Is this an argument against an experience machine, that the things we value inside of it only matter to us?

I'm trying to be practical about having strange concerns, and wondered whether their uniqueness to me means not only that they likely can't happen but also that they are meaningless.

So, even if I spent some time climbing Everest in an experience machine, does the very fact that no-one else thinks it's an achievement make it a meaningless experience? If I climbed it with someone else (also hooked up into the machine), would that make it meaningful? What if I didn't know they were? etc.

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    If you can make a living out of such VR machine or metaverse project then certainly it's meaningful to you and your colleagues as I'm sure you cannot achieve so as a one-person shop. Per Zeno the Stoic founder self-preservation acts are relatively valuable (though Cynics may reject) but has nothing to do with anyone's happiness which depends only on moral actions. Since any true moral action must be necessarily consistent with some idea of justice which inevitably involves other people, that's why in your deep heart you rightly feel true happiness must involve others' happiness... Jul 26, 2022 at 20:29

3 Answers 3


Something is meaningful only because it means something to someone. Provided that even a single person thinks it is meaningful, then it is. It may not be to other people, but to this one person, it means something.

By experience machine I assume you mean a machine designed to replicate the feeling of actual experiences, like some sort of souped up VR thing.

Now, if it means something to you to climb a mountain in VR, I cannot argue; it is fully your decision to make something meaningful. Whether or not other people find it meaningful does not discount the meaning you find. However, I would advise to take into account where others find or do not find meaning. Oftentimes they have good points.

So, your experience machine can be meaningful so long as you make it so. Though, as a matter of personal opinion, I would much rather climb a real mountain than a simulated one.

  • just a statement of belief. I appreciate mine was also, but I did add a bit of context (madness etc.)
    – user61846
    Jul 26, 2022 at 18:59

So, even if I spent some time climbing Everest in an experience machine, does the very fact that no-one else thinks it's an achievement make it a meaningless experience?

We've got those "experience machines" already.

Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy

"Climbing" to the top of this "mountain" is difficult. Not everyone can do it – though many people are capable of becoming able to do it. The "mountain" is not a real object. And yet, people consider "scaling" it an achievement.

But suppose other people didn't consider this an achievement. There are people who don't; suppose the whole world (except you) is populated by such people. Does that affect the meaningfulness of the achievement? What about the meaningfulness of the experience, which nobody else was party to anyway?

If an experience can be inherently meaningful, I don't see how things outside the experience should affect its meaningfulness. If something else gives experiences meaning, you already have an answer to this question.

(Note: this interpretation of an experience machine is atypical.)

  • yeah, that makes sense. meaningful iff intrinsically so. but isn't it more reasonable to suppose that it's being with others (don't mean that technically) that makes life, and so experiences, meaningful?
    – user61846
    Jul 26, 2022 at 19:02
  • @sock_muppet Not inherently. If you feel that's what gives life meaning, then it probably gives your life meaning. Unless you're arriving to that conclusion from pure reason, though, "reasonableness" has nothing to do with it.
    – wizzwizz4
    Jul 26, 2022 at 19:04
  • well yes, other people aren't inherent to my life. i can imagine some people who have meaningful lives utterly alone, but IME it would just be hedonism.
    – user61846
    Jul 26, 2022 at 19:08
  • Their hedonism is meaningless to you, but does that mean it is absent of any meaning to anybody? All things are meaningless hedonism, from a certain perspective.
    – wizzwizz4
    Jul 26, 2022 at 19:09
  • no, feelings of pleasure or power or whatever can be meaningful. but they are more coarsely futile, in my opinion. unlike achievements, which may always involve others, hedonism truly is transient and bound to our mortal lifespan, imho. first and last vs me. objective events vs subjective states
    – user61846
    Jul 26, 2022 at 19:10

"if I spent some time climbing Everest in an experience machine, does the very fact that no-one else thinks it's an achievement make it a meaningless experience? If I climbed it with someone else (also hooked up into the machine), would that make it meaningful? What if I didn't know they were? etc."

Ludwig Binswanger (1881-1966) had an opinion on shared versus private experience, especially as a psychiatrist. He emphasised the value of being in the Mitwelt—the shared world—as opposed to the Eigenwelt—one's own world.

He wrote about this in 1930s essay Traum und Existenz (Dream and existence):

For Heraclitus, genuine awakeness is, negatively put, the awakening from private opinion (doxa) and subjective belief. Put positively, it is life (and not just the life of thought!) that accords with the laws of the universal, whether this universal be called logos, cosmos, sophia, or whether it is considered as a combination of all of them in the sense of a rational insight into their unitary, lawful interrelation and in the sense of action according to this insight. Hegel presents this Heraclitean doctrine by saying that here Reason, Logos, becomes the judge of Truth—not, however, of truth that is second best, but, rather, of divine, universal truth: "this measure, this rhythm which penetrates through to the essence of the All" (an echo of the ancient συμπάθεια - sumpathíā).

To the extent that we participate knowingly in the divine understanding we participate in the Truth; but to the extent that we are particular and special, (ίδιάσωμεν), we are deceived. According to Hegel, these are very great and important words:

Nothing truer or more unprejudiced can be said about Truth. Only consciousness of the universal is consciousness of truth; but consciousness of particularity and particular action, originality which results in idiosyncracy of content or form, is untrue and evil. Error, therefore, consists solely in the particularization of thought—evil and error consist in the divorce from the universal. Most men think that their conceptions should be something special and original; precisely this is illusion.

According to Hegel, "the knowledge of something of which only I am aware" is just dreaming, and the same is true of imagination (in the sense of phantasy) and emotion ...

However, some sharp criticism could be made of this neat distinction and the higher value given to the Mitwelt. One, for example, from Nietzsche, quoted by Derrida in The Question of Being & History, p.211. One can imagine Nietzsche would certainly find some fault with the Mitwelt of today's crazy politics.

I believe there has been no dangerous vacillation or crisis of German culture this century that has not been rendered more dangerous by the enormous and still continuing influence of this philosophy, the Hegelian. ...

History understood in this Hegelian fashion has been mockingly called God’s sojourn on earth, though the god referred to has been created only by history. ...

You see what is signified by the accusation of vulgarity that Hegel and Nietzsche are flinging, or would fling, at each other. Now you know that if, as we saw, what governs the whole of Hegelianism in Heidegger’s view is a vulgar (his word) concept of time as intra-temporality, worldly temporality thought in the mode of the movement of Vorhandenheit, Heidegger says elsewhere, in passages I read at the beginning of the year, that Nietzsche is merely a reversal of Hegel: that is, he still belongs to the sphere of metaphysics in which this reversal takes place. He too, then, would be a victim of Hegelian vulgarity.

Heidegger joins the interior world with the exterior, but both retain different characteristics. Climbing Everest in an experience machine by oneself is not a meaningless experience, but you won't get a medal unless you do it in the shared world.

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