Robert Nozick argued desirable experiences weren't sufficient for living a good life. But are they even necessary? If you could give up your conscious life to better achieve your dreams and ambitions, wouldn't you still be living a good life? An artificial or even an unnatural life can be one that is worth living, write Chris Ranalli.
Do you need conscious experience to live a good life? On its face, this sounds like an absurd question. For experience, you might think, is what makes us who we are. Wouldn’t a life without experience be too artificial? What I want to do here is explore just how far we can push our thinking about experience and living a good life in order to see whether conscious experience really is as important to our humanity as we ordinarily like to think.
Let’s start with Robert Nozick’s experience machine thought experiment (Nozick 1974). The experience machine is a simulation machine in which you are given the opportunity to have any experience. Anything you might ever want to do in your life you get to experience in the experience machine. Now imagine that you could spend your entire life in the experience machine, having only the experiences you want to have. Why not plug in? Nozick argued that, everything else being equal, permanently plugging into the experience machine would deprive you of a good life because living a good life includes more than simply having certain experiences. The person who hopes to climb Mt. Everest actually wants to climb the mountain—with all its risks and rewards—and not simply to simulate it. The lover wants to be with their partner rather than merely simulating partnership. The entrepreneur wants to develop something groundbreaking and not only to feel as if they are doing so. In each case there is an emphasis on the reality of doing something rather than merely having the experience as of doing it. A life in the experience machine is an artificial life; a life that happens to you rather than a life that you live. What makes a person’s life a good one has to go beyond simply having certain experiences.
Your cognition is not always accompanied by the glow of experience; in fact, much of it is not.
Nozick’s conclusion seems intuitively correct but let’s try to go further than him. Having certain experiences isn’t all there is to a good life. But maybe experience isn’t even necessary for a good life either. Perhaps many of us could live better lives without experience. Imagine you could take a pill that would painlessly remove your conscious experience tomorrow. No more feelings. No more visual, auditory, gustatory, or tactile sensations. It’s all gone. Rather than being a psychedelic trip that gives you new experiences, this would be a pill that removes all experience. An unexperience trip. A pill that annihilates what Thomas Nagel calls “the subjective character” of your life and with it the possibility of experience (Nagel 1979, 166). If you took the unexperience pill tonight, tomorrow there would simply be nothing that it’s like to be you anymore.
Would you still be a human person? Intuitively, taking the pill seems to be a kind of suicide. Destroying your ability to experience, you might fear, would result in your death. But it’s important to get clear about what the pill does and does not do before we believe that it’s a kind of suicide. What it destroys is your ability to have conscious experience. It doesn’t destroy your brain; it only alters it. What we are imagining is that, although the pill inhibits your conscious mental life, it does not thereby remove your cognitive processing. It doesn’t destroy your mentality—only one feature of it—the experiencing part. Your cognition is not always accompanied by the glow of experience; in fact, much of it is not. So, let’s imagine that this pill gives you super-human intelligence
and cognitive ability. It takes you far beyond what would otherwise be possible naturally. Your brain would be a quantum computer—or, better still, beyond what we can presently conceive in terms of computational power. You would be able to make mathematical calculations that surpass present day supercomputers with ease. You could deduce the logical consequences of your cognitions as easily as you can produce a sentence in your first language. You could find interesting patterns in complex data faster and better than all of humanity taken together. Your memory capacity knows virtually no limits. You cognitively rival what we imagine of future artificial general intelligence ten-fold. Computer scientists will wonder how to build their machines to be more like you. You would be sentient just devoid of conscious experience. You would compute, process, identify meaningful patterns; calculate, deduce, hypothesize, test, learn, adapt, and optimize. You would be a meat machine; the most advanced computer humanity may ever know.
