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Robert Nozick’s Metaverse Machine

Lorenzo Buscicchi asks, would you plug into Mark Zuckerberg’s virtual world? He finds that the question has been considered by philosophers for decades.

At the end of October 2021, Facebook announced its ‘Metaverse’ project, an entire virtual reality world that will be up and running ‘in the near future’. Laymen tend to have a stereotype of philosophers as being techno-sceptic. However, philosophers have been discussing virtual reality since before Mark Zuckerberg was born.

A comparatively recent contribution to the debate was the ‘experience machine’ thought experiment advanced by Robert Nozick in 1974 in his book Anarchy, State and Utopia (though it’s probably based on a short story called ‘The Happiness Machine’ published by Ray Bradbury in 1957). In this thought experiment, Nozick asks you to imagine a machine that can simulate every experience you would like to have until the end of your life. Once you programmed this machine and plugged yourself into it, you would not be aware that the blissful experiences you are having are simulated, and you would live out your fantasies until the end of your life.

Nozick asks: would you plug in? He thinks that the majority of readers would reply ‘no’, and advances a series of reasons for this. First, he says, we want to have a genuine relationship with reality, not live a fictional life that only feels real. The second reason has to do with personal identity/authenticity. According to him, we want to be certain kinds of people, and connecting to the experience machine would make us merely an ‘undeterminate blob’. Finally, the fact that the virtual world of the experience machine is artificial is taken by Nozick to be in itself bad. He believes the experience machine would prevent us from grasping any deeper reality.

Before moving to considering the implications of this thought experiment and some reactions to it by philosophers, I want to clarify some things concerning the relationship between the experience machine and The Matrix, psychedelic drugs, the simulation hypothesis, and the ongoing debate on the nature of reality.

The Matrix saga is sometimes brought up when discussing the experience machine because it similarly involves a choice between living in touch with reality (take the red pill) and living a more comfortable – although in The Matrix not really a blissful – life in a simulated world (take the blue pill). However, in addition to the significant gap in the pleasantness of the two virtual words, there is another important difference between the Matrix movies and Nozick’s thought experiment. In The Matrix the simulation is provided by machines that enslave us for their benefit, while the experience machine is maintained by benevolent neuroscientists. This difference is important because in the Matrix scenario we understandably have an intuition for reality in favour of our human rights (“I don’t want to be a battery for machines!”), but this isn’t necessarily true for in Nozick’s scenario, as here the virtual reality is entered into voluntarily.

Concerning the experience machine and drugs, it seems quite possible to change the thought experiment from involving an experience machine to involving an experience drug. Indeed, in 2017, Frank Hindriks and Ivan Douven asked experimental subjects if they would be willing to take, for the rest of their life, a pill with no side-effects that would provide them with almost exclusively pleasant experiences (see ‘Nozick’s experience machine: An empirical study’, Philosophical Psychology 31:2, 2018). Facing this choice, 53% of the respondents said yes. However, Hindriks’ and Douven’s pill does not resemble a psychedelic drug such as LSD or DMT; rather, their (hypothetical) pill enhances pleasure without seriously affecting our experience of reality, so is more similar to amphetamines or cocaine. That said, it would be interesting to test how many people would drop an experience drug that provided a life-long mind-altering trip.

The simulation hypothesis is the idea advanced recently by philosophers including Nick Bostrom, that our world and all in it are part of a computer simulation being run by a hyper-advanced alien race. Regarding the experience machine and the simulation hypothesis, and the debate on the nature of reality more generally, there is no doubt that Nozick’s thought experiment might make us question what reality is (the metaphysical issue) and how we know it (the epistemological issue). Hilary Putnam’s ‘brain in a vat’ thought experiment from his book Reason, Truth and History (1981) indeed adopts a narrative somewhat similar to the experience machine to question the view that there is an mind-independent reality – as opposed to you just being a brain in a vat being fed artificial stimuli – and how we can know that there is. Yet rather than exploring metaphysics, for Nozick the experience machine was a thought experiment in ethics. He was concerned with what constitutes well-being, or the good life for the individual, and assumed the commonsense view that there is such a thing as external reality.

