The Meaning Machine

Excerpt from Every Cradle Is a Grave: Rethinking the Ethics of Birth and Suicide (2014) by Sarah Perry

Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life’s experiences?

– Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia 

I believe that we should be very cautious about creating conscious beings, and I believe that the ideal number of conscious beings (and perhaps even living beings) in the universe is probably zero, for the good of those beings themselves.

Since suffering and misery are inescapable parts of life, if we are to justify creating life there must be something that outweighs suffering and misery within the space of universal judgements. Candidates generally fall into two categories. The first category is essentially hedonist: pleasure or good experiences are said to outnumber or outweigh bad experiences. This is the objection Bryan Caplan is making with his Free Disposal argument, discussed in the first chapter; assuming preferentism (that people choose what is good for them), and assuming that people have free choice in the relevant arenas, people would merely commit suicide if it were not true that the pleasure of life outweighs the suffering. And since only a million people per year commit suicide, creating life is obviously the right choice. A more subtle variation of this argument does not rely on suicide, but on a sort of imaginary survey: most people would probably report that their lives are worth living, that the good outweighs the bad, and therefore it must.

The second category of responses is that there is something valuable and meaningful about life that makes it worth living even if the bad vastly outweighs the good. In the previous chapter, we explored and categorized some of the things that people find meaningful, noting how these change according to circumstance and over time. One of the most salient features of the things that make life seem meaningful is that they frequently rely on illusion: the illusion of unchanging permanence, of a future state of happiness, of one’s ability to affect the world. It is my view that the sense of meaningfulness is itself an illusion, a cognitive phenomenon that is very adaptive for individuals and groups. This illusion is maintained by communities in order to organize the behavior of individuals, in part by easing their suffering.

One response to this is to counter that meaning is not an illusion- that there is real value in the world beyond what is experienced by living beings. Unfortunately, the proposed real and true meanings are often difficult to express in words to others who do not sense their truth. The feeling that life is meaningful is a pre-rational sensory perception that is widely shared. However, the specific meanings that people find satisfying and convincing are disparate and often contradictory. These underlying realities should make us question whether the sense that life is meaningful- or that some specific meaning can be found in life- is a true observation, or merely an illusion. The very adaptiveness of this belief, even if it were not true, must also make us suspect its veracity. The meaning realist has the further problem that no specific meaning is held by a majority of humanity; if there is one true meaning, then whatever it is, the majority of people’s lives go very badly because they do not perceive it.

Another response is that while meanings vary, it is enough that almost everyone finds some meaning in life. In other words, that sense that life is meaningful is enough to justify life, and the myriad meanings found and elaborated by individuals are all, in fact, the meaning of life. This seems to be the most common position articulated in modern post-Christian Western societies: if a person finds his life to be meaningful, then it is meaningful- even if different people find contradictory meanings in life. One person might find a sense of meaning in fighting for equality, another in ethno-nationalism, and they are both right.

This second response is actually a variation on hedonism, in that the experience of meaning, rather than the experience of pleasure, provides value. According to this view, a life of overwhelming suffering but with a deep experience of meaning might be better than a life of joy and pleasure that is internally felt to be meaningless. But ultimately, divorced from the meaning realism of the first response, this grounds meaning in subjective experience; the sense of meaning becomes another form of pleasure. The modern ideas that it is up to each individual to find meaning in life, and that this meaning justifies life, means accepting a meaning-based Experience Machine.

The things that we find to be meaningful are, in fact, miniature Experience Machines. They rely on illusion and filter the information that reaches us so that we may continue to feel that life is meaningful, or continue to search for meaning in life if it is missing. They are very useful; they help us organize our behavior, coordinate with others, and manage our emotions. In a practical sense they often make the suffering of life bearable; but, once they are recognized to be illusions, they cannot justify suffering in an abstract sense any more than pleasure can.

We need not jump into a Nozickian Experience Machine to get pleasure and a sense of meaning from intricate illusions. The Reverse Experience Machine experiment is close to the illusion we find ourselves in- if we found out we were in an Experience Machine already, would we choose to leave it for the real world? Institutions, religions, social communities, and even individual people function as Experience Machines, creating and maintaining illusions that help us feel that life is worthwhile. A meaning realist would reject the Experience Machine, but to be consistent he must also reject those aspects of life that use illusion or information filters to provide meaning. A meaning subjectivist has little ground to reject the Experience Machine. This has implications for the justification of life’s misery based on meaningfulness.

