Some people exhibit an amazing lack of interest in reality, content to imagine living in a wholly invented world. The notion that much of subjective experience is illusory is strongly connected with the beginnings of “modern” philosophy.
Galileo and Locke claimed that only things which are physical and measurable really exist. Galileo argued that primary qualities; solidity, motion, figure, extension and number were really real – being the objective properties of objects and that secondary qualities; color, sight, sound, small, taste and touch did not actually exist per se. They are merely artifacts; products of the sense organs that really have nothing to do with the objects being perceived. They are merely what our brains do when confronted with sensory input and primary qualities.
Locke was troubled that people treat all “ideas,” as immediate objects of perception, as equal, when only some correlated with the way things really are.
From this perspective, “objective” becomes a synonym for reality and “subjective” is tantamount to an illusion or a fiction. “Subjective” in this context means something like consciousness and mind-dependent, and “mind dependent” becomes “not real.”
This puts Galileo and Locke in the odd position that their shared philosophical theory does not exist either because philosophical theories are mind-dependent and in fact exist only in minds. Thus, performative contradictions and the reflexive problem in modern philosophy enter at modern philosophy’s very beginning.
If mind is a fundamental feature of existence with the existence of a mindful God and a conscious organismic cosmos, then all reality is objective, in the sense of being fully real, including secondary qualities. Near Death Experiencers commonly describe colors in the afterlife, including colors never seen on Earth and NDErs have neither active brains nor physical sense organs. For George Berkeley and presumably other theists, since God is the all-knowing perceiver, then anything depending on perception has a continuous existence. If the Akashic record exists, then all human experience exists forever and if panentheism is true, then there is an aspect of God lying outside time and space in an eternal realm where things are not subject to destruction.
At the very least, color, sound, and other secondary qualities exist as emergent properties – as results of the interaction of the organism with its environment. People exist, so good movies, appetizing food and interesting conversations also exist. Along with people come the experiences of meaning, purpose, emotion, love, value, morality and beauty.
In response to reading my account of John Locke and the associated criticism, one student commented that she did not care if secondary qualities and the invisible qualities of the universe, morality, value, purpose, meaning, love, friendship, etc., existed or not. I replied that if love and friendship do not exist, then she has no friends and no one loves her. She countered that it made no difference to her so long as it seemed to her that her hypothetical boyfriend loved her. He could pretend to love her and she could pretend to love him.
Likewise, someone suggested to me that if he were a rich man he would hire high-priced prostitutes. I replied that sleeping with someone who neither loves you nor, probably, even likes you, does not sound attractive. He replied that such “escorts” are likely to be very good at simulated affection and that I was a very unusual man in caring one way or the other about the reality of that affection.
Since Galileo and Locke’s viewpoint undergird education from at least high school up, this rejection of qualities of the world that depend on subjectivity, means that this topic is not of some quaint, esoteric interest. Correlating reality with what is measurable means that everything that makes life worth living is regarded as unreal. The nihilistic implications are horrific and create a psychic drain on the recipients of this education – constantly pouring cold water and a mist of unreality on everything they value.
The Experience Machine
The experience machine is an idea from Robert Nozick described in Anarchy, State, and Utopia. The idea is that a person can choose any imaginary life he likes with whatever features he likes. By stepping into the experience machine this preprogrammed life will appear to be experienced. In reality, it will all be a fiction. However, the experiencer will be unaware of this because upon entering the machine, all knowledge that he is in a machine will be extinguished. His fictional life will seem to him to be entirely real.
Significant numbers of students claim not to be bothered by the unreality of what would then be experienced and to be willing to climb into the hypothetical machine.
The Narcissism Test
The experience machine thought experiment is really a narcissism test. I accidentally stumbled upon such a test some years ago when thinking of a response precisely to students who claimed not to care about reality.
The narcissism test involves imagining getting married, having a long and happy marriage and then dying at an advanced age of natural causes. However, unbeknownst to them, their spouses did not love them and had merely simulated their affection for nefarious purposes. Did the thought of that scenario bother them?