Would you want to be the super-computer that even future artificial general intelligence would have reason to envy? It’s not easy to answer. Perhaps you would be sacrificing your humanity merely to become something else rather than something more. We cringe at the idea of making ourselves unnatural; of making ourselves what we are not (or are not supposed to be). Many of us dislike the extent to which technology and machines have already encroached on our daily lives. Rarely are cyborgs set in a utopian future. More often, they are depicted as the essential augmentation to people’s bodies necessary for space industry and to keep up with the ever-increasing competitiveness of society. They augment themselves until they are literally no longer human anymore. According to this line of thought, getting rid of the capacity for experience, no matter the benefits, would not be human enhancement so much as it would be a way eliminating what we really are. Our humanity would be the martyr of optimization.
Maybe our personal great awakening is the removal of our experiencing selves.
This makes the idea of transforming oneself into a hyper-intelligence super-human computer look like a nightmare. But we might think that whether we ought to become super-human computers will crucially depend on what we think would make our lives go best. It’s a personal question. That is what I want us to explore here. For example, if you value solving the millennium mathematical problems, you might think that taking the pill is worth it if becoming the most advanced computer were a surefire way to having the cognitive ability to solve those problems. If your ultimate goal in life is to start a highly efficient and innovative project, something that overshadows the sorts of joint projects between today’s governments or private enterprise by an order of magnitude unseen before, then perhaps you will think your chances of success are better as a self-optimizing hyper-intelligent super-computer than yourself as a cognitively unenhanced human. If you value cognitive clarity, razor-sharp rationality; impeccable pattern identification and problem-solving skills; or highly reliable learning and adaptation abilities, then you might take the pill to secure the benefits of these qualities at the expense of your humanity. Sacrificing your humanity wouldn’t seem to you like much a sacrifice. In short, just as you might have been curious to plug into the experience machine, you might now be curious to plug into the unexperience machine; to make yourself more machine. You would become more like Data from Star Trek, except beyond even Data’s capabilities. You really would boldly go where no one has gone before.
The experience machine thought experiment supports the idea that experience and living a good life are not as intimately connected as it might have first appeared. To promote your well-being, according to this line of thought, you’ll need more than the right course of experiences over time. You will also need to actually do certain things or actually become a certain sort of person. The thought experiment involving the unexperience-pill builds on this idea and says that experience is not only insufficient for living a good life but that it’s not even necessary. Whether one should take the pill or not will depend on their present capabilities as well as their aims and ambitions. The person who takes the unexperience pill might be better situated to fully realize their life goals than they would as experiencing creatures. Indeed, perhaps conscious experience is generally overrated.
After all, we have a ‘naturalness’ bias: a tendency to prefer things regarded as ‘natural’ simply because they are regarded as such (Meier, Dillard, and Lappas 2019). Perhaps we are biased towards having experiences not only because that’s all we know but because the idea of life without experience simply strikes us as ‘unnatural’. In a less biased frame of mind, we might wonder: why not trade the conscious experience-equivalent of Window 95 for a non-conscious self-optimizing quantum computing brain? Maybe our personal great awakening is the removal of our experiencing selves.
If you have followed this train of thought for this long, that’s enough to show that it’s not at all obvious that personal well-being essentially depends on one’s ability to have experiences. And although maybe you wouldn’t take the unexperience pill, how certain are you that no one would? Would the people who made such a choice all be irrational or deeply confused by wanting to plug out of conscious life and into quantum cognition?
This uncertainty supports the conclusion that our views about the relationship between experience and living a good life are not as clear cut as we might have initially thought. Sure, certain conscious experiences are really wonderful; the warmth of a fire on a cold night, the tenderness of your lover’s touch; the awesome view of the Himalayas; or the joy we feel with our friends. We would have reason to miss experience. But it’s important to remember that certain conscious experiences are really awful as well. There’s a strong sense that a life of needlessly intense suffering or perhaps even a lack of fulfillment or any enjoyment whatsoever would not be a life worth living. These horrors would no longer be possibilities. What this shows is that certain kinds of experiences promote your well-being while certain others reduce it. Certain experiences can make a life better or worse. None of this supports the idea that the absence of all experience from one’s life would also make one’s life so bad as to not be worth living, or that it would be a life devoid of any significance. In many cases it might be great.
