Cowen on the Experience Machine

Tyler writes of Nozick’s most famous thought experiment:

Is the experience machine example so compelling as a refutation of hedonism? I think it puts pleasure squarely on the map as one value which matters and which is even undervalued in many circumstances. Many of us are too reluctant to step into the machine rather than too ready. Isn’t our general tendency to overvalue the illusion of control?

Surely it is not meant to rule out pleasure as “one value which matters.” Hedonism is the view that pleasure is the only value that matters. The experience machine is pretty compelling in making us feel the force of competing values. Control is one. I imagine Tyler meant to say we overvalue control, which is often (always?) an illusion. But sometimes it’s not. In any case, a sense of control and self-efficacy gives us pleasure, which is one reason why we are hesitant to relinquish control, but not the only reason.

That’s not quite what the experience machine is about anyway. It’s not about hedonism or control: it’s about subjectivism about value broadly. The value of many things don’t require them to be experienced. They are valuable because of what they are and they way they relate to our lives. That relation is sometime experiential, but sometimes it isn’t. In many cases we think of pleasure as a response to a value; it’s how the value registers, but isn’t the value itself. Nozick is drawing that out, together with the fact that we often see the real relationship between value and its experience as a value in its own right.

Don’t marginalist arguments require a common currency? I think Nozick’s argument is that there isn’t one here. How good must an illusory life seem in order to compensate for the cost of actually losing all values that are not seemings. Nozick’s plausible intuition is that the currencies generally aren’t tradeable. Tyler is right that this is wrong. If in fact the circumstances of your life are such that it is hardly worth living, or your demise is imminent anyway, such that expected future value approaches zero, the pleasures of illusory experience may make life objectively better for you by being, at least, subjectively good.

I agree that pleasure is undervalued in some circumstances. It is also overvalued in some circumstances. Like every other value. Isaiah Berlin and Aristotle helps us a great deal more than silly monists like Bentham. Values are values. The trick is how to correctly balance them in the context of a lifeplan without recourse to a mythical common currency, or a stable and predictable exchange rate between values. The ideal balance is not the one that gives you the most pleasure; it is the one the gives you the best life. What that is is your problem, and is not answered for you by any theory. Good luck! Now, a phronimos would know at what moment to step into the experience machine. But if you are not a phronimos, his reasons are not yours.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center