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The Experience Machine is Dead, Long Live the Experience Machine!. Dan Weijers Victoria University of Wellington July 2011. ‘Q’s to be ‘ A’ed. Q: Does Nozick’s experience machine thought experiment (EMTE) elicit biased responses?

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the experience machine is dead long live the experience machine

The Experience Machine is Dead, Long Live the Experience Machine!

Dan Weijers

Victoria University of Wellington

July 2011

q s to be a ed
‘Q’s to be ‘A’ed
  • Q: Does Nozick’s experience machine thought experiment (EMTE) elicit biased responses?
  • Q: Should Nozick’s EMTE be used as evidence in arguments about wellbeing?
  • Q: Should any version of the EMTE be used as evidence in arguments about wellbeing?
  • Q: What do EMTEs tell us about the value of pleasure and the plausibility of hedonism?
  • Q: What should EMTEs be used for?
the experience machine
The Experience Machine
  • “Suppose that there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time, you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life…?”
    • Nozick, R. (1974). Anarchy, State, and Utopia, pp 42-45
    • Smart, J. & Williams, B. (1973). Utilitarianism for and Against , pp 18-21.
  • Disclaimers:
      • Ignore responsibilities to family etc.
      • Don’t realise it’s not real
      • Still exercise autonomy
      • Machine works perfectly
the experience machine vs hedonism
The Experience Machine vs. Hedonism
  • Internalist mental state theories of wellbeing = ‘hedonism’
  • “Now if pleasure were our greatest good, then we would all volunteer to be hooked for life to this machine… But surely very few people would volunteer.”
    • Kymlicka, W. (1990). Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Introduction, p 13.
    • If pleasure = g. good, then we’d plug in
    • We would not plug in
    • Therefore, pleasure ≠ g. good
  • But is premise 1 true?
    • It assumes our judgements about the EMTE are based on a rational comparison of lots of pleasure with average pleasure
  • Is premise 2 true for other EMTEs?
intuitions and judgments
Intuitions and Judgments
  • Judgments are affected by intuitions, but it’s hard to say when and by how much because intuitive cognition is opaque
    • How easily does ‘the reason’ come?
  • It’s also hard to know what causes the intuition (and therefore how useful it is)
    • Reconstruction via reverse engineering
    • Reconstruction often fails when we only consider the factors that are stipulated in the thought experiment as the possible causes of the intuition.
  • Since intuitive cognition uses pattern recognition, irrelevant aspects of the triggered past experiences can affect the intuition.
  • Experiments have caught people out confabulating / being dumbfounded
  • Biases – The problem with intuitive cognition (and judgments heavily influenced by it)
debunking intuitions
Debunking Intuitions
  • David Sobel: the credibility of intuitions elicited from contemplation of thought experiments can be undermined by “telling a convincing story about the genesis of such intuitions that would explain why we have them while revealing them to be misleading” (2002, p. 244).
  • Tweaks and reversals
  • Armchair, hallway, and experimental testing
imaginative resistance
Imaginative Resistance
  • Imaginative resistance = consciously, or unconsciously, rejecting any of the stipulations (or implied features) of a thought experiment.
    • Machine underperformance
    • Machine malfunction
    • Not worrying about loved ones
  • Also the opposite - overactive imagination.
    • “floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain,”
    • “plug into this machine”
    • (My emphasis, Nozick, R. (1974). Anarchy, State, and Utopia, p 42.)
test nozick s scenario
Test: “Nozick’s” Scenario
  • 125 first year philosophy students with Nozick’s scenario: which is the best option to choose and why?
  • 79% (99/125) thought they should not connect
    • 35% (35/99) cited reality, truth, or something related
  • 44% (44/99) of the main justifications given by those who thought they should not connect indicated imaginative resistance
    • bad experiences are required to appreciate good ones or develop (19%, 19/99)
    • no autonomy or control in the machine, (14%, 14/99)
    • responsibilities to others (4%, 4/99)
    • the machine might break down or not be that good (3%, 3/99)
  • Other main justifications that were consistent with the thought experiment, but are irrelevant for evaluating the intrinsic value of experiences or reality, included:
    • the machine seems scary or unnatural (8%, 8/99)
    • getting out every two years would be depressing (6%, 6/99)
test my self scenario
Test: My “Self” Scenario
  • 93 first year business students using the following survey:
  • It’s 2062 and you are riding a hovertube to town…

1) Ignoring how your family, friends, any other dependents, and society in general might be affected, and assuming that Experience Machines always work perfectly, what is the best thing for you to do for yourself in this situation?

