PHIL 176: Death
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PHIL 176 - Lecture 19 - Immortality Part II; The Value of Life, Part I
Chapter 1. What Kind of Life Is Worth Living Forever? [00:00:00]
Professor Shelly Kagan: We’ve been talking about the question as to whether or not it would be desirable to live forever, whether immortality would actually be a good thing, as most of normally presume, or whether in fact, as Bernard Williams argues, it would be undesirable. The question we turned to was, just let your imagination run free. Instead of asking what would it be like to continue living a longer kind of trajectory that humans have in the real world where you just get sicker and more and more frail and incapacitated, ask yourself not whether immortality of that sort would be valuable, but is it even so much as possible to describe a life that you would want to live forever? That’s the question I left you with last time.
I think I already tipped my cards on this matter. I’m inclined to agree with Williams. I think that no matter how we try to fill in the blank, it’s a very long blank. The crucial point here for us is that immortality means not just living a very long time or even an extraordinarily long time, but literally living forever. I think it’s very difficult, indeed I think it’s impossible, to think of anything you’d want to do forever.
I have a friend who once claimed to me that he wanted to live forever so that he could have Thai food every day for the rest of, well, the rest of eternity. I like Thai food just fine, but the prospect of having Thai food day after day after day after day for thousands, millions, billions, trillions of years no longer seems an attractive proposal. It seems like it becomes some kind of a nightmare. And the same way that I indicated previously that although I like chocolate — I love chocolate — the prospect of having to eat more and more and more and more and more chocolate, eventually the idea becomes a sickening one.
Think of any activity. Some of you may enjoy doing crossword puzzles, and perhaps doing crossword puzzles a couple hours a day is enjoyable. But imagine doing crossword puzzles every day for 10 years, 1,000 years, a million years, a billion years, a trillion years. Eventually, presumably, so it seems to me, you’d end up saying, “I’m really tired of crossword puzzles.” Sure, there’d be some new particular puzzle you hadn’t seen before, but you’d sort of step up a level and say, “Although I haven’t seen this particular one before, I’ve seen crossword puzzles before. There’s really nothing new under the sun here. The fact that I haven’t seen this particular combination of words isn’t enough to make it interesting.”
Well, crossword puzzles aren’t a very deep subject, and we might wonder whether or not we would do better if we were engaged in something more mentally challenging than that. This may indicate something unusual about me, but I rather like math. And the prospect of having a lot of time to pursue math problems of a richer and deeper sort seems fairly attractive. Yet even there, when I imagine an eternity of thinking about math — or for that matter, an eternity of thinking about philosophy, which I obviously like even more than math — the prospect seems an unattractive one. I can’t think of any activity I’d want to do forever.
Now, of course, that’s a bit of a cheat because the claim isn’t to spend eternity doing math problems and nothing but math problems. Right now, with our 50, 80, 100 years, we don’t fill our day doing only one kind of activity. We fill our day with a mixture of activities. But it doesn’t really help having Thai food for dinner and Chinese for lunch. Or perhaps Chinese on Monday, Wednesdays, and Fridays and Thai on Saturdays and Sundays and spending two hours in the afternoon doing math and three hours in the morning doing philosophy. That sounds like a pretty pleasant life. But again, if you think of the possibility of doing that for all eternity and never getting away from it, never being free from it, the positive dream of immortality, I think, becomes a nightmare.
Well again, maybe I’m not just being creative enough in my imagination. Different former colleague of mine once talked about the prospect of having a kind of heavenly vision of the divine. Maybe that would be desirable forever. And she described it as, think of what it’s like to have a really great conversation with a friend that you wish would never end, except God’s this infinitely rich friend and so the conversation ends up seeming desirable forever. Well again, I can say the words, but when I try to imagine that possibility and take it seriously, at least speaking personally, it doesn’t — it doesn’t hold up. No friend that I’ve ever talked with is one that I actually would want to spend eternity talking to. And it’s of course possible to say, well, just imagine a friend that you would want to talk through all eternity to. But the whole point is, I can’t imagine what that would be like. When I do my best to imagine some kind of existence that would be desirable or attractive forever, it just doesn’t work. It becomes a nightmare.
