By Dr. Norris Frederick
First in a series
Thanks to those of you who responded to my most recent post about an assignment from my “Philosophy for Life” course, based on Nozick’s thought-experiment, “The Experience Machine.” The ultimate virtual reality device, this machine can give you any experience you desire. Any. I asked whether you would “plug into this machine for life, pre-programming your life’s desires.” If not, why not: “What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside?”
For those of us who are getting a bit older (which I suppose would include everyone, wouldn’t it? …but you know what I mean), Dr, Nancy Gaillard wrote, “I think about this quite a bit as I realize there are so many things I can no longer do or places I can no longer go.” Instead of just occasionally having dream-fragments about running fast, I could program into the machine many long runs and even road races where I do well and have a great time, followed by delicious thirst-quenching beers being absorbed into my slim body (okay, I really went overboard, even in my imagination, with that last adjective).
But then Nancy went on to write, “I suppose that this kind of machine would be good but nothing compares to the actual adventures, both good and challenging, that give us perspective.” There are several “what else matters to us” in her thought: actuality, adventures, challenges, and perspective. We might call each of these things a “good,” a type of thing that is desirable or has value for humans.
Let’s consider the first in the list, which I’ll call reality. Reality matters to us, even though it is not always pleasant. The first time I did this thought experiment with a class, one guy said, “Yes, I would plug in.” When asked why, the student did not give a list of pleasures (such as endless ice cream sundaes, a date with the sexiest singer, etc.), but said “I can be with my friends whenever I want for as long as I want.”
“Aww, that’s sweet,” someone said. Then someone questioned whether “for as long as I want” is true friendship. Finally another student hit the nail on the head: “You aren’t really with your friend, you’re just experiencing what appears to be your friend, but it’s not your friend. It’s all you, it’s all in your head.” “Ohhhh,” the first student got it.
Why This Thought Experiment?
A thought experiment is an imaginative exercise that gives us an opportunity to test our concepts and their limits, how they connect with other concepts, and which concepts are incompatible. This particular thought experiment, for almost everyone, shows the limits of pleasure. Pleasure is a fine thing indeed, but it’s not the only thing, and there are limits to the value of pleasure. We value reality, too, even though we can’t always control it. This lack of control makes possible adventures (if it’s all controlled, as in Disney World, it’s not really an adventure) and challenges, which we also value. Our dealing with and reflecting about reality over time makes possible perspective.
I find this thought-experiment not only intriguing, but also vital as it leads us to ponder the values and limits of pleasurable experiences. It’s easy for my students and the rest of us to recognize how those addicted to drugs value the drug pleasure and/or absence of pain over any other good: relationships, family, health, and even food. And for at least part of the time, they use the drugs successfully to avoid reality. Poor them, we say.
It’s harder to recognize that for many of us non-drug addicts in the developed world, and certainly in the United States, there are ways in which we actual do inhabit the experience/pleasure machine a great deal of the time. Most of us have “smart” cell phones, which remain a constant focus throughout the day. To be sure, one of the reasons many people like the phones is that they offer extensions of real friendship, through voice, text, and email. But those phones also provide endless distractions from our present reality: cat videos, likes on Facebook, YouTube, music, Netflix, that ad that just popped up for shoes…. Then add time on the computer with all the preceding, and we actually are spending a good deal of time just seeking pleasurable experiences, whatever rocks your boat.
One measure of a person’s true values can be found in their expenditures. How much do you or I spend a month on cell phones, cell phone service, and cable service for television and internet?
Again, in itself pleasure is a good, and as humans we are clearly wired to, …well…, like pleasure. But it’s a matter of balance. Aristotle is right: “What we need, in order to live well, is a proper appreciation of the way in which such goods as friendship, pleasure, virtue, honor and wealth fit together as a whole.”
To be continued.
 Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, p. 42 – 43 (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 2013, original paperback edition published in 1974).
 Richard Kraut, “Aristotle’s Ethics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-ethics/ and forthcoming URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2018/entries/aristotle-ethics/>.
Photo credit: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/512847476286904880/
By Dr. Norris Frederick
This semester I’m teaching my course “Philosophy for Life: What do Great Philosophers and Current Science Have to Say about True Happiness and a Good Life?” [i] The course raises and examines questions and conflicting views about happiness, whether some views are closer to “true” happiness, and whether happiness is the same as a good life. One assignment asks students to consider and answer two questions about a thought-experiment created by Robert Nozick,[ii] “The Experience Machine.” Today I want to give you, dear reader, an opportunity to think about and perhaps answer those questions yourself. Here is the thought experiment.
“Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Super-duper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life’s desires? …. Of course, while in the tank you won’t know that you’re there; you’ll think it’s all actually happening. Others can also plug in to have the experiences they want, so there’s no need to stay unplugged to serve them. (Ignore problems such as who will service the machines if everyone plugs in.) Would you plug in? What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside?”
So think about, perhaps talk about with others, those two questions: “Would you plug in [for life]? What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside?” Then if you wish you can write some of your thoughts either on my website (click here) or on my Facebook or Instagram pages.
Next month I’ll reflect on the thought-experiment and your responses.