Excerpt from SUPERHAPPINESS: Ten Objections To Radical Mood-Enrichment by David Pearce

The ‘EXPERIENCE MACHINE’ objection [to engineering superhappiness with genetic technologies]

According to this objection, the prospect of “artificially” ratcheting up our hedonic set-point via biotech interventions just amounts to a version of Harvard University philosopher Robert Nozick’s hypothetical Experience Machine. Recall the short section of Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974) where Nozick purportedly refutes ethical hedonism by asking us to imagine a utopian machine that can induce experiences of anything at all in its users at will. A full-blown Experience Machine will presumably provide superauthenticity too: its users might even congratulate themselves on having opted to remain plugged into the real world – having wisely rejected the blandishments of Experience Machine evangelists and their escapist fantasies. At any rate, given this hypothetical opportunity to witness all our dreams coming true, then most of us wouldn’t take it. Our rejection shows that we value far more than mere experiences. Sure, runs this objection, millennial neuroscience may be able to create experiences millions of times more wonderful than anything open to Darwinian minds. But so what? It’s mind-independent facts in the real world that matter – and matter in some sense to us – not false happiness.


This Objection isn’t fanciful. In future, technologies akin to Experience Machines will probably be technically feasible, perhaps combining immersive VR, neural nanobots and a rewiring of the pleasure centres. Such technologies may conceivably become widely available or even ubiquitous – though whether their global use could ever be sociologically and evolutionarily stable for a whole population is problematic. [If you do think Experience Machines may become ubiquitous, then you might wonder (shades of the Simulation Argument) whether statistically you’re most probably plugged into one already. This hypothesis is more compelling if you’re a life-loving optimist who thinks you’re living in the best of all possible worlds than if you’re a depressive Darwinian convinced you’re living in the unspeakably squalid basement.]

However, feasible or otherwise, Experience Machines aren’t the kind of hedonic engineering technology we’re discussing here. Genetically recalibrating our hedonic treadmill at progressively more exalted settings needn’t promote the growth of escapist fantasy worlds. Measured, incremental increase in normal hedonic tone can allow (post-)humans to engage with the world – and each other – no less intimately than before; and possibly more so. By contrast, it’s contemporary social anxiety disorders and clinical depression that are associated with behavioural suppression and withdrawal. Other things being equal, a progressively happier population will also be more socially involved – with each other and with consensus reality. At present, it’s notable that the happiest people tend to lead the fullest social lives; conversely, depressives tend to be lonely and socially isolated. Posthuman mental superhealth may indeed be inconceivably different from the world of the happiest beings alive today: meaning-saturated and vibrantly authentic to a degree we physiologically can’t imagine. Yet this wonderful outcome won’t be – or at least it needn’t be – explicable because our descendants are escapists plugged into Experience Machines, but instead because posthuman life is intrinsically wonderful.

Perhaps. The above response to the Experience Machine objection is simplistic. It oversimplifies the issues because for a whole range of phenomena, there is simply no mind-independent fact of the matter that could potentially justify Experience Machine-style objections – and deter the future use of Experience Machine-like technologies for fear of our losing touch with Reality. Compare, say, mathematical beauty with artistic beauty. If you are a mathematician, then you want not merely to experience the epiphany of solving an important equation or devising an elegant proof of a mathematical theorem. You also want that solution or proof to be really true in some deep platonic sense. But if you create, say, a sculpture or a painting, then its beauty (or conversely, its ugliness) is inescapably in the eye of the beholder; there is no mind-independent truth beyond the subjective response of one’s audience. For an aesthete who longs to experience phenomenal beauty, there simply isn’t any fact of the matter beyond the quality of experience itself. The beauty is no less real, and it certainly seems to be a fact of the world; but it is subjective. If so, then why not create the substrates of posthuman superbeauty rather than mere artistic prettiness?

