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


~ by mvharper on January 26, 2014.

5 Responses to “The Hollowness of Happiness”

  1. While I’d agree that spending life in a noticeably virtual reality would be unfulfilling, it doesn’t seem that Nozick is taking into account the fact that eventually these systems could become so advanced that the wearer would not actually be able to tell the difference. Would life still be unsatisfying if you knew you were not actually living it, but your body couldn’t tell any difference? And is living inside a virtual reality where your senses and neurons fire really that different from normal life?

  2. I find this to be a very interesting thought. Much like The Matrix and even vaguely similar to Avatar. If one could simply “plug in” and live life virtually imagine the risk people would take. All physically restrictions would go out the window and I fear with physical restrictions so would moral restrictions. Our inner demons would really take over. Since rape culture is already becoming popular, imagine how popular it would be in a “plugged in world”…. Because “no one is really getting hurt. It’s just virtual” people would say. However, moral violations and scars are far more mental than physical. We’d have to rewrite our entire judicial system to constitute new crimes in a “plugged in world” Lindsey

    • Lindsey, you bring up a really interesting point with people potentially using the excuse “no one is really getting hurt here” to justify doing whatever they wanted in a plugged in world. Various studies have shown how video game and television violence — which “doesn’t hurt anyone” in real life — has a very real psychological effect on viewers. Imagine what the impact would be if people were plugged into such an experience literally 24/7!

  3. As touched upon in the post, overcoming a challenge is the reason why an accomplishment is so fulfilling. If we can turn a switch to “climb Mount Everest” then there are no barriers we have to overcome to get to the top. Furthermore, climbing Mount Everest is satisfying and such a huge accomplishment because not everyone can do it. Not everyone has the perseverance and the work ethic to complete such a feat. If anyone can climb a mountain by sitting back in a chair and letting a program do the rest then what’s the point? Perhaps out of that technology would evolve new challenges. The ability to program the most complex and refreshing experience may become the new Mount Everest.

  4. This is such a valid point, but I fear that today’s society is already moving towards a constant state of being “plugged in”. Personally, I’m almost always on my phone, computer, or iPad. Most of our generation is the same. Our parent’s generation follows the same trend due to the business world. The technological revolution has created a society that communicates via being “plugged in”, and it has negatively or positively, depending on your viewpoint, affected our quality of communication and social interactions. For example, with the home computer came cyber bullying and countless suicides. So, when do we, as a society, draw the line? When do we decide to unplug in order to preserve our social interactions?

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