Friday, April 29, 2011

Nozick's Experience Machines And The Need For Human Validation

I recently started working my way through Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia, which turns out to be just an awesome book in general. IIRC I added it to my list because it was supposed to have some material on what constitutes an appropriate level of taxation, but it turns out that it has way more than that. Nozick essentially picks up where Locke left off and builds a case for the night watchman state from first principles. Knowing now that this book exists I'm inclined to consider it obligatory reading for anyone claiming to be a libertarian.

Anyhow... the book contains an interesting digression on "experience machines" and our subjective interpretation of the worth thereof which arises in the context of whether its acceptable to treat animals differently than people. Nozick's take is that most people will reject the notion of plugging into such machines and passively ingesting synthesized experiences because being actively engaged has merit in-and-of-itself:

What does matter to us in addition to our experiences? First, we want to do certain things, and not just have the experience of doing them. In the case of certain experiences, it is only because first we want to do the actions that we want the experiences of doing them or thinking we've done them.1

Ultimately he connects this with the desire to engage reality on a fundamental level:

There is no actual contact with any deeper reality, though the experience of it can be simulated. Many persons desire to leave themselves open to such contact and to a plumbing of deeper significance.2

It suddenly occurs to me that such an admission has some interesting consequences: If there is a "deeper reality" then of what does it consist and does its existence have any implications for the development of (libertarian or other) philosophy? But let's leave that aside and focus on his argument that people would, in general, reject plugging into an experience machines on the ground that there's no engagement with what's "really real" (for lack of a better word).

I'll agree up front that it's a contributory factor; people really seem to be stuck on things only being "real" if they happen in meatspace3. But I think that there's more to it than that and propose a modification of Nozick's scenario for the purposes of exploration.

Let's imagine, for a moment, that I'm hooked up to one of these experience machines but, rather than it being a solitary pursuit, I'm "in there" with someone else. Probably my wife because really, who else would want to spend a year in a vat with me? Further suppose that we're doing something something stimulating like taking a year-long, simulated cruise around the world. Provided that the simulation is good enough that sounds to me like a tempting proposition: I'd get to experience new cultures, see new sights, try new foods, etc., all in the company of my lovely wifey. Complaining at that point that its "not real" starts to look a little bit like naked prejudice.

And now the M. Night Shyamalan-worthy twist: Suppose that it turns out that I'm not in there with my wife at all but merely a Turing-tested, 100% indistinguishable replica. That changes things a bit, doesn't it? Some people might merely find the experience less valuable while those with a more uncharitable bent call me a deluded loser. Which of them is right, if either, isn't important; the point is that our perception of the experience changes depending on whether I'm talking to a real person or a machine.

The difference, I believe, stems from a human desire for external validation. Most people want not only to experience things, but to have other people validate those experiences as worthy and interesting. Which, at a deeper level, has to do with the social construction of meaning; actions are only meaningful if there are other people around to reflect on them4.

This brings to mind the phenomena of vacation photos. I used to walk past the original Starbuck's on my way to work and every day there'd be some lot of vacationers taking pictures of themselves outside. This engendered the following realizations:

  • The ancient Indians were on to something; there are a finite number of forms which repeat themselves endlessly.
  • The pictures were not being taken solely on mnemonic or aesthetic grounds.

After you see your umpteenth tourist having their picture taken while pointing at the Starbuck's sign you realize that one purpose of these snapshots is to document the experience so that it can be shared later with others. The act of sharing vacation snaps serves, among other things, to allow others to reflect on your experience.

To me this seems a central reason why many people would reject experience machines, but Nozick never even hints at it. Interestingly enough, it may provide fodder to answer the challenge which he raises at the end of the section:

Without elaborating on the implications of this, which I believe connect surprisingly with issues about free will and causal accounts of knowledge, we need merely note the intricacy of the question of what matters for people other then [sic] their experiences. Until one finds a satisfactory answer, and determines that this answer does not also apply to animals, one cannot reasonably claim that only the felt experiences of animals limit what we may do to them5.

Do animals find it necessary that their actions are apprehended by and reflected on by others? My guess is that the vast bulk of them do not. If that is true it is a clear example of something that matters for people differing markedly from what matters to the rest of the animal kingdom, though its not at all clear whether than difference justified treating animals differently than people from a moral standpoint.


1 p. 43
2 ibid.
3 For the record I heartily disagree; there are clearly a wide range of phenomena whose reality/validity don't (or, at least, logically shouldn't) depend on where they happen. All else being equal a novel is a novel regardless of whether its written by someone laboring in the physical world or a brain in a vat hooked up to some virtual simulation; I can think of no logical reason to privilege one manifestation of a bundle of ideas over another.
4 Grand, sweeping generalization, I know. There maybe be some actions which are meaningful absent other people. And some people, hermits and the like, certainly seem to find meaning expecting little or no interaction with others. This is merely to say that for most people, most of the time, the anticipated presence of an audience is an important part of the overall equation.
5 p. 45

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