Would An Epicurean Hook Himself Up To An "Experience Machine" or a "Pleasure Machine" If Possible?

  • This thread is for discussion for the FAQ Entry Located here: https://www.epicureanfriends.com/wcf/index.php?faq/#entry-33 which as of 03/23/20 reads as follows:


    Would An Epicurean Hook Himself Up To An "Experience Machine" or A "Pleasure Machine" if Possible?

    Let's first look at the Wikipedia entry for the Experience / Pleasure Machine thought experiment:


    "The experience machine or pleasure machine is a thought experiment put forward by philosopher Robert Nozick in his 1974 book Anarchy, State, and Utopia.[1] It is one of the best known attempts to refute ethical hedonism, and does so by imagining a choice between everyday reality and an apparently preferable simulated reality. If the primary thesis of hedonism is that "pleasure is the good", then any component of life that is not pleasurable does nothing directly to increase one's well-being. This is a view held by many value theorists, but most famously by some classical utilitarians. Nozick attacks the thesis by means of a thought experiment. If he can show that there is something other than pleasure that has value and thereby increases our well-being, then hedonism is defeated."


    This can be approached in many ways, but this is probably the most obvious:


    First, we can quibble about application of the word "directly," but Epicurus is very clear that we sometimes choose pain in order to avoid worse pain, or to achieve greater pleasure. Therefore we start by noting that Epicurus does not maintain that "any component of life that is not pleasurable does nothing directly to increase one's wellbeing."


    Ultimately, however, Epicurus does indeed say that there is nothing on is own that is desirable except pleasure. Pleasure, however, is widely and fully defined in scope to include all experiences of both body and mind that we find to be pleasurable. Epicurus in no way limits pleasure to immediate bodily sensations, and in fact it is stated specifically that mental pleasures are frequently of greater significance to us than physical ones. Anything in life that we find desirable - from food to sex to art to music to literature - is desirable because it brings us pleasure in some form.


    The intent of the "Experience Machine" is to pose a logical trap much as did Plato in his "Philebus." Once you accept (as did Philebus, who started out as an advocate of pleasure) that anything in life is desirable of and for itself *other* than something we find pleasurable, then it makes logical sense to conclude that the best life would include not only pleasure but also that other thing. Further, the wisdom to know the right combination of pleasure and this other thing will be ultimately be seen to be more important than either pleasure or the other thing on its own. Thus the person who is beguiled into accepting the Philebus / Experience Machine argument, which is that there are things in life which are desirable but do not bring us pleasure, is led by logic to conclude that wisdom is the ultimate good, the standard Platonic conclusion. And that's just the start of discarding pleasure as any value at all, which is what the Stoics did in concluding that virtue is its own reward, and that to seek pleasure in compensation for virtue would negate any value in virtue.


    Epicurus responds to this argument by consistently observing that pleasure alone is desirable in and of itself. This is the premise throughout the Epicurean texts but is stated particularly clearly by the Epicurean speaker in Cicero's "On Ends":


    "We are inquiring, then, what is the final and ultimate Good, which as all philosophers are agreed must be of such a nature as to be the End to which all other things are means, while it is not itself a means to anything else. This Epicurus finds in pleasure; pleasure he holds to be the Chief Good, pain the Chief Evil. This he sets out to prove as follows: Every animal, as soon as it is born, seeks for pleasure, and delights in it as the Chief Good, while it recoils from pain as the Chief Evil, and so far as possible avoids it. This it does as long as it remains unperverted, at the prompting of Nature's own unbiased and honest verdict. Hence Epicurus refuses to admit any necessity for argument or discussion to prove that pleasure is desirable and pain to be avoided. These facts, be thinks, are perceived by the senses, as that fire is hot, snow white, honey sweet, none of which things need be proved by elaborate argument: it is enough merely to draw attention to them. (For there is a difference, he holds, between formal syllogistic proof of a thing and a mere notice or reminder: the former is the method for discovering abstruse and recondite truths, the latter for indicating facts that are obvious and evident.) Strip mankind of sensation, and nothing remains; it follows that Nature herself is the judge of that which is in accordance with or contrary to nature. What does Nature perceive or what does she judge of, beside pleasure and pain, to guide her actions of desire and of avoidance?"


