What's So Great about Reality?II

by Mitchell Erickson

This article is a continuation of some thoughts from What's So Great About Reality?, Edsel Kreisler, in the last edition of Seattle Critical Review. The following is a brief account of some of the points that are relevant to what I want to say, here.

First, the Matrix, and the “actual reality” outside the Matrix feel the same to those who are living in either one, in the sense that neither feels more or less real than the other. Another way of putting this is that for anyone existing in one of the “realities,” that person cannot tell that the existence in which they are in is not real. Secondly, part of the controversy that drove the discussion in that article was the question of whether or not reality (the actual one, not the Matrix) had value for it's own sake. The question raised by the author's friend David was, “The whole idea is that you cannot tell the one experienced world from the other, as far as their real-ness goes. Each experience appears equally real. So why would anyone choose the poorer experience for the richer?” Kreisler's response is this:

The value we place upon the life we lead is nothing more or less than the value we place upon the possibility of leading that life in the most genuine, authentic, fully human manner. The awareness of the possibility of greater authenticity in our life is coextensive with the awareness of the higher value we place upon that possibility.”

...what mattered had little or nothing to do with that putative reality taken as a thing in itself, but rather, what mattered was what kind of life the Chooser was capable of living within whatever reality was selected. It was the lived life that mattered, not the metaphysical substrate on which it was deposited.”

Now, one issue that comes up is whether or not a human, knowing about what it is to live in both the Matrix and the actual reality, has the possibility to live life in a genuine, authentic, fully human manner. We can't just assume that one cannot so do in the Matrix. One supposes that all of the material are there from which one can build such a life. These are such things as having social relations, being able to love, being able to causally effect the world (note that in the Matrix, do seem to be able to affect their world and those in it, in some way), and so on. The most we can say is that, even though it feels as if one were living an authentic life in the Matrix, and it felt like one's body and brain were doing these things, one's body and brain were really living in a tub of goo. Well, there is one more thing we could say, and that is that, if, for the good of the Matrix, those that controlled the Matrix decided that you had to do or feel something, you would, even though you didn't “really” choose to do it, (even if you feel that you did choose). However, the fact always remains that you do feel like you are choosing, living authentically, having emotions, and so on.

So, I now want to press Kreisler's points a bit further. Given that we, in the Matrix, feel that we can pursue an authentic human life, why should one choose the actual reality? Our setting off point will be with a section of Robert Nozick's book Anarchy, State and Utopia. [1]

The main question we wish to focus on is similar to David's and Nozick asks it this way: What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside?[2] Our quick answer might be that nothing else matters, because happiness, or satisfaction with our lives, is a feeling, and that is the only thing that should matter to us. However, this answer will not completely do. We need to probe further and ask ourselves, “What are we to feel satisfied about?” The feeling of satisfaction is about the course of our lives, how we have lived it, and what we have done to get to the feeling of satisfaction. So, in order to truly have this feeling of satisfaction, we have to have a history behind us.

In order to get at the issue we have been discussing, Nozick asks us to imagine an experience machine. The experience machine has been developed so that you can choose any experience you might want, and plug into the machine and get those experiences. But, these are not just short-term experiences. One can plug into the machine and, for example, “live” the life of writing a novel, or becoming a doctor, or whatever one wants. I will add that the machine would have to not only give us certain experiences at the present moment and into the future, but implant in us certain past experiences. For example, if one chose to teach history, perhaps one would need to be “brain fed” a history of going to college to learn about history. The experience machine has the advantage over the Matrix in that it is one's own choice to choose a course of life (if we were worried that the machines might be making our choices for us). With the general idea in hand, would we plug into the machine?

Nozick gives three reasons not to plug in. First, we want to do things, not merely have the experience of doing them. Secondly, we want to be a certain way, as a person. Thirdly, plugging in limits us to an artificial reality; we would not have contact with any deeper reality.

At this point, let me make a few tangential points. It's not clear that something like the experience machine, in spite of such fantasies as the movie, The Matrix, could allow that we actually do things (that is, act upon the world). What would be required for a machine to get us to believe we do something, or act upon the world? In deciding to act (in the imaginary world), a) we must be have or be fed choices, and b) we must choose one of them, and then c) we must act and d) our action must make a change in the world. However, in order for d) to happen, the machine must be able to read our mind in b). Would that be possible? The only way it could be is for there to be some way to project into a machine our choices, ideas, etc. in the same way we “project” them into our own mind.

