I recently discovered that one of my favorite films, Last Year at Marienbad, was inspired by Adolofo Bioy Casares’ novella The Invention of Morel. I use the term “inspired” here in the loosest possible sense, as the plots of the book and movie (to whatever extent it’s appropriate to describe the movie as having a “plot”) bear little resemblance to each other: The former is a prototype of mindbender sci-fi, while the latter is a surrealistic art film. Naturally, though, I snapped up a copy of Casares’ book and quickly made my way through it a few weeks back. I was intrigued to discover that the story’s central twist also provides a provocative companion thought experiment to Robert Nozick’s famous Experience Machine.
Nozick, recall, asked whether we would consent to give up life in the real world and instead plug into a virtual reality (which we would promptly forget was virtual) designed to provide us with the best possible set of life experiences. You might be hailed as the greatest composer of the age without having written a note, or enjoy quality time with your simulation of a loving spouse and children. If we don’t regard it as plainly irrational to refuse this sort of existence, Nozick thought, then we have a strong counterexample to the view that only subjective happiness matters—that we care about our various goals and projects only as means to our own psychological satisfaction. Casting that view into question, in turn, weakened support for the position that maximizing aggregate utility was the uniquely defensible or rational moral goal.
Morel’s machine is a bit different. Your basic mad scientist, Morel has designed a perfect system of 3-D, multisensory scanning and projection. (Think of Star Trek’s Holodeck, capable of conjuring up elaborate scenes that could be touched, tasted, and smelled as well as seen and heard.) So perfect and detailed is this machine’s recording apparatus that Morel is convinced that a projection based on a scan of a conscious being would in fact experience precisely the same psychological states as the original. In other words, granting Morel’s assumption, any set of mental states could be recorded and played back as often as you like.
The machine does have a tiny hitch, which is that the scanning process is ultimately lethal. But Morel finds this a small price to pay for the kind of immortality it offers. He invites a group of friends to spend an idyllic week on his tropical island—conveniently omitting to mention the machine—and then sets it up so that, once they’ve died, the tide-powered projectors will recreate that perfect week, and all their experiences during it, forever. That exhilerating swim, the sparkling conversation over music and cocktails, making love on the beach later—all perfectly preserved and re-experienced, exactly the same way, indefinitely.
From the perspective of one sort of utilitarianism, this is a moral miracle: Free utility! Assuming all those pleasant experiences counted as assets in the moral ledger the first time through, they just keep adding to the tally with every reiteration. Maybe you could miniaturize the projections, speed them up, and run hundreds or thousands of copies in parallel—a massive engine of moral value!
As you might guess, my own intuition here is somewhat different. Even if the recording process didn’t kill you at the end, I can’t say I find much appeal in this peculiar version of immortality. Nor do I tend to think someone who came across the island where this odd puppet show was playing out ad infinitum would be doing anything greviously wrong in turning the projectors off. Possibly my intuition is unusual here, but I suspect otherwise. If that’s true, however, it has a rather stronger implication than Nozick’s example. In that case, even if we prefer the imperfect real world to the idyllic simulation on net, we probably still want to say that some of our experiences there would be of genuine value. For something the pleasure of a great meal, there’s just no interesting difference between the “real thing” and the simulation. But if we think there’s nothing seriously wrong with shutting down Morel’s island, if we ourselves have no particular interest in being recorded and replayed even as a pure add-on or bonus to our normal lives, that would suggest that we regard the “replay” experiences as having no value at all.
If the intuition is misguided, it should be interesting to interrogate what’s behind it. If it’s one we’d be prepared to defend on reflection, it should be simlarly instructive to suss out what it is that makes such a dramatic difference. As an added wrinkle, suppose that time really is just one more dimension like the spatial ones—next week is already there waiting for us, and the sense that we “move” from past to future an artifact of perspective. If that’s so, what (if anything) differentiates us from the recordings?
It would be fun to actually take up these questions at appropriate length one of these days, but for the moment I’ll content myself with throwing them out as interesting puzzles.