[i] The course is part of a learning community called “The Pursuit of Happiness,” which also includes a class in sociology and a class in rhetoric & argument. I am grateful to my colleagues Jay Wills, Sarah Creech, Tracey Perez, and Jenn Goddu for the opportunity to work with them in this learning community.
[ii] Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, p. 42 – 43 (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 2013, original paperback edition published in 1974).
Photo credit: Norris Frederick
By Dr. Norris Frederick
Second in a series
My thanks to you for the many thoughtful responses, both on my website and on Facebook, about my first post on death. A couple of you wrote that you don’t fear death, thus challenging my idea of “that feeling of existential terror that we all feel at some points of our lives.” Everyone, however, offered some explanation of the role of death in our lives.
Urban living and modern science and medicine have changed our experience of death. In earlier times, death occurred in the home and often rather quickly. People grew old, perhaps got pneumonia (“the old person’s friend”) and died in the home. Even young children observed the death of their elders. Today for many of us the death of those we know has become a bit more “out of sight, out of mind.”
Death Front and Center
Seventeen years ago I was a faculty leader on a Queens University of Charlotte student study tour of Italy. We started the tour on the beautiful Amalfi coast, where our hotel overlooked the sparking Tyrrhenian Sea. We took a boat to Capri, rode a taxi to the top of the island, where we sat under a restaurant umbrella enjoying the world’s best cappuccino. It was morning, we and the world were young, full of possibilities, relaxed and enjoying life in the best Epicurean fashion.
The next day we rode the bus to Rome, which was beautiful in its own way, but also busy, noisy and crowded. We had to be alert when crossing the street to avoid being hit by cars. The students adapted, though, and quickly found the best clubs and bars, staying out just as late as possible.
One morning our itinerary showed we were to visit Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini (Our Lady of the Conception of the Capuchins). The students assumed it was yet another church where we would see and “appreciate” sculpture. Neither they nor we faculty were fully prepared for the key feature of the church, The Capuchin Crypt. We faculty walked to the entrance of the Crypt, paid the entrance fees for us all, and stood aside to let the students go in first. Their initial responses of “Oh my god!” appeared the most reverent of any church we had entered — except their “Oh my god!” exclamations were closer to disgust than to awe. Before us in the first of six chapels/crypts were displays of bones arranged to form a theme. We were overwhelmed both by the gargantuan number of bones as well as by the arrangements where bones had been clothed to resembled a body.
In all, there are the bones of about 4,000 skeletons. The students who had been out late at the bar may have been thinking about how good it would be to take a nap, but this tableau no doubt left them wide awake.
For the professors who hold the knowledge in their brains in such high esteem, there was also this in The Crypt of the Skulls.
We no longer felt young and relaxed, with the world at our fingertips.
Bringing It Home
When the Capuchins, an order of the Franciscans, moved to this location in 1631, the Vatican ordered that they take with them the remains of their deceased brothers The Capuchins went one step further than “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” They apparently decided “when the Pope gives you bones, make art.”
Just as we whispered to ourselves little jokes and smiles as we went through the Crypt twenty years ago, I find myself even now trying to make light of the all-too-real bones. The whole crypt does seem macabre. Why would anyone construct such a crypt? In fact, why would anyone visit there?
The answer, and the very most chilling thing we saw, was a small plaque among the bones, which read
“What you are now, we once were;
What we are now, you shall be.”
Oh. My. God. They were once like us, young, happy, excited. And we shall one day be as them: mere bones.
We could not wait to get out of there. After exiting we dispersed quickly to find a late cappuccino or an early lunch or even better, a beer. Whew…. We smiled, we even laughed, but for a while we could not shake off the image of our own deaths.
Was it worth the shock?
The Capuchin friars clearly want to remind us of the temporary nature of our life here on earth, in hope that we will be reminded of the eternal life to come after this one. We need to be oriented toward the world to come, and to rid ourselves of the vanity of putting too much emphasis on this life. We aren’t all that.
The Epicureans also recognize that life is fleeting, but they offer no hope for a life after this one. Instead, they urge us to live this life as fully as possible. As the poet Horace writes,
“While we are talking, jealous time has fled.
So seize the day, and do not trust the morrow!” 
The Capuchins and the Epicureans hold radically opposite beliefs about an afterlife. However, they share the belief that it is important that we face the reality: we will die. Facing reality is a good thing. Our own culture has as much as possible removed death from the home, placing it in sanitized hospitals and funeral homes, lessening its reality. People in the developed world spend a great deal of time in the virtual reality of the internet. National politics in the U.S. are often divorced from reality.
So the Capuchins have done a good thing in helping us to face reality. It’s up to us now as to what we do with that knowledge. Thinking of all those bones and the reality of death, we could do a lot worse than to follow Horace’s advice:
“Persuade yourself that each new day that dawns will be your last. Then you will receive each unexpected hour with gratitude.”
To be continued
 Horace, Odes, I, 11, 7, in Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy, 126.
 Horace, Epistles, I, 4, 13, in Hadot, 126.
Picture credits: Norris Frederick; http://tripfreakz.com/offthebeatenpath/the-capuchin-crypt-in-rome-italy ; and http://www.romeing.it/museum-and-crypt-of-the-capuchin-friars-rome/ .