Objections to Premise P1 in the “Experience Machine” Experiment

We consider, herein, objections to the first premise (P1) put forth in the “Experience Machine” experiment delineated by Robert Nozick in his influential treatise, Anarchy, State, and Utopia

The objections are that P1, a conditional (and the overall argument by extension) is contrived and broadlyuncategorical

The overall argument is a syntactically valid modus ponens, but the instantiations of the antecedent, consequent and implication are contrived. An argument is contrived if there is no real-world mapping between the declaratives in the assertions and/or the relation ascribed by the conditional. 

There’s an implicit conjunction in the antecedent: that there exists an experience machine AND that we would want to plug into it.

Consider floatation tanks and psychedelics as examples of artifices that can render experiences akin to those postulated by Nozick in his broader exegesis. Novick’s elaboration upon these is a hypothetical, adaptive, real-time, rapidly responsive, self-programming, immersive simulation or machine—on the order of “The Matrix”—that would allow a protagonist like Thomas Anderson to manifest as Neo—his heroic alter-ego. His superpowers are that he maintains self-awareness and can will transcendent Kobayashi Maru-esque responses. According to the plotline, most of humanity succumbs to a grand delusion and he is the great liberator.

Precisely because it is an unrealized fabrication, it is impossible to anticipate all possible effects of the Experience Machine. These include its behavior and appeal.

The matter of its appeal is a constraint that forces us to consider whether we would want to “plug in.” Luddites certainly wouldn’t. Doubters (of the climate— or vaccine— denier sort) might also be less inclined. FOMO types or experimenters (like me) might give it a shot.

The operative word, however, is “want”—and that maps to mutually exclusive sets in the broader population. Given the sense of contingency implicit in “want”—it is not strictly declarative in the context of the antecedent. 

I’m applying Kripke’s assertion that for the declaratives and relations in an argument to be authentic, they must have real-world instantiations (aka “mappings” or “interpretations”). Given that they don’t, the “want” aspect is also contrived.

The declarative in the consequent is also contrived. Freudians would argue along the lines of the consequentialists (Bentham, Mill, et al) that Pleasure is all that matters to us and that pleasure is, in and of itself, the greatest good. Masochists, sadists, addicts, and compulsives provide real-world exemplars of instances where pleasure is not the greatest good. In fact, pain is a goal of the first pair and outcome for the latter two.

Moreover, there are other schools of psychology premised on the philosophical notions that people seek power (the Adlerians) or meaning (the Franklerians) above all else. So, we have competing claims for pleasure, power and meaning as contenders for the greatest good. The nail in the coffin is application of “all” quantifier in the consequent. It is clearly not universal in application to the real-world.

Thus, we have established that the declarative components of the conditional are contrivances. 

Modus ponens, of course, is but a formalism—subject to contrivances that allow for logical conclusions that are untrue in the real-world. Given our interpretations, however, a modus tollens would fail as well. The classic exemplar is Hitchcock’s argument for the MacGuffin, to wit, ‘a MacGuffin is an apparatus for capturing lions in the Scottish Highlands, there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands, therefore MacGuffins don’t exist.’ 

Reducing the argument to the barest abstraction, a modus ponens conforming to If p then q, p, therefore q is logically valid, but fictitious. As such, it has marginal ethical utility. 

Finally, Nozick’s entire argument, if taken ex cathedra, also fails on the grounds that it is not categorical.

Instantiations of [‘those wanting to plug in’, ‘experience machines’ and ‘pleasure seekers’] might serve as declarative substitutions (the latter being the purported implication). The critical issue is that in lacking correspondence to the real-world, they would at best quantify as existential and not universal. 

Thus, these contrivances fail utilitarian precepts in not mapping to the optimal outcome of “the greatest good.” Additionally, in not being universalizable, they fail deontologists as well, for they cannot serve as moral imperatives.

Therein lie my objections to Nozick’s conditional and the argument being fallacious.

I would add, parenthetically, that this outcome lends credence to the implicit notion in virtue ethics that we act to satisfice, not optimize, in making axiological assessments. Virtue ethics leaves room for fuzzy logic, heuristics, experience, relativism, colloquialisms, and evolving vernacular in rendering judgements. Perhaps this is why the Knights of the Round Table and Justice League strike us as heroic, in their actions and deliberations.

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