Friday, July 14, 2006

What Matters and Why?

Robert Nozick, in Anarchy, State and Utopia, offers an interesting hypothetical; I don't have a copy of the book ready to hand so will give you my version:

Someone invents an experience machine; get into it and you will have a fully convincing illusion of experience. Somehow, the inventor figures out about what your life is going to be like and makes you the following offer:

Get into my experience machine, spend the rest of your life there, and I will give you the illusion of a life slightly better than the one you would otherwise live. Your average income in the illusion will be a few thousand dollars higher than it would have been in reality, your wife a little prettier, your children slightly better behaved, your promotions just a little prompter. Your illusory summers won't be quite as hot, or winters quite as cold.

Assume you believe his offer. Do you accept it? If not, why not?

The answer, it seems to me, depends on what things you value. It's tempting to think that what ultimately matters to you about the world is only how it impinges on you, what effect it has on your sensations—and if that were true, you would accept the offer.

But it is not true, at least for me and I suspect for many other people. I don't merely want the illusion of having written an interesting, enjoyable and original book, I want to have actually done it. I don't just want to think people read my books and are affected by the ideas in them, I want them to actually read and be affected. I don't want just the illusion of wonderful children, I want my wonderful children to actually exist. I wouldn't touch that machine with a ten foot pole.

Having said that, it is worth seeing how far the argument applies to things more realistic than Nozick's hypothetical. Consider recreational drugs. A lot of us have a gut level feeling that the pleasure from being high on a drug is somehow less valid, less real, than the pleasure from accomplishing something—even if it is only winning a game of tennis or climbing a mountain. Feeling that you are a wonderful person because you are drunk is somehow less valid than feeling you are a wonderful person because you have just saved someone's life at risk of your own or solved an important problem.

Or consider virtual reality, which gets us closer to Nozick's experience machine—and to one reason I have been thinking of these issues of late. Why do I feel better about making a bunch of germanic lyres in my basement than about making a bunch of Whitesoul Helms online in World of Warcraft? Why do I feel less comfortable about consuming many hours online fighting computer generated monsters than about consuming a similar amount of time, also online, arguing with people about subjects of interest to me?

The problem is older than World of Warcraft. I know some very smart people who put substantial amounts of time and effort into playing games--chess, bridge, poker. As long as one views it as recreation, there is no problem. But what about a really able person who treats the game as his real life and whatever he does to earn money for food and rent as merely an annoying distraction? Something about that feels wrong—feels as though he would in some sense be leading a better life if he put the same talent and passion into building better houses or writing better computer programs. Why?

The other reason I have been thinking about this is that it looks as though I will be revising my Future Imperfect manuscript for publication, assuming my agents' negotiations with a publisher finally produce a contract. The puzzle of what matters and why shows up repeatedly there. If improved understanding of how the mind works results in a really good recreational drug and most people spend most of their waking hours enjoying it, is that a problem? Would it be better if the drug was never invented? If we end up with full sense VR and people spend most of their lives in a delightful illusion while their bodies occupy tiny cubicles and consume yeast paste—tasting, of course, through the marvels of VR, like sushi and sirloin—is that a consummation devoutly to be feared, or hoped for?

I expect to continue this in another post, and in particular to distinguish between what things in VR ought to count as real and what not and in what ways World of Warcraft might be seen as a useful part of real life, but this post is, I think, long enough.

42 Comments:

At 7:12 PM, July 14, 2006, Blogger Glen Whitman said...

What makes the issue even more interesting is the increasing convergence of real and virtual worlds, as exemplified by (a) sales of virtual items like magical swords on eBay, in exchange for real money, and (b) sales of real items, like comic books, in exchange for virtual money (gold pieces). I know (a) happens with some frequency, and I believe (b) has happened as well. There are some people who actually support themselves by playing virtual games like WarCraft and then selling their winnings (or characters!) to other players with less skill or less time to invest in the game.

 
At 7:38 PM, July 14, 2006, Blogger SheetWise said...

In your hypothetical there is a clear division between the real world and a virtual world. In that permanent bargain, the staged illusion eliminates any possibility you may have to "leave your mark" on the world -- to give others a slightly better life. That bargain doesn't exist in your other examples.