The ultimate question is whether the experience machine could make us feel that we had done something. This “feeling that we have done something,” seems to be different than the sensations we get from our senses, which we more easily imagine can be duplicated by machines. So, even though it may be true, as Nozick says, that we want to do certain things, it's not clear that we can be lead to believe that we did them by anything other than actually doing them (except in the case of dreaming, which is a case of being caused to believe by the workings of our own mind, and not from something outside our mind).

These consideration aside, let us see how Nozick's reasons not to plug in hold up with respect to the Matrix and the experience machine. Remember, we are examining these issues from the point of view of the Chooser: someone who knows about both the Matrix and the actual reality. First, humans do seem to want to be actors in the world. They want to affect the world. It's not clear that a person can affect the course of events in the Matrix, even if they could in the experience machine. The Matrix is, after all, ultimately controlled by machines. Recall that there is a scene in the Matrix where three agents capture Neo and question him about his knowledge of Morpheus. When Neo is uncooperative, they torture him in what seem to be “magical” ways and plant a bug in his body. When Neo awakens the next morning, he has no memory of those events. Ultimately, Neo is not really able to change the Matrix, if the machines were to believe that the change was bad for the Matrix. Of course, this consideration probably does not apply to the experience machine. One suppose, here, that the person plugging in is in some way in control of the program. But it is the second of Nozick's reasons that I really want to focus on.

Do all humans want to be a certain way, as a person, and have that way be up to them? Well, it seems clear that not only do humans want to be able to choose between acts, they want to be able to choose between different courses of life. But, does simply the ability to choose between different courses of life allow one to be a certain way, as a person? That is, using Kreisler's terminology, does simply having the ability to choose different courses of life enable one to live an authentic human life?

Suppose one were to plug into the experience machine for a year for a pre-programmed course of life as a novel writer. Suppose then that one wanted to change that course of life after six months, for whatever reason: boredom, the life is not as good as one hoped, etc.. Suppose that one could unplug from the machine after six months, and reprogram another new course of life one has realized would be better for oneself. Suppose that this yet new life becomes unpleasant in some way. One now plugs into a new programmed life. After some tries at this plugging and unplugging, one might ask: Why not just do it yourself? The way that one wants to become, and the way that one is, is being decided by oneself through the experience machine or without it. It seems that the experience machine really does not add anything to the process of leading a life in which we make choices to become a person that we want to be. One could make the choices to live a certain way, and try to actualize that way of living in the actual reality. What am I missing here? Well, the experience machine might guarantee success, whereas the actual reality does not. If the guarantee of success is what our goal is, the experience machine is preferable.

There are now two questions I want to ask. First, would the guarantee of success make the experience of life richer or poorer? It seems to me that it would make it poorer. Now, it might make the experience more pleasurable (if it really did), but there are many cases where a consistent series of pleasurable events, are not overall very satisfying. Secondly, would the guarantee of success in life defeat or enable the purpose of achieving an authentic human life?

And this bring us to the last of Nozick's reasons. Many people want to have contact with a deeper reality, or leave themselves open to that contact [this was one of the main points in Kreiler's article]. And, even if there really is no deeper reality, one wants to at least leave oneself open to any other possibilities in life. That is, in spite of the attractions of the experience machine, it is still a program, and one of the features of the actual reality is that it can provide unforeseen possibilities, as well as unforeseen difficulties.

Consider now, then, two ways of living. The first one involves being plugged into the experience machine, and experiencing a world that one has designed for oneself in such a way as to maximize one's pleasures and to maximize one's successes in one's undertakings, where those undertakings themselves selected based on one's current desires alone. But, in this life, given that the life is pre-programmed, the random possibilities of the actual reality are not available. The second way of living involves living in the actual reality with its possibilities, but also with its difficulties. Which would we say is the most authentically lived human life? I would argue that it is the second one. The argument for this will have to wait for another time. Right now, I am simply appealing to the reader's intuitions. I will say, however, that I believe that living an authentic human life involves developing one's character, and I will claim that, in order to develop one's character, one cannot be plugged in to the experience machine.

Living and authentic human life entails choices about how to live, choices about the course of one's life, and these choices are the most important to us. An experience machine is unnecessary for this to happen, and may be counterproductive, anyway; moreover, the experience machine does not enable the myriad of possibilities in the actual reality. Living an authentic human life also entails developing one's character, and the experience machine does not seem to enable one to do so, because there are no random possibilities and difficulties. That what is so great about reality.