This conclusion is also consistent with a variety of philosophical theories of the good life and personal well-being. For example, existentialism tells us that living a good or meaning life is a matter of living authentically, whereby a person lives according to their convictions and takes responsibility for their choices. Indeed, some existentialists think that authenticity involves self-transcendence (Taylor 1991). A person who truly wanted to reach certain goals and decided to go for it without experience could still be living authentically. For they would transcend who they are now in order to become something more.
An artificial or even an unnatural life can be one that is worth living.
Moreover, objective list theories of the good life say that living a good life is a matter of having or doing certain good things, such as maintaining meaningful friendships, acquiring knowledge, learning, achieving one’s goals, and so forth. Our cognitively enhanced unexperiencing selves could do that too.
Here’s the problem. You might worry that taking the unexperience pill would make your life too artificial; too much like a computer to really be an authentic life. I don’t think this is correct. Consider Data from Star Trek again. Data doesn’t consciously experience anything, but he has goals. He is notoriously inquisitive. Perhaps he doesn’t have a desire for curiosity, but he has aims and plans with intellectual as well as personal ends. To live authentically is to live in a way that is ‘true to oneself’. If you lived in accordance with your beliefs and your aims, you can live authentically without experiencing how your life is going, just as Data does. Data has beliefs and plans; he also has values. And he lives in accordance to those beliefs, plans, and values despite the fact that he doesn’t feel. Of course, the irony here is that Data very much aims to become more human. Perhaps, then, there is something perverse about a human being wanting to become more like Data. But if that’s right, then why isn’t there something perverse about Data wanting to become more human?
You might also worry that pleasure would be impossible as an unexperiencing person, which makes it hard to see how one could really live a good life. According to hedonism, living a good life is a matter of having more pleasurable experiences throughout one’s life than painful experiences. The unexperience pill would deprive you of both. Importantly, however, there is a way of understanding hedonism so that even our cognitively enhanced self could live a hedonically good life. According to contemporary hedonist, Fred Feldman, there is a distinction between sensory pleasure and attitudinal pleasure. The former consists in certain sorts of conscious experiences, like the feeling of warmth when cold, or the experience of joy. The latter consists in certain sorts of unfeeling cognitive attitudes, like being pleased that one solved the problem or glad that they reached the summit of the mountain. He writes:
“attitudinal pleasures need not have any “feel”. We know we have them not by sensation, but in the same way (whatever it may be) that we know when we believe something, or hope for it, or fear that it might happen” (Feldman 2004, 56)
A person who lacks conscious experience could be pleased that they helped someone, or satisfied with the fact that they have good friends, or are making progress on their personal projects. They could still have pleasure, only attitudinal pleasure. These sorts of pleasures are no less natural and central to our humanity than sensory pleasure.
The unexperience pill also helps bring into focus the value we might imagine future artificial intelligence to have in their own right. Perhaps our future artificially intelligent brethren won’t be conscious experiencing creatures as we are but we still might think that their lives are worth living: that they have interests and ambitions; that they can undertake activities or projects that matter. Their lack of conscious experience wouldn’t preclude them from living good lives or even from living lives engrossed with meaning. Their projects might matter to them as much as our own matter to us. This is how the crew of the Enterprise treat Data. We don’t view those interactions, however fictional, as so purely fictional that we couldn’t begin to imagine treating an artificial life in that way. Even if our artificial brethren don’t experience what it is like for something to matter to them, that doesn’t mean their projects and pursuits, interests and activities don’t matter. An artificial or even an unnatural life can be one that is worth living.
Feldman, Fred (2004). Pleasure and the Good Life, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Meier, Brian P., Dillard, Amanda J., and Courtney M. Lappas (2019). “Naturally Better? A Review of the Naturalness-is-better Bias”, Social and Personality Psychology Compass, volume 13, issue 8.
Nagel, Thomas (1979). “What is it like to be a bat?” in Mortal Questions, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Nozick, Robert (1974). Anarchy, State, and Utopia, New York: Basic Books.
Taylor, Charles (1991). The Ethics of Authenticity, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.