I expected unanimous rejection of the scenario. However, a minority of students claimed that it did not trouble them.
The Matrix as an experience machine
It is highly relevant that it appeared to be students of lower emotional intelligence who were more unbothered by the unreality of the spousal love or of entering the experience machine.
A clue that someone may have low emotional intelligence is their fixed and relatively unwavering facial expressions and lack of affect. People with autism or Aspergers syndrome have been described as not being good at communicating their emotions through their faces, among other things.
Emotional intelligence involves being able to identify and describe what you yourself are feeling and then being able to do the same with other people. Successful social interactions usually involve careful monitoring of facial expressions in order to modulate what a speaker is saying. Boredom, disgust, puzzlement, smiling, are clues to change the topic, take a different approach, apologize, to continue and so on.
Narcissism is egocentrism and the latter means that one’s moral concern is restricted to oneself. Caring about yourself is important and ideally is merely preliminary to caring about family, community and country, and world in general.
The experience machine would mean that all love and friendship would be simulated and fake. No actual other people would exist and no actual loving or friendliness would be going on. The hypothetical marriage scenario would simply be an instance of this.
The only way that these notions could be untroubling is if one took a narcissistic point of view – namely that whatever is good for me is good. So long as I am feeling happy, it does not matter what other people think or feel. Not caring about what other people are thinking or feeling means you do not love them or care about them. No normal person can be entirely happy when his spouse is unhappy.
One student objected to the notion that wanting to live in the experience machine implies narcissism. He said, “What does it matter if the people in the machine are not real, so long as they are real to me?” In response, I wrote his question on the board and circled, with arrows, the last two words – “TO ME!!!” He was exhibiting exactly my point – the actual thoughts, feelings and even existence of other people is irrelevant to him. It only matters to the narcissist how things are for him. His own subjective well-being matters and other people are relevant only in so far as they contribute to that.
Since for a low emotional intelligence person there is something of a blank when it comes to the reality of other people’s interior life, some of them do not seem to be bothered by the prospect of there being a complete unreality to other people’s emotional lives. It is as though the experience machine and the narcissism test change nothing fundamental about their life experience.
A wholly subjective and imaginary reality are regarded as just fine in this context. Such people are at home in a world ruled by positivism; the notion that only scientific truths are true. The metaphysical underpinnings of most education do not conflict with their experience at too fundamental a level and even offer a vindication of their point of view.
Meaning, purpose, value, emotion, love, morality and consciousness are all invisible, as is God. A suspicion, antipathy, lack of interest and even hostility to all these invisible things is evinced by positivists. And low emotional intelligence people are likely to be drawn to the world of science and its perspective precisely because dealing with other people’s intangible minds presents a problem for them. Better a predictable machine than inscrutable emotion-ridden humans. Autistic people have trouble with teleology, even human teleology and are more likely to be atheists. This is consistent with attitudes and tendencies of Anglo-American philosophy and Aspergers philosophers are not uncommon – though not as common as Aspergers and autistic mathematicians.
Emotions are necessary for orienting oneself in reality. They are part of perception; of other people and the world around us. A thin rationalistic “knowledge” may be contradicted by emotion leading to a conflict between what a person thinks he knows and what he actually believes. For instance, he may “know” the connection between money and happiness has its limits, while not really believing it emotionally.
Being someone of normal emotional intelligence in a philosophy department can be bewildering. Truly stupid, simple-minded and reductionist theories of human motivation like hedonism are considered completely seriously and even predominate. Economists seem to suffer from similar problems and the notion of homo economicus making purely “rational” economic decisions devoid of emotional or moral content similarly conflicts with reality and leads to false predictions, reflecting emotionally stunted conceptions of how people function.
Richard Thaler was awarded the Swedish National Bank’s Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel just for pointing this out. I wish someone had asked me when I was eighteen. I would be a million dollars richer.
A world of screens, smartphones and virtual reality may also be promoting autistic attitudes and behaviors. The experience machine would be like Second Life but with no actual human consciousness moving or motivating the avatars.