Indulgence in recreational drugs and games may enhance your ability to interact with the real world. It's unlikely this would be true for people who "spend most of their waking hours enjoying it" -- but that's true for most things and is more of an argument against abuse.

If it weren't for games, it's unlikely mathematics would be anywhere near where it is today -- and it's unlikely the disciplines that employ mathematics would have ever developed the depth of knowledge that came from those who were pursuing games.

 
At 8:05 PM, July 14, 2006, Anonymous Jan said...

Actually, not taking drugs (especially alcohol) can even detach you from "the real world", at least when it comes to interaction with other people in non-professional situation.

I don't drink, and I do not feel "real" at all at parties where everybody drinks at least a few glasses of wine or beer.

By the way, David, you might have agreed to get into such a machine already. This answer of mine might just be your illusion. Can you tell?

 
At 8:12 PM, July 14, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Luckily it's not going to be an either or with the experience machine thing. It will be more akin flipping on the TV (and flipping it off) or taking a drug (and coming down). Indeed, potentially, one could cure cancer in the virtual world and bring it back to the "real one."

(And by the way, we have no way of knowing whether we exist in the real world or not. Perhaps the conscious experience I am having right now is the result of the "real me" having accepted Nozick's bargain.)

Anyway, the only possible foundation there can be for morality ("what matters") is emotion. What if I said I want to take a collection of molecules and split them in half? No moral consequence if those molecules are a brick, but serious moral consequence if that collection of molecules is a human being who feels pain!

The point is, if you play video games and enjoy them, that "matters," that is moral.

The fact that ex post you feel bad about engaging slaying demons online rather than debunking statist rhetoric (a "real" problem) is merely your genes trying to stop you from masturbating, in so many words.

Would I plug myself in? My natural-selection-derived motivational systems would furiously tell me not to do it, just like they tell me not to waste my time watching Tony Soprano, but instead to get my thrills in the "real world." I'm risk averse, so I'd definitely need an opt-out before committing myself!

Alcibiades

 
At 8:36 PM, July 14, 2006, Blogger Einzige said...

The sentiment in your post reminds me of this movie, which looks interesting and entertaining, but apparently is forever in search of a distribution deal.

 
At 8:43 PM, July 14, 2006, Anonymous js290 said...

Didn't they make a movie about this hypothetical? The Matrix? ;-)

 
At 10:34 PM, July 14, 2006, Blogger Gil said...

I posted about Nozick's Experience Machine three years ago and copied his description from "The Examined Life".

I also quoted, and appreciated his conclusion:

"We want experiences, fitting ones, of profound connection with others, of deep understanding of natural phenomena, of love, of being profoundly moved by music or tragedy, or doing something new and innovative, experiences very different from the bounce and rosiness of happy moments. What we want, in short, is a life and a self that happiness is a fitting response to—and then to give it that response."

 
At 1:41 AM, July 15, 2006, Blogger Mark said...

It seems I may have substantially different intuitions than you regarding this topic. I don't think Garry Kasparov and Paul Soloway have wasted their lives or potential. They accomplished something quite challenging, and I think there is substantial merit in doing just that.

It's far from clear to me why I should regard a life spent, say, curing the sick as better spent. I can understand why we would be socially and/or psychologically conditioned to feel that way, but I'm not sure that sentiment stands up to examination.

Achievement in WoW _should_ feel empty to anyone who is able to examines it closely, because it is illusionary accomplishment. I say this not because it is in a virtual world, but becuase the task is NOT difficult or tasking. The whole goal of crafting a game like that is to provide the myriad people who play it with the illusion that they are achieving fabulous things. Same with the drug or being drunk.

 
At 4:48 AM, July 15, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Didn't they make a movie about this hypothetical? The Matrix?"

In that case the VR was generally involuntary (for a reason that made no sense whatsoever).

Try "eXistenZ".

 
At 5:58 AM, July 15, 2006, Anonymous johnt said...

