MATRIX PHILOSOPHY: THE VALUE OF REALITY.
CHYPHER AND THE EXPERIENCE MACHINE by Crhistopher Grau
Cypher is not a nice guy, but is he an unreasonable guy?
Is he right to want to get re-inserted into the Matrix? Many want to say no, but
giving reasons for why his choice is a bad one is not an easy task. After all,
so long as his experiences will be pleasant, how can his situation be worse than
the inevitably crappy life he would lead outside of the Matrix? What could matter
beyond the quality of his experience? Remember, once he's back in, living his
fantasy life, he won't even know he made the deal. What he doesn't know can't
hurt him, right?
Is feeling good the only thing that
has value in itself? The question of whether only conscious experience can ultimately
matter is one that has been explored in depth by several contemporary philosophers.
In the course of discussing this issue in his 1971 book Anarchy, State, and
Utopia Robert Nozick introduced a "thought experiment" that has
become a staple of introductory philosophy classes everywhere. It is known as
"the experience machine":
there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired.
Superduper 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?"
on to argue that other things do matter to us: For instance, that we actually
do certain things, as opposed to simply have the experience of doing them. Also,
he points out that we value being (and becoming) certain kinds of people. I don't
just want to have the experience of being a decent person, I want to actually
be a decent person. Finally, Nozick argues that we value contact with reality
in itself, independent of any benefits such contact may bring through pleasant
experience: we want to know we are experiencing the real thing. In sum, Nozick
thinks that it matters to most of us, often in a rather deep way, that we be the
authors of our lives and that our lives involve interacting with the world, and
he thinks that the fact that most people would not choose to enter into such an
experience machine demonstrates that they do value these other things. As he puts
it: "We learn that something matters to us in addition to experience by imagining
an experience machine and then realizing that we would not use it." (44)
While Nozick's description of his machine is vague, it appears that there
is at least one important difference between it and the simulated world
of The Matrix. Nozick implies that someone hooked up to the experience
machine will not be able exercise their agency — they become the passive
recipients of preprogrammed experiences. This apparent loss of free will
is disturbing to many people, and it might be distorting people's reactions
to the case and clouding the issue of whether they value contact with
reality per se. The Matrix seems to be set up in such a way that one can
enter it and retain one's free will and capacity for decision making,
and perhaps this makes it a significantly more attractive option than
the experience machine Nozick describes.
a loss of freedom is not the only disturbing aspect of Nozick's story. As he points
out, we seem to mourn the loss of contact with the real world as well. Even if
a modified experience machine is presented to us, one which allows us to keep
our free will but enter into an entirely virtual world, many would still object
that permanently going into such a machine involves the loss of something valuable.
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Cypher and his philosophical comrades are likely to be unmoved by such observations.
So what if most people are hung-up on "reality" and would turn down
the offer to permanently enter an experience machine? Most people might be wrong.
All their responses might show is that such people are superstitious, or irrational,
or otherwise confused. Maybe they think something could go wrong with the machines,
or maybe they keep forgetting that while in the machine they will no longer be
aware of their choice to enter the machine.
hesitant to plug-in don't realize that they value being active in the real world
only because normally that is the most reliable way for them to acquire the pleasant
experience that they value in itself. In other words, perhaps our free will and
our capacity to interact with reality are means to a further end — they matter
to us because they allow us access to what really matters: pleasant conscious
experience. To think the reverse, that reality and freedom have value in themselves
(or what philosophers sometimes call non-derivative or intrinsic value), is simply
to put the cart before the horse. After all, Cypher could reply, what would be
so great about the capacity to freely make decisions or the ability to be in the
real world if neither of these things allowed us to feel good?
Unger has taken on these kinds of objections in his own discussion of "experience
inducers". He acknowledges that there is a strong temptation when in a certain
frame of mind to agree with this kind of Cypher-esque reasoning, but he argues
that this is a temptation we ought to try and resist. Cypher's vision of value
is too easy and too simplistic. We are inclined to think that only conscious experience
can really matter in part because we fall into the grip of a particular picture
of what values must be like, and this in turn leads us to stop paying attention
to our actual values. We make ourselves blind to the subtlety and complexity of
our values, and we then find it hard to understand how something that doesn't
affect our consciousness could sensibly matter to us. If we stop and reflect on
what we really do care about, however, we come across some surprisingly everyday
examples that don't sit easily with Cypher's claims:
"Consider life insurance. To be sure, some among the insured may strongly
believe that, if they die before their dependents do, they will still observe
their beloved dependents, perhaps from a heaven on high. But others among the
insured have no significant belief to that effect... Still, we all pay our premiums.
In my case, this is because, even if I will never experience anything that happens
to them, I still want things to go better, rather than worse, for my dependents.
No doubt, I am rational in having this concern." (Identity, Consciousness,
and Value, 301)
As Unger goes on to point out, it seems contrived
to chalk up all examples of people purchasing life insurance to cases
in which someone is simply trying to benefit (while alive) from the favorable
impression such a purchase might make on the dependents. In many cases
it seems ludicrous to deny that "what motivates us, of course, is
our great concern for our dependent's future, whether we experience their
future or not."(302). This is not a proof that such concern is rational,
but it does show that incidents in which we intrinsically value things
other than our own conscious experience might be more widespread than
we are at first liable to think. (Other examples include the value we
place on not being deceived or lied to — the importance of this value
doesn't seem to be completely exhausted by our concern that we might one
day become aware of the lies and deception.)
Most of us care about a lot of things independently of the experiences
that those things provide for us. The realization that we value things
other than pleasant conscious experience should lead us to at least wonder
if the legitimacy of this kind of value hasn't been too hastily dismissed
by Cypher and his ilk. After all, once we see how widespread and commonplace
our other non-derivative concerns are, the insistence that conscious experience
is the only thing that has value in itself can come to seem downright
peculiar. If purchasing life insurance seems like a rational thing to
do, why shouldn't the desire that I experience reality (rather than some
illusory simulation) be similarly rational? Perhaps the best test of the
rationality of our most basic values is actually whether they, taken together,
form a consistent and coherent network of attachments and concerns. (Do
they make sense in light of each other and in light of our beliefs about
the world and ourselves?) It isn't obvious that valuing interaction with
the real world fails this kind of test.
Of course, pointing out that the value I place on living in the real world
coheres well with my other values and beliefs will not quiet the defender
of Cypher, as he will be quick to respond that the fact that my values
all cohere doesn't show that they are all justified. Maybe I hold a bunch
of exquisitely consistent but thoroughly irrational values!
The quest for some further justification
of my basic values might be misguided, however. Explanations have to come
to an end somewhere, as Ludwig Wittgenstein once famously remarked. Maybe
the right response to a demand for justification here is to point out
that the same demand can be made to Cypher: "Just what justifies
your exclusive concern with pleasant conscious experience?" It seems
as though nothing does — if such concern is justified it must be somehow
self-justifying, but if that is possible, why shouldn't our concerns for
other people and our desire to live in the real world also be self-justifying?
If those can also be self-justifying, then maybe what we don't experience
should matter to us, and perhaps what we don't know can hurt us...
Johnston, Mark. "Reasons and Reductionism," Philosopical
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Nagel, Thomas. "Death," Nous, 1970.
Nozick, Robert. Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Basic Books, 1971.
Unger, Peter, Identity, Consciousness, and Value, Oxford,