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.

Irreversible Consequences

We’re all familiar, I presume, with the idea that our actions can lead to unintended consequences. Some of these unintended consequences become almost immediately recognizable, and in a small number of those cases the actions are reversible. But what about the actions that set in motion consequences that cannot be seen by the living and that, partially due to their invisibility, end up being irreversible?

When I was younger, I read a fair number of Ian McEwan novels. Most of these were centered on a transfiguring event, an occurrence that radically transforms the life of an individual or a couple so that life after becomes, almost in a flash, radically different from her or their life before. Tragedy has, since Aristotle, often been concerned with the sudden, perhaps irreversible loss–of a loved one, social standing, place, cultural identity, and of other supremely valued objects. Hence the Renaissance interest in the “tragic fall.”

But what about the slow and steady tragic decline? Here, I reckon, is a different, and perhaps far stickier, predicament. When James Watt invented the steam engine in 1781, he could not have foreseen how in a little over 200 years he would have contributed to setting in motion an industrial civilization the unintended consequences of which have been widespread and irreversible climactic changes of the kind that future generations will be grappling with for as long as they and those after them live. Relatedly, in his book Collapse, Jared Diamond tells plenty of stories about how a current illiterate generation, one whose memory didn’t extend back far enough, takes some source of food or supply of food to be extraordinarily abundant and are not able to see that current tribal members are slowly depleting this resource at a rate that will ultimately lead future generations to face peril, even collapse.

The examples of the sort of slow-moving yet irreversible tragedy I’m discussing are not just social, political, or economic; they’re also existential. If we think about our lives, we’ll soon recognize that some action we performed, or neglected to perform, some 20 years ago set up a causal chain of events that has made it impossible for you to go back, to “do over,” to make amends. Perhaps it is as simple as overusing your knees when you were young to the point at which not in an instant but over a few decades you come to find that your knees are shot. Looking back, you might say now, “If only I had known that doing X would cause me such pain, then I would have avoiding X,” yet, while that is true, you’re also missing something more basic and profound, perhaps, about the possible lack of human foresight built into the human condition: might it be that there just are certain things that, in virtue of our cognitive limits, will inevitably lead us, at some point in the future, into situations which we will just have to learn to live with? Might it be necessary for us to let go of the belief that all our decisions and actions are reversible? And, knowing this while keeping it fixedly in mind, might we come to discover an even greater sense of reverence for the power we wield every time we act, especially when it comes to our actions whose consequences can affect others, possibly for life, possibly in ways that they won’t be able to see themselves until two or three decades later?

Reflections on Truth and Goodness After Listening to a Sam Harris/Jordan Peterson Podcast

It’s usually a good thing to be truthful and to speak the truth, but the truth is not the same as the good.  Most would agree, yet some believe that the good is numerically identical with the good. That strikes me as incorrect.

For, plainly, it does seem as if we can speak of factual truths, of scientific truths, and of mathematical truths without also having say that they are good. It may be a good thing to know that 2+2 = 4, but is that mathematical truth itself good? I don’t think so.

Yet both my Socratic and my Buddhist commitments do make me think that one sort of truth–to wit, metaphysical truth–is special in that it entails goodness. From a Buddhist perspective, if I perceive things clearly (which is to say: if I’m enlightened), this entails my acting with care for all sentient beings. For Socrates, if I have the special knowledge about the nature of things called wisdom, that is to say, if I can grasp how things truly are, this entails my acting virtuously. Just as emptiness (sunyata) entails care (karuna), so wisdom entails virtue.

So, I’m definitely committed to saying that metaphysical truth matters not just for its own sake (because it seems to me a basic human concern to be in touch with the way of things [Laozi puts the point nicely in Daodejing]) but also because such truth entails goodness. In this respect, I differ from those who believe that they are utterly disjunct (for them, it’s a contingent matter whether someone who is aligned with (say) scientific truth is also someone who acts virtuously) as well as from those who believe that they are identical. The former may lose too much by thinking that the truth bears no close relationship with goodness; that may be too much of a sacrifice.

The latter, however, worries so much about the devastating effects wrought by our technological age that they seek to solder truth to goodness and goodness to truth. While I admire their pangs of conscience, I don’t believe we need to make this move to get what we’re after. We can instead distinguish between kinds of truth, noting that the sort we should ultimately seek–I’m speaking again of metaphysical truth–is the kind that carries deep within it its own immediate implications for how we act as ethical persons and for how we treat the natural world.