Well again, maybe what we need to do is not so much just imagine the same cycling going through week after week after week, but whole careers. Maybe you could spend 50 or 100 years pursuing philosophy as your career. And then 50 or 100 years pursuing math as your career. And 50 or 100 years traveling around the world. And 50 or 100 years being an artist and working on your water colors, or whatever it is. Well, that certainly seems like we could probably get more time out of that. But again, the crucial point to remember is that forever is literally forever. There’s no life that I’m able to imagine for myself that’s one that I would want to take on forever.
Well, you might say surely there could be creatures that would want to live forever, that would enjoy an eternal existence. And I think that’s probably right. So scientists have learned how to do the following. There are certain — you can take a rat and put an electrode in his brain. If you put the electrode in just the right place, then when the electrode gets turned on, it stimulates the pleasure center in the rat’s brain and it gets a little burst of pleasure, a pretty intense burst of pleasure. And in fact, you can take the wire, the electrode, and hook it up to a lever and teach the rat how to push the lever and give itself a little burst of pleasure. Now, what happens to rats when you do this? Well, maybe unsurprisingly, what they do is, they keep pressing the lever. Indeed, they press the lever and they’ll stop eating, they’re no longer interested in sex. They basically just give themselves this little orgasmic burst of pleasure — well, until they die.
Now well, of course, it’s too bad the rat dies, but if we imagine the rat not being mortal — perhaps you’ve got it on IV so it’s getting its nutrients that way — then perhaps it’s easy to imagine the rat simply pressing the lever forever, getting this intense burst of pleasure and being content to do that for all eternity. So if it’s so easy to imagine that for the rat, why not for us? Why not just put our own orgasmitron hat on with a little — not rat lever, but now human lever — with the electrodes stimulating our own brains so that we get this intense burst of pleasure? And just imagine this intense burst of pleasure going on forever. What could be more desirable than that?
Except, when I think about that, and I invite you to think about that, I don’t actually find that an especially attractive prospect. Mind you, it’s not that I think we couldn’t be stimulated to get pleasure forever. It’s that there’s something that distinguishes humans from rats. When I — No doubt I would enjoy it. And no doubt you would enjoy it for a very long time. But I imagine that after a period, there’d be this — Well, humans have this ability to look down on their experiences, or step back from their experiences, and assess them. Even now, as I’m sitting here lecturing to you, part of me, because of this very question that I’m raising, is thinking about how’s the lecture going, and am I going to get through what I need to get through, and so forth and so on. We can reflect on our first order or base level experiences.
Now, imagine then that you’re in the pleasure-making machine. After a while, part of you is going to start asking, “Huh, say, it feels the same as it was yesterday, and the day before that and the day before that. I imagine this is how it’s going to feel tomorrow, and the day after that and the day after that.” And eventually this question would start, “Is this really all there is to life, just simple pleasure like this?” The thing about being human is, unlike the rat, you’re not just going to stay caught up in the moment. You’re going to take this meta-level or higher level standpoint, look down at the pleasure and wonder, “Is this all that there is to life?” And I think eventually that question would gnaw at you and sour and override the pleasure. Eventually, you’d become horrified that you were, in effect, stuck in this rat-like existence. Of course, the human part of you is able to say there’s more to you than this rat-like existence. But precisely, the human part of you is going to rebel at the unending parade of simple rat-like pleasures. So, I don’t think an eternity like that would be such a good thing. Maybe it would be for a rat, but not for a human.
Of course, we could perhaps deal with that problem by making us more rat-like in terms of our thinking processes. Perhaps the right kind of lobotomy would do the trick. I don’t actually know exactly what it would take, but you just cut off and snip the relevant nerve endings so that we’re no longer able to engage in that higher order thinking. No longer able to raise the question, “Is this all there is?” No longer able to step back from the first order pleasure. No doubt, you can turn us into creatures like rats in that way. And then, I presume, we would continue to enjoy it forever.
