This week I introduced philosopher Robert Nozick’s 1971 Experience Machine thought experiment in a fourth-grade class.  The experiment asks us to imagine that there is an “Experience Machine” that can give us any experience we desire. If you are hooked up to the machine, your brain would be stimulated so that you would think and feel that you were doing anything you wanted to do – playing on a major league baseball team, being a famous actress, skiing on a fabulous mountain, becoming the lead artist in a rock band, writing a great novel, etc. You won’t be aware of it when you’re hooked up to the machine – you’ll think that it’s all actually happening. Your experience will feel just as real and vivid as your experiences feel to you now. 

Would you map out how you would like your life to go and then hook up to the machine for the rest of your life?

The students first had many questions about the experiment itself. How would your body survive? Would your eyes be closed the whole time? Could you stop the machine? Could someone else stop it? Could you choose at what age you would connect to the machine? Could you hook up to the machine when you were age 9 and decide that at the moment you hooked up to it you would be 16? What if you programmed your life to go one way and during it you decided you wanted something else – could the machine make that change? Could you decide when you would die? Could you make yourself or other people immortal?

Some students were skeptical about how real the experience could feel. One student proposed that it would be like being in a coma, or an endless dream. I suggested that they try to imagine that their experience of their lives when connected to the machine would feel every bit as authentic as this time in the classroom together felt. I asked them to consider, if this were possible, and they could create the perfect life of their dreams and believe they were living it, would they make this choice?

“I don’t think I would plug into the machine. It would feel like I was cheating on my life. You’re not supposed to be able to plan out your life.”

“I like my life as it is. I wouldn’t want to spend it plugged into a machine, even if it felt good to me.”

“I think I would. I could make Seattle have more sunshine and there could be more room in my house.”

“I wouldn’t. It would just be all me. Like my sister – I could just program her to still be my sister, but she wouldn’t have her own opinions; she would just be whatever I wanted her to be.”

“Some things in life are not good. If I could live a happier life inside the machine, I think I would.”

“I wouldn’t do this. I couldn’t sit and program what I wanted my life to be. Doing that would feel weird and wrong.”

The students talked about the different moments involved in this thought experiment. Many agreed that it would feel strange and artificial to map out how their lives would unfold; although when they were in the machine, they would not know they had controlled the course of their lives, nevertheless the act of doing so ahead of time would not be an experience they would want.

Other students focused on the ethical dimension of the thought experiment.

“There wouldn’t be two of me, right? So what would this mean for my family and friends? They would still exist for me in my mind, and I wouldn’t know they were just in my mind. But to them I would be gone. What about the people you’re leaving behind?”

We talked about the ways in which this experiment could appear just to involve an individual choice, but that all choices affect other people. I might be in the machine, experiencing a wonderful life, but at what cost to the people who care about me?

The students also questioned whether a virtual experience like this could ever feel as real as their lives feel now.

“Wouldn’t you feel an emptiness somewhere inside? Your life might feel like it’s real, but wouldn’t some part of you know there was something missing? That you’re not actually with other people and in real places? Even if you wouldn’t know what was missing, I think you would have a feeling that something wasn’t right.”

And if a virtual experience could feel as real as the world feels to us now, another student wondered, “Could we be in this machine now?”

This was one of those discussions in which almost all the 24 or so students in the room participated, and our session had to end with many students having things left to say. I suggested to the class that they talk about the experiment at home with their families. Quite a few students then stayed after class and missed part of recess to keep talking about their thoughts and ideas. The excitement of the conversation was exhilarating and a reminder of how powerful philosophical ideas can be in an elementary school classroom.

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