Irresponsibility and Hang-ups

While it’s true that we have a responsibility not to carry our hang-ups into our interactions with other people, we often act irresponsibly by doing just the opposite. This is worse than unfortunate; it is troubling.

Our foul moods and our habitually negative patterns of thought can cause others strife. We are all familiar here with the ordinary players such as anger and despondency, but what about subtler varieties of agitation, recalcitrance, acidity, criticality, stubbornness, and reticence? How much do these cause others either to pick up the slack, to lift more weight than they should,  to lubricate the social wheel, or to mollify us when we’re in one or more of those emotional states? Aren’t others markedly worse off as a result of such heavy lifting and mollycoddling?

It could be said that being unconscious of one’s hang-ups should be regarded as an excuse (if not a justification), though more often than not it’s not a terribly convincing one. If we’re old enough, are we really so blind to the discernible edges of our otherwise opaque inner lives? Yet even if we grant that someone remains so unconscious and thus is warranted in our cutting him some slack, what about those who cannot reasonably claim to being unconscious of their hang-ups (maybe, for instance, because they’ve already confided in us about these things) and who still carry them into their relationships with others? Perhaps they may say that they “can’t help it,” but what grounds do we have for believing that these are truly beyond their control?

The harm caused to those submitted to another’s wanton hang-ups goes well beyond the time we share with him because, provided that he is in especially poor spirits and carries himself with that painful, closed heart, that harm will, in all likelihood, body forth in our thoughts long after we part ways. For how long shall we carry that load? For the next day at least yet possibly for days or weeks. Or years.

Let’s not miss the important plot twist, though. Naturally, we have a responsibility to make sense of, while letting go of, our hang-ups initiated (in this case) by his hang-ups. Not to do so is not only inconsistent (for how could all of us have such a responsibility while we’re, in this allegedly special case, letting ourselves off the hook? That would be arbitrary as well as self-serving!) but it is also by virtue of holding onto our hang-ups (flowing from his hang-ups, which were flowing from someone else’s hang-ups…) that we perpetuate the very pattern of suffering. Somewhere the chain must be broken. Why not here? Why not now? Why not this very instant?

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For the past year and a half, this blog has become secondary in my thinking life while a once-monthly long-form TinyLetter on ultimate reality has become primary. You’re welcome to view past letters here or to subscribe here.


Rural America’s Rejection of the Creative, Inclusive Society


Let me begin by saying that I grew up in a small midwestern town, that I finished a Ph.D. at a prominent, very left-leaning research university, and that for the past five years or so I have considered myself to be an independent. I stand neither on the left nor on the right, believing with Hegel that they are both “one-sided,” and yet because the left has a near monopoly on intellectuals, I address them most often. In this post, I try to show how the relationship between the university and a particular conception of society furthered by the university has been rejected in the American Presidential Election held on November 8, 2016.

There are, of course, many ways of interpreting the election. Some say that the election of Donald Trump represents a rejection of neoliberalism, others of the liberal democratic order. These as well as other reasonable interpretations I have no truck with, and I have no reason to believe that they don’t get some things right. Nonetheless, I am choosing another target to aim at: the left’s conception of the good society. It is this that rural folks have rejected.

The First Part: The Inclusive Society

And what is that conception? For starters, we should note in general what the leftist project has been. The conservative philosopher Roger Scruton nicely suggests that it’s two-fold according to Alan Jacobs in a recent book review: a commitment, Jacob writes, “to liberation of individuals from oppressive existing structures, especially political, familial, and religious; and [a commitment to] to social justice, usually conceived as requiring the elimination of political and economic systems that create inequality.” In my view, the first has been largely lost in the developed world or at least in the US while the second commitment has become much more prominent.

Now, since the New Left movements of the 1960s, political activists have slowly been shifting their attention (in Nancy Fraser’s terms) toward recognition. It seems to me that the major aim is this: to achieve equality is to have one’s identity or identities recognized by the social order. Perhaps it would be good to call this, following the work of Charles Taylor, an expressive conception of equality: I am equal just in case I am able to freely express my most salient identities, provided that these fall within a particular suite of sociologically determined categories.

What sort of society, then, is it in which each person is equal just to the degree that he or she is free to express his or her most salient identities? This would be what I’ll here call the inclusive society. A society is inclusive, on this view, if each person feels safe to express his or her chosen identity or identities and if each of those identities is recognized by the larger public.