Nozick's example precludes any awareness of illusion, any decision to enter or not is tempered by this knowledge. No exclusion of other endeavors or accomplishments is predicated, so much of life goes on as before.
The use of drugs or alcohol doesn't negate self awareness, Nozick's case does, the decision to be made then is ,"Do I surrender a portion of self, of my identity". What do I miss in managing or solving the problems or difficulties Nozick addresses? Am I reduced as an individual for not facing some of the good and bad of life, the negative and the positive, the ability to surmont difficulties.
Thanks, but I would pass on Nozick's offer.

 
At 8:13 AM, July 15, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Always thinking on the margins! In Nozick's rendition, we can program any life we want in the experience machine, not just one marginally better.

 
At 11:14 AM, July 15, 2006, Blogger Einzige said...

David, perhaps for you the choice is an easy one. You're obviously intelligent, have a lot of valuable things to say, and by most measures your life has been and continues to be an enviable success.

On the other hand, what if the person's choice was between these two possible lives:

1) A real life wherein they are uneducated (and not too terribly smart), they smell bad, they are hideously ugly, and their only recognizable skill is installing sheet rock.

2) A fake life where they're wildly popular, extremely wealthy, and can do all the heroin they want with no negative side effects.

Which life would you expect the person to choose in that case?

This was the point I was subtley making in my prior comment: Only a small percentage of the population are truly gifted and special. The teeming masses, when they're not in their Wal-Mart uniforms, are whiling away the hours drinking beers and watching the boob tube.

 
At 12:07 PM, July 15, 2006, Blogger David Friedman said...

Two comments focussed on the fact that my version of the experience machine assumed that it provided a life only a little better than the real life it replaced, and that one's choice might be different if the illusion was a lot more attractive than the reality.

That's surely true, but I'm not sure it is very interesting. I'm not arguing that pleasure is of zero value, so I'm not suggesting that choosing lots of pleasure over a tiny bit of accomplishment is necessarily a mistake.

I'm trying to explore an old puzzle made particularly relevant by the prospect of much better illusions, chemical or electronic. Are some things we enjoy in some understandable sense better than others, if so what things and why? Is what we value sensations in our heads, or do we also value things happening in the external world even if they don't affect the sensations in our heads?

In an way it's tied into an apparently very different question: Why are people willing to pay so much more for natural sapphires than synthetic sapphires or for diamonds than CZ. The synthetic provides the same sensations, after all.

 
At 2:52 PM, July 15, 2006, Blogger SheetWise said...

"Are some things we enjoy in some understandable sense better than others, if so what things and why?"

Those which allow us to make a personal imprint on them. They provide value to us.

"Why are people willing to pay so much more for natural sapphires than synthetic sapphires or for diamonds than CZ. The synthetic provides the same sensations, after all."

They're value is set by a market. Our "sensations" have no effect on their value. We make no imprint on them.

 
At 3:07 PM, July 15, 2006, Blogger David Friedman said...

I asked:

"Why are people willing to pay so much more for natural sapphires than synthetic sapphires or for diamonds than CZ. The synthetic provides the same sensations, after all."

And sheetwise replied:

"They're value is set by a market. Our "sensations" have no effect on their value. We make no imprint on them."

The value on the market is the result of people's desires, due to their values, reflected in their willingness to pay. If people didn't value diamonds at much more than CZ, nobody would buy diamonds at anything close to their current price and their price would fall accordingly.

 
At 4:48 PM, July 15, 2006, Blogger Patri Friedman said...

I think there are some objective differences between playing games or taking drugs and publishing books.

Consider the reward profile of an activity to be the stream of future pleasure that you get from it. Consider the contribution profile to be the degree to which the benefits are spread out across you and other people.

There is a connection between these. Things with a flat contribution profile - that produce benefit to lots of people - tend to have a flatter reward profile, because over the years, some benefit will return from all those people you have impacted.

Games and drugs (particularly games) have very steep reward profiles and very narrow contribution profiles. Almost all of their effect is in the present and for those playing. I'm a fan of drugs, and I certainly feel that they can have some positive impact beyond the short-term, but not to the same degree as writing a book.

Finally throw in the fact that humans have a very high discount rate - probably higher than they should.