Choosing to enter the experience machine means choosing meaninglessness.
Teaching Albert Camus seems to have the effect of convincing students that meaning is the product of human choice. Life has no meaning, so it can have whatever meaning is chosen for it – perhaps this could be called “life as tofu;” the bland, soybean curd requiring sauces and spices for it to have any character or taste.
However, meaning is a matter of connections to context. A cog that turns something that turns something else that is ultimately useful has meaning. A cog attached to nothing and not having even a decorative effect is not meaningful.
Recreational drug use is meaningless. Drinking cactus juice as part of a vision quest, the significance of which must be communicated to the tribe and found to be of use, is meaningful.
Raising children is an intensely meaningful activity with many ramifications. Many people are likely to find it to be the most meaningful thing they ever do.
Sticking an electrode into a person’s pleasure center and sending an electrical impulse down the wire will produce pleasure but have no meaning. Hence the life of a heroin addict may be pleasurable, at least for a while, but not enviable.
The experience machine means choosing a meaningless life where a person has no influence on anything real. Its significance will be a sham. Meaning, as one of the invisibles, is seen as expendable.
It is true that the experience machine could be chosen as a matter of pure desperation. An aging man who has been rejected by women all his life might find the idea of simulated love, either from prostitutes or the experience machine, attractive. And an astronaut left alone and abandoned on a humanless planet, as imagined by Ray Bradbury in story called “The Long Years” in The Martian Chronicles, might find the experience machine a more tolerable alternative to reality. In the story, Hathaway solves his problem by building a robot family to keep him company; unreal facsimiles of his real family who are now dead. Logically, the robot family would have been better than the experience machine if only Hathaway had not taken away their ability to feel emotional loss. With this ability, the robots would have had consciousness and a viable emotional life of their own, making them appropriate and real people worthy of love. Without this ability, the robots become monstrous, remaining unaffected by Hathaway’s death and continuing on as though nothing had happened.
How Life Is and Is Not Like the Experience Machine
It is possible that human life bears some resemblance to the experience machine. So the thought experiment may be an instance of accidentally hitting on a metaphysical truth. However, there seem to be important differences.
The meaning of life has sometimes been described as soul formation. Some suggest that in the afterlife souls in fact choose the general life circumstances that are likely to foster growth and development in whatever facets of character one is deficient. A person chooses his parents and has foreknowledge of key events in his life. A soul temporarily forgets his created, but now eternal nature, to experience life in the shadows at the back of the cave. Previous lives are usually forgotten to focus on living this current one. Many of these things seemed to have been believed by Plato, the person most responsible for Western philosophy.
If the brain is a reducing valve constricting universal consciousness in a way that fosters survival and individual success, as William James believed, and the above notions are true, then there is a certain unreality to life on Earth. Our true selves are much more than we perceive them to be. We are all connected spiritually and stem from the same Source but often find this hard to accept emotionally and intellectually. Our perception of ourselves as having begun at birth and ceasing at death is an illusion and our temporary forgetting of our true nature produces a certain divorce from full reality.
This bears some similarity to the experience machine except that the circumstances of life are chosen to produce learning and constructive change rather than mere enjoyment and are thus meaningful – though the quest for happiness will drive the urge to develop.
The other difference is that the other people in real life are real and not merely imaginary. Friendship and love actually exist between real people.
The highest metaphysical reality is Spirit that permeates and constitutes everything and everybody. Thus everything is connected (all is one) and meaning is maximal. God is in all, above all and through all.
The intellectual and more importantly emotional realization of this, in coordination with one’s actions, is the ultimate meaning of life. A meaning united to supreme reality. Love is connection – to feel and act lovingly, making God, Love and Meaning much of a muchness.
The foundation of morality is this lack of separation – making not caring about other people irrational. All are an emanation of the same divine Spirit. Separation is not ultimate. To see and feel through this illusion represents enlightenment and salvation.
The people in the experience machine are not real. In real life, other people are real centers of consciousness, but they are a filtering of the one divine consciousness. And this divine consciousness is fully real and the Source of all reality.