You take the blue pill and the story ends. You wake in your bed and you believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill and you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes. Remember that all I am offering is the truth. Nothing more.
—Morpheus, The Matrix
Cypher is not a nice guy, but is he an unreasonable guy? Is he right to want to get re-inserted into the Matrix? Many want to say no, but giving reasons for why his choice is a bad one is not an easy task. After all, so long as his experiences will be pleasant, how can his situation be worse than the inevitably crappy life he would lead outside of the Matrix? What could matter beyond the quality of his experience? Remember, once he’s back in, living his fantasy life, he won’t even know he made the deal. What he doesn’t know can’t hurt him, right?
Is feeling good the only thing that has value in itself? The question of whether only conscious experience can ultimately matter is one that has been explored in depth by several contemporary philosophers. In the course of discussing this issue in his 1971 book Anarchy, State, and Utopia Robert Nozick introduced a “thought experiment” that has become a staple of introductory philosophy classes everywhere. It is known as “the experience machine”:
Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life’s desires?… Of course, while in the tank you won’t know that you’re there; you’ll think it’s all actually happening. Others can also plug in to have the experiences they want, so there’s no need to stay unplugged to serve them. (Ignore problems such as who will service the machines if everyone plugs in.) Would you plug in? What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside?
Nozick goes on to argue that other things do matter to us: For instance, that we actually do certain things, as opposed to simply have the experience of doing them. Also, he points out that we value being (and becoming) certain kinds of people. I don’t just want to have the experience of being a decent person, I want to actually be a decent person. Finally, Nozick argues that we value contact with reality in itself, independent of any benefits such contact may bring through pleasant experience: we want to know we are experiencing the real thing. In sum, Nozick thinks that it matters to most of us, often in a rather deep way, that we be the authors of our lives and that our lives involve interacting with the world, and he thinks that the fact that most people would not choose to enter into such an experience machine demonstrates that they do value these other things. As he puts it: “We learn that something matters to us in addition to experience by imagining an experience machine and then realizing that we would not use it.”
While Nozick’s description of his machine is vague, it appears that there is at least one important difference between it and the simulated world of The Matrix. Nozick implies that someone hooked up to the experience machine will not be able exercise their agency—they become the passive recipients of preprogrammed experiences. This apparent loss of free will is disturbing to many people, and it might be distorting people’s reactions to the case and clouding the issue of whether they value contact with reality per se. The Matrix seems to be set up in such a way that one can enter it and retain one’s free will and capacity for decision making, and perhaps this makes it a significantly more attractive option than the experience machine Nozick describes.
Nonetheless, a loss of freedom is not the only disturbing aspect of Nozick’s story. As he points out, we seem to mourn the loss of contact with the real world as well. Even if a modified experience machine is presented to us, one which allows us to keep our free will but enter into an entirely virtual world, many would still object that permanently going into such a machine involves the loss of something valuable.
Cypher and his philosophical comrades are likely to be unmoved by such observations. So what if most people are hung-up on “reality” and would turn down the offer to permanently enter an experience machine? Most people might be wrong. All their responses might show is that such people are superstitious, or irrational, or otherwise confused. Maybe they think something could go wrong with the machines, or maybe they keep forgetting that while in the machine they will no longer be aware of their choice to enter the machine.
Perhaps those hesitant to plug-in don’t realize that they value being active in the real world only because normally that is the most reliable way for them to acquire the pleasant experience that they value in itself. In other words, perhaps our free will and our capacity to interact with reality are means to a further end—they matter to us because they allow us access to what really matters: pleasant conscious experience. To think the reverse, that reality and freedom have value in themselves (or what philosophers sometimes call non-derivative or intrinsic value), is simply to put the cart before the horse. After all, Cypher could reply, what would be so great about the capacity to freely make decisions or the ability to be in the real world if neither of these things allowed us to feel good?
Peter Unger has taken on these kinds of objections in his own discussion of “experience inducers”. He acknowledges that there is a strong temptation when in a certain frame of mind to agree with this kind of Cypher-esque reasoning, but he argues that this is a temptation we ought to try and resist. Cypher’s vision of value is too easy and too simplistic. We are inclined to think that only conscious experience can really matter in part because we fall into the grip of a particular picture of what values must be like, and this in turn leads us to stop paying attention to our actual values. We make ourselves blind to the subtlety and complexity of our values, and we then find it hard to understand how something that doesn’t affect our consciousness could sensibly matter to us. If we stop and reflect on what we really do care about, however, we come across some surprisingly everyday examples that don’t sit easily with Cypher’s claims:
Consider life insurance. To be sure, some among the insured may strongly believe that, if they die before their dependents do, they will still observe their beloved dependents, perhaps from a heaven on high. But others among the insured have no significant belief to that effect… Still, we all pay our premiums. In my case, this is because, even if I will never experience anything that happens to them, I still want things to go better, rather than worse, for my dependents. No doubt, I am rational in having this concern. (Identity, Consciousness, and Value, 301)
As Unger goes on to point out, it seems contrived to chalk up all examples of people purchasing life insurance to cases in which someone is simply trying to benefit (while alive) from the favorable impression such a purchase might make on the dependents. In many cases it seems ludicrous to deny that “what motivates us, of course, is our great concern for our dependent’s future, whether we experience their future or not.” This is not a proof that such concern is rational, but it does show that incidents in which we intrinsically value things other than our own conscious experience might be more widespread than we are at first liable to think. (Other examples include the value we place on not being deceived or lied to—the importance of this value doesn’t seem to be completely exhausted by our concern that we might one day become aware of the lies and deception.)
Most of us care about a lot of things independently of the experiences that those things provide for us. The realization that we value things other than pleasant conscious experience should lead us to at least wonder if the legitimacy of this kind of value hasn’t been too hastily dismissed by Cypher and his ilk. After all, once we see how widespread and commonplace our other non-derivative concerns are, the insistence that conscious experience is the only thing that has value in itself can come to seem downright peculiar. If purchasing life insurance seems like a rational thing to do, why shouldn’t the desire that I experience reality (rather than some illusory simulation) be similarly rational? Perhaps the best test of the rationality of our most basic values is actually whether they, taken together, form a consistent and coherent network of attachments and concerns. (Do they make sense in light of each other and in light of our beliefs about the world and ourselves?) It isn’t obvious that valuing interaction with the real world fails this kind of test.
Of course, pointing out that the value I place on living in the real world coheres well with my other values and beliefs will not quiet the defender of Cypher, as he will be quick to respond that the fact that my values all cohere doesn’t show that they are all justified. Maybe I hold a bunch of exquisitely consistent but thoroughly irrational values!
The quest for some further justification of my basic values might be misguided, however. Explanations have to come to an end somewhere, as Ludwig Wittgenstein once famously remarked. Maybe the right response to a demand for justification here is to point out that the same demand can be made to Cypher: “Just what justifies your exclusive concern with pleasant conscious experience?” It seems as though nothing does—if such concern is justified it must be somehow self-justifying, but if that is possible, why shouldn’t our concerns for other people and our desire to live in the real world also be self-justifying? If those can also be self-justifying, then maybe what we don’t experience should matter to us, and perhaps what we don’t know can hurt us…