But the question isn’t really, is there something you could do to a human being so that he’d be happy, or at least enjoying himself, forever? It’s rather, do you, sitting here now, thinking about that kind of life, do you want that for yourself? Do you want to be lobotomized where that’s the only way, at least that we’ve got so far, to imagine a life that you would enjoy forever. Sure. Screw me up enough and maybe I’d enjoy being alive forever. But that doesn’t mean that I now want that for myself. That doesn’t seem to me to be some gift you’ve given me. That seems to me to be some horrible penalty you’ve imposed on me, that you’ve reduced me from being a human being, able to engage in the full range of reflection, and simply turned me into something like a rat. So again, when the question is posed, “Is there a kind of life that I or you would want to live forever?” the question I’m asking is a question to you, here, now. Is there a kind of life that you would want to live forever? Not that, if we altered you, that that product would want to have forever. I can’t see how to do it.
Chapter 2. Can Boredom Be Eradicated in Immortal Life? [00:12:47]
Well look, there’s one other possibility. Instead of imagining lobotomizing us, turning us into rats, suppose we just say, look, the problem is really this. The problem, of course, is boredom. The problem is tedium. The problem is that you get tired of doing math after a while, 100 years, 1,000 years, a million years, whatever it is. You say, “Yeah, here’s a math problem I haven’t solved before, but so what? I’ve just done so much math, it holds no appeal to me before.” Or, you cycle through all the great art museums in the world and you say, “Yeah, I’ve seen these Picassos. I’ve seen these Rembrandts before. I’ve gotten what there is to get out of them. Isn’t there anything new?” And the problem is no, no. We’ve — even if there’s literally new things, they’re not the new kinds of things that can still engage us afresh.
Well, what’s the solution to that? The solution to that might be a kind of amnesia, a kind of progressive lack of memory. So here I am, 100 years, 1,000 years, around 500,000 years, whatever it may be. You’re getting pretty bored with life. But if we now introduce some progressive memory, so — a progressive memory loss — so that I know longer remember what I did 100,000 years earlier. And by the time I’m a million, I no longer remember what I was doing when I was a lad of 500,000. And by the time I’m a million and a half, I no longer remember what was happening in oh, back, back. I know I was alive, perhaps. Or maybe I don’t even remember that I was alive. I sort of remember the last 10-20,000 years and that’s it.
And while we’re at it, why don’t we have overhauling of your interests and desires, your tastes? So your tastes in music evolve over thousands of years. And your tastes in art or literature. Or, you like math now but then you lose your taste in math, and you become the kind of person perhaps who’s interested in Chinese poetry, whatever it is. Wouldn’t that do it? If we had this sort of progressive all-radical alteration, not just minimal alteration, but radical alterations of my memory, my beliefs, my desires, my tastes. Couldn’t that be a kind of existence that would be forever enjoyable and yet it wouldn’t be a rat-like existence? I’d be engaged in studying Chinese poetry. I’d be engaged in doing math. I’d be engaged in studying astronomy, what have you. That’s far better than the rat’s existence. And yet, at no point do I become bored, because, roughly, I’m so different from period to period to period. Well, I think actually, you probably could tell a story where that was true, especially if we throw in enough doses of memory loss.
But this case should remind you of something, because this case is one that we’ve actually discussed before under the label of “Methuselah.” Methuselah, remember, when we talked about personal identity, we imagined somebody — much shorter-lived at that time. I think it was several hundred years, a hundred years old, 200 years old, 300 years old, 600, 700, 800, 900 years old. By the time Methuselah was 900 years old, he no longer remembered anything about his childhood. What I found when I thought about the Methuselah case was, even though it was me at age 800, the same person as the one who’s standing here in front of you now, it didn’t really matter. I said, “So what?” When I thought about what I wanted in survival, it wasn’t enough that there be somebody in the distant future that be me. That wasn’t good enough. It had to be somebody with a similar enough personality.
You tell me, “Oh there’s going to be somebody alive. It’ll be you, but it’ll be completely unlike you. Different tastes, no memories of having taught philosophy and so forth.” I say, that’s all rather interesting from a metaphysical point of view, but speaking personally, I don’t really care. It’s of no interest to me to survive, and merely saying the mantra, “Oh, but it’s me” doesn’t make it more desirable to me. What I want isn’t merely for somebody to be me. I want them to be sufficiently like me. And the problem with the Methuselah case was, go far enough out, it’s no longer sufficiently like me. So I don’t really care that there’ll be somebody out there who’s still me, if they’re so unlike me now.
