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To Connect Or Not To Connect?

Dana Andreicut wonders whether, or not, to escape into the Matrix.

It is the 8th November 2016. The days are getting shorter, the air is getting chillier. Autumn is here to stay, and a carpet of red, yellow and beige leaves has settled over the city. You wake up before your alarm at the sound of a news blast, and breathe a deep sigh of relief as you look down at the screen of your smartphone: ‘Hillary Clinton secures White House election, narrowly defeating Republican nominee Donald Trump.’

Suddenly everything goes dark and the subtle background sound of a cooling fan grinds to a halt.

You open your eyes and look around.

You find you’re in a white room, and that you’re wearing a pair of curious-looking glasses. In front of you is a screen. Your ears are covered by a pair of heavy bluetooth headphones. You remove them and as you slowly take in your surroundings, you notice a middle-aged man in a white lab coat coming towards you. He says, “Thanks for taking part in our VR experiment!”

When you step out of the room you take out your phone. You glance at the screen and note in shock the latest news headlines: ‘Trump presidency lives up to expectations as work begins on wall with Mexico’; then ‘ISIS claims 40 victims in attack on Istanbul nightclub.’ You put your phone back into your pocket and wonder whether you can’t purchase a holiday in the VR machine.

What not that long ago was merely the premise of sci-fi books and movies is now slowly making its way into our lives. With its origins in military research, Virtual Reality reached mainstream consumers in 2012. The past decade has seen unprecedented advances in uses for VR, from treating the post-traumatic stress disorders of soldiers returning from the battlefield in Afghanistan, to beating a fear of spiders or helping patients overcome smoking addictions. Using powerful computing to copy real life sensations, VR promises to solve our daily anxieties, our bigger worries, and perhaps even provide a brief escape from reality. But how far will it and should it go, and if it were to go further than a mere temporary kick, would you want to go along for the ride?

Nozick’s Experience Machine

Before answering this question, let’s embark on a brief time travel trip. It is 1974, and American political philosopher Robert Nozick has just published his most acclaimed work Anarchy, State and Utopia, which puts forward the following thought experiment: Imagine you live in a world where you have access to an ‘experience machine’ that generates every imaginable sensation. There are no limits to the experiences you can have, from eating a favourite dish, going on an exotic holiday, having a chat with an old friend or famous person, or happily falling in love. By plugging into this machine, you can experience everything you desire. Such machines could evidently generate immense pleasure for the person plugged in, creating a degree of happiness rarely, if ever, lived in the real world. And since you’re made to forget that you’ve been plugged in, this happiness can be without even realising that the experiences producing it are not of a real world. The only moment when the person is aware of plugging in is when making the choice to connect to the machine. After that, blissful ignorance sets in and the subject forgets it ever happened. Everything from that moment onwards feels as real as it possibly could. The only catch is that you would have to stay plugged in.

Having introduced this thought experiment, Nozick goes on to say that the majority of people, given the opportunity to plug in, would politely refuse, mainly because they appreciate that the experience they’re about to have is not genuine. People often want to see themselves as a certain sort of person, and plugging in makes that impossible, and would in a sense be similar to committing suicide. Nozick thus uses this thought experiment to argue that people crave much more than just pleasurable experience, one aspect of this being the need for experience to be authentic. Machine-generated experience fails that test inevitably, no matter the intensity of the joy it offers. Thus Nozick rejects hedonism – the school of thought which assumes that pleasure and the absence of pain are the only goods worth striving for, and the driving forces of one’s being.

But as the twenty-first century world moves ever closer to producing experience machines, the question arises: If presented with an experience machine, would you plug in, or would you side with Nozick?

To Connect Or Not To Connect?

Regularly reading news headlines, and going through our everyday lives, with the ups and downs this entails, we quickly appreciate that the answer may not necessarily be as clear-cut as Nozick claimed. So let’s consider why one might not want to permanently plug in. There are four main contenders, each with its corresponding challenge:

1. The nature of the experience matters

Nozick makes a good point when he says that there’s something more to life beyond pleasure and pain that makes people not want to connect. People care about the authenticity of their experiences, and life in the machine certainly lacks authenticity. One could ask, however: What are reality and authenticity after all? If the machine can really deceive us and create the experience that what we are sensing is real, then we could instantly forget that things are not in fact genuine.

