Will Virtual Reality Replace Reality?

The Scenario

I want you to imagine a not too distant future where a company makes a super high-tech virtual reality headset.

You can slip it on and experience anything that you want. Everything that you experience would feel 100% life-like and, in fact, you wouldn’t be able to tell your experiences apart from real life.

This machine could maximize the total amount of pleasure you would experience in life. If you think you need a little pain to have more pleasure, it can produce that for you. No matter what, this machine can maximize pleasure over your lifetime.

There’s also no reason to worry about anyone outside of the machine because they can plug in too or you can assume that they are being taken care of by someone else (the government for example). So, don’t let your worries about serving others prevent you from plugging in.

Once you plug in, you won’t even know that you’re plugged in. You could do anything you want in that world but the only catch is that once you plug in, you can’t come out. Knowing this, would you plug into this world?

The Modern Experience Machine

When I asked this question on Twitter 45% of you said yes, you would plug in, and 55% said no, you would not.

This question is actually a twist on an infamous thought experiment - posed by the philosopher Robert Nozick in his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia - titled “The Experience Machine”. The situation stays the exact same except instead of plugging into virtual reality, Robert refers to it as an experience machine. Robert assumed that most people would choose not to enter this machine. [1] 

I wanted to revisit this thought experiment because I feel as if the question it asks is actually becoming more and more relevant in modern society. We are seeing great advances in virtual reality and it doesn’t seem impossible that we could one day create something similar to an experience machine

Addressing Concerns

I believe that one of the initial responses that someone might have to this modified thought experiment is that they can control their usage. “I would only play for a bit and plug out whenever I want - sort of like a video game” they might say. I’d argue that it’s actually not so simple for two reasons.

1. Video games are designed to be addictive in the same way fast food, and social media are. It’s a form of supernormal stimuli. I mentioned this in one of my videos on self-discipline in the past and some viewers took it as a knock against gaming. I have nothing against gaming, I’ve been a gamer myself for most of my life. I DO think it’s delusional to deny that developers don’t try to make their games as addictive as possible similar to how fast food companies try to make their food as addictive as possible, and social media sites try to make their feeds as addictive as possible.  It’s in the creators best interest, financially at least, to make their creations as addictive as possible. In a lot of cases, their livelihood depends on it. It might even be impossible to remove what makes a good product from being addictive. If you accept this premise, that people, more often than not, try to make their products or creations as addictive as possible, then we can move on to my next premise.

2. For better or worse, there are ways to take advantage of human biology. Easy example: it can be hard to quit smoking cigarettes even when you really want to. 

If you accept both of these premises, that people make their things as addictive as possible and that it’s possible to take advantage of human biology, then you would likely accept my conclusion that VR will be a highly addictive experience.

If you can enter a world that feels real and can provide you with maximum pleasure, why would you ever want to leave? Coming out of that experience would make reality seem dull and drab by comparison. The likelihood of you wanting to remain plugged in as much possible would be very high. 

Now you see why I think this is a good thought experiment to discuss. I don’t think it seems as unlikely of a scenario as when Nozick first proposed it. Keeping in line with the original thought experiment, we should also assume that technology is at a point where they can connect us to this ultra-real VR experience and also keep our bodies functioning and alive while we are in it. Knowing this, would you plug in?

Plug In

There are good reasons to plug in. The primary one is a philosophy called hedonism. Hedonists believe that everything in life boils down to two things: pain and pleasure. Pleasure is what is intrinsically good and maximizing net pleasure over a life time is the most important goal for a person. Everything else is only good as long as it leads to the production of more pleasure or avoids pain. 

Another thing we hear people say often is, “just do what makes you happy.” If doing what makes you happy is the most important thing - and this machine is designed to maximize pleasure and therefore happiness - there would be no reason not to plug in, right?

Don’t Plug In

However, Nozick initially proposed this thought experiment to refute hedonism. He said that if you don’t plug into the machine, which he suspected most people wouldn’t, then there are things you value more than pleasure. It means there are things you think are more important than just our inner feelings about the world. Judging by the poll I ran on Twitter, the majority of people, intuitively, do not want to plug in. Nozick actually laid out three arguments as to why he believed someone wouldn’t want to plug in:

1. We actually want to do things and not just experience them. There is something intrinsically valuable about actually doing an activity as opposed to merely experiencing it. [1]

2. We want to become certain kinds of people. Nozick said that entering the machine is a form of suicide because the person who enters the machine has no character. We don’t know if they are kind, brave, loyal, or anything. Consider this: do you want to win an olympic gold medal to have the experience of having a medal and to feel the pleasure of winning that medal, or do you want to win it because it means that you are a strong, hard-working, and brave person. Something to think about. [1]

3. Lastly, Nozick said that people would not want to enter because the machine would prevent us from experiencing a deeper reality. Everything that we experience in the machine would be man-made. I believe here Nozick is saying that many of us would rather live in a world that is true, rather than artificial, even if an artificial world produces more net pleasure. [1]

When I first heard this argument, I totally agreed with it. Everything Nozick said made sense. Of course, I would want to live in a world that is real but less pleasurable than one that is fake but more pleasurable. That was, until I heard about The Reverse Experience Machine

The Reverse Experience Machine

Now, I want you to imagine a different scenario. Imagine that you suddenly wake up in a white room. A scientist approaches you and says: “hey, you’ve been connected to this experience machine for a decade. Everybody you thought you knew, and all the experiences you had were manufactured by this machine. We’re supposed to ask every decade whether you would like to plug back in. Would you?”

This scenario was initially posed by Joshua Greene although I modified it a bit. Knowing that everything you had just experienced was fake, would you want to return to it or would you want to return to reality. [2]

What if in this new reality you’re actually living in poverty, would you want to go back? What if in this new reality you’re actually a billionaire, would you want to go back then? 

Felipe De Brigard actually posed the idea that our reluctance to enter the machine in the original experiment may be due to status quo bias. We don’t like change. In fact, we're often biased to keep things the same. The reason we might be hesitant to enter the machine might be status quo bias and not the reasons Nozick outlined. If you find yourself hesitating to enter the machine in the first scenario but wanting to connect back in the second scenario then you might have been a victim of the status quo bias. [2]

I’m not sure if I would want to enter reality, if it turns out that I’m actually living in poverty. This virtual life is pretty great. So, maybe I don’t value truth over pleasure? But, let me hit you with another scenario. 

Delusional Heaven

You’re in a relationship with a lovely spouse. You work a great job with a wonderful boss and co-workers, and you have beautiful, amazing kids. Everyone loves you, except for that they don’t. You just think that everyone loves you but really they hate you. Your spouse is constantly cheating on you, your kids laughing at and despising you, your coworkers doing the same, and your boss thinks your the worst employee. But, you have no idea. Assume that finding out about this truth would reduce your net pleasure over a life time. 

Would you want to know the truth and reduce your net pleasure or live a delusional life and have more net pleasure? What would you want for someone else whose not you but that you care about? 

For the hedonist, someone who thinks that net pleasure over a life time is the most important goal, living in delusion is the obvious answer. This again brings up the question: what’s more important, pleasure or truth?

If you picked truth, then you might agree with Nozick that there are things more important than pleasure, happiness, and our inner feelings. 

This is by no means an easy thought experiment to answer, and there are several complex answers to it. With VR technology improving, I think it’s something important and interesting to think about so I’d love to see what you guys think in the comments: would you plug in?