But that’s, after all, what we’ve just described, in imagining the cycling with the memory loss. Yeah, there’ll be somebody around 100,000 years from now, 500,000 years from now, and maybe they’ll be me. I don’t care. It doesn’t give me what I want when I want to survive. So perhaps we should put the point in the form of a dilemma. Could immortality be something worth having forever? Well, on the one hand, if we make it be me and similar to me, boredom’s going to set in. The only way to avoid that is to lobotomize me, and that’s not desirable. If we make — If we solve the problem of boredom setting in with progressive memory loss and radical personality changes, maybe boredom won’t set in, but it’s not anything that I especially want for myself. It just doesn’t matter to me that it’s me, anymore than it would matter to me if they just tell me, “Oh, there’ll be somebody else around there who will like Chinese poetry.”
So, is there a way of living forever that’s attractive to me? I can’t think of what it would look like. So, I agree with Bernard Williams when he says immortality wouldn’t be desirable. It would actually be a nightmare, something you would long to free yourself from.
Chapter 3. What Makes a Good Life Good? [00:19:10]
Now, having said that, of course, that doesn’t in any way mean that it’s a good thing that we die when we do at 50 or 80 or 100. From the fact that after 100,000 years or a million years or whatever it is, eventually life would grow tiresome, that hardly shows that life has grown tiresome after 50 years or 80 years or 100. I don’t believe we’ll — I’ll — come close to scratching the surface of what I would enjoy doing, by the time I’ve died. And I imagine the same thing is true for you.
So perhaps the best form of life would be not immortality; I think that would be not particularly desirable. And not what we’ve got now, where you live after a mere drop of 50 or 80 or 100 years. But rather, the best thing I suppose would be to be able to live as long as you wanted. This is the sort of thing that Julian Barnes basically imagines in the chapter “The Dream” that I had you take a look at. Barnes envisions heaven as a situation which you can stick around doing what you want to do for as long as you want to do it. But Barnes says, eventually you’ll have enough. And once you’ve had enough, you can put an end to it. Still — the fact that we can put an end to it, that’s the point we’ve already been flagging, that immortality would not be so good. But the new thought here is what would be good would be being able to live until you were satisfied, until you’d gotten what goods there were to get out of life.
What all this suggests, then, and this is a point that I really made before, is that the best understanding of the deprivation account doesn’t say that what’s bad is the mere fact that we’re going to die. If I’m right in thinking immortality would be undesirable, then the fact that we’re going to die is good, because it guarantees that we won’t be immortal, which would be a nightmare, an unending nightmare. Still, even though it’s not a bad thing that we will die, it could still be a bad thing that we die when we do. It could still be the case that we die too soon.
According to the deprivaton account, death is bad, when it’s bad, because of the fact that it deprives us of the good things in life, insofar as we would have continued to get good things in life. But if life would no longer have anything good to offer you, if what you then would have had would have been something negative instead of something positive, then at that point, dying wouldn’t actually be a bad thing. It would be a good thing. Death is bad insofar as it deprives you of a chunk of life that would have been good. Insofar as it deprives you of a future that would have been bad, then death’s not actually bad, it’s actually good.
Now, in stating this view this way, I’m obviously presupposing that we can make these kinds of, at least, overall judgments in terms of the quality of your life, how well off you are. Is life giving you good things, or is life giving you bad things? Is it worth continuing to live, or is it not worth continuing to live? So, I want to turn to that topic and spend oh, probably the better part of a lecture or so. The rest of today and some of next time talking about the question of, well, what is it for a life to go well? How do we assess what makes a life — a good life versus a bad life? And I don’t mean morally good life. I mean, good for the person whose life it is. A life that you think, “I’m benefiting from having this life.” What are the ingredients or constituents or elements of a good life versus a bad life? And of course, since it’s not just black and white, good life or bad life, but various shades of gray, better lives and worse lives, what’s the yardstick by virtue of which we measure better and worse lives? What goes into a good life?