Now you have an argument that activities like games which produce most of their rewards immediately will be inferior contributors to happiness compared to activities like book writing which produce a stream of rewards over time. Furthermore, activities which produce benefit just to you will tend to be inferior to activites which produce benefit to many people.

Also don't forget that you have an incentive to view other people's narrow contribution profile actions as being bad, because if they chose to do broader contribution things, you would benefit. So it's perfectly natural to say "Playing games is sort of a waste of time, I wish people would realize the joys of creating things", while wasting lots of time playing games :).

 
At 3:58 AM, July 16, 2006, Anonymous malavel said...

I don't know the history of sapphires or diamonds, so I'm mostly guessing here.

Someone finds a sapphire and finds it beatifull. No one else has one, so he's unique. Others see it and want one too. There are few so the prices are high.

Years later fake sapphires are produced. People who have paid lots of money for real ones hate them and look down on people with them. Those who don't have a real one might want a fake one because it looks good and looks like real ones, but they suspect that if others found out it was fake they would be looked down upon. So it becomes some sort of self enforcing effect that keeps the prices up on real sapphires.

But what if fake sapphires had been invented before the real ones were found? The prices on faked ones would be low and I guess the prices on real ones would never soar, cause they looked just like the fake cheap ones.

 
At 1:50 PM, July 16, 2006, Blogger SheetWise said...

If people didn't value diamonds at much more than CZ, nobody would buy diamonds at anything close to their current price and their price would fall accordingly.

Diamonds, gold, Rembrandts or Picassos -- I have no use for any them. That doesn't mean I don't value them -- but I only do so because a market exists. All are in relatively short supply, and all have an established history of retaining their value in the market. And all have commercial applications which support their value.

You're making the assumption that because people pay dearly for something that they enjoy it -- or that it brings them pleasure. It's not necessarily our value of an item that determines what we're willing to pay. That's probably only true with consumables. On hard goods and investments, we look at what others are willing to pay -- and that's usually driven by markets supported by commercial applications.

I won't pay $200 to see Elton John, whose music I love, in concert -- yet I gladly paid $500 at auction for a pair of his glasses that I think are ugly as sin.

 
At 3:42 PM, July 16, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think considering this puzzle in terms of relations between oneself and other people helps clarify it.

Like many other great apes, human beings are social. We care what other people think of us. We might think of this as part of our reproductive strategy for attracting and finding mates, or we might think it's simply good sense in most real scenarios: on average aren't we all more likely to survive and thrive if others find us to be honorable and accomplished?

It makes sense, then, that gifted people should take a special pleasure in striving, proving and improving themselves publicly. And if most people are exceptionally good at something, we would expect to find most people showing off their greatest skills.

In the experience machine, we know that despite our enjoying the illusion of living a life of accomplishment, other people will not actually see any of those accomplishments and learn our worth. That greatly diminishes or even eliminates any pleasure some of us would take in the experience of such accomplishments, because of our nearly instinctive concern for our reputations.

Earning a living usually requires engaging in some commercial undertaking that the broader society basically approves. Thus in some sense, anyone "earning an honest living" is in fact engaging with society in a manner that is typically honored.

Occasionally, however, someone earns an honest living in a very uncommon manner, by doing things that most people consider to be of very little value, but that a small segment of society pays handsomely for (in the case of gambling, presumably the unsuccessful gamblers are the source of the funds). In those cases, I think much of society withholds some of its usual respect. Regardless of the wisdom of the social judgement, that's a real cost to be reckoned by anyone earning a living that way, or even lavishing a lot of time and energy on such a pursuit, though certainly a rational person who was exceedinly talented as a gambler might still choose to pursue such a career.

So perhaps all of this comes down to crude calculations of the effect of these personal choices on other peoples' estimations of oneself. This will not always show up in the obvious measures of sensations of pleasure or monetary rewards.

 
At 8:42 AM, July 17, 2006, Blogger markm said...

But some people get wealth and great respect just for playing games. I'm thinking, for instance, of the worst bigot I've known in the last 30 years, who nevertheless was convinced OJ Simpson was innocent just because he plays ball so well.

So you WarCrafters just have to convince 50 million men that it's fun to sit around and watch you guys play. (But it's probably easier to cure cancer and bring peace to the Middle East.)