Tick only one of these options:

O You should accept the spot in an Experience Machine

O You should not accept the spot in an Experience Machine

2) Briefly explain your choice:

  • 37% (34/93) thought they should connect to an EM
self vs nozick s scenario
Self vs. Nozick’s Scenario
  • Far fewer respondents to the Self scenario justified their choice with the reasons:
    • ‘bad experiences are required to appreciate good experiences or to develop properly’ and
    • ‘you would have no autonomy or control in the machine’

16% difference

p = 0.004

23% difference

p < 0.001

status quo
Status Quo
  • Status quo bias is best defined as an inappropriate preference for things to remain the same
    • Bostrom, N. & Ord, T. (2006). The Reversal Test: Eliminating Status Quo Bias in Applied Ethics, Ethics, 116: 656-679.
  • Linked to:
    • Loss aversion (valuing losses more than equivalent gains in uncertain circumstances) and
    • The endowment effect (overvaluing what we have and know)
de brigard s 2010 respondents staying connected
De Brigard's (2010) Respondents Staying Connected
  • Limitations:
    • Small samples (24, 80, 24, 24)
    • Social capital lost in reality (not a mirror of Nozick’s)

De Brigard, F., 2010. If You Like it, Does it Matter if it’s Real?, Philosophical Psychology, 23(1): 43–57.

eliminating status quo 1
Eliminating Status Quo 1
  • Reduce oversensitivity to potential losses
  • Evolutionary considerations  we are loss averse in conditions of uncertainty
    • Chen M. K., V. Lakshminaryanan, & L. R. Santos, 2006. The Evolution of Our Preferences: Evidence from Capuchin Monkey Trading Behavior, Journal of Political Economy, 114: 517–537.
  • Behavioural econ.  we value equivalent losses and gains more equally the less we know the target of the decision
    • Bloomfield A. N., J. A. Sager, D. M. Bartels, D. L. Medin, 2006. Caring about Framing Effects, Mind & Society, 5(2): 123–138.
  • Therefore, we are more likely to think that the unfamiliar (and therefore risky) experience machine life is going to be a better idea for someone we care less about than ourselves
    • E.g. respondents will be more likely to think that a stranger should connect to an experience machine than a friend, and a friend more than themselves.
test my stranger cousin friend scenarios
Test: My “Stranger”, “Cousin” & “Friend” Scenarios
  • This hypothesis was tested with 3 new scenarios in which a friend, a cousin, and a stranger are the target
    • All of these scenarios were tested on first year business students at the same time as the Self scenario.
  • Very similar to Self scenario, only now the choice is about whether the stranger should connect to an EM
  • 48% (45/93) decided that connecting to an experience machine made the life in question better
    • 12% more than respondents to the Self scenario.
reducing loss aversion by decreasing the care factor
Reducing Loss Aversion by Decreasing the Care Factor
  • May not be loss aversion that is the cause
  • Are EM judgments becoming more rational as care factor decreases?
eliminating status quo 2
Eliminating Status Quo 2
  • Framing all of the options as equally familiar
  • Framing of reality or the machine as the status quo makes it the easy, less risky, known, and perhaps default option
  • A main appeal of the SQ seems heavily linked to our social and relational capital
    • we know how to work with the life we have
test my stranger nsq scenario
Test: My “Stranger NSQ” Scenario
  • 124 first year philosophy students - Stranger No Status Quo scenario:
  • A stranger, named Boris, has just found out that he has been regularly switched between a real life and a life of machine-generated experiences (without ever being aware of the switches); 50% of his life has been spent in an Experience Machine and 50% in reality. Nearly all of Boris’ most enjoyable experiences occurred while he was in an Experience Machine and nearly all of his least enjoyable experiences occurred while he was in reality. Boris now has to decide between living the rest of his life in an Experience Machine or in reality (no more switching)…

1) Ignoring how Boris’ family, friends, any other dependents, and society in general might be affected, and assuming that Experience Machines always work perfectly, what is the best thing for Boris to do for himself in this situation?

