The Experience Machine

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).

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Houston Craighead
Houston Craighead
6 years ago

Excellent post, Norris, but if that is a picture of the machine, I’m definitely not hooking up to it!

Nancy Gaillard
Nancy Gaillard
6 years ago

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. 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. Such an interesting learning community!! Students are fortunate to have this opportunity.

Zachary White
6 years ago

My choice would be no, Norris. Based on the provocative thought experiment, I would be able to live my experience, but the relationships with the people around me would stay the same. It’s hard for me to conceive of the value of such an endeavor when our goals or wishes are completely separate from the ways in which we change with and because of others who accompany/inspire/change us as we move toward our desired goals. In other words, although desired experiences are tempting, I am more committed to the creations that happen between us as we move toward/revise/respond to the goals we think we want. Thanks for the providing this great scenario, Norris. So looking forward to your reflections.


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