Ethical Perspectives

March 2011

Can We Test the Experience Machine?

Basil Smith


Robert Nozick famously asks us whether we would plug in to an ‘experience machine’, or whether we would insist upon ‘living in contact with reality’. Felipe De Brigard, after conducting a series of empirical ‘inverted’ experience machine studies, suggests that this is a false dilemma. Rather, he says, '…the fact is that people tend to prefer the state of affairs they are in currently,' or the status quo.

In this paper, I argue that these studies are a test case for ‘experimental philosophy’ as such. Specifically, I argue that De Brigard offers a series of faulty studies, and so, reaches unfounded conclusions. More generally, I argue that certain philosophical thought experiments cannot be tested empirically at all, and this limits what experimental philosophy can do.

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