Nozick and Star Trek
Robert Nozick has a very famous thought experiment that can be summed up to the following: Imagine there was a machine, while in the machine, an algorithm is run that lets you experience anything you want. Thus, maximizing your happiness. The machine is cable of giving you hardship, boredom, heartbreak, etc provided that it works to maximize your happiness. While in the machine you forget you are in the machine.
Nozick would ask his students if they would enter the machine in order to demonstrate some problems with hedonism and utilitarianism, plus to argue there is a sort of objective value in reality and truth that is above happiness and pleasure.
Naturally, Star Trek has some insightful episodes with implications on Nozick’s experience machine.
The Pilot Episode of the original Star Trek series, “The Cage”, details the adventure of an early star ship enterprise crew and their captain, Captain Pike. While searching through space, they track down a distress signal on an unknown planet. Naturally they go down to the planet, finding a crew of survivors and a very beautiful young lady named Vina. But alas, the survivor crew, minus the Vina, prove to be illusions set up the Talosians an alien race to bait the Captain into Zoo Like captivity. The Talosians, a race of humanoids with bulbous heads who live beneath the planet’s surface, have the power to create any illusion they want. They attempt to use this illusion power to attempt to convince Pike to stay in their Zoo and live out his wildest dreams, so that they can study human behavior and relationships. Pike refused to be a science experiment and acts out in rebellion and radical freedom eventually becoming too much for The Talosians to handle and is set free. The plot has a grand twist where Vina, who desires the illusions and escape from reality, is truly ugly and disfigured from the original space crash. She wishes to not experience the real world and hardship of her existence and instead wants to live out a hedonistic dream world.
This episode has some interesting implications to Nozick’s theories. Though it misses the component of no longer knowing this is a false reality, Star Trek’s “The Cage” is basically another way of asking the Experience Machine question. Nozick’s assumption that people are unwilling to enter the machine doesn’t account for people like Vina who have horrid realities to face. Vina’s harshness of reality influences a desire to experience joy and utility through a false reality. It can be suggested that truth’s value is only relative to how harsh the truth really is. In events where the individual is not strong enough to handle the truth, they will feel a compulsion to escape that truth and substitute their own reality. People like Pike, who act out in rebellion to escape from reality, tend to be more strong willed and able to handle the misfortune without a need to escape. Pike is unwilling to give up his real world, because he sees value in the freedom of truth and reality.
In a later episode of the series, “The Menagerie”, a two part episode detailing a return trip to the now forbidden Talosian planet by a crippled Captain Pike, Pike’s real world circumstances of constant mental pain and physical inability is in great contrast to his original self of handsome, free, rebellious space captain. His new situation is now so harsh he feels the desire to escape it and return to his false reality in the Cage.
This episodes would suggest even if the people who are usually strong willed and desire truth will likely succumb to hedonism in the event of their reality taking a negative turn. That there is an inverse relationship with hardship and lack of control over life and desire for truth and reality.
Further expanding on the ideas, a few episodes later episode “Shore Leave”, the current starship enterprise crew (lacking Pike), takes a vacation on an unknown picturesque world. Strange things start to happen such as Captain Kirk’s engagement in a fist fight with an old college nemesis and the Doctor, Bones, being “killed” by a knight in shining armor attempting to kidnap one of the female officers. These events prove to be illusions caused by a benevolent mastermind looking to maximize the enjoyment the crew feels on their shore leave. The crew decides to finish enjoying the remainder of their shore leave with these illusions.
These episodes would imply that even those whose life is not a matter of hardship will feel the need to escape reality and indulge in temporary hedonism. The knowledge that they are free to leave makes the temporary escape more accessible to those who have a higher value in their reality. Even when life is exciting and your will is strong, there are times in which you feel comfortable escaping reality, given that duration of time is short and you are free to return.
It’s possible to conclude that Nozick’s experience machine and similar escapes from reality would only be permanently entered when reality or truth is at such a level of hardship it outweighs the desire for authenticity. Individuals of weaker wills or who have had their freedom and enjoyment in the real world so depleted are more likely compelled to enter the machine. However, individuals whose life is going well but are slightly bored or in need of a vacation will also enter the machine, ONLY IF they have the chance to leave. For these individuals, rampant hedonism only out weights truth in the event that is temporary and at convenient time. It is unlikely someone who’s life is filled with purpose, meaning and real enjoyment (one who lacks extreme hardship) will even feel the need to enter the machine expect at time they are bored.
This relationship between increased disinterest in the real world and increased desire to escape it for longer intervals, would put the Value of Truth at a sliding scale completely relative to the quality of that truth. There are times like Vina’s hardship where truth is only a secondary value and overcoming the hardship or depleting the pain of reality is a primary value thus leading to an acceptance of a permanent escape from truth. And times like the Shore Leave, where reality is getting a little overwhelming, a temporary escape is necessary to further enjoy the truth. And there are times, like most of Pike’s adventure, where permanent escape of reality is something to be rebelled against in the name of freedom and truth. If your Hardship is overwhelming but you have high freedom you are still likely to escape reality (returning Pike), if your hardship is low and your freedom is high you likely to escape temporary (Shore Leave), if your hardship is High and your freedom is low you’re like to escape reality (Vina), if your hardship is low but your freedom to leave is also low you will rebel against the escape (Pilot episode Pike)