Nozick’s Experience Machine, Heidegger, Pleasure & Pain

The question is ‘Does Nozick’s experience machine show us that there is more to well-being than pleasure?’ My answer is a tentative yes. I believe that Nozick’s experience machine does show us that there is more to well-being than pleasure (as we will show below, there is much more to well-being than simple, mindless pleasure). However, I also believe that Nozick’s argument itself is quite shallow, he speaks much about pleasure and happiness but hardly mentions the importance of unhappiness and pain in life.

This line of reasoning is dismissed by utopians, but never with a substantial critique of course. It is considered ‘sadomasochistic’ to say that life should not (and simply cannot) be all sunshine and roses. This is naïve and simply idiotic; misery plays as much of an important role in life as happiness does. When we make unpleasant mistakes, we (usually) learn from them; when we overcome trials in life, we grow stronger and more resilient. Nozick fails to go down the road of the role of pain in life other than briefly mentioning masochism on page 103 followed by his example of a tennis player playing ‘very forcefully; lunging for shots, scraping knees and elbows on the ground’.1 I believe that neglecting to go into this aspect, instead choosing to focus on pleasure itself, leaves his argument shallow and weak against scrutiny and counter arguments (despite the fact that I ultimately agree with his general thesis that there is more to well-being than pleasure).

Had Nozick not limited himself to the analytic tradition, Nozick could have bolstered his argument by drawing from philosophers like Heidegger who have argued about the importance negative emotions play in our everyday life. Take Heidegger’s writing on anxiety, for example. For Heidegger, anxiety (or dread, depending on the translator) is not just a mood, but an attunement which makes authenticity possible. Anxiety discloses to Dasein the possibility of freedom and thus authenticity. In our everyday world we are living in a state of inauthenticity.2 (It is important here to note that Heidegger is not making a value-judgement by using the terms ‘authenticity’ and ‘inauthenticity’). The way we speak and act around others, the way we follow cultural norms and obey laws, is inauthentic. We are simply going through the motions of the public-world as we go about our day. When anxiety comes along, however, our perception of the world changes. We are no longer in an inauthentic state, going through the motions of everyday life as if we are on autopilot.

Other valuable emotions which are not pleasurable to experience, yet are a necessity of life, are sadness, anger, and frustration. One experience that encompasses these emotions is relationships. When we enter a romantic relationship with another person (or even a friendship with another) we accept that at points throughout the relationship we will experience these downsides, but we acknowledge that these are simply part of the experience in dealing with other people in the world. We accept that it is impossible for us to agree constantly on anything and everything with other people, this is part of our individuality, part of what makes us inherently unique as an individual. For this reason, we can argue that if we were to enter and an experience machine then all the other individuals that we encounter in the experience machine must all be ourselves and not other people. For if there are other people in the experience machine, and that the entire purpose of the machine is to provide only positive experiences, then there cannot be people within the world of the experience machine that are different individuals, for if they are different to us then we are bound to have disagreements with them. And these differences in opinions, values such with the many, many people in the experience machine world are going to bring conflicts. The counter suggestion to this argument would be that maybe in the experience machine all the other individuals would be clones of ourselves in order to prevent conflicts. Thus we would agree on absolutely everything. But would this not instead drive us insane, or create some other form of loneliness despite being surrounded with copies of ourselves (and where would the personality of these copies come from? Would they be an idealised version of ourselves that comes from our own ego?). There are so many issues that can be raised about Nozick’s experience machine thought experiment…

I believe that the above arguments show that there is more to well-being than simple, mindless pleasure. We need to experience negative emotions in order to value positive emotions; we need to go through difficult periods on the path to true happiness; we need to experience anxiety in order to become authentic; we need to disagree with others in order to be an individual, or to be around other people in general.


1. Robert Nozick, The Examines Life: Philosophical Meditations (NY: Simon & Schuster, 1990), pg. 103-104.

2. See Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (USA: State University of New York Press, 2010), pg. 178-189.

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