Into the Metaverse
Into the Metaverse by Cameron Gray, 2022
Please visit Parablevisions.com And Facebook.com/CameronGrayTheArtist

Experience Machine Experiences

Let’s now go back to Nozick’s question: would you plug into the experience machine and live the rest of your life out as a fantasy? The majority of people, asked this, reply no. In one study, by Dan Weijers, (‘Nozick’s experience machine is dead, long live the experience machine!’, Philosophical Psychology 27:4, 2014), 84% of the participants refused the offer. From this sort of result it has been argued that ‘mental statism’ must be false. Mental statism is the view that only how experiences feel can make a life good or bad. The experience machine allows us to have the best experiences we can imagine; and still, the study showed that a large majority have the intuition that the life plugged into it is not a good life. This means that for many people there must something – perhaps reality itself – that is valuable in addition to the feels of experiences just as Nozick himself. Consequently, Nozick’s thought experiment has long been considered the death knell of mental statism and its more prominent version, hedonism – the view that only pleasure or pain contribute to the goodness or badness of a life.

End of story? No. In 1994, in ‘Mental Statism and the Experience Machine’ (Bard Journal of Social Sciences, Vol. 3), Adam J. Kolber advanced the idea that Nozick’s thought experiment might be deceiving because of the ‘status quo bias’ – a phenomenon well-established in psychology, according to which people tend to irrationally prefer to leave things as they are.

This idea was picked up by Filipe De Brigard in 2010 in ‘If you like it, does it matter if it’s real?’ (Philosophical Psychology, 23:1). Here he put forward the idea of the ‘reverse experience machine’. Describing a thought experiment of his own, De Brigard asked study participants to imagine finding out that they have been plugged into an experience machine up until now. At this point, they are offered the possibility to leave the virtual world they’re accustomed to, knowing that reality will be much less pleasant. Facing this scenario, only 13% of the participants said they would leave the virtual world. Thus De Brigard’s study, as well as others following it, have indicated that refusals of the original experience machine offer are largely determined by status quo bias rather than by our valuing of reality. In fact, the majority of people declare they prefer reality when thinking themselves to be in the real world, but appear to prefer the simulation when imagining themselves to already be in the virtual world! Under the spotlight of this discovery, mental statism about well-being, once thought dead, seems to be resurrected and in reasonable shape.

Facing Reality

So, what are the implications of the debate on the experience machine for how we might think about Facebook’s Metaverse? I want to present four take-away points.

First, according to Weijers’ study, we are split about the value of virtual lives. Weijers devised modified versions of his thought experiment in order to reduce the influence of the status quo bias. Study participants then become much more likely to choose the simulation. In the final, modified version, they found that 55% of the participants become pro-machine and only 45% pro-reality. Also, notice that Weijers’ study was published in 2014. Time seems to play in favour of the pro-machine intuition. Perhaps the more people become familiar with virtual reality technologies, the more they would be prone to plug into the experience machine. A second take-away point is that, since the status quo bias is at work, if you ask people would you plug into the Metaverse for life, you can in any case expect that the vast majority of people would say no.

My two other take-away points are perhaps more closely related to The Matrix. Instead of assuming the benevolence of the neuroscientists of Nozick’s thought experiment, we might doubt the pure good faith of Facebook when it entices us to join its virtual world. Indeed, if we look at the recent scandal that embarrassed the company concerning the abuse of its users’ data, we might not completely trust its intentions. And finally, Facebook’s Metaverse seems that it would be more a world of comfort and stimulation rather than the blissful virtual reality offered by Nozick’s experience machine: the preview of the Metaverse offered by Zuckerberg seems to resemble more a videogame than a mind-blowing new life. Basing our intuition on the preview alone, then, for many of us, Facebook’s Metaverse might be entertaining for some hours, but quite boring to play for life.

© Dr Lorenzo Buscicchi 2022

Lorenzo Buscicchi completed his PhD at University of Waikato, NZ, in which he researched descriptive and normative claims on pleasure.

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