 
At 5:08 PM, July 17, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

markm:

"But some people get wealth and great respect just for playing games. I'm thinking, for instance, of the worst bigot I've known in the last 30 years, who nevertheless was convinced OJ Simpson was innocent just because he plays ball so well.

"So you WarCrafters just have to convince 50 million men that it's fun to sit around and watch you guys play. (But it's probably easier to cure cancer and bring peace to the Middle East.)"

As you humorously observe, there's a big distinction between spectator sports and many games played only for the fun or profit of the players. I can't really support the idea, but I suspect that spectator sports often serve as an emotional proxy for combat and therefore act as an outlet for deep feelings of group affiliation in a way that other games likely never could.

But consider the respect accorded to school children who triumph in spelling bees, or to champtions in trivia contests like Jeopardy. I would say that usually the winners of those games are more widely celebrated than, for example, great poker players (though perhaps this has changed in recent years), maybe because the type of skill involved in winning Jeopardy is more commonly believed to be of value and interest, as demonstrated by the size of the audience for Jeopardy.

 
At 4:19 AM, July 18, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not to say drugs and VR can’t enhance life, but at least for right now I think "real" life is an intrinsically more interesting game. That may change in the future.

 
At 7:40 AM, July 18, 2006, Blogger Meaghan Walker-Williams said...

I don't think playing games is a waste of time at all. Sometimes it can be a useful distraction, a way to put one's mind on auto-pilot when too many more serious and weighty issues are plaguing it...or when you are working something out on one level, and need to not be distracted by other things in the immediate consciousness to let that problem wind it's way through your thoughts...

BUT other times playing games, especially inventive games, and the creation of games (which my husband is particularly fond of and good at) is actually good mental excercise especially when he forces players in the gamers to come to terms with moral, economic, political dilemnas.

Sometimes people can only approach such issues impartially through a game, whereas hours and hours of on-line arguing is never going to convince two people on different sides of an argument to really honestly evaluate the flaws or strengths in either their own or other people's positions.

As for the virtual reality machine... "existenz" is a good movie -- but another interesting movie that tackled this very issue was Vanilla Sky. In the movie the main character purposefully chose some *flaws* in his virtual reality... and when given the choice to have his "real life" back, at the end, he decides to opt for reality -- even a very harsh one -- because he has learned that you can't have real life, if you exclude the "bitter" from the "sweet" -- because sometimes it's the bitter that makes the sweet so much more enjoyable.

 
At 8:45 AM, July 18, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's some psychological literature that suggests that people who have rosier views of themselves, in comparison to how their friends and loved ones judge them, generally are more successful and happier. It's depressed people who seem to have the most accurate views of themselves. This raises a couple of questions: how important is a pleasant illusion for promoting achievement? And: can an inflated self-image be all that bad?

 
At 2:59 PM, July 18, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David Friedman asks if we would enter the experience machine if things were generally a little better.

Here's an alternative question: Suppose it was revealed to you that you already are in an experience machine and your entire experience of life has been an illusion. Your real life is horribly harsh and painful, much more miserable than the illusory life you know. Would you want to exit the experience machine and experience your real harsh life? Assume the operators of the machine will make you forget the truth of your situation if you choose to go back into the machine.

 
At 1:18 PM, July 19, 2006, Blogger Catatonic Lord Fisk said...