    Of course the experience machine argument is intended to embarrass the listener into thinking "of course not," but it's really just another way of asking if you would indulge in sex drugs and rock'n'roll every moment if you could get away with it without painful repercussions.


    And to this Epicurus answers very plainly, "Yes you would, but you CAN'T":


    PD10: "If the things that produce the pleasures of profligates could dispel the fears of the mind about the phenomena of the sky, and death, and its pains, and also teach the limits of desires (and of pains), we should never have cause to blame them: for they would be filling themselves full, with pleasures from every source, and never have pain of body or mind, which is the evil of life."


    And ultimately it is the "can't" which is important, because Epicurus always looks to the facts of reality as established through the senses, feelings, and anticipations for all the proof that we need that a pleasure/experience machine is nonsense. "Experience machines" are suited only for purposes of confusing young philosophy students and persuading them to abandon the practical world that Nature makes available to us.


    Also:


    It is a trap, not totally unlike the experience machine itself, to accept as valid that there are objective standards of 'higher pleasure' and 'lower pleasure, because in order for that to be the case there would have to be an objective list somewhere outside of the scope of pleasure itself to serve as that reference point, and the Epicurean universe in which the only things that are eternal and unchanging are the ultimate particles does not allow for such an objective test of how everyone should judge pleasure and pain. The trouble with admitting such a list is that (as Plato will lead you) knowledge of that list becomes more important than pleasure itself (without that list, how would you know what pleasure to choose?) and so you end up seeing wisdom itself as the goal rather than pleasure.


    This is likely why Epicurus held, according to Diogenes Laertius, that "the feelings are two, pleasure and pain..." and that all feelings fit within one designation of the other. And we know from the letter to Menoeceus explicitly that all good and evil come to us through sensations, which are things that are felt. Put it all together and you have the framework by which to analyze the experience machine or any other challenge to pleasure. Then, no Platonist logician will be able to trick you into thinking that "wisdom" (which of course they claim to be able to show you) or "virtue" (the Stoic specialty for those who are into "glory") are desirable in and of themselves.


    If you keep in mind that (1) "pleasure" includes the full spectrum of human activity, not just the lower bodily pleasures that people ridicule as "base" but also "the highest mental pleasures that people praise as "sublime," with everything in between, and (2) that if a thing is desirable it is because it leads to pleasure, and that there is no other reason outside of pleasure to desire anything, and it is much easier to avoid confusion.

  • I am so glad you started this thread! The Experience Machine argument against Epicureans has always struck me as specious, and I appreciate the opportunity for us to discuss it.
    I would argue that if I was a Cyrenaic, I may indeed hook myself up to the Experience Machine.
    However, my perspective has always been that Epicurus calls us to experience pleasure by using our feelings of pleasure and pain to choose or reject actions based on our experience of the physical universe informed by our senses and prolepses. We exercise our free will in making those choices and rejections based on that sensory input to maximize pleasure in our lives.
    The Experience Machine is merely a simulation of the universe that doesn't provide "real" pleasure or pain but merely the illusion of pleasure. If our physical body is floating in some vat of goo with wires hooked up to our brains *feeding* us sensory pleasures that the Machine is choosing for us, that doesn't strike me as true pleasure. We also don't have real friendships in this scenario. We have simulated friendships with "friends" designed by the Machine.
    Ah! But then is the ability to choose and reject the highest good? Is the Faculty of Free Will to Make Choices and Rejections itself the Highest Good? I would say no, but I'm willing to entertain that that appears to be open to discussion. I counter that the very act of choosing is itself a pleasure.
    I'm looking forward to reading everyone's posts!

