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Morel’s Machine

April 24th, 2009 · 13 Comments

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.

Tags: General Philosophy · Language and Literature · Moral Philosophy



13 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Tom // Apr 24, 2009 at 4:47 pm

    Your lack of enthusiasm for getting scanned makes sense to me, but I’m having a hard time seeing how turning off the projector can be a moral act unless there’s an unspecified shortcoming to the projections, an unspecified cost to maintaining them, or a rejection of materialism that I doubt you’re actually on board for.

  • 2 Julian Sanchez // Apr 24, 2009 at 5:03 pm

    Well, thus far it’s just an unanalyzed intuition; it’s certainly possible that on reflection I’ll decide it was mistaken. I have a rough sense of what’s motivating my reaction, though a blog comment section is probably not the best place to start trying to unpack it.

  • 3 Julian Sanchez // Apr 24, 2009 at 5:06 pm

    Though an interesting asymmetry in my intuition: If this were a “recording” of someone experiencing a week of agony being played over and over again, I certainly think you’d be obligated to turn the projector *off*. I suspect that I’m bumping up against a close cousin of Derek Parfit’s “mere addition” paradox, though of course, Parfit didn’t seem to regard his own thought experiments as undermining a utilitarian view…

  • 4 Mark // Apr 24, 2009 at 5:35 pm

    I don’t know if you’re aware of this or not, but on June 23rd, The Criterion Collection is releasing “Last Year at Marienbad” in a new DVD (and Blu-Ray) edition, with all sorts of bells and whistles. Just a heads up.

  • 5 Julian Sanchez // Apr 24, 2009 at 5:40 pm

    Oh, I pre-ordered the BluRay as soon as it was announced.

  • 6 Blar // Apr 24, 2009 at 6:23 pm

    Do you feel the same way about Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, where the repetition happens in the real physical universe instead of in a simulation machine? Or is there something special going on when you combine the machine with the repetition?

  • 7 Julian Sanchez // Apr 24, 2009 at 6:32 pm

    Well, the way it works in the novel, it’s not a “simulation”: The projection is actually manifesting a tangible recreation of the original person, though I suppose it’s “simulated” in the sense that the person’s experiences are fixed, rather than depending on what’s going on in the environment … but no, I don’t think anything interesting turns on the machine being the source. One other potential difference is that Nietzsche imagined entire lives being lived over again, while in the novel we’re talking about experiential slices (though, of course, the “recorded” people believe themselves to be continuous with the earlier life histories of their original selves). I’m not sure to what extent that aspect of it is driving the intuition here, but I think it might be a factor.

  • 8 salacious // Apr 25, 2009 at 3:38 pm

    I would wager that your intuition is grounded in an inability to take the assumptions of the hypothetical entirely seriously. The idea of a truly perfect simulation or facsimile is so distant from any current human experience that our intuitions presume that the experience must be flawed or “hollow” in some respect. There is an implicit move in the intuition from a perfect to an imperfect simulacrum.

    This explanation also helps explain your pain/pleasure intuitional asymmetry. It is easier to conceive of “simulated pain” because it is closer to our common experience–syndromes such as chronic pain from a purely neurological source. It’s harder to imagine a corresponding situation for pleasure. I suspect the mind’s eye defaults to a man doped out of his mind on opiates or somesuch, and of course that example is loaded to the gills with problems. Those problems then put a thumb on the scale of your intuitions.

  • 9 Julian Sanchez // Apr 25, 2009 at 8:08 pm

    No, I’m pretty certain that’s not it.

  • 10 Blar // Apr 25, 2009 at 10:52 pm

    Could it be the lack of agency? The person in Morel’s machine is just being fed the experiences, without any control over his life. The machine (and its input) cause everything; the person in the machine causes nothing. With Nozick’s experience machine and Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, the person still has an active causal role (their environment responds to what they do).

    That could help explain the pleasure/pain asymmetry in your intuitions, since the disvalue of pain seems less tied to agency.

  • 11 Tim // Apr 27, 2009 at 2:59 am

    Perhaps I’m just dense, but I don’t understand what or who is doing the experiencing, since the people died…

    Are the recorded experiences supposed to be the same as “mental states”?

  • 12 CJ Alexander // Apr 27, 2009 at 3:53 am

    There’s one answer to Nozick’s experience machine that does a good job, for me at least, in addressing why most of us find the idea unsatisfying: humans are social creatures, and fundamentally removing us from the natural spacetime coexistence of other people does not jive with our idea how life should be lived.

    What’s the difference between having a series of experiences in the world and having those same experiences within a thought machine? In the former, our actions matter to other people. Everything we do ripples with the cause and effect implications for the lives of others, for better or for worse. Many people thus ultimately define the purpose of their life, the “that for the sake of which” (eudaimonia, as Aristotle called it), in this way; being a good parent, contributing to a meaningful line of work, leaving a mark on history, etc. The committed hedonist (e.g. Cypher, in The Matrix) may legitimately not care about these interpersonal outcomes, and find themselves perfectly happy living an infinite life of isolated bliss in the machine.

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