The Hollowness of Happiness
What if there were a machine that could give you any experience in the world, and that could continue to supply you with these self-actualizing experiences for your entire life? You could become a great novelist, have a whirl-wind romance, climb Mount Everest, achieve anything and everything you’ve ever dreamed of. All you have to do is make the decision to plug in, and then it’s completely real for you. You never even have to know that you made that decision in the first place.
This scenario was presented by philosopher Robert Nozick in his article “The Experience Machine.” A video summary of the article is also available online. The dilemma of the situation was designed to identify what matters to human beings besides our experiences in life. Nozick proposes that plugging in is inherently unfulfilling because
1. People want to do things, not only experience them. The experience loses meaning if it is not accompanied by actual change in physical reality.
2. People want to be a specific type of person. Synthetic life experiences do not alter the character of the person: no real sacrifice, courage, patience, or perseverance is required, so no personal development can be achieved.
3. People do not want to restrict their lives to the possibilities present in a manmade reality. You might be able to experience simulated religious feeling in the machine, but you would not be able to seek a higher power or enlightenment or the highest of human ideals. The possibilities of even your imaginary life would have set boundaries.
Nozick posits that “Plugging into the machine is a kind of suicide” because you forever give up the possibility of actually living; he suggests that people intrinsically have a desire “to live (an active verb) ourselves, in contact with reality.” Instead of a wonderful solution that would fulfill everyone’s lives by providing a lifetime of happiness, this machine would actually guarantee that no one’s life would be fulfilling through that very provision of happiness.
The society in Huxley’s Brave New World has effectively plugged in all its members to this “experience machine.” There is no pain, sickness, famine, war, or old age in the New World. There is the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people. People are chemically and environmentally “conditioned” to love the experiences they are predestined to have in their lives as Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas, or Epsilons. The Society is stable and unchanging, never advancing, never regressing. The jobs that the New Worlders carry out only serve to maintain the stability of the Society, to maintain the manmade reality that is the New World. And everyone is “happy.”
The promise of happiness, and more specifically the assurance of the absence of pain, cause the loss of humanity for both individuals in the New World and individuals in Nozick’s Machine. By seeking only a world without pain, human life becomes nothing more than animalistic. There is no art, science, progress, compassion, friendship, or love. When the greatest goal of human life becomes nothing more than happiness, the human spirit can no longer triumph. Everything the human spirit would strive to conquer and everything it would seek to protect is gone. And the shell that remains in its place is happiness.
-Mary Virginia Harper