  • Thank you Eugenios! I share your enthusiasm to discuss this, especially given what you wrote here:


    The Experience Machine is merely a simulation of the universe that doesn't provide "real" pleasure or pain but merely the illusion of pleasure.


    LOL please take this constructively but my belief is that this is exactly the wrong approach. I do not find anything in Epicurus which would indicate that he considered there to be categories of "true pleasure" and "false pleasure," and in fact I believe that by following this path you will fall directly into the pitfall by which Plato trapped Philebus into abandoning our goddess of choice! ;-)


    You may well have read Philebus much more closely than have I, so please correct me if I am wrong, but as I understand Plato's argument, Plato led Philebus into agreeing to divide pleasures into pure and impure, and therein is the peril. Check this exchange from Philebus:



    Once you agree that some pleasures are pure and some are impure (or in your terms "true" or "false," or in Stoic terms such as noble and ignoble, or virtuous and debased, or good and evil or righteous or unrighteous) you are then impelled to recognize that the ability to judge between pure and impure (or true and false) is critically important.


    I won't go into the details of the rest of Plato's argument but once you accept that distinction, you are then compelled eventually to recognize that the WISDOM to know the difference is essential to the best life, and must be added to pleasure, and then you are far down the rabbit rail to having to admit that Wisdom is therefore the ultimate good.


    As I understand it Epicurus admitted only one measure of "pure and impure" pleasure - and that is PLEASURE UNMIXED WITH ANY PAIN.


    That is why the focus on "absence of pain" in Epicurus! Not because "absence of pain" is something in itself, but because PLEASURE UNMIXED WITH PAIN is the definition of the best life possible.


    Look at Socrates/Plato's last comment: He is setting up a concept of "pure and impure" against "largest in quantity." And he is implying "pure and impure" is measured against some standard of purity that is outside of pleasure itself. And remember that "The Limit of Quantity of Pleasure" is exactly what Epicurus addresses in PD3! ("3. The limit of quantity in pleasures is the removal of all that is painful. Wherever pleasure is present, as long as it is there, there is neither pain of body, nor of mind, nor of both at once.")


    Let me stop and this point and get your reaction to this, and I hope others will comment too!



    Edit: I expanded the quote from Philebus so as to start with the reference to "that there are pleasures which seem only and are not, " which is much on point with Eugenios' comment.

  • I agree with Cassius who wrote : <<Epicurus held, according to Diogenes Laertius, that "the feelings are two, pleasure and pain..." and that all feelings fit within one designation of the other. And we know from the letter to Menoeceus explicitly that all good and evil come to us through sensations, which are things that are felt. Put it all together and you have the framework by which to analyze the experience machine or any other challenge to pleasure>>.


    Nature creates us, with our faculties which are senses and feelings for living a pleasant life. We have been evolved and we still being evolve in accordance with the environment of Nature. Machines are just means that are created by us. However, we are not wiser than Nature, and there never were or will be perfect machines, perfect ideas and perfect worlds somewhere.

    For the creation, Epicurus said that all things and the phenomena are proceeding in combination and in sequence on the basis of : and the need (laws of Nature), and the chance, and the swerve (freedom of our choices).

    But really, what is higher we that we make the machines OR Nature? Nature of course. No one could replace Nature in the creation of things. She is the boss and the boss says to all beings, you have a limited time for living, thus DO such actions to feel pleasure and avoid pain, or sometimes chose pain for feeling a greater pleasure.


    These are the machines as described poetically by D. Liantinis


    MACHINES LIANTINIS.jpg

    Beauty and virtue and such are worthy of honor, if they bring pleasure; but if not then bid them farewell!

  • With your point there being, as I understand it Elli, that it is an error to look for "perfect" and "imperfect" pleasure, just as it it is an error to look for "true" or "false" pleasures -- with the reason for the error being that there is no outside, Platonic "objective" standard by which to say that some pleasures are true and others false - there are only particular pleasures, no Platonic categories of "good/true" and "bad/false" pleasures.


