Nozick’s Experience Machine: Would You Live in a Simulation?

Robert Nozick’s thought experiment — the Experience Machine — explores what value would be lost if we lived in a simulation.

Aug 2, 2023By Joseph T F Roberts, PhD Political Philosophy

robert nozick experience machine


If you could live the perfect life in the metaverse, but it meant leaving your current life behind, would you do it? In this article, we look at Robert Nozick’s  ‘Experience Machine’ thought experiment in Anarchy, State, and Utopia, and consider what we would lose by living a virtual life.


Robert Nozick’s Thought Experiment: What if We Lived in a Simulation?

GLMatrix by Jamie Zawinski, 2003, Screenshot of the GLMatrix screensaver by Church of emacs, 2008, via Wikimedia Commons.


No one’s life is perfect. Sure, if you spend enough time following certain people on Instagram, it can seem some people’s lives are perfect, but they probably have lots to complain about, too. Perhaps their hair stylist doesn’t always turn up on time, or their business class seats still provide inadequate legroom. Even billionaire influencers and oligarchs can’t always get what they want, even though they definitely have what they need.


What if we could make life perfect? What if, through some form of new technology, we could create a perfect life?


In the 1999 film The Matrix, the character Neo (played by Keanu Reeves) discovers that he has been living in a simulation. In the movie, Neo is offered a choice: take the red pill and discover what lies outside the simulation, or take the blue pill and remain in the contented state of never discovering what reality is truly like. Which option would you take? How should one make the decision?

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter


In this article, we will focus on a different, earlier, version of this problem presented by Robert Nozick in Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974).


Robert Nozick’s Experience Machine

The Experience Machine by Yescela Vorazan, via


Given how canonical Robert Nozick’s example of the experience machine has become in ethical theorizing and philosophy more generally, it is worth quoting Nozick’s version of the thought experiment in full:


“Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience that 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?

If you are worried about missing out on desirable experiences, we can suppose that business enterprises have researched thoroughly the lives of many others. You can pick and choose from their large library or smorgasbord of such experiences, selecting your life’s experiences for, say, the next two years. After two years have passed, you will have ten minutes or ten hours out of the tank, to select the experiences of your next two years.

Of course, while in the tank you won’t know that you’re there; you’ll think it’s all actually happening. Others can also plug in to have the experiences they want, so there’s no need to stay unplugged to serve them. (Ignore problems such as who will service the machines if everyone plugs in.) Would you plug in? What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside? Nor should you refrain because of the few moments of distress between the moment you’ve decided and the moment you’re plugged. What’s a few moments of distress compared to a lifetime of bliss (if that’s what you choose), and why feel any distress at all if your decision is the best one?”
(Nozick, 1974, p. 43)


Photograph of Robert Nozick by Libertarian Review, 1977, via Wikimedia Commons.


The question Nozick develops this thought experiment to answer is whether there is anything that matters beyond what a particular experience feels like. If the only thing that matters is how our lives feel from the inside, it seems foolish not to plug into the experience machine. After all, one could guarantee the best possible internal experience; we could all make our individual lives perfect from our point of view.  Granted, that will be different for everyone. Some people might actually enjoy the biting cold experienced whilst climbing Everest. Others could choose a more sedate life, lying on a beach in the Bahamas, piña-colada in hand. If you get an opportunity to get what you want, why wouldn’t you take it?


Experience Isn’t Everything

Photo of Mount Everest by Zippy Monkey, via Wikimedia Commons.


Nozick suggests a few reasons against plugging into the experience machine. The first reason Nozick gives is that we don’t just want to have the experience of doing something. We want to actually do it, in the real world. Pilots want to fly planes, not sit in simulators. We want to drink the piña colada, not feel like we’ve drunk it. Given that the experience machine doesn’t allow us to actually do whatever it is we want to do, we have a reason not to plug into it.


A second reason for not plugging in is that, in addition to having pleasant experiences, we also want to be a certain way, be a certain kind of person. Once plugged into the experience machine, Nozick argues, we wouldn’t be able to be kind, or witty, or intelligent. We simply wouldn’t have a character. Living, Nozick suggests, is not something that the machine can do for us. Therefore, we shouldn’t plug ourselves into the experience machine.


Bust of Epicurus, late 3rd century – early 2nd century, photograph by Marie-Lab Nguyen, via Wikimedia Commons.


