This is an offshoot of another discussion: Can "expected future happiness" be quantified, or at least ranked among alternative futures?, where both respondents brought up the concept of the undersireabilty of inducing happiness artificially.

An interesting paper was brought up by the second commenter that stated that people are bad at predicting the intensity and duration of future experience, but not the general sense (positive/negative) of the experience. However, people are also not very good at guaging their adaptability to new situations.

My question is this: If you could be hooked up to a machine that would allow you to be as happy as you desired (via simulating scenarios and experiencse you need to feel as such) while also ensuring that your physical body is well taken care of and safe, then why is this not a way of optimizing well being? Even if we initially feel that we would not like such "fake" experiences, it seems that the emotional value of the experiences themselves, qua experiences, are positive and desireable, its just the epistemological packaging of "not really real" that is not desired.

Therefore, if someone were involuntarily hooked up to such a machine, what would their likely emotional trajectory? The article liked above and some introspection would suggest that while they would initially be angry/depressed, they would adapt to their new reality and seek ways to exploit its fluidity. A cognitive "reframing" would likely take place to reduce the dissonance between their inescapable situation and their feelings towards it, leading them to embrace it and the hedonistic optimization it allows.

Therefore, in the end, after an adjustment period, they appear to have a MUCH higher probabilty of achiveing MUCH higher happinness (on balance) by being hooked up to the machine. At least, that is my opinion (BTW: if it wasn't obvious, I am NOT a psychologist, just an interested layperson)

4 Answers 4


IMO this reflects the end result of such machine better than the Matrix movies: Choice of Dreams

There's a lot of relevant literature on something like that, starting with Bishop Berkeley, in a manner of speaking. :)

If you read Russian here's a fiction story, The Pill, about a pill that makes people experience realistic dreams being acted out in the reality: The societies exposed to these pills basically collapse, but the pill takers don't see that, they keep seeing happy-schizophrenia-like alternate reality, acted out in a real one, to dismay of increasingly few sober ones.

And yet, despite all that, I am yet to see a convincing answer to the posed question...


As an initial attempt, I would say that an experience machine would be:

    good for addicts
    bad for those interested in 'the truth'

How to define 'addict' is a bit difficult, so I'm going to be sloppy. I mean to include those addicted to any physical substance as well as those addicted to any repeated experience—like gaming of any sort. Importantly, 'addict' doesn't have to define a person throughout his/her lifetime. This might be important. Getting lost in an addiction for short periods of time might be healthy; Proverbs 31:6 says:

Give strong drink to the one who is perishing,
    and wine to those in bitter distress;

(I note this to merely surprise those with certain conceptions.) The entire point of an experience machine is to shield a person from part of reality. Alternatively, we can think of it creating a reality where the rules are different. For example, things that used to hurt and cause suffering are softened or even eliminated. Who wouldn't want things to hurt less? Addicts in particular would seem to especially want things to hurt less, or to avoid doing things that might hurt.

When I think of those interested in 'the truth', I first think of atheists who choose to throw off their religious beliefs because they have come to see religious beliefs as allegedly comforting, but not worth the cost of believing in something false (or at least 'insufficiently justified'). To the extent that 'true happiness' is defined as "exploring what reality is like", an experience machine would never satisfy. Indeed, putting such a person in an experience machine might be the most evil thing one could do to them!

Now, there is the question: to what extent can people be forever deluded into thinking that they are happily living in reality, when their happiness is actually being stimulated by a machine inside a virtual reality? This is the same as asking: could we determine that we are inside The Matrix? It is an interesting question because we'll likely be able to create virtual worlds hosting conscious digital beings. The Star Trek TNG episode, Elementary, Dear Data, explores the idea of what might happen when such a being becomes aware that it is inside a simulation.

There are two issues which I think confound permanent addiction—that is, the state of mind in which one would never object to being inside an experience machine:

  1. The brain tends to get used to any state—whether induced by drugs and/or perception—and get bored. More and more intense perception and/or dosage is required to obtain the same 'high'. Such a property would confound simple experience machines, and could even confound any experience machine which provides repetitive input.
  2. Science and engineering have this interesting property such that discoveries in one area often provide crucial help to studies in a completely different area. These discoveries could be mathematical models, techniques, creative insight, or anything else which helps provoke further discoveries. It could be that any attempt to limit exposure to reality would result in a limiting of scientific and technological innovation.

I am therefore inclined to say that in the end, an experience machine would be unsatisfactory. It would have diminishing returns in its ability to provide happiness. For any finite period of time, it might be 'better' than people being exposed to reality, but I predict that over any sufficiently large period of time, it would be found severely wanting. Any experience machine would ultimately turn into a personal hell.


I think that your question may be related to the more general "being assured that you'll live in full happiness, why would you refuse to enter into a system where you abandon critical mind which is bind to worrisome, and so decrease your happiness potential?".

Formulated this way, I think it become even more clear that anyone pretending that he can guaranty you a completely safe sandbox is either :

  • an honest human whose sincere belief in its ability to bring you this sandbox doesn't give you any guaranty on its actual effectiveness
  • someone who don't believe he can really guaranty you that and for some reason would like that you accept anyway
  • some super-human being which have indeed ability to bring you whatever great safe condition he promises.

Now, even in the last case, the problem is that even if it's true, as a human being you can't access absolute certitude that the entity which promise you the safe sandbox is really what he pretend to be. Believe it would be an act of faith completely drived by your hope it's true, ignoring your awareness that it may be false. And this awareness is provided precisely by your critical mind, the safeguard that you should abandon to check whether it was true or not. And once you abandon this safeguard, there's no guaranty you can have it back.

So I would say that this category of problem rely on the false assumption that you may be in a situation of perfect certitude that you'll live the promised situation. To me it sounds exactly like "if you accord to someone that everything he may say is true, then for you everything he will say will be true". The reasoning may be valid, but to my mind premises are seriously doubtful.


Even if we initially feel that we would not like such "fake" experiences, it seems that the emotional value of the experiences themselves, qua experiences, are positive and desirable, ...

It only seems that way - the experiences would be positive and desirable only in a short term. Once they have passed, we would experience negative emotions caused by the knowledge that these experiences were fake.

I think, that negative outcome is inevitable, because of the tip of Maslow's pyramid. Once you have the basics covered, you will need self-actualization. You can fake all other levels, but you cannot fake your self-evaluation. (Self-actualization requires self-evaluation.) Knowing that you indulge in pleasure, while you could be improving your self-worth, is not a positive experience.

Then there might be individuals that self-evaluate so low, that they don't believe in themselves. Those are the ones that may embrace the fake reality, and probably be better off this way.

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