Now, in thinking about this question, this is — you might think of the topic as the nature of wellbeing. And like all the other topics we’ve talked about in this class, it’s a complicated subject, about which one could spend a great deal of time. All we’re going to do here is really just, once again, scratch the surface. But the very first point that needs to be made, I think, is this. If you start listing all the things worth having in life, it might seem as though you couldn’t possibly come to any general organizing principles. Think about it. What’s worth having? Well yeah, jobs are worth having. Money’s worth having. Sex is worth having. Chocolate’s worth having. Ice cream’s worth having. Air conditioners are worth having. What are some of the things worth avoiding? Well, being blind is worth avoiding. Being mugged is worth avoiding. Diarrhea is worth avoiding. Pain’s worth avoiding. Getting unemployed is worth avoiding. War is worth avoiding.
What kind of systematicity could we possibly bring to all of this? Well, the crucial, I think, first distinction is this. We need to separate between those things that are good because of what they lead to. That is, more strictly, only because of what they lead to. And those things that are valuable for their own sake or in their own right. Take something like a job. A job’s worth having. Why is a job worth having? Well, a job’s worth having because, well, among other things, it gives you money. All right. Money’s worth having. All right. Why is money worth having? Well, money’s worth having because, among other things, you can buy ice cream with it. All right. Why is ice cream worth having? Well, ice cream’s worth having because when I eat ice cream it gives me this pleasurable sensation.
All right. Why is the pleasurable sensation worth having? At this point, we get a different kind of answer. At this point, we say something like, pleasure is worth having for its own sake. The other things were valuable as a means, ultimately to pleasure. But pleasure is worth having for its own sake. The things that are valuable as a means we can say are instrumentally valuable. The things that are worth having for their own sake, philosophers call intrinsically valuable. If we look back at that long, open-ended list of things that were good or bad, we’ll find that most of the things on that list are instrumentally good. They’re good because of what they lead to. Or, for that matter, instrumentally bad. Why is disease bad? Well, among other things, it means perhaps that you can’t enjoy yourself. So it deprives you of pleasure. Or perhaps it means because you’re sick, you can’t hold your job down. If you can’t hold your job down, you can’t get the money and so forth and so on. Ultimately, most of the negative things on that list were instrumentally bad. Most of the good things on that list were instrumentally good.
If we want to get anyplace on the question about the nature of the good life, what we need to focus on is not the instrumental goods and bads, but rather the intrinsic goods and bads. You’ve got to ask yourself, “What’s worth having for its own sake? What’s worth having in and of itself?” Well, one natural suggestion is that pleasure is worth having for its own sake and pain is probably worth avoiding for its own sake. So pain’s probably intrinsically bad; pleasure is intrinsically good. Notice by the by that logically speaking, there is nothing that stops the very same thing from being both. And actually you can get other weird combinations. You go to the dentist and he pokes you. He says, “Does this hurt? Does that hurt?” in order to try to figure out where there’s gum disease. And the pain that he causes is intrinsically bad. In and of itself it’s bad. Yet, for all that, it’s being useful there. It’s providing a means of deciding where the gum has decayed. And that allows the dentist to improve your gums, which avoids more pain down the road. So the pain you’re suffering now is actually instrumentally valuable, useful as a means, even though it’s intrinsically bad.
Similarly, when I work, I enjoy myself. And so the pleasure I’m getting then is intrinsically good. But it’s also instrumentally good. The fact that I’m enjoying myself makes it easier for me to work harder. Perhaps I’m more productive, I do better at my job. So the pleasure is both intrinsically valuable and instrumentally valuable. So there’s no claiming that things have to be one or the other, but not both. Still, in trying to get clear about the nature of wellbeing, the crucial thing to do is to focus not on the question about instrumental value, but rather to focus on the question of intrinsic value. What things are worth having for their own sake, whether or not those things also have instrumental value, or what have you?