There’s also a sense in which our brains already are (dysfunctional) Experience Machines. Consider dreaming. Should one take drugs to suppress REM sleep because our dreams aren’t true? Or when awake, should one’s enjoyment of a beautiful sunset be dimmed by the knowledge that secondary properties like colour are mind-dependent? [Quantum theory suggests that classical macroscopic “primary” properties as normally conceived are mind-dependent too; but that’s another story] If you had been born a monochromat who sees the world only in different shades of grey, then as a hard-nosed scientific rationalist, should you reject colour vision gene therapy on the grounds that phenomenal colours are fake – and grass isn’t intrinsically green? No, by common consent visual experience enriches us, even if, strictly speaking, we are creating reality rather than simulating and/or perceiving it. Or to give another example: what if neural enhancement technologies could controllably modify our aesthetic filters so we could see 80-year-old women as sexier than 20-year-old women? Is this perception false or inauthentic? Intuitively, perhaps so. But actually, the perception is no more or less authentic than seeing 20-year-old women of prime reproductive potential as sexier. Evolution has biased our existing perceptual filters in ways that maximised the inclusive fitness of our genes in the ancestral environment; but in future, we can optimise the well-being of their bodily vehicles (i.e. us). Gradients of well-being billions of times richer than anything humans experience are neither more nor less genuine than the greenness of grass (or the allure of Marilyn Monroe). Could such states become as common as grass? Again, I suspect so; but speculation is cheap.


Sarah Perry argues that we already live in a meaning-based Experience Machine. David Pearce reminds us that our experience of the world is itself just a phenomenal representation of a mind-independent quantum mess, and that what makes us feel good or bad is merely a reflection of what increases or decreases the inclusive fitness of our genes. In both cases, Nozick’s Experience Machine thought-experiment is turned on its head. Namely, that if we value life, we are inescapably already agreeing to living on an Experience Machine of sorts.

It is hard for me not to roll my eyes when someone says “I am not looking for happiness; I’m looking for meaning.” Although perhaps not obvious to everyone, the way in which your world-simulation is implemented is such that activities that foster the inclusive fitness of your genes feel good, while those that bring fewer future copies of your genes generally feel bad. Thanks to our neocortex, we are able to “encephalize” our deep primal emotions and render them in conjunction with (and indeed phenomenally embedded in) high-dimensional state spaces of consciousness. Key predictors of inclusive fitness such as social status, environmental stability, and the mutational load of one’s tribe are not explicitly rendered in our experience as “beneficial for your inclusive fitness.” Rather, they are rendered in a concrete simulation-congruent form (i.e. as meaningful), such as being a good person, having a home, and being able to tune in to highly evolved aesthetics, respectively. Indeed, we are adaptation executers rather than utility optimizers; the causal effect of our aesthetic preferences (e.g. preferring to think of ourselves as “meaning-seeking” rather than “pleasure-seeking”) is not legible from our subjective vintage point. But… the inherent entwining of meaning and valence (i.e. the pleasure-pain axis) is crystal clear as soon as we mess with one’s psychopharmacology, for people who fetishize meaning are not immune to mu-opioid antagonists. Unsurprisingly, it is hard to enjoy either a personal meaning, a sense of community, or even higher art while on the opioid-antagonist naltrexone. Likewise, isn’t it strange that psychedelics and empathogens seem to simultaneously increase depth of meaning and capacity for pleasure? Indeed, realizing that subjective meaning is implemented with valence gradients has extraordinary explanatory power. For this reason, it is thus clear that, as David Pearce likes to say, “if you take care of happiness, the meaning of life will take care of itself.”

What about anti-natalism? My take on anti-natalism is pretty standard for a negative leaning utilitarian and transhumanist. Namely, that selection pressures against any proclivity to self-limit human reproduction guarantees that the psychological traits that bring about hard anti-natalist views will not sustain themselves over time. If one impartially cares about the wellbeing of sentient beings, one should take into account how evolution works. Advocating for gradients of intelligent bliss rather than non-existence could satisfy anti-natalists’ craving for the absence of suffering while also being compatible with an understanding of the reality of selection pressures. Tongue-in-cheek, I thus advocate for antinatalists to have lots of children, and for pro-natalists to have no children at all. More seriously, the real solution is to develop and promote “Triple-S genetic counseling” so that every child that is born is emancipated from the agony of his or her- otherwise inevitable- future suffering.

See also: The Tyranny of the Intentional Object, Open Individualism and Antinatalism, The Purple Pill, and Consciousness vs. Pure Replicators