One of the most influential arguments in the philosophical study of well-being is Robert Nozick's famous 'experience machine' thought experiment. Suppose that you had the opportunity to enter a machine that would give you the subjective experience of having an extraordinary life — it would seem to you that you were a rock star and a great philosopher and a devoted spouse, all at the same time — even though, all the while, you would really just be lying there inside the machine. Would you choose to plug in? Many people say no, and Nozick therefore infers that we not only value having positive subjective experiences but also having a life that is in reality a good one.
In a forthcoming paper, Felipe De Brigard challenges this conclusion by conducting an innovative series of experimental studies. At the heart of his approach is a new thought experiment, which we might call the 'inverted experience machine.'
For this new thought experiment, suppose that you are simply going about your life as normal when you are approached one day by a man who tells you a surprising new fact. This whole life you thought you were experiencing is, in fact, an illusion. All of the events you thought were occurring over these past decades, and even all of the people who seemed to be most close to you, have really just been part of a very elaborate computer program. The truth is that you are actually a millionaire from Monaco who one day decided to plug into an experience machine. But now you are being given an opportunity to leave the machine and return to your real life. Would you choose to unplug?
When De Brigard presented subjects with Nozick's original case and with this new version, he obtained a surprising result. Just as expected, he found that most subjects who had been given Nozick's case said that they did not want to plug in to the machine… but, interestingly enough, he did not also find that most subjects in the inverted version wanted to unplug. Instead, many of those subjects wanted to hold on to their present, purely illusory lives.
In light of this new data, De Brigard suggests that intuitions about the experience machine might not actually be due primarily to any kind of value we attach to having in reality a good life. Perhaps they reflect, at least in large part, a desire we have to maintain the staus quo — a desire just to leave everything more or less as it was.