The Virtual Good Life?
By Julie Miller
In 1974, long before virtual reality (VR) was even a “twinkle in the eye” of most technology researchers, philosopher Robert Nozick introduced a thought experiment called the Experience Machine to illustrate the inadequacy of the philosophy of experiential hedonism. On this view, all that matters about life is the amount of pleasurable experiences a person has. Nozick imagined, “Suppose there was a machine that would give you any experience you desired. This machine would stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel that everything is actually happening. Should you plug into this machine for life?”
In 2022, philosopher David Chalmers answers Nozick with a resounding “yes!” In his new book Reality+, Chalmers insists that not only will “plugging in” be a reasonable option, but you can expect to live a meaningful and good life in a virtual world. He easily imagines a future where ninety-nine percent of us will choose to live in VR, especially when brain-computer interfaces are able to simulate all of our sense experiences—touch, smell, taste, sight, and sound. Chalmers speculates further that within a century we will want to escape our physical world, perhaps because of nuclear disaster or catastrophic climate change. His rhetoric has the ring of inevitability, much like a Borg Complex: resistance is futile. I grant that most of the subscribers to this newsletter are not tempted to embrace Chalmers’ view and might even dismiss it out of hand as merely sci-fi nonsense. However, when faced with technologies like VR that have captured the interest of the culture, we should be prepared to offer good reasons to reject “plugging in.”
An uncritical attitude toward any new technology often results in desensitization. Journalist Michael Harris warns that “every technology will alienate you from some part of your life. That is its job. Your job is to notice.” In this case, our job is to analyze the human cost of immersive virtual reality and notice how, by design, it alienates us from our humanity. To begin this analysis, I will offer some good reasons to reject living in a virtual world and offer an alternative view of the good life.
Reasons to Reject “Plugging In”
In my estimation, Robert Nozick had it right forty-eight years ago when he concluded that there is more that matters to us than our feelings. Even if we had the option to plug into an Experience Machine that would give us any experience we desired, we would realize that what matters more is that we want to do certain things, not just have an experience of doing them. We want to be a certain sort of person, not just have an experience of being that person. What we are is important to us. Ultimately, we desire to live in contact with genuine reality. Machines cannot do this for us. If who we are is important, then the Experience Machine, or immersive virtual reality, cannot engineer true happiness for us. Living our lives in contact with reality matters more than any artificial happiness. The reason Nozick’s conclusions are still relevant is because he focused on critiquing the philosophy of experiential hedonism, not on evaluating whether technology will succeed in providing a perfect simulation of our experiences.
Since 1974, Nozick’s conclusions have been tested using empirical studies. Even though the majority of participants still reject plugging into the Experience Machine, the percentage of those saying “yes” is increasing. One explanation that may account for this increase is that we are not very good at accurately assessing the value and costs associated with modern technology. Nicolas Carr describes this general human affliction as miswanting in his book The Glass Cage. Essentially, we have a tendency to assume that leisure should be preferred over labor. That is, we think we will enjoy things that come easily better than things we have to work for. University of Chicago psychology professors Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Judith LeFevre call this phenomenon the “paradox of work” because even though we desire more leisure, we actually experience less positive feelings when we are at leisure than when we are at work. Acknowledging this inclination to miswant, we should carefully evaluate the promises of VR. A virtual world will allegedly free us from our limitations (e.g., biological, emotional, intellectual, environmental, social, geographical, financial, professional, occupational) while requiring very little effort on our part. It only takes a moment of thoughtful deliberation to see how the affliction of miswanting will thwart the virtual so-called good life.
An Alternative View of the Good Life
By championing a disordered view of the good life, Chalmers unwittingly provides the opportunity to share the truth about the “lost virtue of happiness,” namely a virtue-based view of human flourishing. Mortimer Adler argues that modern thinkers made a serious philosophical mistake when they began conceiving of human happiness as a subjective psychological state of feeling good instead of an objective ethical state of being good. Adler traces this major shift in the understanding of happiness back to the eighteenth-century Enlightenment utilitarians. Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) was one of the first to propose the principle of utility, “the greatest happiness for the greatest number,” as a powerful tool to judge the usefulness of every action. He argued that sensations of pleasure and pain determine how we act in the world and represent the standards of right and wrong. Therefore, happiness became simply the balance of pleasure over pain.
Chalmers’ enthusiasm for immersive VR technology is the logical progression and outcome of the Enlightenment utilitarian philosophical mistake. He makes feeling good the central focus of achieving happiness. C. S. Lewis wrote, “Every preference of a small good to a great, or a partial good to a total good, involves the loss of the small or partial good for which the sacrifice was made . . . You can’t get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first.” Feeling good is a second thing that can only be realized by putting first things first, which is being good.