Chapter 4. Hedonism: Does Pleasure Exclusively Define a Good Life? [00:29:11]
What things are worth having for their own sake and what things are worth avoiding for their own sake? Well, in giving these examples, I’ve already indicated at least two things that belong on the list. It seems pretty plausible to think pleasure is intrinsically good. One thing, maybe not the only thing, but at least one thing, that goes into a life worth having is enjoying it, is pleasure. And one thing that seems intrinsically bad, one thing that seems to reduce the value of a life, is pain. Most of us agree then, pleasure is intrinsically valuable; pain is intrinsically negative, unvaluable, has anti-value.
Well, suppose we make for, the moment, the bold conjecture, the philosophical claim, that not only is pleasure and the absence of pain, not only is pleasure one good thing and pain one bad thing. Suppose that’s the entire list. Suppose we conjecture that the only thing intrinsically valuable is pleasure and the only thing intrinsically bad is pain. That view is called hedonism. So hedonism is a view that many people are attracted to, perhaps some of you believe. It’s got a very simple theory of the nature of wellbeing. Being well off is a matter of experiencing pleasure and avoiding or minimizing the experience of pain. That’s hedonism.
A little later we’ll turn to the question of, well, if hedonism is not the right story, what else belongs on the list, or is it the right story? We’ll turn to that question a little bit later. But notice that if we’ve got hedonism or, for that matter as we’ll see, some other theories of wellbeing, if we’ve got hedonism, we’re able to make the kinds of evaluations that I was helping myself to when I started talking a few minutes ago about well, you know, if what life would hold for you is bad overall, then you’re better off dying and so forth.
What’s going on when we make those judgments? Well, the hedonist offers us a very simple straightforward answer. In deciding whether what life holds for you is worth having, better than nothing, you, roughly speaking, add up all the good times and subtract all the bad times and see whether the net balance is positive or negative. Add up all the pleasures, subtract all the pains. If the balance is positive, your life is worth living. And the more positive the balance, the bigger the number, the more your life is worth living. If the balance is negative though, think about what that would mean. If the balance was negative, you’re saying your future holds more pain overall than pleasure. And that’s a negative. You’d be better off, well, you’d be better off dead, right? Because if you were dead, you’d have neither pleasure nor pain. That’s going to presumably be given — mathematically if we gave it a number, we’d slap a zero on that. No positive number, no negative number. That’s a zero. Obviously, if the balance of pleasure over pain is positive, that’s better than zero. But if the balance of pain over pleasure — If there’s more pain than pleasure so that the balance is negative, that’s worse than zero. That’s a life not worth having. That’s what the hedonist says.
Now, there’s different ways of working out the details of the hedonist view. It’s not, after all, as though all pleasures count equally or all pains count equally. The pain of stubbing your toe obviously doesn’t count for nearly as much as the pain of a migraine, which doesn’t count nearly as the pain of being tortured. And so we might need to work out various, more complicated, formulas here, where we multiply the pain times its duration and take into account its intensity, get the sheer quantity of pain that way. And similarly, pleasures can be longer lasting, or more intense. You can imagine how some of those details might go, and then some of the questions get rather tricky. But for our purposes, we don’t really need to worry about the details. The thought is, roughly, weigh up the pleasures and pains in some appropriate way. Add up the pleasures. Add up the pains. See whether the grand total of pleasures is greater than the grand totals of pain. The more positive the number, the better your life.
Now, armed with an approach like this, we can do more than just evaluate entire lives. Well, one thing we can do is just that. We can evaluate entire lives. There you are at the pearly gates and you look back on your life and you could, in principle, add up all the pleasures, add up all the pains, subtract the pains from the pleasures and ask yourself, “How good a life did I have? How well off was I, having lived that life?” And perhaps then you could imagine alternative lives. If only I had chosen to become a doctor, instead of having chosen to become a lawyer. How much better off or worse off would I have been? Or if I decided to become an artist or a scholar or a beach bum or a farmer, how much better off or worse off would I have been? How much greater or smaller would the number go?
Despite my talking about numbers, of course, there’s no particular assumption that we can really give precise numbers to this. And we certainly don’t think that in fact most of us are in the position to actually crank out any kind of accurate number. Most of us don’t know enough to know with a high degree of accuracy how things would have gone had I decided to become a farmer instead of a philosopher. Still, the hedonist isn’t saying from a practical point of view we can necessarily do this. But in theory, in principle, this is what we’re wondering about when we face choices. We can ask ourselves, “What would our life look like? Would it be better or worse?” And the yardstick that we’re at least doing our best to apply is one of measuring up the pleasure and subtracting the pain.
