawed though it may be. However you could also move 2 to 3 without much consequence:
(3) Guess what? You actually were given the choice in question (2) 10 years ago. You've been plugged in to the Experience Machine for all these years. You chose an option called "normal life," which is why things haven't gone quite perfectly for you. In fact, you are plugged in right now. You are not looking at a real computer screen, but only experiencing an illusion generated by the Experience Machine. Brilliant life-forecasting scientists can tell you if your ideal life--the ideal life of a surgeon, an entrepreneur, an actor, whatever, will be fulfilled if you decide to unplug from the Experience Machine and start living a real life. After choosing to unplug you would find yourself living the life you wanted.
That brings the two more into alignment, though frankly I would just completely drop the "tank talk" from question 2. The question of how the experiences are injected is needlessly distracting, particularly if we are talking about a life-long commitment to the experience machine.
In the movie Bedazzled (the 1967 original, with Drimblewedge and the Vegetation), the movie ends with the Devil offering to fulfill Stanley's fantasy with no strings attached, and Stanley says something like, "No thanks, I'll try it my way this time."
I find that tremendously moving, and I like to ask myself, "Why?" What's my investment that makes me feel that?
My moral intuition feels Stanley has made moral progress, and I feel a sense of moral victory -- maybe this is what moral realism feels like. At the same time, I take my moral feelings with a grain of salt -- I can't say for sure what I'm cheering for.
Still, I bet most people would share my feelings for Stanley at the end.
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