SocietySpiegeloog 404: Experience

Would you plug in?

By May 29, 2020 No Comments

Is there more to human life than experience alone? Robert Nozick challenges us to consider this question by imagining a life that could hypothetically provide us with any experience we wanted, but detached from a higher reality. It is a question of trading self-induced experiences over being you. As we consider the digitalized era we find ourselves in today, witnessing technological advancements like artificial intelligence, it might be time to re-consider the value of meaning and subjective experience. 

Is there more to human life than experience alone? Robert Nozick challenges us to consider this question by imagining a life that could hypothetically provide us with any experience we wanted, but detached from a higher reality. It is a question of trading self-induced experiences over being you. As we consider the digitalized era we find ourselves in today, witnessing technological advancements like artificial intelligence, it might be time to re-consider the value of meaning and subjective experience. 

I invite you to imagine the following scenario. ‘Suppose there was 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’ (Nozick, 1974). It’s not one of those ordinary machines, but a special one, as you can see. It is as powerful as to stimulate your brain with any kind of experience you could possibly desire. You could pre-program your life. Anything is possible. No limits. Well, except for one. If you say yes to it, you say yes forever. Your entire life, you would be floating in a tank, having electrodes attached to your brain. Of course, you’d have no idea you were being detached from reality, because the experience machine would form your actual reality. Would you give it a shot? ‘Would you plug in’?

According to Robert Nozick, an influential American philosopher, you wouldn’t. In 1974, Nozick came up with his thought experiment of the experience machine to question the hedonist assumption that the Chief Good, the answer on how to live a good life, would come from pleasurable experiences alone (Bergsma, Poot, & Liefbroer, 2007). He assumes that there is more to life than mere experience. ‘What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside’ (Nozick, 1974)? Nozick himself proposes it is the desire of being. But what does being entail? Searle (1980), a linguist, mentions a very important ingredient of the richness of human experience that, I believe, contributes to us being a unique subjective self, namely the ability to produce and experience meaning.

‘Nothing about what we are like can matter except as it gets reflected in our experiences. Is someone courageous, kind, intelligent, witty, loving? It’s not merely that it’s difficult to tell; there’s no way that someone is’ (Nozick, 1974). According to Nozick, there would be nothing in the experience machine that would actually be, but only someone that would experience. He believes that nothing in the machine would actually care about who the person attached to it would be. It would only be you, your experiences, and the experience machine, that would form your reality. Consider some scenarios in the reality we, you and I, find ourselves in, not hypothetically, but actually. Consider, for example, an act of communication or the reception of a compliment or of a seemingly ordinary hug. The experience of talking to someone somehow depends on the person we talk to. The extent to which we value a compliment or take criticism to heart certainly depends on the person who formulates it. Whether we get a hug from our best friend or the stranger across the street feels different. It seems that our subjective experience is not only about the experience itself, but that we assign some value of meaning to it, depending on the context we find ourselves in. It seems that our being is embedded in an interactive reality. Life attached to the experience machine, however, would not provide you, or me, with any context. In essence, there is no interactive reality, but only the one shaped and experienced by you and me. There is no shared meaning, no shared reality.

“the reality we experience and truth we are exposed to are relative to the paradigm we live and experience ourselves in.”

According to Kuhn (1970), in life on earth, we do share a reality: a self-constructed one, forming a so-called paradigm which we find ourselves in. This shared world view, as Kuhn proposes, reflects the characteristics of a certain time, determined by what is emphasized and shaped by what humanity, at that time, defines as important. If that is true, then the reality we experience and truth we are exposed to are relative to the paradigm we live and experience ourselves in. Nozick (1974) refers to a similar man-made reality that would be experienced when attaching to the experience machine, hence ‘to a world no deeper or more important than that which people can construct’. However, the difference is, that the reality of the experience machine will be limited to your reality alone.

Kuhn philosophizes that we shift to another paradigm if we get stuck in getting closer to truth by not being able to answer certain questions anymore. The shift, which is rather radical than gradual, then leaves us with another shared reality, emphasized by other values and questions asked in order ‘to get closer to truth’. It is implied that, ultimately, being, and thus experiencing ourselves subjectively, is embedded in a self-created reality that reflects the course of time. A reality that carries humanity’s deepest intentions, beliefs, practices. Us being, therefore entails being part of a temporarily shaped reality. 

Today, we are pretty much part of a digitalized reality. Considering a technological advancement present in today’s (constructed) reality called Artificial Intelligence (AI), we have to ask ourselves the question, what status meaning actually enjoys in our present paradigm. To discuss this, I will address one of the underlying assumptions that AI holds about the human mind. I therefore briefly need to go back to the fundamental question that psychologists and philosophers have long been, and are still baffled by today, namely the phenomenon of how and why a ‘subjective self’ could come into existence.