In Aldous Huxley’s evocative book Brave New World, he imagined a future society that embraces a hedonistic view of happiness and suffers the dystopian consequences. The character John the Savage witnesses the dehumanizing effects of engineered “happiness” and defiantly claims his “right to be unhappy.” He knows there is more to life than good feelings: “I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.” The price is too high for a shallow happiness based only on feeling good.
I suggest turning away from Chalmers’ road to artificial happiness, and returning to the ancient road that leads to a life of virtue and human flourishing. The classical and Judeo-Christian view of happiness is linked to virtue. The flourishing life requires self-control, commitment, reason, judgment, and is often painful. Christian thinkers, like Saint Thomas Aquinas, refined the classical view by providing the solution to the gap between moral demands and our inability to always do what we ought (i.e., The Moral Gap). Whereas our natural abilities are diminished by the effects of the Fall, we can lead virtuous lives by receiving God’s transformative grace. The message for our friends who are excited about immersive VR is to challenge them to rediscover the lost virtue of happiness.
 Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974), 42-45.
 Ibid., 42-43.
 David Chalmers, Reality+ (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2022), 311.
 Prashanth Ramakrishna, “‘There’s Just No Doubt That It Will Change the World’: David Chalmers on V.R. and A.I.,” The New York Times, June 18, 2019, 4. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/18/opinion/david-chalmers-virtual-reality.html (accessed April 10, 2022).
 Ibid., 4.
 Michael Harris, The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection (New York: Penguin, 2014), 206, quoted in Jacob Shatzer, Transhumanism and the Image of God: Today's Technology and the Future of Christian Discipleship (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019), 11.
 There are other questions to investigate, such as: How essential is embodiment to human flourishing? Are negative experiences important for the good life? How does the Gospel provide the best solution for human transformation? How is VR’s simulation of sensations by triggering neuronal activity, independent of the senses themselves and the world to which they correlate, better than our embodied experience in the actual world? How does Reality+ differ from a Matrix-like scenario?
 Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, 43.
 Frank Hindriks and Igor Douven, “Nozick’s Experience Machine: An Empirical Study,” Philosophical Psychology 31 (2018): 278-98. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/09515089.2017.1406600?NeedAccess=true (accessed April 10, 2022). Their results supported Nozick’s conclusion. The majority disincline to accept the offer of being connected to the Experience Machine.
 PhilPapers Survey 2020. https://survey2020.philpeople.org/survey/results/all (accessed April 10, 2022). In response to the question, “Would you enter the Experience Machine,” 13 percent said they accept or lean toward plugging into the Experience Machine and 77 percent said they would not accept plugging into the Experience Machine.
 Nicolas Carr, The Glass Cage: How Our Computers Are Changing Us (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2015), 15.
 Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Judith LeFevre, “Optimal Experience at Work and Leisure,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1989), Vol. 56, No. 5, 815-822, https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/2c19/82f8de.71b73771cb11ba192c10c30d92cd58.pdf (accessed April 7, 2022).
 If you are not old enough to reflect on the advances in technology in the last fifty years, comedian Louis CK can help. He has a bit called “Everything is Amazing and Nobody is Happy” where he observes the human tendency to miswant and become dissatisfied with technology. Louis CK, “Everything is Amazing and Nobody is Happy,” YouTube (accessed April 7, 2022).
 I refer the reader to the excellent book on this topic: J. P. Moreland and Klaus Isssler, The Lost Virtue of Happiness: Discovering the Disciplines of the Good Life (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 2006).
 Mortimer Adler, Ten Philosophical Mistakes (New York: Simon & Schuster, Touchstone Edition, 1985), 131-32.
 Ibid., 140-44.
 Darrin M. McMahon, Happiness: A History (New York: Grove Press, 2006), 212-13.
 Ibid., 212-13, 222, 345-53. Other philosophers and scientists of the Enlightenment used this phrase in various forms: Frances Hutcheson, Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, Claude-Adrien Helvetius, Julien Offray de la Mettrie, and John Stuart Mill.
 C. S. Lewis, “First and Second Things,” in Walter Hooper, ed., God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1970), 280.
 Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (New York: HarperCollins, 2017), 240.
 David Baggett, “Summary of Chapter 2 of John Hare’s The Moral Gap,” Moral Apologetics, November 13, 2014. https://www.moralapologetics.com/wordpress/summary-of-chapter-2-of-john-hares-moral-gap (accessed April 11, 2022).
 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Mortimer Adler, ed., Great Books of the Western World, vol. 18 (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1990), 44, 60-64, 179-180.
— Julie Miller earned a PhD in humanities with a concentration in philosophy from Faulkner University’s Great Books Honors College. She has served for ten years with Ratio Christi, a campus apologetics ministry, first at Rutgers University and now at Texas A&M University. She is the author of Critiquing Transhumanism: The Human Cost of Pursuing Techno-utopia (forthcoming, Public Philosophy Press, 2022). She lives in College Station, Texas, with her husband of thirty-seven years and their dog, Keeper. They have two married sons and three grandchildren.
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