    And the "machine" analogy is that humans are creatures of nature, just like machines are creatures of men, and so we must play the cards we are dealt: Nature did not create "perfect" humans by which to judge ourselves, just as humans do not create "perfect" machines by which to judge all other machines: each human, and each machine, is an individual particular which must be evaluated on its on merits.


    Do I follow you correctly?

  • Correctly, simply and clearly !:)

    Beauty and virtue and such are worthy of honor, if they bring pleasure; but if not then bid them farewell!

  • Following up with Elli, in regard to machines, someone can say that there is a 'specification/blueprint' by which all machines of a particular kind are intended to be manufactured, and in that sense a particular machine as created by men can deviate from the specification/blueprint.


    But with Nature and humans, a "specification/blueprint" is exactly what does NOT, and CANNOT (given our understanding of the Nature of the universe), exist!

  • I think Cassius and Elli have put it just as I would.


    The only things I have to add are that I prefer to dwell in reality and not imaginary hypotheticals like this, because the devil is in the details. Let's say that such a machine exists. Who designed it? How much do you trust both their motives and their skills-- is it really wise to hand over your sensory input to a machine which could be taken over by someone else and used to torture you? What if the machine breaks? And you can't access reality to extricate yourself? I do not think an Epicurean would typically accept a hypothetical where those things couldn't happen, because that takes the scenario out of reality as we know it. A decision would have no relevance to us or bearing on our real life philosophy.


    Our ability to perceive through our senses is critical to being able to choose pleasure. In making this imaginary choice, a person typically tries to "double" themselves-- but they can't fully double. They can't really let go of the pre-machine condition of knowing that life would be going on without them-- that they wouldn't really be seeing their friends, only imagining it. That they would miss out on the pleasure of knowing they are really there for their friends-- the pleasure of _being_ a friend. That creates a pain in the imagination which can't be removed in the hypothetical. It has nothing to do with valuing something other than pleasure. It is an inability to believe there would not be a feeling of painful loss in the machine. A sort of anticipatory loss. And no matter how many times you reassure a person that they won't know they've lost reality, they can't imagine it. So a normal person will not choose the machine.

  • Here from Book I line 640 or so (Munro) is one of the reasons that we face the task of dealing with imaginary hypotheticals like this -- and the problem is not limited to "fools."


    It is a natural human condition that we are fascinated with things - such as this hypothetical - that seem obscure, and conceal things under involved language, and can "tickle the ears and are varnished over with finely sounding phrase."


    pasted-from-clipboard.png

  • Our ability to perceive through our senses is critical to being able to choose pleasure. In making this imaginary choice, a person typically tries to "double" themselves-- but they can't fully double. They can't really let go of the pre-machine condition of knowing that life would be going on without them-- that they wouldn't really be seeing their friends, only imagining it. That they would miss out on the pleasure of knowing they are really there for their friends-- the pleasure of _being_ a friend. That creates a pain in the imagination which can't be removed in the hypothetical. It has nothing to do with valuing something other than pleasure. It is an inability to believe there would not be a feeling of painful loss in the machine. A sort of anticipatory loss. And no matter how many times you reassure a person that they won't know they've lost reality, they can't imagine it. So a normal person will not choose the machine.