And of course, the hedonist will also hasten to point out that just because we can’t do this perfectly or infallibly, that doesn’t mean we can’t make educated guesses, right? You’re trying to decide should you go to Yale for college or should you go to Ohio State or Harvard or wherever else you got into, and you ask yourself, well, you try to project your future and you ask, “Where do I think I’d be better off? Which of these branches that are available to me, the branches of my life story, which is the one in which the future from here on out holds more pleasure and holds less pain?” That’s how the hedonist says we should think about it.
And notice by the by, that when we make choices about our future, from the hedonist point of view, at least, there’s no particular need to dwell a whole lot on the past, because what’s done is done. You’re not going to alter how much pleasur you enjoyed previously, how much suffering you’ve undergone previously. What’s open is the future. And so we’re able to evaluate not just lives as a whole, looking back at the pearly gate. We’re able to evaluate lives from here on out. Which of the various futures that are open to me are likely to give me the better life, leave me better off, measured in terms of pleasure or pain? And we do our best, however good or bad that may be. We do our best to make such comparative evaluations.
And of course, we can do more than just evaluate the entire rest of my life. We can evaluate the next year or the next six months or, for that matter, just this evening. I can talk about, well, what should I do tonight? Should I stay home and work on my paper? Should I go to the party? Where will I be better off tonight? Well, I’ll probably enjoy myself more at the party than I will working on the paper. And the paper’s not due for a while and so forth. We make evaluations not just of entire lives, but of chunks of lives.
All right. That’s what we can do if we accept hedonism. But haven’t yet asked, should we accept hedonism? Now, it will not come as news to me if I were to learn that several of you, maybe even many of you, in this class accept hedonism. It’s a very popular view. Not just among philosophers where it’s a view that’s been around as long as there’s been philosophy, but among people in the street. It’s a very tempting view to think, what makes life worth having and the only thing worth having for its own sake, is having pleasure and avoiding pain. But for all that, despite the popularity of that view, I’m inclined to think it must be wrong. It’s not that I think pleasure isn’t good and pain isn’t bad. Where hedonism goes wrong is when they say it’s the only thing that matters. I’m inclined to think there’s more to the best kind of life than just having pleasure and avoiding pain.
Now, I already revealed that, when I was talking about the rat lever machine. I said, hook me up to that machine and I’ll enjoy myself. But I don’t want that for myself. Why? Because there’s more to life than just pleasure and the absence of pain, or so it seems to me.
Still, we might say, but the rat lever is not the only kind of pleasures there are. There’s all these pleasures of experiencing art and seeing a beautiful sunset. And I don’t know about you, but at least when I imagine the rat lever thing, it’s a sort of simple, undifferentiated pleasure. So, that really won’t do the trick in giving us the best quality pleasures of the kinds that humans most crave — the pleasures of friendship and discussion and sexual intimacy. These pleasures the rat lever machine wasn’t giving us.
Chapter 5. Nozick’s Experience Machine: The Perfect Floating Life [00:40:47]
So couldn’t hedonism still be true? Couldn’t it still be the case that as long as we take into account the importance of getting the right kinds of pleasures, then really pleasure is what it’s all about and all that it’s about? No, I think that’s still not right. But indeed, we’ll need to move to something fancier than the rat lever machine. Here, the relevant thought experiment was suggested by Robert Nozick, a philosopher who died a few years ago, taught for many years at Harvard.
Nozick invited us to imagine an experience machine. So, suppose that the scientists have discovered a way not just to stimulate the particular little pleasure center of the brain, but basically to — give you basically, completely realistic virtual reality. So that when you are hooked up to the machine, it seems to you exactly the same on the inside as it would seem to you if you really were — and now fill in the blank. You could have the identical experience of climbing Mount Everest, let’s say, so that you’ll feel the wind bracing you. Of course, you won’t really feel any wind. Strictly speaking, that’s not true, because you’re not up on Mount Everest. There is no wind. What’s really going on is you’re floating in the psychologist’s tank in their lab with the electrodes hooked up your brain. But you don’t know that you are floating in the tank. Hooked up to the machine, you believe you are climbing Mount Everest. You feel the thrill of having made it to the top and the wind bracingly striking your chin and you feel the satisfaction and you’ve got the memories of having almost died when the rope broke before.