Tick only one of these options:

O Boris should choose the Experience Machine life

O Boris should choose the real life

reducing bias in emtes
Reducing Bias in EMTEs
  • Neutralising the status quo = 12% difference (Stranger NSQ vs. Stranger, p-value = 0.025)
  • Making the choice on behalf of a stranger = 12% difference (Stranger vs. Self , p-value = 0.035)
  • Reducing irrelevant factors = 16% difference (Self vs. Nozick’s , p-value = 0.004)
  • Stranger NSQ vs. Nozick’s = 40% difference (p-value = 0.000)
does nozick s emte elicit biased responses
Does Nozick’s (EMTE) elicit biased responses?
  • Yes
    • Indicated by De Brigard’s results
    • Indicated by students’ confabulation/dumbfounding in class
    • Shown by my results
  • Imaginative resistance
  • Status Quo Bias
    • Over-sensitivity to loss/fear of change/inertia
should nozick s emte be used in arguments about wellbeing
Should Nozick’s EMTE be used in arguments about wellbeing?
  • No
  • Nozick’s scenario elicits judgements about 40% off the mark due to:
    • Status quo bias
    • Imaginative resistance
    • Ineptness (irrelevant main justifications)
  • The experience machine is dead!
hold on
Hold on!
  • But are trained philosophers affected?
    • It might not matter
    • Whose judgments do we want to understand?
should any emtes be used in arguments about wellbeing
Should any EMTEs be used in arguments about wellbeing?
  • Possibly
  • The Stranger NSQ scenario seems like a much better candidate
    • Reality vs. internal experiences (Yes)
    • Makes use of memorable, mysterious and intriguing concept of the experience machine (Yes)
    • Appears relatively unaffected by bias and other irrelevant factors (Yes)
    • Not too complicated < half %inept responses of Nozick’s (OK)
  • Long live the experience machine!
what do emtes tell us about pleasure and hedonism
What do EMTEs tell us about pleasure and hedonism?
  • Not as much as philosophers have thought
    • No agreement on the relative values
    • The EM argument against hedonism needs reassessing
  • These results do not endorse hedonism
    • 22% cited reality as main justification in the Stranger NSQ scenario
    • If reality has any intrinsic value, then hedonism is false
    • 22% citing reality = defeasible evidence that hedonism is false
  • The experience machine should no longer be considered to provide evidence that hedonism and all other internalist mental state theories of well-being are overwhelmingly likely to be false.
what should emtes be used for
What should EMTEs be used for?
  • All of the ETMEs should be used to educate on how to evaluate thought experiments
  • Long live the experience machine (again)!
  • Stop the student abuse
    • 10 ‘normal’ lecturer spiel on EMTE vs. hedonism
    • Exposed connect % = 28%
    • Control connect % = 15%
    • 13% difference p-value = 0.032
    • Is this how judgements become widespread (amongst philosophers)?
interesting questions
Interesting Questions
  • How much confabulation is going on in EMTEs?
  • Do philosophers rationally judge EMTEs?
    • Confirmation bias
  • How would trained philosophers with no experience of EMTEs respond to my Stranger NSQ scenario?
    • Would experience of Nozick’s EMTE make much difference?
q s a ed
‘Q’s ‘A’ed
  • Q: Does Nozick’s experience machine thought experiment (EMTE) elicit biased responses? Yes
  • Q: Should Nozick’s EMTE be used as evidence in arguments about wellbeing? No
  • Q: Should any version of the EMTE be used as evidence in arguments about wellbeing? Possibly
  • Q: What do EMTEs tell us about the value of pleasure and the plausibility of hedonism? Less than thought
  • Q: What should EMTEs be used for? Education