Happiness and the Experience Machine Harvard Philosopher Term Paper

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Happiness" and "The Experience Machine"

Harvard philosopher Rober Nozick made an interesting observation about happiness. Suppose one was to reflect on two different lives that contain the same amount of happiness. One life begins at a low point, and continues to get better with each passing moment. On the other hand, the second life begins on a high note, and continues to move downward towards an unhappy ending. The eternal question is, of course, which one would be preferable? Like the majority of people, I would choose the life that begins at a low point and slopes upward. Nozick believed that this says something fundamental about the human relationship with happiness. Humans, by nature, are seeking something more than the total happiness in their lives. Nozick refers to this as the "narrative direction" of happiness, and finds that we as humans seek structure in our positive experiences. Rather than hope to achieve a lump sum of happiness in a lifetime, most humans wish for their good times to be spread out, and to combat the negative experiences they come across during their existence.

Nozick also devised another fascinating philosophical dilemma in his lifetime, one of countless brilliant examinations on the human condition. Suppose a machine existed that could create positive, realistic experiences as the user floats carelessly in a tank. Although the experiences are fabricated, they feel as real as anything would in reality, and therefore the line between real and unreal becomes blurred. Because it is a machine, it can be programmed to provide a far superior experience to the real world. Therefore, one could ideally lead a better life by just simply remaining motionless, wired into this "experience machine." Nozick asked the question of whether or not it would be better to spend one's entire life in the machine. Surprisingly, or perhaps not surprisingly at all, most people would answer "no." I would personally choose not to live in the machine. Nozick successfully provided an argument against hedonism, when concerning people who choose not to live in the machine. He also provided several grounded reasons not to plug into the machine. First, humans desire free will, and therefore would prefer the ability to make the choice of whether or not to commit an action, rather than simply experience it. Next, people want to be unique. Being plugged into a machine would make the person a lump of mush. Most importantly, the concept of this machine suggests that it is man-made, and therefore the user is limited to the reality imagined by the machine's creator. This would limit the user to a reality far less varied and with less potential. Although the fake reality is stimulating, and supposedly more pleasing, it becomes predictable and constrictive.

Both of these concepts suggest that there is far more to the human condition than we can currently understand. There are indeed some individuals that would choose to enter into the machine. Perhaps they have had awful home lives or have encountered some great tragedy in their lifetime that they cannot bear. Many of these people share the simple quality, though, that they are downtrodden and see a pleasant experience in a tank as a desirable alternative to their unpleasant lives. This weary and cynical set of people is merely a minority. The large majority of humans, even those that have led unpleasant lives, would choose to forgo the machine. Many questions arise regarding the constrictions of the machine. Nozick's philosophical argument addresses some of these points by adding other possibilities, which reveal even more about human nature. Nozick chooses to ignore outside concerns for the purposes of this experiment, by stating that it doesn't matter who is running the experience machine while the user is plugged in and that the machine will simply function properly. Given the fact that humans have chosen to create this machine, it should not be a problem whether there is an operator or not, because one of the constraints of the argument is that the machine will continue to run regardless. He also proposes an alternative to a pre-determined lifetime in the machine, by allowing the user to step out every so often and change the settings on the machine. Nozick argues that these changes to the experiment do not affect the outcome. Most people would still choose an authentic life experience over a fabrication.

In this same vein, there are perhaps even fewer human beings that would choose to begin their lives in the happiest manner possible, and experience a downward slope from then on. There is little justification to argue the superiority of this lifespan, while there is firm reasoning behind the choice of an upwardly mobile lifetime. In the life moving in an upward direction, each experience improves upon the last, which in itself is a positive experience, and therefore increases the value of the life. It is this subsequent juxtaposition of bad-then-good experiences that attracts humans. Since our lives move along the constrictions of time, it is only natural to long for this upward expansion, this step-by-step path towards pleasure. Human nature suggests that in order to make us happy, we must first experience what it is like to feel bad, in order to appreciate and have perspective on the experience. It is a forward moving outlook that heightens the positive experiences we encounter.

The actual physical pursuit of happiness is far different from the conception of happiness. In pursuing happiness, the individual possesses the freewill to choose their path and become a unique individual within their life. They may encounter unavoidable pains and negative experience, but they have the option of how to overcome these defeats. People would rather have the choice of whether or not to treat a wound then to be forcibly treated by a machine, whether or not the experience of the machine's treatment is supposedly pleasurable. This is similar to how a newborn baby lives their life. They exit the womb, a small mass of tissue and bones, and have little to no understanding of the world that surrounds them. Therefore they are coddled; their parents do everything for them that they cannot do for themselves. A baby has little choice in its life path since it is carried back and forth from place to place by its parents, mushy food is inserted in its mouth, and it cannot even use the bathroom on its own. When asked if they would enjoy going back to being a baby, few humans would truthfully admit that they would prefer this. Perhaps there are many that would claim it would be preferable, but at heart, most humans prefer their freewill.

There is, of course, the conception of perfect happiness, but is there any possible way for a human that has experienced true reality to believe in a so-called perfect reality? Perhaps a human could be forced by a machine into believing in the perfect happiness. For the purposes of argument, their freewill could be stripped so that they comfortably and blissfully accept their new reality. However, knowing this fact would prevent any rational human from choosing this experience. Humans live in utter fear of having their freewill and autonomy stripped, and could never contentedly allow a machine to take over on their behalf. This conception of happiness would be just that -- a conception. The notion of happiness does not compare to the actual, real positive experience that creates organic happiness. The experience may be pleasing in sensory terms, but there is something truly deeper that exists within humans. These are the same human beings that are capable of achieving great wealth, and still fall victim to vice and become miserable. These complicated perceptions of happiness prove that there is more to life than the sensory pleasures. If hedonism was…[continue]

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