I believe this is the first part of the picture, and it would help to point out how over time there has been a proliferation of identities. Initially, the salient sociologically construed categories were religion (?), nationality (?), race, class, and gender. Then came sexuality or sexual orientation. Then came some identity associated with ableness. More have been added since. To say that some concatenation of these is my identity is just to say that I belong to the groups that recognize these identities and that I am recognized in some more abstract sense by members of the inclusive society who do not themselves claim the identity or identities that I do. In this society, one feels “seen” or feels “invisible.”

The Second Part: The Creative Class

To see the second part, we need to refer to Richard Florida’s work, specifically his The Rise of the Creative Class. Originally published in 2002, the book sought to show that the class driving the new economy would not be agriculture or manufacturing or service but rather the creative types working in “creative industries” such as Internet Technology, finance, entertainment, advertising, branding, academia, social innovation, the arts, entrepreneurship, and design. Its further claim, consistent with the seminal work of Jane Jacobs, was that these creative types operated, and would continue to operate, in the heart of cities such as New York, San Francisco, and Copenhagen, living in close proximity with one another. The proximity made serendipity possible and allowed new ideas to take shape and spread.

It shouldn’t be surprising to hear that those working in the creative industries are college-educated, often at our elite public and private universities, and therefore that many of them have adopted the inclusive society as their living political philosophy.

My proposal, born not just of my training in the humanities spanning two decades but also of my experience working at several organizations, is that we can put these two together. The creative class is largely concerned with, while being made up of, those already committed to the goal of greater inclusiveness (or the twin goals of inclusiveness and creativity). Hence, the sort of society that is brought into focus, and is deemed to be desirable, is what I’m here terming the creative, inclusive society.

Rejection of The University

I argue that those predominantly rural folks, the ones who largely voted for Trump, were rejecting this vision of the creative, inclusive society. To say that they were rejecting this vision of a good society is not to say yet that they were, or are, bigoted, racist, sexist, and so forth for having rejected such a vision. Some may be, but that’s beside the point. To say no to something or to negate something is not necessarily to claim that the contrary is true. Rather, it can mean claiming that something else, something heterodoxically different from what’s on offer is to be endorsed, and this is what occurred.

I take it that, given that these ideas about the creative, inclusive society flowed from and continue to flow from the humanities and social sciences in the university, this should be regarded as impugning much of what goes on at a university today. It’s just not the case that the university’s values are those of the rural folk living throughout the plain states.

For them, other virtues such as self-sufficiency, industriousness, and proper pride as well as other values such as self-respect, admiration, and the opportunity to generally lead a dignified, as opposed to a degraded, life surely play a far greater role in the everyday lives and aspirations of small town people. A dignified life set among family members and neighbors who respect them would at least move us in the right direction of understanding a competing inchoate conception of a good society, one no doubt based on human excellence and on getting what one deserves. On this score, hear Michael Moore speak in their voice about the horrors of neoliberalism:

They’ve lost their jobs, the banks foreclosed, next came the divorce and now the wife and kids are gone, the car’s been repoed. They haven’t had a vacation in years, they’re stuck with the sh***y bronze plan where you can’t even get a f***ing Percocet. They’ve essentially lost everything they have except one thing […]: the right to vote. They might be penniless, they might be homeless, they might be f**ked over and f**ked up – it doesn’t matter because it’s equalised on that day.

To confirm my claim that the university’s commitment to propagating its vision of the creative, inclusive society is not at all what rural folks would themselves espouse, consider the #NotMyPresident demonstrations, the unthinking moral indignation of them all. Where have these taken place? Predictably, in Austin, Texas; in Boulder, Colorado; in Berkeley, California; in Storrs, Connecticut: in short, in the very college cities whose outlook has summarily, swiftly, and forcibly been rejected.

Our Socratic Moment

Socrates is my hero because, with greater determination than anyone else, he insisted that those in power and those claiming to have knowledge don’t actually know what they’re talking about. Those in the media who have been university-educated should swallow Socrates’s medicine. They don’t know what they’re talking about, and during what I’ve elsewhere called The Great Muddle nor do we; we don’t really know how to live today. Just muddling through, we have no reason to act in a knee-jerk way, claiming some moral high ground, calling foul, or assuming that red state denizens are fools or rubes. It is rather, on this interpretation, that they rejected the very conception of the good society that the university continues, without deep self-examination, to advance. It is high time that we called that picture of a good society into question, holding it up so that we might examine it as well as ourselves.