    Well, this thread started to fill up quickly! :)

    I would agree with this line of reasoning from Elayne (if I understand where she's coming from). To respond to Cassius from my original post and to rephrase some of my own terminology, I don't think I'm, in retrospect, advocating for "true" vs "false" pleasures. What I was trying to get at were pleasures received through the senses of taste, touch, smell, etc., as opposed to pleasures implanted directly in the brain, bypassing the senses entirely. If I remember correctly, Epicurus could not conceive of pleasures without these sensory inputs and likewise the pleasurable life cannot be lived "without living wisely and well and justly". The Machine takes away the ability to both sense things and to live "wisely and well and justly." This doesn't make Wisdom superior to Pleasure, it removes the entire possibility of sensing pleasure in any meaningful way. Epicurus says that one sense cannot override or contradict another sense (I believe) so what the Machine is doing is tricking the nose into believing it is smelling, the eyes into believing they are seeing, etc. But the "mind"'s purpose is in comprehending ideas and concepts (mental images). I realize the brain senses everything but the Machine isn't sensing molecules of scent or light rays entering the eyes. That's the distinction I was attempting to get at with "true" vs "false."

    Enjoying the discussion!

  • Eugenios then as usual we are not so very part after all. You are focusing on the aspect of the machine as bypassing of the natural sense mechanisms by implanting directly in the brain, which removes the natural functioning controls. In that context then I can see more application of "true and false" to pleasures, but if we are talking within the terms of the hypothetical then all bets are off anyway and the discussion is just a pure mind game with all the downside that is inherent in such activity. Here is the machine as stated at Wikipedia:


    pasted-from-clipboard.png


    So now we are talking issues as to how much of the hypothetical to accept, and how far to go along with its premises. The further we go, the more hazardous it is to switch back and forth between real life and the hypothetical, or to draw real life conclusions from the hypothetical.


    The issue that I would want to emphasize is that in real life there is no such thing as "true" or "false" pleasure. Pleasure is pleasure, and the question is much more focused on "Is it sustainable?"


    So the danger in allowing the pleasure machine hypothetical to lure us into abstracting out the characteristics of pleasure, so as to consider there being true and false types, and they sliding that distinction back into the real world. So long as we guard against that we are ok, but we are now squarely into the realm of "Stay away from hypotheticals!" that Elayne has emphasized.

  • I guess it all depends then on how we specifically define "experience machine." It seems the Experience Machine is in the same realm as unicorns and centaurs.

  • Despite (or maybe because) it is in the land of unicorns and centaurs, the thought experiment does serve a useful purpose, though not always with the result intended by its proponents. It does force us to take a stand on the nature of pleasure as the guide of life by dramatizing the question. Many who are faint-of-heart will draw back from the logical implications of Epicurean theory and look for a way out - a way to water down pleasure as the goal. Probably the most predominant way of doing so is to retreat to "happiness," the always-ambiguous word that means anything anyone wants it to mean. Such is also the motivation, in my mind, behind the dominant interpretation of "absence of pain." NOBODY knows what that means, so it's even safer than happiness!


    I am of the opposite mindset as to Pleasure (or for this purpose, better stated as Our Patron Goddess Venus, as that will irritate the Platonists and other non-Epicureans even further):


    Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead! ;-)




  • So to summarize the response, essentially an Epicurean ought not plug oneself into this machine that promises pleasure, in part because our understanding of pleasure extends beyond the physical and sensual, into mental and emotional pleasure, as well as the fact that we find pleasure from nature, and an experience machine would deny us this, and therefor not bring us to pleasure as we would want. The experience machine therefor does not refute hedonism because hedonism indicates that pleasure is the ultimate end of existence, so rejecting the experience machine would also be on a matter of seeking pleasure for oneself outside such a machine. Even if we value wisdom, it's really because it leads us to pleasure. Not because wisdom is intrinsically valuable or virtuous.

  • essentially an Epicurean ought not plug oneself into this machine that promises pleasure,

    I think Melkor's summary is correct, but in reading it I think it's important to understand that we are making presumptions about the pleasure machine scenario that are very important. Is it inherent in the scenario that the issue with the pleasure machine is lack of variety? (IE, that there are pleasures we would want that the pleasure machine would not provide?)


    If we presume that that is the case, then yes an Epicurean would not choose the pleasure machine.