On the experience engine: I believe that we measure our accomplishments, mostly, by our peers’ standards – or, at least, our impression of them. If I am right, our sense of achievement is therefore not related to our choice of world (real or virtual). The experience engine is terrible because it would isolate us from our peers. A baby born within the experience engine wouldn’t mind it at all.
On gaming: Most fanatic gamers base their self-value on their on-line achievements; their scores provide them with a sense of identity. People who do not venture on-line to play games and people who like to play computer games in isolation are rarely, if ever, “addicted”. But even if we discover that fanatic gaming is a kind of addiction, I believe there will still be a big difference between gamers and junkies: gamers are confident and assertive, and have a sense of self-value – within their social network – whereas junkies tend to be more painfully aware of their status as society’s outcasts and are much less confident.
On virtual reality: If the only perceivable difference between the real and the virtual world is that the virtual world is better, then who cares? Would you choose the virtual world over the real world, knowing that you will be completely isolated by real people? That is the question. Some may, but I wouldn’t. That is the experience machine I wouldn’t touch with a ten feet pole. But if I could live in a virtual mansion, I would. Why not? If I could have a virtual Mona Lisa above my virtual fireplace, I would.
The telephone frightened people when they first heard it. Now we whinge about mobile phones, but that’s because we have become too used to them – they annoy us, they’re everywhere! Well, I don’t mind them. Fully immersive virtual reality, if ever possible, will, of course, be much more bizarre and scary. But we’ll get used to that too. Some of the technology needed for fully immersive virtual reality is already available. More is theoretically possible. Full immersion may never happen. Perhaps it’ll come gradual.
On synthetic diamonds: Modern synthetic diamonds are indistinguishable from mined diamonds. Are you sure people are willing to pay more for the so-called originals? Consider a young man looking for an engagement ring. Would he prefer an “original” diamond to a synthetic one if the synthetic cost a fifth of the “original’s” price? Would he still do so if he was certain his fiancé’s jeweller wouldn’t be able to tell the difference? I believe this is indeed a very different question to the one you are considering. Once people get used to the idea of synthetic diamonds, they’ll be everywhere (and the diamonds market will collapse).

 
At 8:25 PM, July 19, 2006, Anonymous Peter Bessman said...

David,

I'm on the same page as you, but I don't feel that I can answer any of the questions you pose --- I'm essentially stuck on them myself. Ultimately, it seems to me that this is a matter of morals, and thus, it's a personal decision.

 
At 4:45 PM, July 20, 2006, Anonymous Peter Bessman said...

Something to consider:

If your life is such as the matrix, and I'm not plugged in --- effectively, I'm your God.

 
At 9:26 AM, July 21, 2006, Anonymous Daniel Nagy said...

Does it not have to do with evolution? After all, our feelings are just guides helping us in the ultimate quest of self-perpetuation. Whoever is more successful at perpetuating one's self (be it genes, ideas, tastes or skills) becomes the template for future behavior.
Virtual pleasure-seeking differs from peasure-seeking from accomplishments in that it, as a behavioral pattern, does not further the goal of self-reproduction.
Some individuals may value virtual pleasures higher at any given time, but their behavor's share from the future will diminish. By looking at the same statement from the other end, we find that our values have been inherited from people who chose pleasure from real accomplishment rather than from faking it, thus we are likely to have similar preferences.

 
At 9:33 AM, July 21, 2006, Blogger Meaghan Walker-Williams said...

"On gaming: Most fanatic gamers base their self-value on their on-line achievements; their scores provide them with a sense of identity. People who do not venture on-line to play games and people who like to play computer games in isolation are rarely, if ever, “addicted”. But even if we discover that fanatic gaming is a kind of addiction, I believe there will still be a big difference between gamers and junkies: gamers are confident and assertive, and have a sense of self-value – within their social network – whereas junkies tend to be more painfully aware of their status as society’s outcasts and are much less confident."

My husband is actually very proud of his abilities as a game-master. He doesn't do on-line multi-user games. His games are all real-time role playing games where participants are all present.

When his former gaming buddies heard he was back in Florida, there was a huge amount of interest in having him set up these games again, because they found them so enjoyable. Quite a few of these people drove several hours on many occasions to participate.

He says that he has learned a lot about psychology, warfare, philosophy, economics by creating these games and watching how people react and interact when confronted with situations in the game.

Some of these games have also been invaluable for homeschooling. For example, our son Josh was playing one of these games with Charles and came up with the bright idea when confronted with a village of people whom he did not know very well, of proposing that "everybody should share everything they had equally, because that would be most fair". In short order, Josh had nothing left of all the equipment, goods and money he had devoted hours and hours to aquire previously.

The game stopped, as Josh soon got quite dejected about why it was that his "great idea" wasn't working out so well. This was a great springboard to talk about "the tragedy of the commons" and the overall veracity of the concept of "from each according to their ability to each according to their needs".

