Is there any intrinsic difference between our world and a simulated one (i.e. The Experience Machine)? I cannot think of any, so why do we not all want that? Is it just the status quo bias, or is there some other desire than pleasure that is keeping us from devoting all of our resources to the development of such a system?

Just thinking about our future. Thanks in advance for any thoughts.

  • Thanks for your question! It could be approached in many ways, but as some initial suggestions towards an answer, 1) maybe we are? E.g. recreational drugs, video games, 2) business practicality - what would the upkeep costs be of keeping someone in an experience machine, and how would you charge and/or collect fees for it from someone in the machine? May 10 '20 at 9:11
  • @SofieSelnes I think the business perspective is interesting, but couldn't the inventor of this machine just charge its users a one-time fee before they enter? It could even be the client's entire life savings (I mean they're not going to need it anymore). It seems pretty lucrative to me. Also, I didn't think about how we already seem to be working towards that. Good point. May 10 '20 at 15:01
  • almost every philosopher thinks an "experience machine" - a simulation of climbing Everest or curing cancer -- is meaningless next to the real thing
    – user46524
    May 12 '20 at 0:51

I see at least three interpretations of an "Experience Machine":

(1) Simulated worlds in which people from our world can temporarily participate.

(2) Simulated worlds to which we can "upload" people from our world, i.e., they can enter them permanently.

(3) Simulated worlds that have their own agents with their own experiences.

Of course, we are already developing (1) in video games and virtual reality, so that is presumably not what you mean. (2) concerns mind uploading; it is controversial whether that can be done at all and what it would mean (if we uploaded your mind would it really be you or just a copy of you?), but in any case we are nowhere close to understanding how one would achieve this, both from computational and neuroscientific perspectives. (3) is related to the idea of the simulation hypothesis which states that we ourselves are in a simulation. There too there has been philosophical discussion of whether this would in fact be possible -- and if not then presumably there wouldn't be much point to doing these simulations ourselves, at least not from the perspective of generating experiences anything like ours -- and there too, in any case we are nowhere close to achieving such simulations technically, in part because we do not yet understand how the brain generates phenomenal experiences (or qualia). Also (3) would not benefit us directly, in the sense that the experiences would not be ours, though perhaps we might like to do it out of altruism towards simulated creatures.

  • 1
    I think what I'm thinking of is closer to 2; I'm thinking of simulating experiences directly in the brain (way beyond our technical capabilities at the moment). Thanks for this response btw, it was really helpful. Aside from technical limitations, is there any reason that humanity may not want to pursue that? May 11 '20 at 1:08
  • Glad it was helpful! That indeed seems closer to recreational drugs (as suggested by someone in the comments to your question), but I guess what you have in mind is something that would control in great detail the exact experience, perhaps very much like a natural one, rather than the coarse mechanisms of today's recreational drugs. In some ways it is also like virtual reality; of course VR does affect the brain, through the senses. We might worry about addiction, withdrawal from society, etc., but if used well it could also be used in therapy or be inherently valuable.
    – present
    May 11 '20 at 17:58
  • ... and in some ways I think we are pursuing this, as we do research on the brain and how drugs and perhaps other stimulation affect it. Even someone excited by your idea and wanting to pursue it would probably have to start there given our current stage of knowledge -- or pursue the VR route instead. Of course you might argue we should put more resources into this than we currently are.
    – present
    May 11 '20 at 18:11

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