One interesting related thought experiment is presented in the 2013 movie Her. The movie follows the life of lonely writer Theodor (played by Joaquin Phoenix), who falls in love with a computer program on a mobile device, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Theodor can never meet Samantha because she does not exist in physical form. He can only hear her voice. However, by talking to her constantly and sharing his thoughts and dreams, and hearing her reflections on them, he ends up falling in love with her. Watching the joys and sorrows experienced by Theodor as his love goes through the cycle of excitement and bliss, followed by disappointment and pain, one struggles to label his relationship and experience as any less real than our own relationships. The movie thus poses interesting questions about what it means to be in a relationship and what it takes for that relationship to be authentic.

brain in a vat

2. To be happy and experience genuine pleasure, one must also experience some degree of sadness and pain

Pain, longing, and sadness are essential to one’s happiness, this argument goes. Moreover, happiness is often achieved when pursued only indirectly. One may strive to have a good career, family life, etc, but often the pursuit is riddled with challenges and setbacks; and yet, all these pieces put together constitute happiness. Also, sometimes getting what one desires does not actually really increase one’s well-being. One may crave that extra piece of chocolate but afterwards may feel sick from having eaten too much or one may fancy another glass of wine but experience a hangover the next day, making one wonder whether the gratification of desire actually increased one’s happiness.

However, if it is the chase and the temporary frustration of fulfilment that we’re after in order to create happiness, then there’s no reason why the machine could not give us that. The machine could cater for the longing for pleasure by delaying its fulfillment: it could create a love that is unfulfilled for a while before becoming fulfilled and so on. Unlike real life, the machine would however eventually always give us what we crave, making it feel as though our patience was worth it.

3. By plugging in, we would be producing unimaginable harm to our friends and family, as we would deprive them of our company forever

If part of happiness is sharing our lives with others and constructing something together, then surely one would not want to plug in, so negating all of that, and thereby inflicting pain and loss on people we care so much about?

The persuasiveness of this argument ultimately comes down to how selfish we are. Yes we do care about others and about the quality of our relationships, but people are ultimately driven by self-interest. So for some, this argument may not provide the decisive vote against connecting, while it might do just that for those who feel genuine concern for their relationships and the feelings of others.

4. Plugging in would be against God’s will

Even if this life has numerous challenges and a certain degree of pain, the real reward and blissful experience will follow in the afterlife. Thus sacrifice is followed by reward, not in this life, but in the next. The argument is that evading life’s trials would therefore jeopardise the eternal reward due from enduring suffering in this life, so one should not plug in.

This argument would not work for non-believers. But even for a non-believer – and perhaps especially for one – another argument emerges. If one only has one life and nothing more, would one want to waste it on inauthentic experience? This brings us back to the argument about authenticity.

A Myriad Factors

When presented with the thought experiment, people tend to say ‘no’ to plugging in, usually quoting the inauthenticity of the experience and the fact that they would be missing out on actual relationships. But when people are asked whether they’d be interested in a holiday in the machine they became more sympathetic. Yet how long a holiday are we talking about? At what point does a holiday become a permanent move?

However, taking a step back from the above arguments, we should not forget that our lives are already full of short breaks in quasi-experience machines. They vary in the degree of intensity of experience generated, but people constantly look for escapes from reality by reading novels, watching twelve hours of House of Cards in a row, drinking to numb their senses, or taking drugs to enjoy experiences not otherwise obtainable. In addition, people cling to the motto ‘ignorance is bliss’. We often wilfully escape reality, deceiving ourselves and pretending things are different to their true nature. The machine provides means to this, but on a much larger scale.

Ultimately, the decision whether to connect or not would be about a myriad of things, to which different people will assign different weights. It is about the quality of experience; the value we derive from human connections; on how much weight we place on the indirect pursuit of happiness; and the strength of our belief in a higher force: it is about what we think the point of life is, what makes us happy, and whether reality, with its pros and cons, can deliver this. Given how important a choice about connecting would be, it is inevitable that the deliberation on our answer will remain both tricky and highly subjective.

© Dana Andreicut 2017

Dana Andreicut has an MSc in Philosophy and Economics from the London School of Economics and a BSc in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from Warwick University. She lives in London and enjoys solving the occasional philosophy puzzle.

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