We were able to introduce Josh to a few simple ideas about economics, and the practical realities about the unintended consequences of such theories, on a conceptual level that he understood.

I personally think that gaming is the best way in the world to "learn". It's not like it's a trick or anything. Rather, in traditional school settings, kids and teachers flog the idea that learning is supposed to "tough" and "hard work" and that it's a slog to get through things. But in our mode of doing things, my son has found that learning is, and can be an endless process of fascinating discovery, joy and amusement!

Gaming in my view is highly under-rated, and put down, when I think it should be more universally used as a method of helping kids with self-directed learning.

 
At 9:35 AM, July 21, 2006, Anonymous Daniel Nagy said...

Also, by the same argument, it is obvious that we shall always have the ability to distinguish between real and fake, because it is immensely advantageous from an evolutionary point of view.

 
At 9:35 AM, July 21, 2006, Anonymous Daniel Nagy said...

Also, by the same argument, it is obvious that we shall always have the ability to distinguish between real and fake, because it is immensely advantageous from an evolutionary point of view.

 
At 1:18 PM, July 23, 2006, Blogger Catatonic Lord Fisk said...

Meaghan Walker-Williams, I believe you are right, gaming is a wonderful way to learn.
It turns out that gaming is one of the fastest ways to learn (when applicable). And it stands to reason, doesn't it? Gaming is enjoyable. It's easy to learn when you're having fun.
If my memory serves me right, the university of Chicago, the US military and microsoft have done a lot of research on educative games. A number of them have been in use for some time now - and with great success. So if games are indeed underrated, they shouldn't be.

 
At 7:53 PM, July 31, 2006, Blogger T said...

A game is only interesting for a certain period. After you've ceased to improve it will start to get boring. Exploring the game world further may help to answer interesting questions. But it offers a smaller window onto reality than does life as a whole. Wouldn't the logic of your discoveries ultimately direct you outside the game?

Certain drugs are useful, in my opinion, for a non-medical purpose: temporarily seeing yourself from different perspectives. This may aid escape from an otherwise intractable problem situation.

But neither gaming nor recreational drugs can by themselves provide pleasure or a satisfying life indefinitely. Only the growth of knowledge can do this.

For this reason I conclude that living in the experience machine is *no different* from living outside it. Switching between the two would merely trigger temporary mood swings of elation or depression.

Furthermore, life in the experience machine could be no less real than life outside it. By hypothesis you would be interacting with the same information and solving the same kinds of problems. We do not perceive reality directly, but via our theories about the world and the theories embodied in our biological brains. In both cases you are operating from inside the same virtual reality machine -- your own brain!

(for detailed explanations see 'The Fabric of Reality', by David Deutsch, esp. chs. 4,5)

 
At 6:48 AM, August 01, 2006, Anonymous Adam Rabie said...

You are looking at this from too narrow an angle.

All our happiness is derived from satisfying the genetic functions that happiness was "created" to motivate. When some watches pornography and touch themselves they manage to fool their brains into the believing the experience of sexual activity. You know what... how many people in this world now watch pornography because of its efficiency in pleasing that genetic impulse?

Many people make this choice often in their life and the fact is if you buy into the illusion, then there is no difference. If you are aware it is an illusion, then that is a different story, however, i would argue that this doesn't represent an effective illusion by any strong definition.

Real sex may be better than porn, but that is just due to the primitiveness of the sex illusion provided by pornography. Assuming this is much more sophisticated, there is no reason to assume this couldn't provide more satisfaction and become the preferable option.

Right now the existence of video games alone is further proof people often choose the illusion and rightfully so. We have Darwinian impulses that influence types of violent and competitive behaviour that humans are now able to harness through much safer and beneficial means to all. Video games allow us to exploit a non-zero-sum solution, compared to the reality of fighting which a zero-sum game. Due to this increased efficiency, video games are highly successful world wide.

 
At 9:34 AM, August 01, 2006, Blogger T said...

(expanding on my previous comment)

There’s a problem with the thought experiment. I don't believe that your wife, for example, could be prettier and better in other ways and yet remain (by hypothesis) the same person. Similarly, receiving a higher salary would cause your two lives to diverge (one life where you enter and remain in the machine and the other where you don't).

