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Is it better to live a life plugged into a machine which gives you some kind of utopia (think benign Matrix) than to live a life of ‘reality’ with all the misery, pain and suffering, as well as happiness, joy and success? If this virtual reality gave us a life where we were successful and supremely happy with no poverty or any other commonly understood negative aspect to life, would this not be preferable to our real life?

I heard one commentator to this oft repeated head-scratcher respond, “If you think you have an answer to this question, then you haven’t thought hard enough!” I quite agree. However, I will hazard an answer in the hope of investigating some interesting philosophy.

Firstly, the answer to this depends on where you start: your moral philosophy and what aspects of life and existence you place value on to. For example, a classic utilitarian who would seek maximal pleasure might well agree to plugging themselves into such a machine. They might say that it is better to be a happy failure (in life) than be someone who strives for great things, is unhappy (but who could achieve those great things, perhaps posthumously).

On the other hand, someone who apportions value to truth and reality might think that living in such a reality is not necessarily a good thing. Aristotle, for example, felt that there was an objective happiness such that you subjectively thinking you were happy did not necessarily mean that you were and that other people could look back on your life after you died and decide whether you did indeed have a happy life (“Don’t call a man happy until he is dead”, as he suggested). An individual may not be the best judge of their own happiness.

There are asides to be made on this thought experiment. For instance, is it that the person is cognisant of being plugged in or not? Is ignorance bliss, so that not knowing that everyone hates you and thinking happily that you are popular may be more attractive? Does having negative things in life provide useful experiences for that life? If so, then I suppose these experiences could themselves be built into the machine to create an optimal life / happiness.

Now the philosophy gets really interesting, and we get a good argument against living in ‘reality’, that we should plug in This is the argument that suggests we already live in a virtual reality. Now I don’t mean by this that we already live in The Matrix but that our brains already form a representation of objective reality. Our brains are experience machines as it is, just not ones which guarantee utopian happiness.

This works on two levels. Firstly, we live in denial of the impact of our lives and decisions on others (we live only a mile away from death, our decision to buy x means that children have to work in a sweat shop, eating meat causes the death of x animals, voting for x government causes more trouble in the world than if we had voted for y, unbeknownst to us etc etc). In this manner, we are already in a machine which is denying us full access to true reality – how do we get out of it?!

Secondly, and more in line with my being an argument against living in reality is that our brains act already as the experience machines in a more mechanistic way. 80% of the input into our visual cortex comes from the rest of our brains and not from our eyes [1]. We interpret everything from the external world into the paradigm of our subjective understanding. The biological machines that are our brains are not guaranteed to do a great or accurate job of this. I don’t want to get on to Idealism, Kant, phenomena and noumena, but you get the picture. Psychology also defends such an idea that we are already in such a machine. When asked about our ability / state of affairs in a number of things, including happiness and driving, the majority of people answer that they are above average (known as illusory superiority). Of course, this is problematic since a majority of people cannot easily be above average. We have a subjective distortion of reality (which actually allows us to function successfully). Positive illusions are good for us (and this has been found to be true in psychology such as in research into views of partners in marriage). If we were to have an accurate appraisal of reality (of who we and the people around us were really like and what the real consequences were to all of our decisions and the real nature of our state of existence), then we would be more likely to tend towards depression. Sadder but wiser. It seems evolution has constructed and selected in mechanisms to help us cope with the real world. However, who is to say we should let evolution dictate our interpretation of reality? Why not bypass this anyway? Enough people spend enough time absorbed in computer games so let’s just take that reality one step further!

So does it really come back to a moral evaluation of life so that it is utilitarianism vs a more Aristotelian outlook: do we value our lives in relation to the things that we put ourselves towards doing, and in so doing can achieve happiness and tangible outcomes, a more flourishing life?

What would you do – machine or no machine?


[1] Richard Gregory, ‘Brainy Mind’, British Medical Journal, 19 December 1998, issue 317: pp. 1693–1695

Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...