It’s not like being at the IMAX. The crucial point, when you’re at the IMAX is, although it’s very realistic, part of you is aware that you’re just in the theatre. But on the experience machine, you don’t know you’re just in the lab. When you’re on the experience machine, you’ve got — your brain is being stimulated in such a way that you’ve got the identical experience on the inside to what it would feel like if you really were doing these things.
So, imagine a life on the experience machine. Imagine plugging in the tape. Says something about how old this example is that we talk about plugging in the tapes. Imagine plugging in the DVD, or whatever it is, with all of the best possible experiences. Whatever you think those are. Here, you might imagine different people disagreeing about — oh, but throw in something — but if what you want to do is write the great American novel, then you’ve got the experience of staying up late at night not knowing how to make the plot work out, crushing pieces of paper and throwing them away. Crushing your computer, or whatever it is that you do as you write the great American novel.
Or you want to be finding the cure for cancer. So you’ve got exactly the experience you would have if you were working in your lab having the brilliant breakthrough when you finally realize what the combination is that would make the right antibody, whatever it is. Or if you want to be observing all the most beautiful sunsets and the most exotic locales, you’ve got exactly the experience you would have if you were doing all these things.
That’s life on the experience machine. You’re not doing any of it. You’re floating in the lab. But the experiences are identical. Now, ask yourself then, would you want to spend your life hooked up to the experience machine? Ask yourself, how would you feel if you discovered now that you have been living your life hooked up to an experience machine?
Now, I’ve got to make a footnote here. This perfectly glorious philosophical example has been ruined in recent years by the movie The Matrix. Because whenever I tell this story now, people start saying, “Oh, well the evil machines are busy using your body as a battery” or whatever it was in the movie, right? And “What if people are nefariously feasting on my liver while I’m having these little experiences?” Don’t imagine any of that. It’s not that the evil scientist is just deliberately deceiving you so as to conduct his nefarious experiments. Nothing like that.
And similarly, while we’re at it — this is not a Matrix-like worry — if you’re worried about, yeah, but what’s happening to world poverty while I’m doing all of this? Just imagine that everybody’s hooked up to experience machines, but everybody’s got the best possible tapes. Now you ask yourself, what I’m asking you to ask yourself, is would you want to spend your life hooked up to the experience machine? I’m not talking about, wouldn’t it be interesting to try it out for a week or a month or even a year? And indeed, the question, strictly speaking, isn’t even would life on the experience machine be better than it is now? Although it would make me very, very sad to discover this, I suppose it’s possible some of you have such bad lives that moving on to the experience machine would be a step up. That’s not the question.
Chapter 6. Conclusion [00:46:52]
The question is, does life on the experience machine give you everything worth having in life? Everything worth having in life. Is it the best possible form of human existence? According to the hedonists, the answer’s got to be, it has to be “yes.” Life on the experience machine is perfect, as long as you’ve got the right tape plugged in. So, you’ve got the best possible balance of wonderful pleasures and wonderful, fantastic experiences, since that’s all there is to human wellbeing. By hypothesis, the machine is giving us that. There couldn’t possibly be anything more. There couldn’t possibly be anything missing.
But when I think about the question, would I want to spend my life hooked up to an experience machine? the answer is “no.” And I imagine that for most of you, when you ask yourself, would you want your entire life to be spent hooked up to the experience machine? your answer is “no.” But if the answer is “no,” then that means hedonism’s got to be wrong. If life on the experience machine is not everything, then there’s more to the best possible life than getting the insides right. The experience machine gets the pleasures right, gets the experiences right, gets the mental states right, it gets the insides right, but if life on the experience machine isn’t all that’s worth wanting out of life, then there’s more to the best possible life than getting the insides right. What we’ve got to turn to next time, then, is the question, what else might it be? Okay.
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