Nozick’s Experience Machine and Star Trek

Nozick’s Experience Machine

Robert Nozick had a famous thought experiment that can be summed up in the following way: Imagine there was a machine, while in the machine, an algorithm is run that lets you experience anything you want. It seeks to maximize your happiness as fully as possible. The machine is capable of giving you hardship, boredom, heartbreak, etc., provided that it works to maximize your pleasure and joy. While in the machine you forget you are in a false reality. You do not know true reality.

Nozick would ask his students if they would enter the machine. Often they did not want to. For Nozick this demonstrated problems with hedonism and utilitarianism. He figured, perhaps there is some sort of objective value in reality. Something that would give us reason to choose authenticity over happiness and pleasure, at least at times.

Star Trek’s Pilot Has It’s Own Experience Machine

Naturally, Star Trek has some insightful episodes with implications on Nozick’s experience machine.

The Pilot Episode of the original Star Trek series, “The Cage”, details the adventure of an early Starship Enterprise crew and their leader Captain Pike. While searching through space, they track down a distress signal on an unknown planet. Naturally they go down and investigate. On the surface they find a crew of survivors and a very beautiful young lady named Vina. But alas, the survivor crew, minus Vina, prove to be illusions set up by the Talosians. This illusion was used to bait the Captain into captivity. Something of an alien zoo for their amusement and research. This alien race of humanoids with bulbous heads, live beneath the planet’s surface and have the power to create any illusion they want. They attempt to use this power to convince Pike into staying. He is tempted with the opportunity to live out his wildest dreams and start a family with Vina. However Pike refused to be a science experiment and acts out in radical freedom. He eventually becomes too much for The Talosians to handle and is set free. The plot has a grand twist where Vina, who desires the illusions over reality, is truly ugly and disfigured from the original space crash. She wishes to not experience the real world and hardships of her existence. Instead she chooses to live out a hedonistic dream world. She stays in the machine.

Implications for Nozick’s Theory

Though it is not a perfect one to one comparison, Star Trek’s “The Cage” shares some undeniable parallels with the Experience Machine question. As such, it offers some interesting implications for the concept. Nozick’s assumption that people are unwilling to enter the machine doesn’t account for people like Vina who have horrid realities to face. This harshness of reality influences a desire to experience joy and utility through a false reality. This examples offers the idea that perhaps truth’s value is only relative to how good or painful the truth really is. In events where the individual is not strong enough to handle reality, they will feel a compulsion to escape and substitute a new experience.

On the other hand we have people like Captain Pike, who act out in rebellion and escape from false reality. These people tend to be more strong willed and able to handle misfortune without a need to escape. Pike is unwilling to give up his real world. He sees value in truth, reality, and the freedom that comes with it.

Other Episodes

There is a later episode in the series, “The Menagerie”. It’s a two part episode detailing a return trip to the now forbidden Talosian planet by a crippled Captain Pike. Pike’s real world circumstances of constant mental pain and physical inability is in great contrast to his original self of a handsome, free, rebellious space captain. His new situation is now so harsh he feels the desire to escape it and return to his false life in the cage.

This episodes would suggest even the people who usually desire truth are likely to succumb to hedonism in the event of their reality taking a negative turn. It suggests there is an inverse relationship with hardship and desire for truth and reality.

Further expanding on these ideas, episode “Shore Leave”, the current starship enterprise crew (lacking Pike), takes a vacation on an unknown picturesque world. Strange things start to happen such as Captain Kirk’s engagement in a fist fight with an old college nemesis and Doctor Bones being ‘killed’ by a knight in shining armor. These events prove to be illusions caused by a benevolent mastermind. This manipulator seeks to maximize the enjoyment of the crew. They decide to finish enjoying the remainder of their vacation with these illusions.

This episode would imply that even those whose life is not a matter of hardship will feel the need to escape reality and indulge in temporary hedonism. The knowledge that they are free to leave makes the temporary escape more accessible to those who have a higher value in their reality. Even when life is exciting and your will is strong, there are times in which you feel comfortable escaping reality. Assuming some key details like, given that the duration of time is short and you are free to end the experience.

Some Times We Value Truth - Other Times Escape

It’s possible to conclude that Nozick’s experience machine and similar escapes from reality would only be permanently entered when hardship significantly outweighs the desire for authenticity. Individuals of weaker wills or those with depleted life pleasure are more compelled to enter the machine. However, individuals whose life is going well but are slightly bored or in need of a vacation will also enter the machine. This is ONLY IF they have the chance to leave. For these individuals, rampant hedonism only outweighs truth in the event that it is temporary and at a convenient time. It is unlikely someone who’s life is filled with purpose, meaning and real enjoyment (one who lacks extreme hardship) will even feel the need to enter the machine expect at time they are bored. We can visualize this with the below matrix.

This relationship between increased disinterest in the real world and increased desire to escape it for longer intervals, would put the Value of Truth at a sliding scale completely relative to the quality of that truth. There are times like Vina’s hardship where truth is only a secondary value and overcoming the hardship or depleting the pain of reality is a primary value thus leading to an acceptance of a permanent escape from truth. And times like the Shore Leave, where reality is getting a little overwhelming, a temporary escape is necessary to further enjoy the truth. And there are times, like most of Pike’s adventure, where permanent escape of reality is something to be rebelled against in the name of freedom and truth.