Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Happiness Box

"We have developed a machine, a box with some electrodes and a life-support system, which we call the 'happiness box.' If you get in the box, you will experience a powerfully pleasant sensation, which will continue indefinitely with just enough variation to keep you from getting too used to it. We invite you to try it. If you decide to do so, you can get out of the box any time you want to; but perhaps we should tell you that no one, once they have gotten into the happiness box, has ever wanted to get out of it. After ten hours or so, we hook up the life-support system, and people spend their lifetimes there. Of course, they never do anything else, so their bodies tend to resemble half-filled water beds after a few years because of the lack of exercise. But that never bothers them either. Now, it's your decision: Would you like to step into the happiness box? Why or why not?" (Solomon & Higgins, The Big Questions, 8th ed., 30)

This little thought experiment, inspired by the late Robert Nozick's Experience Machine and mimicked by Cypher's steak-seduction in "The Matrix," invites us to wonder: is there something privileged about "reality"?

More on this in The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real...

and Lyle Zynda asks if Cypher was right in Taking the Red Pill: Science, Philosophy and Religion in the Matrix:

Nozick's idea is this: suppose you could deliberately and knowingly choose, as Cypher does in The Matrix, to be hooked up to a machine that would give you the experiences of having friends, fame, wealth, good looks, success, and whatever else makes you happy. After being hooked up, you'll forget about your past life, and you won't be unhooked from the machine later. Would you choose to be hooked up to the Experience Machine?

Nozick"s claim is that you wouldn't, if you thought about it seriously. You don't want just the experience of having friends and being loved. You want to really have friends and be loved. It is true that if you are friendless and unloved, you might be tempted to escape reality into fantasy. (Some people use drugs for this reason.) But you would prefer real friends to imaginary ones, if you could have them. The same goes for fame, wealth, good looks, success, and so on. Thus, experience (such as pleasure) is not what is of highest value...

If you're asking me: I prefer harsh reality, the occasional disappointing steak, and the company of the flesh-and-blood people in my life. They too, to be frank, are also occasionally disappointing (as I am to them). But they are never less than real.

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