That is another reason why I claimed that life1 and life2 have to be the same in order to resemble each other indefinitely. The machine cannot raise the brightness setting of a life any more than it can increase the 'oneness' of 1 or the 'zeroness' of 0.

If we assume divergence does take place, I guess you could get around the problem by choosing to remain in the machine only for short periods of time. That way the resemblance between life1 and life2 remains close enough to make meaningful comparisons.

The entities you interact with in life2 are as real as the ones in life1. Both behave in complex and autonomous ways. The unenhanced entities behave identically. They are clones.

Consider a stranger living in a nearby town. Say he owns the grocery shop there. It’s necessary for the experience machine to simulate him in case you decide to visit that town and buy food items. Both he and and the simulated version have equal claims to existence. In order to generate stranger2 the machine would have to model stranger1’s mind precisely, with all his thoughts, feelings and perceptions. It would hence be generating a clone of his consciousness. Stranger2 believes correctly that he is real. He will protest loudly if you claim otherwise in attempting to obtain free groceries.

The moral situation, however it may be perceived by a user, is identical. With some interesting additions, e.g. destroying the experience machine without first saving its configuration would be murder.

 
At 3:50 PM, August 02, 2006, Blogger M.C. said...

But it is not true, at least for me and I suspect for many other people. I don't merely want the illusion of having written an interesting, enjoyable and original book, I want to have actually done it. I don't just want to think people read my books and are affected by the ideas in them, I want them to actually read and be affected. I don't want just the illusion of wonderful children, I want my wonderful children to actually exist. I wouldn't touch that machine with a ten foot pole.

"You" are in that "machine" right now. The current experience on tap for "you" is the "David Friedman" show, and the supposed subject is David Friedman. But "David Friedman" is in reality a conceptual object which is taken to be a subject. What you really are pure consciousness which is watching / dreaming / participating in the "experience machine" of the universe as the "David Friedman" personal experience. But that sense of personhood is itself part of the dream, which is easily seen in young children who are aware and conscious but have not developed a mental sense of self. Ultimate reality is simply pure consciousness and the stories that play out within it. And all the seemingly "separate" entities figure this out eventually.

I like this formulation, attributed to Albert Einstein:

A human being is a part of a whole, called by us 'universe', a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest... a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us.

 
At 3:05 PM, August 07, 2006, Blogger howtolive.org said...

David - Just wanted to let you know that I mentioned and linked to this blog post from my site, howtolive.org. I found your original post and the subsequent comments from your readers to be remarkably interesting. Keep up the great work.

 
At 6:28 PM, August 10, 2006, Blogger Anton said...

I live "in" a machine opposite to Nozick's, in that depression impairs my ability to enjoy my real accomplishments. It's conceivable that a mild dose of false triumph would result in more genuine accomplishment.

 
At 8:19 PM, August 19, 2006, Anonymous Michael E said...

I'm with anton.

I suffer from some depression and find that I'm more apt to avoid reality (especially by spending long periods of time online) than tackle my problems - in my case because I feel that my real-life accomplishments aren't worth much anyway.

 
At 12:45 AM, September 07, 2006, Blogger John T. Kennedy said...

"Feeling that you are a wonderful person because you are drunk is somehow less valid than feeling you are a wonderful person because you have just saved someone's life at risk of your own or solved an important problem."

For good reason, just as feeling you are a wonderful driver when you are drunk is less valid than actually driving well.

"I know some very smart people who put substantial amounts of time and effort into playing games--chess, bridge, poker. As long as one views it as recreation, there is no problem. But what about a really able person who treats the game as his real life and whatever he does to earn money for food and rent as merely an annoying distraction? "

Would you have the same objection if a smart and able person actually earned his money for food and rent by playing poker?

 
At 11:46 AM, September 11, 2006, Blogger bronco said...

Great posts! Artificial enhancements to aid a more positive self-perception are not new, but getting more spophisticated.(stating the obvious) Materialism as a practical guide is a useful tool, but used as an interpretation of relevance or purpose or better or worse,is like trying to pull nails with a stapler.

 

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