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A thought experiment: Can you live life without Meaning?

Updated: Aug 13, 2021

Here's Robert Nozick's "Experience Machine".

Is the ultimate goal of life to seek pleasure? Or do we yearn for something more?

Robert Nozick was an American Philosopher (1938 -2002) who was best known for his book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia. In this book, he introduced an interesting thought experiment to challenge the concept of Utilitarianism - the philosophy that people will always make choices to maximise the amount of pleasure and happiness they feel.

His thought experiment is called the Experience Machine:

Imagine the world's greatest neuroscientists have created a simulator, or an "experience machine" that can simulate pleasurable experiences for the rest of your life. Suppose this machine creates experiences that are absolutely indistinguishable from reality, and has no adverse side effects.

While being plugged into the machine, there's no way of telling that what you're experiencing isn't reality. In addition, this machine's simulation will include all the people you value in your life - be it your family and friends - while also offering more pleasurable experiences than possible in your lifetime. Whatever dreams, riches, or wants you have, everything is possible in this experience machine.

In short, the experience machine:

  • Simulates experiences that are indistinguishable from reality.

  • Leaves you experiencing more happiness and pleasure than if you lived those events for real.

Would you want to live in the experience machine?

My personal answer is no, and my guess is, you would say no too.

Even with the potential of experiencing vastly greater pleasures in this machine, something feels off about having our lives being simulated for us. Can you put a finger on what it is?

Nozick anticipated this too, arguing that the reason most of us intuitively wouldn't choose to live in the machine, is because there's something intrinsically valuable about living the experience of life for yourself.

I'm sure we can all agree with him there. However, what is this seemingly intangible thing about experiencing life for ourselves, compared to the opportunity cost of gaining immeasurably more pleasure in the machine?

Positive Psychology's three levels of Happiness.

The title of this article might have hinted at it, but what Nozick's experience machine proposes to provide is only but one type of Happiness we human beings yearn for - that is Pleasure.

Pleasure can make for the happy life - devoting much of your time eating your favourite food, reading a captivating storybook, shopping, going for a run, and meeting up with friends are all pleasurable.

We can't live happily without such moments, yet the very nature of these moments are that they are fleeting. There is yet a higher level of intrinsic satisfaction that we all yearn for beyond this.

This is also the reason why Pleasure is actually the lowest layer of Positive Psychology's three levels of Happiness.

The second level of Happiness is the Engaged life.

An engaged life is one where you are living in a way that cultivates your best strengths and virtues. You're using your strengths in the effort of pursuing something worthwhile.

Engagement is actually one of the key elements of Positive Psychology's PERMA model (it's the E). Psychologists often describe the optimal level of being engaged as falling into a 'flow' experience. You can read more about this here, but it's essentially when you become so absorbed in what you are doing that you get 'in the zone'. Time slows down and you feel fantastic after the challenging experience.

Living an engaged life is also about harnessing your best strengths. Psychology has identified 24 signature strengths in people. It works best if we focus on our top 5 signature strengths. You can actually find out what yours are through this free online test here.

For example, you might find that you best signature strengths are being creative or a love of learning - if that's the case, you should actively pursue goals in line with them.

Clearly, being plugged into Nozick's experience machine takes away our ability to pursue personal growth based on our own strengths. Sure, it might give us more pleasure, but it also feels like a thorough waste of the individual gifts and strengths that each of us have.

The third level of Happiness is the Meaningful Life.

Finally, Positive Psychology's third and highest level of Happiness is to live a life of Meaning and Purpose. That is, to be using your strengths, virtues, and your life in the service of something bigger than yourself.

One of the best ways to identify what is meaningful to you is to start with your values. Values are the things we care most deeply about. It's different for each and everyone of us - it might be loving your family, moving people with your music, doing charity work, looking out for the environment, or even writing words that inspire and captivate.

There is no one type of meaning or value that is bigger than the other - it's entirely subjective. However, the meaningful life is definitely about focusing on something that is bigger than just you alone - it can't just be about me / myself / or I.

It's the reason why relationships are very meaningful to us. You want to experience the emotions of love, growth and fulfillment with another, or even start a family. We see the value in going through the entire experience, even with the ups and downs.

So what is a cause bigger than yourself that gives you meaning? How will you use your strengths and virtues in the effort of living out your life's meaning. Why that's entirely up to you of course.

Closing the case on Nozick's experience machine.

I hope you can see that not all types of happiness are created equally. Nozick does conclude by closing the case of Happiness, but that's where we should differ from his opinion (he counter-proposed a minimalistic ideal). Because while his experience machine is clearly a tempting proposal, it's primary offering of happiness is nothing but the most primitive of layers.

Seeking pleasure in and of itself results in pure Hedonism - in some ways, we can liken being plugged into Nozick's machine as spending your entire life on drugs. Sure you might feel happy and high all the time, but life is much more than that isn't it?

Bah, who am I to talk. I'm sure you already knew this to start with :)

Thanks for reading this little article! I hope you enjoyed this one and do share to spread the word. Much appreciated everyone! Love, Kaya toast for the soul.


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