“Why is there this subjective experience of being me, which very likely differs from being you, or anyone else?”

At least they have since Rene Descartes called this question into existence in 1642, by proposing that the human body is a machine, belonging to the materialistic world, but the human mind is not. Suddenly, Descartes found himself in the position of having to deal with the so-called mind-body problem, giving rise to the question of how the body and mind could possibly interact. Why is there this subjective experience of being me, which very likely differs from being you, or anyone else? Where does it come from, if the mind was to form a separate entity from the materialistic body? There certainly is no easy answer to this question. Many have attempted to more or less successfully respond to it, taking different paths in responding to certain questions concerning this mysterious issue. However, we are not even close to concluding that the puzzle has been solved. The question of why and how a ‘subjective self’ exists, seems as mysterious as for some to better leave it untouched and therefore to deny the existence of mental states (eliminative materialism) or for others to conclude that our brain is the answer to the question, hence, equating mental states to brain states (reductive materialism), (Lycan & Pappas, 2006). It seems as mysterious as for Colin McGinn (1991), a British philosopher, to even propose that we might never gain an appropriate understanding of, what David Chalmers (1995), an Australian philosopher, calls the ‘Hard Problem’- the question of consciousness, known as the ‘cognitive closure’ argument. For now, let’s stay with the fact that, at least for most of us, the experience of being a certain way, of inhabiting a certain ‘subjective self’, is as real as the sky being blue or the sun raising and setting every day. It means something to us. It matters to be.

AI builds on a functionalist view of the mind-body problem. Functionalism uses the metaphor of the computer. It compares the mind to software and the brain to hardware. In that sense, it implies that the mind (the software) can be realized by different brain states (different hardwares) just like different kinds of computers can all run the same program. This is called multiple realizability. However, it seems like functionalism is disregarding the important ingredient of the mind, namely subjective experience. It supposes that every mental state, for example ‘picturing Nozick’s experience machine with our mental eye’, captures the same experience. Why? Because the mental state is characterized only by its role in the system, defined by its function. The functionalist does not care how you and I experience this mental state. He does not dare to touch upon the question of why you and I might have a different mental image in mind when picturing the experience machine, because the functionalist assumes that we see it and experience it in the same way. Well, at least he builds upon that. Meaning or subjective experience is therefore not captured in the word ‘same’. For a machine, or any artificial program, it seemingly does not mean anything to be. In that sense, it might be similar to ourselves being attached to the experience machine. The artificial program does not care. It does not have actual contact with any deeper reality, just as any self attached to the experience machine does not either. But we, as human beings, do.

“Any feelings we feel, any experiences we make, contribute to a bigger picture and a story we create- a story that exceeds that of our own.”

As we care about being, might it be a kind of being in a self-created reality, as Kuhn proposes, or objectively existing reality, I believe the reality we experience ourselves in matters to us. I believe it holds more than an experience machine could ever give us, or that an artificial program could ever grasp. Any feelings we feel, any experiences we make, contribute to a bigger picture and a story we create- a story that exceeds that of our own. The artificial program does not mind. It can be turned on and off. It is fed by us with a certain input and constructed in a way that it can create a desirable outcome. It can translate input into output. But the input it receives still depends on us. Yes, indeed, it is the human hand that programs and designs the machine. It is the human hand, stirred by the human mind (at least that’s how it feels like for us, but is not yet scientifically supported- hence the mind-body problem), that feeds its ideas into the artificial program. We are the ones that are and that know, understand, feel, and use meaning, not the machine.   

The question is, would we want to be fed by a machine? Would we want to be preprogrammed? And of course, in this case again, we ourselves would be the ones to feed the experience machine. The experiences it would deliver would certainly come out of our own hands, stirred by our subjective minds. But, we would certainly not experience ourselves within a bigger reality. We would not be in any sense. It would not matter to be. It would not mean anything to be. I cannot speak for you, but only for myself. Even though I would still be the author of my own life, I would not think that mere stimulation of my brain would give me the rich experience of being part of a higher reality, of experiencing myself in the midst of a reality shaped by meaningful interactions. I want to have meaning. I want that it somehow matters to be me. In that sense, supposing there was an experience machine that would give me any experience I desired, and Nozick would ask me to plug in, would I? Nozick, you were right. I wouldn’t.

References

– Bergman, A., Poot, G., & Liefbroer, A. C. (2008). Happiness in the garden of Epicurus. Journal of Happiness Studies, 9(3), 397-423.
– Chalmers, D. J. (1995). Facing up the problem of consciousness. Journal of Consciousness, 2(3), 200-219. 
– Kuhn, T. S. (1970). The structure of scientific revolutions (2nd ed.). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.  
– Lycan, W. G., & Pappas, G. S. (2006). What is eliminative materialism? Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 50, 149-159. 
– McGinn, C. (1991). The problem of consciousness: Essays toward a resolution. 
– Nozick, R. (1974). The experience machine, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Oxford: Blackwell, 42-45. 
– Searle, John. R. (1980) Minds, brains, and programs. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 3(3), 417-457.

