You may or may not have encountered the philosophy of Hedonism and the major counter-argument against it. I will dare to venture my own summary, in case that you have never heard of either, followed by a humble challenge to the experience machine theory.
In a nutshell, Hedonism is based on the view that the only thing that is intrinsically valuable is happiness (= pleasure) and unhappiness (= pain) is the only intrinsically bad thing. On the other side of the argument stands the theory of the experience machine brought about by Robert Nozick. Imagine a machine that is capable of providing us with the most pleasurable experiences for the duration of two years without any memory of being outside of the machine. After the two years one would get out of the tank and select new experiences. This experiment was designed to demonstrate that the artificial experiences are not as desirable as actually doing the things that are experienced. In support of the this experiment Nozick forwards three basic reasons for why we might not want to hop in the tank and plug in right away. Firstly, we would not want to plug in, because we want to actually do things, not just experience them. Secondly, we should not plug in, because we want to be a certain way, i.e. we want to be a “self”, not just an indeterminate blob. Thirdly, we ought not to plug in, because the machine limits us to a man-made reality and we want a contact to a deeper reality. Thus, we desire to live ourselves and in contact with reality.
The experience machine does not disapprove Hedonism. My effort will now aim at presenting two ways Hedonism can throw a wrench in the experience machine. Hedonism never forgets to emphasize that living a good life is experiencing the greatest pleasure/happiness in the skin of the one who lives it. The conclusion that the life in an experience machine is inferior to real life is based on an experience of an outsider who has the perspective necessary for making such judgment. Being in the skin of the one who experiences, we would have no such external framework since, as the scenario itself points out, we would have no memories. Our entire sense of identity and personality is established through memories. Without memories we are no one. The research in psychology has yet to conclusively prove an existence of any innate personality and even if it does manage to prove it, the ingrained basic personality traits would not be enough to allow us to cast judgment on the nature of our being and our satisfaction or dissatisfaction with it. If the person in the machine has no memory of the time outside the machine then this person cannot judge the difference between experiencing and doing or between this state of “self” or another. The only way the person could recognize that what is being experienced is not the reality is somewhat emotionally through the lack of some sense of deeper reality as Nozick puts it. This would, however, require an objective reality of the divine that pulls us towards itself in order to feel the lack of it in ourselves. Unless we wish to affirm the objective reality of a divine subject, we cannot accept the argument. To sum up, the arguments of human need for doing and having a “self” and connecting to some deeper reality are unsound due to the simple fact that the person in the tank would be lacking the memories needed to make such judgments. To that person, the experience is perfectly real since that is all that there is and all that there has ever been.
The second argument by which we could counterattack the experience machine is the same argument that was used against the false happiness challenge to Hedonism. It has been stated that if we have two women leading equally happy lives believing that their husbands are faithful to them, but only one of them is right in here belief, the other one is experiencing false happiness. The critics of Hedonism would suggest that the happiness of this falsely happy women is lesser than the happiness of the rightly happy woman. This, however, is again an argument from the position of knowledge and an outside perspective. It is surely logical to assume that something we have no idea about cannot make us unhappy. In fact, both women are experiencing equal amount of happiness, regardless of the objective truth. Therefore, even if we are to accept that the happiness provided by the experience machine is lesser in some respect, the argument itself poses no threat to the essence of Hedonism. Since the person in the tank is, in fact, in the tank and lacking all memories of the previous life, the person is experiencing the same false happiness as the falsely happy woman in the previous scenario. Objectively, their situation is inferior, but the path to a good life, according to Hedonism, is not governed by an objective reality, but a subjective experience.
Nozick’s theory is surely magnificent, but it is suffering from misunderstanding the real nature of Hedonism. The truth is that Hedonism does not have the answer for universal happiness, perfect justice or anything beyond the frontiers of our egos. However, its default position is surely nothing if not pragmatic. Leading a good life is a matter of our subjective realities, not a universal morality. Is that a perfectly acceptable moral argument? Probably not, but again, that is what it is all about.