In a conversation about Plato’s Allegory of the Cave with eighth grade students last week, we spent a lot of time talking about Descartes’ dream argument and whether we can know whether we’re dreaming or not at any particular moment. A couple of students contended that even if our whole lives are a dream, it wouldn’t make any difference, as it would feel exactly the same to us as our lives do right now.

I described for them Robert Nozick’s thought experiment. Suppose there was an “Experience Machine, ” which could give you any experience you desired. Your brain would be stimulated when hooked up to the machine 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, part of 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. Would you map out the rest of your life and then hook up to the machine for life?

Some of the students had no problem with the idea of hooking up to the machine. Others, though, raised some of the same reasons that Nozick gives for refusing to hook up to the machine: that we want actually to do certain things, and not just think we are doing them, and that they wanted to be people who did these things, not just thought they were doing them. One student contended it was the choice that made the difference.

“If I were born into the machine, or into living a life that is really a dream, or whatever, it would be one thing. Maybe I it wouldn’t really matter if it was a real life or just in my mind, because it would feel the same either way. But choosing to plug into the experience machine is a different thing, because you’re making a choice to live a fake life, even if it will feel good.”

“I think it’s really a moral problem,” another student commented.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, you’re making a choice to leave your real life behind when you plug into the machine, to live a life that’s all in your head, and to abandon all of the people who are part of your life now.”

We talked about this idea for a while. This was the first time in all of the years that I’ve taught this topic that anyone raised this point. Examining the moral dimension of the choice to plug into the Experience Machine, the fact that it is not just as individuals that we make this decision but as members of a community, produced a thoughtful discussion about the choices we make and the way we make them.

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Again, sounds like good work…as long as you remind them that it is perfectly acceptable to believe in the external world.