Opinion: Which purposes drive life?


Commentary by Terry Anker

Important 20th century American philosopher Robert Nozick introduced the thought experiment of the “experience machine” in his 1974 book, “Anarchy, State, and Utopia.” He imagined a device into which we could plug ourselves and effectively deliver whatever pleasure we might desire directly into our minds. If we wanted to have the experience of being the MVP of a Super Bowl, ruling as the king of a foreign land or, in the more mundane, living as the most erudite and compelling of all others in our would-be existence, the gadget would deliver it to us. We would satisfy all our desires, prurient or otherwise, with little required effort or consequence.

He predicted, with remarkable effect, the living now on the horizon for many of us. With computer-generated reality, we will soon be able to be anything we might imagine. We could eliminate disappointment and coercion. We would never be challenged to let someone else talk or limit our demands to the extent of our ability or resources. We’d be delivered to hedonistic paradise. Pleasure would be the order of the day, every day. To some, it will be heaven on Earth.

Why wouldn’t we retreat into a world of our own making? We could sing vocals with Elvis and continue to spend time with our deceased loved ones. Still, is this our best selves? What is the purpose of a human life? Pleasure? Suffering? Wisdom? Ignorance? Can we find our way in a life that is untested in interaction? Are we simply an accumulation of our best moments, or are we better having endured the slings and arrows of a corporal life fully lived? Like the promise of flying automobiles, it may be a while before a substitute existence is realized — and yet signs advise us of the coming off-ramp.