I invite you to imagine the following scenario. ‘Suppose there was 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’ (Nozick, 1974). It’s not one of those ordinary machines, but a special one, as you can see. It is as powerful as to stimulate your brain with any kind of experience you could possibly desire. You could pre-program your life. Anything is possible. No limits. Well, except for one. If you say yes to it, you say yes forever. Your entire life, you would be floating in a tank, having electrodes attached to your brain. Of course, you’d have no idea you were being detached from reality, because the experience machine would form your actual reality. Would you give it a shot? ‘Would you plug in’?

According to Robert Nozick, an influential American philosopher, you wouldn’t. In 1974, Nozick came up with his thought experiment of the experience machine to question the hedonist assumption that the Chief Good, the answer on how to live a good life, would come from pleasurable experiences alone (Bergsma, Poot, & Liefbroer, 2007). He assumes that there is more to life than mere experience. ‘What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside’ (Nozick, 1974)? Nozick himself proposes it is the desire of being. But what does being entail? Searle (1980), a linguist, mentions a very important ingredient of the richness of human experience that, I believe, contributes to us being a unique subjective self, namely the ability to produce and experience meaning.

‘Nothing about what we are like can matter except as it gets reflected in our experiences. Is someone courageous, kind, intelligent, witty, loving? It’s not merely that it’s difficult to tell; there’s no way that someone is’ (Nozick, 1974). According to Nozick, there would be nothing in the experience machine that would actually be, but only someone that would experience. He believes that nothing in the machine would actually care about who the person attached to it would be. It would only be you, your experiences, and the experience machine, that would form your reality. Consider some scenarios in the reality we, you and I, find ourselves in, not hypothetically, but actually. Consider, for example, an act of communication or the reception of a compliment or of a seemingly ordinary hug. The experience of talking to someone somehow depends on the person we talk to. The extent to which we value a compliment or take criticism to heart certainly depends on the person who formulates it. Whether we get a hug from our best friend or the stranger across the street feels different. It seems that our subjective experience is not only about the experience itself, but that we assign some value of meaning to it, depending on the context we find ourselves in. It seems that our being is embedded in an interactive reality. Life attached to the experience machine, however, would not provide you, or me, with any context. In essence, there is no interactive reality, but only the one shaped and experienced by you and me. There is no shared meaning, no shared reality.

“the reality we experience and truth we are exposed to are relative to the paradigm we live and experience ourselves in.”

According to Kuhn (1970), in life on earth, we do share a reality: a self-constructed one, forming a so-called paradigm which we find ourselves in. This shared world view, as Kuhn proposes, reflects the characteristics of a certain time, determined by what is emphasized and shaped by what humanity, at that time, defines as important. If that is true, then the reality we experience and truth we are exposed to are relative to the paradigm we live and experience ourselves in. Nozick (1974) refers to a similar man-made reality that would be experienced when attaching to the experience machine, hence ‘to a world no deeper or more important than that which people can construct’. However, the difference is, that the reality of the experience machine will be limited to your reality alone.

Kuhn philosophizes that we shift to another paradigm if we get stuck in getting closer to truth by not being able to answer certain questions anymore. The shift, which is rather radical than gradual, then leaves us with another shared reality, emphasized by other values and questions asked in order ‘to get closer to truth’. It is implied that, ultimately, being, and thus experiencing ourselves subjectively, is embedded in a self-created reality that reflects the course of time. A reality that carries humanity’s deepest intentions, beliefs, practices. Us being, therefore entails being part of a temporarily shaped reality. 

Today, we are pretty much part of a digitalized reality. Considering a technological advancement present in today’s (constructed) reality called Artificial Intelligence (AI), we have to ask ourselves the question, what status meaning actually enjoys in our present paradigm. To discuss this, I will address one of the underlying assumptions that AI holds about the human mind. I therefore briefly need to go back to the fundamental question that psychologists and philosophers have long been, and are still baffled by today, namely the phenomenon of how and why a ‘subjective self’ could come into existence.

“Why is there this subjective experience of being me, which very likely differs from being you, or anyone else?”