At this point, one might ask: what is the point of all this? Given we don’t have experience machines, isn’t the question of whether we should plug ourselves into one a moot point?


The reason the conclusion that we shouldn’t plug ourselves into the experience machine is interesting is that it provides a counter-example to a widely accepted philosophical view of wellbeing: hedonism.


Hedonists like Epicurus argue that pleasure is the only source of value in our lives. If something doesn’t produce pleasure, it does not contribute to our well-being, and hence isn’t valuable. Conversely, if something produces pleasure, it contributes to our well-being and has value. Whether it is “real” is immaterial.


If, as Nozick argues, something other than our experiences has value, hedonism cannot be correct. This, in turn, has wider implications. Utilitarianism, i.e., the theory that morality requires maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain, is based on hedonism. If, as Nozick argues, hedonism is wrong, utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham or John Stuart Mill are wrong too.


The thought experiment also has implications for theories of the meaning of life. Subjectivist theories hold that experience is everything. Meaning in life is simply having nice experiences in life. Objectivists, on the other hand, hold that meaning can only be achieved by doing meaningful things. Nozick is firmly on the objectivist side, and he believes most of us are too.


Prison and the Experience Machine 

Solitary Confinement by Henry Hagnas, 2010, via Wikimedia Commons.


At this point, one might object that Nozick’s argument against plugging into the experience machine works well if one’s life is going well, but might be less convincing when being in contact with reality is deeply unpleasant. Consider the following scenario:  You have been convicted of a serious violent crime, and have been given a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Given the nature of your offense, you are housed in solitary confinement. Although you have access to some forms of recreation, it is also solitary. Although you can correspond with family and friends, your incarceration makes it difficult to sustain meaningful ongoing relationships with them.


In cases such as these, where the range of things we can do is severely restricted, and quality of life is severely limited, is it convincing to say the actual doing of something is more valuable than experiencing a perfect life, albeit only in simulated form? Wouldn’t it be reasonable to prefer to “merely” experience a perfect life than to have to actually live a horrible one?


Title-page of “Songs of Innocence and of Experience: Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul” by William Blake, ca. 1825, via the Met Museum


At this point, one might object that, even if the situation we are in doesn’t allow us to do many things, we can still be a certain way. Even in solitary confinement, the argument goes, you can develop positive character traits such as patience, compassion, wit, or trustworthiness.


This, however, seems too quick. Part of being a certain way is acting a certain way. To be compassionate is partly to engage in acts of compassion. To be able to do that, we need opportunities to be compassionate; that is, situations that require compassion. If the scope of our activities is severely limited (as in the solitary confinement case), these opportunities may never present themselves. Given that many of the most morally valuable personality traits, such as compassion, can only be displayed in interpersonal interactions and relationships, these will be out of reach in the solitary confinement case.


Front Cover of the book “Anarchy, State, and Utopia” by Robert Nozick, 1979, via National Book Fondation.


Granted, most people’s lives are not as restricted as the life of a life-long prisoner in the solitary confinement case. To the extent that opportunities are available to them, Nozick’s argument may still apply. The point is, whether Nozick’s argument works is conditional on the quality of the set of options one has in real life. If meaningful work, relationships, and sources of pleasure are available (or within reach), plugging into the experience machine in search of mere experiences is foolish. To the extent that they are not, the choice is more reasonable.


In this sense, the decision to plug into the experience machine is analogous to decisions to end one’s life, either through suicide or euthanasia. Here, too, the reasonableness of the decision seems conditional on the person’s quality of life. The idea that life is not worth living, and that death is preferable, only makes sense if life is very bad. It is considerations like these that lead jurisdictions that permit euthanasia to limit access to it to people experiencing either terminal illness or unbearable pain and suffering. If there is no suffering, a desire to end one’s life seems bizarre.




Roberts Nozick (1974) Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Blackwell Publishing, Malden MA.

Author Image

By Joseph T F RobertsPhD Political PhilosophyI am currently a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in Law and Philosophy at the University of Birmingham. Prior to this, I completed my Ph.D. in Political Theory at the University of Manchester, where I wrote a thesis on the moral permissibility of Body Modification Practices and, specifically, whether or not we have the right to pursue them without being interfered with by others. My current research focuses on the limits of consent, embodiment, and the regulation of recreational drugs.