30 Oct 2009

Hedonism and the Good Life Machine

Hedonism has a bad press. The pursuit of pleasure is still seen as falling short of the pinnacle of human development. If you feel good then you're probably doing something bad; and if you feel like crap then it's probably good for you. This could be thought of as the eternal play of yin and yang, or the masochistic philosophy of a moralising miserable sod. But let's set aside gods and sods and focus on our experience. If we seek pleasure and avoid pain then there is a sense in which pleasure is good and pain is bad. A good life is thus a life of pleasure.

Professor Sally Haslanger starts her MIT course on Moral Problems and the Good Life with a brief look at Hedonism. I wrote some time ago about Epicurus and the pitfall of coating words in our own sentiments. Epicurean hedonism is ultimately an idealist triptych of friendship, freedom and contemplation - more coenobite than sybarite. For Epicurus, if pleasure is followed by pain then that particular pleasure was an illusion leading us away from a truly good life.

But once we start making categories and lists there arises one obvious question: can we quantify the pursuit of happiness? Is there a mathematics for the pleasure principle? Jeremy Bentham thought there could be and set about creating a mathematical model he named the hedonic calculus. You can see the bare bones of it at the lecture notes, with a link o further analysis.

The idea of being able to calculate our reactions to the future is not new. This is somewhat the role astrology plays in many people's lives. Astrology is a complex system as it has to manage the complexity of human experiences. But just because two systems are complex does not mean that they have the same complexity - a car engine and a nuclear reactor are both complex but you wouldn't wish to swap them. The success of experts in cold reading techniques illustrates that the artifice of astrology is not necessary in creating a system of correspondences.

This calculus of the good life is not a predictor of future events but rather a diagnosis of our emotional reactions to such events - our feel-good factor. As with astrology, such a system becomes complex rather quickly thus giving rise to the same question as to whether it is a true representation of human reactions.

Let us for the moment leave Jeremy Bentham playing with his hedonic calculus and zoom out a bit. The thrust of the argument here is that what is important is not so much what actually happens to us but rather our experience of it. James feels happy because he has had a rise in pay; Mark is disappointed because he was expecting more.

Nozick would like to kick this argument into touch with a thought experiment. Imagine there exists a machine that could simulate the best possible life you could have. Would you want to be plugged in to it? You would experience the fulfillment of your highest ambitions; you would love and be loved every day; you would both give and receive everything you ever wanted. Welcome to your Utopia. But the aim of the thought experiment is for you to say: No! I don't want an artificial utopia, give me back my miserable life!! Really?!

What the philosopher would like you to consider is that a life of great feelings is not as good as a great life. This sounds good but hides an age-old assumption that there is a really real life somewhere of which our experiences are just theatre. A simulation of this theatre is thus two steps removed from the really real reality!

But the list of things important to the lecturer seems to show many that are purely emotional rather than material. What she seems to be saying is that a good life is not a feel-good life but a do-good life. But can we do something without experiencing it? And if we experience it do we then assume we have actually done it? I shall leave this line of thought ajar.

I do, however, have a problem here with Nozick, in that if a simulation is good - and we're here talking about a thought experiment, not what's technologically feasible - then it would be indistinguishable from reality. We all have simulations we run every night: we call them dreams. We could lead a very good life in our dreams. We can even be conscious in our dreams. The experiences in our dreams are as valid as in our waking life. Just as we wake up and recall the dream as a dream, the Experience Machine only becomes a simulation after we are unplugged. But what if we never wake up?

Just as it is possible to be conscious of our dreams during our dreams it may also be possible to be conscious that our machine simulation is a simulation. In this case it would be true that a simulated good life would not be the same as a really good life. This, however, gets into neurology. Certain parts of the brain are shut down during sleep so that dreams can take place without putting the unguarded body in danger. The dream thus simulates our senses without stimulating our sense organs - or at least most of them. The idea of an Experience Machine therefore needs to be more subtle and exact: is it stimulating our senses or simulating the sense experiences? The experience of dreams is that a person can become aware that there is a difference.

Is the Experience Machine a Simulated Reality or a Stimulated Reality? And would you want to be experienced?
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