Suppose there existed a machine that could simulate anything you desired.

A hyper advanced neuromodulator that could stimulate your brain into believing you were climbing a mountain, making a scientific breakthrough, or having sex. Instead of actually doing those things though, you would be in a near comatose state, hooked up to this fabulous machine. While under the machine’s influence, you would not be aware of the machine, or have any memory of choosing to use the machine. Don’t worry about committing to life, you can wake up periodically and modify your simulated experience. You don’t even have to worry about coming up with ideal scenarios: there will be libraries of prefabricated lives for you to live, each engineered to maximize your pleasure. Of course there is no “free will” once in the machine, you will simply act out (unaware) the prewritten script.

Would you choose to enter the Experience Machine?

Of course I would: blame my curious side.

What if it was permanent? You could never return to normal life outside the experience machine. Once you choose to try it, you can never stop using it.

If you believe that your experiences in this life are all that matter: you should take this offer in a heartbeat. However, even though this seems like an offer too good to pass up, the majority of us do. We discover that there is something more than just our experiences that matter.

I could not take this offer. I believe it comes down to our value system and how self-centric we are. Everyone has a part of them that looks after themselves, and a part that looks after others. You could argue that we only look after others in order to further our own motives, but that is a topic for another day. If your self-centric side outweighs your selfless side, you might choose to live out the rest of your days experiencing the benefits of the Experience Machine. On the other hand, if your selfless side has some sway, then you might choose to ignore the pull of the Experience Machine and reside in the land of the living.

If we examine two individuals, who made different choices with respect to the Experience Machine, they would have identical perceptions of their world with only two differences. One: their life might be awesome, and two: their actions would have an impact. In a simulation, their actions are meaningless, following a predetermined script, with the results of their actions affecting simulated other people.

Contrast this with the person who chose not to try the Experience Machine. Their actions impact other people. Real people. They can experience the same feeling of helping others that their friend in the machine can, but their actions having meaningful consequences.

If given the choice between an objectively better life without impact, or a random life where I have the opportunity to make a difference: I know what I would choose, do you?

My thoughts have been influenced by the writings of Robert Nozick: Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974) and The Examined Life (1989). I encouraged you to read both and form your own opinions.