    However I do think we need to be careful to state that detail of reasoning, because if we agree that pleasure is at least somewhat subjective, then it might well be acceptable for an Epicurean to decide that the pleasures provided by the pleasure machine would provide him a better life than some other alternative, and choose the machine.


    Stated differently, "if" we found that we derived great pleasure from staring at a candle, and "if" we could postulate that we had circumstances which allowed us to sustain that pleasure indefinitely, would Epicurus say that Nature requires or guides us to reject that option?


    Remember PD10: "10. If the things that produce the pleasures of profligates could dispel the fears of the mind about the phenomena of the sky, and death, and its pains, and also teach the limits of desires (and of pains), we should never have cause to blame them: for they would be filling themselves full, with pleasures from every source, and never have pain of body or mind, which is the evil of life."


    It seems to me that this is a reminder that our problem with being a worm or staring at a candle is not that being a scientist or an astronaut or a great artist provides "intrinsically" superior or more intense pleasure that is choiceworthy for everyone because of its superiority or intensity. It seems to me that as a practical matter, and from the "point of view of Nature," staring at a candle is not a human-sustainable lifestyle, while pursuing a career as a great artist or astronaut or scientist is or can be both intensely enjoyable and sustainable. So while I don't think we can say that the candle-starer is "objectively" wrong to pursue a life of that kind of pleasure, at least for myself I can and do state emphatically that a life of five years of being an astronaut is something I would choose over 50 years of staring at a candle.


    But to repeat one more time, "IF" we stipulate that the person staring at a candle is indeed experiencing pleasure, then we may not personally be impressed, but there's still no god or realm of platonic forms justifying us in saying "that person isn't living right."

  • Quote

    Cassius says: Is it inherent in the scenario that the issue with the pleasure machine is lack of variety? (IE, that there are pleasures we would want that the pleasure machine would not provide?)

    No, not from my perspective. My issue with the pleasure machine is that it puts itself between the person hooked up to it and Nature. The pleasure machine serves as the mediator. Whoever built the machine is putting themselves between the user and Nature. There is no way for the senses to sense *real* sensations coming *from* Nature. Therefore, there's no way for the person to apply the Canon. Therefore, there's no way to lead an Epicurean life which, at its most basic definition, is the best life to lead (PD 21) since it calls us to sustained pleasure. Ah, but "sustained pleasure" is what is provided by the Machine one might say! Okay, maybe "sustainable" is a better word. That question is harder to answer since we're dealing with a unicorn of a machine. What if the machine breaks down?


    I think what we're trying to decide is if it is "right" or "just" to hook oneself up to the pleasure machine. Probably in the grand scheme, we can't make this determination FOR anyone. I would assert that we cannot hook people up without their consent. That seems to me to go against the precept of not wanting to be harmed or to be harmed. Can we stop people from hooking themselves up? No, I don't think that's just either. Do I think someone trying to live a life in accordance with Epicurus' teachings SHOULD hook themselves up. No, because it removes the ability to apply the Canon, to apply wisdom in making choices and rejections, and to allow each of the senses to do what they do without trying to have one sense override the sensations of the others.


    My personal "prolepsis", if you will, of the pleasure machine is the Matrix (for those who have seen the movie): Shut off from reality, having sensations fed to you, floating in a vat of goo. And the one who wanted to be re-hooked up to the Matrix after being freed was the villain in that movie... So that may be coloring my opinion.


    Additionally, I still think PD 10 is talking about applying the Canon to our pleasures so they are sustainable - not sustained or unlimited - as I tried to lay out over on that thread. It's not a matter of superior or inferior pleasures, but a matter of whether they are sustainable. The life of the profligate is not sustainable. It leads to pain. I don't think the candle-starer is leading an inferior life. Are they meeting their necessary desires? Are they experiencing both ataraxia and aponia? Are they applying the Canon? Are they living wisely, justly, and virtuously? It's sounds like it.


    To bring this back to this thread: Given a choice, I would take the life of the candle-starer over the pleasure machine hands-down.