Experience Junkies and Experience Machines

In my philosophy practice and in my daily life, I keep coming across what my wife Alexandra has aptly termed “experience junkies.” Some experience junkies want to have a steady flow of moderately pleasant experiences. Others want to have supreme highs. Others, actually, want to experience the greatest highs and the deepest lows of human life. As one man put it when we were speaking, he used to want to have the “high highs and low lows.”

What is wrong with this picture of a human life? What is missing from it?

To begin with, it’s a form of hedonism, but this doesn’t yet mean much. Many have thought that hedonism is a good, indeed, the best way to live. In his book Anarchy, State, Utopia published in 1974, the American philosopher Robert Nozick tried to show why experience junkies should want not to be experience junkies because they are indeed missing some crucial features of a well led human life.

It’s important how he frames the question, and it’s also the way that I wish to frame it: “What matters other than how people’s experiences feel ‘from the inside’?” From here, he invites us to imagine that we could plug ourselves into an ideal experience machine. I’ll let Nozick describe this contraption:

Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience that 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, preprogramming your life’s experiences? If you are worried about missing out on desirable experiences, we can suppose that business enterprises have researched thoroughly the lives of many others. You can pick and choose from their large library or smorgasbord of such experiences, selecting your life’s experiences for, say, the next two years. After two years have passed, you will have ten minutes or ten hours out of the tank, to select the experiences of your next two years. Of course, while in the tank you won’t know that you’re there; you’ll think it’s all actually happening. Others can also plug in to have the experiences they want, so there’s no need to stay unplugged to serve them. (Ignore problems such as who will service the machines if everyone plugs in.) Would you plug in? What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside?

Whether you want a steady flow of moderate pleasant experiences, a set of violent experiences, an intermittent mix of intense bliss followed by nearly death-inducing sorrow, or whatever is up to you. The machine will provide.

Now, Nozick thinks we would not plug in. (I wonder whether his would not should be replaced with a should not.) He supplies us with three reasons. “First,” he writes, “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.” He goes on, “A second reason for not plugging in is that we want to be a certain way, to be a certain sort of person. Someone floating in a tank is an indeterminate blob.” Both reasons sound Aristotelian, the first underscoring the claim that we care about activities which require our agency, our efforts, our contributions to what we experience (rather than just the passive experience itself), the second pointing up the value we place on the cultivation of our characters, on our being (or becoming) certain kinds of persons. Passivity doesn’t make us agents, and blobs are not, and cannot be, persons.

While his first two reasons are good, I want to dwell for a short while on the third reason he gives. He believes that “plugging into an experience machine limits us to a man-made reality, to a world no deeper or more important than that which people can construct. There is no actual contact with any deeper reality, though the experience of it can be simulated.” Everything of the greatest importance hinges on those words actualcontact, and with. For I do think that there is a deep spiritual urge for us to be in contact with reality, and that contact becomes impossible if one is only concerned, “from the inside,” with how one feels. And that, plainly, is not just subjectivism but nihilism: experience junkies are manifestly nihilists yet ones unwilling to face up to this fact.

The important question needs to be dredged up for it has gone missing: how do we come into contact with actual reality and thereafter live our lives so as to accord with actual reality? The structure across the religious traditions with which I’m most familiar does not vary much (though the direction can go from “inside” to “outside” rather than from “outside” to “inside,” as I’ve presented it below):

  1. There is something outside of me. It goes by the name God (in Christian mysticism), Dao (in Daoism), or sunyata (the Void or Emptiness in Buddhism).
  2. It is that which is outside of me that, through meditation or prayer, comes to pierce me so that the outside is no longer just outside but comes to be through me.
  3. Next, it strikes me with the force of deep insight that what is outside and through me is actually in me.
  4. But to say that what is outside is also through me and that what is through me is also inside of me is to say that This is everywhere. It is. There is nowhere that It is not, nowhere that It cannot be.

Henceforth, one’s orientation toward life gets “flipped,” totally “turned around.” Actual reality manifests itself everywhere and every-when, especially in us as pure awareness, and it is that to which we need, as Alexandra put it recently, to tune in and thereafter to keep tuning into. How one tunes in is, for instance, relatively clear in Daoism where the Daoist sage has learned, in virtue of being ever with and through and in and of the Dao, to act wu wei, to have his powers energized and flowing in effortless yet supremely responsive and supple action. He is an active vessel for the ever-present, flowing, unfolding movements of the cosmic process.

All this is absolutely impossible to envisage, let alone to be englobed by for experience junkies. For them, we should feel not pity or contempt but deep, deep compassion. They know not what they miss.