At least they have since Rene Descartes called this question into existence in 1642, by proposing that the human body is a machine, belonging to the materialistic world, but the human mind is not. Suddenly, Descartes found himself in the position of having to deal with the so-called mind-body problem, giving rise to the question of how the body and mind could possibly interact. Why is there this subjective experience of being me, which very likely differs from being you, or anyone else? Where does it come from, if the mind was to form a separate entity from the materialistic body? There certainly is no easy answer to this question. Many have attempted to more or less successfully respond to it, taking different paths in responding to certain questions concerning this mysterious issue. However, we are not even close to concluding that the puzzle has been solved. The question of why and how a ‘subjective self’ exists, seems as mysterious as for some to better leave it untouched and therefore to deny the existence of mental states (eliminative materialism) or for others to conclude that our brain is the answer to the question, hence, equating mental states to brain states (reductive materialism), (Lycan & Pappas, 2006). It seems as mysterious as for Colin McGinn (1991), a British philosopher, to even propose that we might never gain an appropriate understanding of, what David Chalmers (1995), an Australian philosopher, calls the ‘Hard Problem’- the question of consciousness, known as the ‘cognitive closure’ argument. For now, let’s stay with the fact that, at least for most of us, the experience of being a certain way, of inhabiting a certain ‘subjective self’, is as real as the sky being blue or the sun raising and setting every day. It means something to us. It matters to be.

AI builds on a functionalist view of the mind-body problem. Functionalism uses the metaphor of the computer. It compares the mind to software and the brain to hardware. In that sense, it implies that the mind (the software) can be realized by different brain states (different hardwares) just like different kinds of computers can all run the same program. This is called multiple realizability. However, it seems like functionalism is disregarding the important ingredient of the mind, namely subjective experience. It supposes that every mental state, for example ‘picturing Nozick’s experience machine with our mental eye’, captures the same experience. Why? Because the mental state is characterized only by its role in the system, defined by its function. The functionalist does not care how you and I experience this mental state. He does not dare to touch upon the question of why you and I might have a different mental image in mind when picturing the experience machine, because the functionalist assumes that we see it and experience it in the same way. Well, at least he builds upon that. Meaning or subjective experience is therefore not captured in the word ‘same’. For a machine, or any artificial program, it seemingly does not mean anything to be. In that sense, it might be similar to ourselves being attached to the experience machine. The artificial program does not care. It does not have actual contact with any deeper reality, just as any self attached to the experience machine does not either. But we, as human beings, do.

“Any feelings we feel, any experiences we make, contribute to a bigger picture and a story we create- a story that exceeds that of our own.”

As we care about being, might it be a kind of being in a self-created reality, as Kuhn proposes, or objectively existing reality, I believe the reality we experience ourselves in matters to us. I believe it holds more than an experience machine could ever give us, or that an artificial program could ever grasp. Any feelings we feel, any experiences we make, contribute to a bigger picture and a story we create- a story that exceeds that of our own. The artificial program does not mind. It can be turned on and off. It is fed by us with a certain input and constructed in a way that it can create a desirable outcome. It can translate input into output. But the input it receives still depends on us. Yes, indeed, it is the human hand that programs and designs the machine. It is the human hand, stirred by the human mind (at least that’s how it feels like for us, but is not yet scientifically supported- hence the mind-body problem), that feeds its ideas into the artificial program. We are the ones that are and that know, understand, feel, and use meaning, not the machine.   

The question is, would we want to be fed by a machine? Would we want to be preprogrammed? And of course, in this case again, we ourselves would be the ones to feed the experience machine. The experiences it would deliver would certainly come out of our own hands, stirred by our subjective minds. But, we would certainly not experience ourselves within a bigger reality. We would not be in any sense. It would not matter to be. It would not mean anything to be. I cannot speak for you, but only for myself. Even though I would still be the author of my own life, I would not think that mere stimulation of my brain would give me the rich experience of being part of a higher reality, of experiencing myself in the midst of a reality shaped by meaningful interactions. I want to have meaning. I want that it somehow matters to be me. In that sense, supposing there was an experience machine that would give me any experience I desired, and Nozick would ask me to plug in, would I? Nozick, you were right. I wouldn’t.

References

– Bergman, A., Poot, G., & Liefbroer, A. C. (2008). Happiness in the garden of Epicurus. Journal of Happiness Studies, 9(3), 397-423.
– Chalmers, D. J. (1995). Facing up the problem of consciousness. Journal of Consciousness, 2(3), 200-219. 
– Kuhn, T. S. (1970). The structure of scientific revolutions (2nd ed.). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.  
– Lycan, W. G., & Pappas, G. S. (2006). What is eliminative materialism? Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 50, 149-159. 
– McGinn, C. (1991). The problem of consciousness: Essays toward a resolution. 
– Nozick, R. (1974). The experience machine, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Oxford: Blackwell, 42-45. 
– Searle, John. R. (1980) Minds, brains, and programs. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 3(3), 417-457.
Lucie Pressl

Author Lucie Pressl

Lucie Pressl (1998) studies psychology in her second year. She has a fable for people, the human mind, and for asking questions. In a world full of story-tellers, she is excited to add hers.

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