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.