Nozick’s Experience Machine and The Matrix

In Nozick’s book Anarchy, State, and Utopia, he wrote about a thought experiment he called: The Experience Machine, in order to refute ethical hedonism.  This position states that what is ethical or moral is that which brings the self the most pleasure possible.  He uses the example of what he calls a “Pleasure Machine” to show why this point of view is invalid, and tries to prove that we live our lives because “we want to do certain things, and not just have the experience of doing them” (Nozick 43).  This thought experiment is basically the same concept that I studied in my metaphysics class last year, but instead we called it the “brain in a vat” experiment.  It brings up the question that if a brain in submerged in some fluid in a jar, and is hooked up to electrodes that stimulate experiences and send impulses to the brain, then to what extent are these experiences real?  Nozick’s experiment instead address the question of what most people desire more out of their life: pleasurable “fake” experiences, or authentic and actual life.  Nozick, in a sense, refutes the claim of many Utilitarians by saying that life is not all about getting the most pleasure or utility out of something, but rather about being able to actually live one’s life and experience everything for oneself.  I agree with Nozick’s claims and will give an example of how this has been applied in modern culture.

The example I think that best matches this thought experiment, in modern cinema, is that of The Matrix film trilogy.  The whole concept of the movie trilogy is that the world everyone perceives to be real is actually just one big pleasure/experience machine.  Neo, the protagonist, comes to realize this reality when Morpheus shows him the truth.  Although the real world is desolate and ugly in this movie, “there are things we value in life that we’d be losing out on if we plugged into an experience machine (Pryor 40).” James Pryor, a professor of philosophy at NYU, sees the matrix as a prime example of Nozick’s pleasure machine, and thinks “there are things we lose out on even if the operators’ intentions are benevolent and we plug in of our own free choice (Pryor 40).”  The point that Pryor makes here, simply put, is that even though the matrix is much more pleasurable and happier on the surface, the actual value and utility we get out of living our actual lives outside of this machine world is much greater.  This is the whole point that Nozick tries to convey throughout.

In all, it seems clear that Nozick’s argument is rather compelling.  The distinction between the maximizing of pleasure through synthetic vices and actually living one’s own life are immense and impactful.  The questions I pose to you all are as follows: Do you think that this argument successfully refutes the main argument of utilitarianism (that we must get the most value and pleasure out of everything we do)?  What are some other examples of this thought experiment being used in society (I know there are many more movies with this concept)? What other ways can one refute hedonism and some forms of Utilitarianism?


Nozick, Robert. “The Experience Machine.” Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic, 1974. 42-45. Print.

Grau, Christopher. “What’s So Bad About Living in the Matrix By James Pryor.” Philosophers Explore The Matrix. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 40-52. Print.


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