welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please


The Experience Machine and Psychiatric Drugs

Emil Asplund & Erik Gustavsson try to find the truth about medication.

Imagine a device which will give you any experience you desire. This is what Robert Nozick asks us to do in his Anarchy, State and Utopia. The only thing you need to do is to let some neuropsychologists put you (or just your brain) in a tank and work their magic. Whatever pleasant experiences you are looking for, the machine will provide them, and they would feel completely real.

To plug into the experience machine will provide you with the greatest possible amount of happiness. Yet there is something deeply counter-intuitive about the idea that plugging into the machine is the best life you can have. Perhaps the debate is captured best in the argument between Trinity and Cypher in The Matrix (1999), when Cypher claims, “If I had to choose between that [the depressing real world] and the Matrix… I choose the Matrix.” Trinity then stresses the fact that “The Matrix isn’t real.” This seems also to be Nozick’s guiding thought as he gives us three reasons why we would not plug into his experience machine. First, he says that people want to do things, not only have the experience of doing them. For example, most people would agree that something is lost if you are only experiencing what it is like to make a friend without actually making one. Second, we want to be a certain way. Once you’ve plugged in, there is no reality to who the person in the machine is; it’s just a brain floating in a tank experiencing pleasant things. You have turned into an “indeterminate blob” as Nozick puts it. Third, if you plug into the machine you would only be able to experience a man-made reality. As a blob in the machine you have “no actual contact with any deeper reality” (p.44, 3rd Edition) as Nozick puts it. These three points explain why it would be deeply counter-intuitive to plug into the machine.

Experience, Reality, and Drugs
Experience, Reality, & Drugs © Ken Laidlaw 2017. Please visit www.kenlaidlaw.com to see more of Ken’s art.

A Pharmacological Experience Machine

There are several ways to diminish the force of Nozick’s argument. One route is to say that some, perhaps many, of our current practices are as if we were already in some kind of experience machine. Some people spend more time on the net as a goblin or orc than in the real world, or in Second Life than in their first life. In addition, many people are prone to take mind altering substances such as alcohol or other drugs which make them happier and keep them from worrying about things which ordinarily would occupy their minds.

This is also true for some medications which may be prescribed by your doctor. These drugs are arguably a kind of pharmacological experience machine, making you experience your life quite differently from how you would have experienced it were you not taking the drug. In the experience machine you will be experiencing a higher level of happiness, but, Nozick argues, you are doing so at the expense of other things. One crucial thing lost in the machine is some kind of contact with reality. Similarily, as the active substance of a psychiatric drug gradually changes your neurological mechanisms, you will gradually experience a higher level of happiness. One may argue analogously with Nozick that you are doing so at the expense of your connection with reality: that you are slowly walking into a pharmacological experience machine.

How should we understand the relation between psychiatric drugs and the idea of ‘contact with reality’? Let’s start by imagining a scale on which your level of happiness could be represented by numbers from 1 to 10, 1 being very unhappy and 10 very happy (it goes without saying that numbers are rather arbitrary; however it will be helpful to think in this way for the purposes of our own brief thought experiment).

Now consider the case of Tony. He has friends and family who really care about him. He is a talented photographer, and his colleagues care about him greatly, too. One may take it for granted that Tony is a happy person. However, he is not. Quite the opposite, since he believes that his family and friends do not like him and that he is a lousy photographer. Tony is suffering from depression, and therefore he cannot enjoy any of the good things going on in his life.

Let us assume that for a long time Tony has been on level 2 on our scale of happiness. It is now March, and Tony is still at level 2. His family takes him to his doctor to see if she can help him. She can. She prescribes a common anti-depressant medication. In April he starts taking the drug, which by May has brought him to happiness level 7. Tony can now appreciate the good things in his life.

Let us next assume that contact with reality is not an ‘all or nothing’ affair, but is rather a matter of degree. We may frame our core question in the following way: Does Tony have contact with reality to a greater extent in March or in May?

Let us consider both options.

If you’re leaning towards March, you are most likely siding with Nozick. Your argument may go something like this. Tony experiences his life as it ‘actually is’ in March. That is, he experiences life as it is when no one has intervened in his brain chemistry. Hence the chemically-enhanced life Tony experiences in May is less authentic than the life he was experiencing in March. Perhaps this line of reasoning explains the intuition one might have of psychiatric drugs being an escape from reality.

If, however, you are leaning towards May as the time of greater contact with reality, it seems to follow that you think Tony had an incorrect or distorted view of things in March. This may indeed be quite obvious to anyone who has been in contact with people who are suffering from severe depression, or who is severely depressed themselves. The depressive’s conception of the world may seem deceptive to people around them, and to themselves when they are not in a depressed state. Accordingly they would say that Tony was wrong about how he experienced the world in March, and right about it in May. Following this line of reasoning, people on mind-altering drugs are not experiencing happiness at the expense of contact with reality, but rather, they experience authenticity due to the drug. Following this line of reasoning, mind-altering drugs are not an escape from reality, but rather a key to experiencing reality.

Nozick may be right in his claim that the experience machine teaches us that “something matters to us in addition to experience” (p.44). Some kind of connection with reality seems one plausible candidate for this something. But through the case of psychiatric medicine, it becomes somewhat unclear that Nozick’s comparison of the experience machine with psychoactive drugs is correct. Should we regard psychiatric drugs as an escape from reality, or on the contrary, as a key to reality? It cannot be said that either of these arguments is entirely conclusive.

© Emil Asplund & Erik Gustavsson 2017

Emil Asplund is a high school teacher of Religious Studies and English at Uvengymnasiet in Uppsala, Sweden. Erik Gustavsson is a PhD student in Medical Ethics at the Department of Culture and Communication and the Department of Medical and Health Sciences, Linköping University, Sweden.

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X