How Much Do You Really Want To Live?

I’m a recovering drug addict. I’ve been clean for a few years now, and while staying clean becomes calmer as time passes, the desire to get high never seems to fully vanish. As you can imagine, this can be, at best, quite annoying, and, at worst, a nightmare. These nightmares stay with the addict and form into walking terrors, and you can sort of become a mobile display of shame. Like regret embodied; anguish incarnate. I actually still experience it all over again in frequent random snaps of the moment.. Sometimes, I have night terrors (which I’ve since learned is a drug-induced form of PTSD). In these nightmares, I re-witness the syringe register, my blood shoots fiercely into the drug-filled tube and, as fast as it shot out, it reverse back inwards, as I slam the poisonous pleasure into my favorite vein. I wake up right at this moment, actually high, only to immediately plummet right back into my life’s lowest points all over again.

So, naturally, when the urge to use strikes me, I remember the pure despair of my rock bottoms, which were plentiful and dire (in fact, when people ask me what mine was, I actually have to give it some competitive thought). I learned early-on in recovery to remember the consequences that came after my relapses, not the pleasure I gained during my acts of use. While this is, I’m sure, a wonderful reminder to never dive back into that pool of misery, I still think its ultimately inept as a worthwhile philosophy for genuine and personal betterment. Its ultimately hollow. You see, there seems to be an underlying assumption that if I could remove the consequences of my past habit, and I were left with nothing but the pleasure, then there wouldn’t really be a problem. But is that true?

In 1974, philosopher Robert Nozick, in an attempt to refute hedonistic ethics, came up with a mental exercise he called “The Experience Machine”. In this thought experiment, he asks you to consider a proposal to “plug-in” to a machine that’s connected to your brain and simulate every pleasurable experience you could possibly conceive. This would be a matrix of your most treasured pleasures, at their utmost peaks, constantly experienced. If it helps you in your pondering over “plugging in”, you could rest assured that the amazing scientists had built the experiences with data of the lives of others in mind. You could even walk through a library full of other’s experiences and select whichever you thought would make you most happy. Better yet, you could even unplug every couple of years and then go pick another experience, or just stick to the one you originally chose. And worry not for your loved ones, they’ll be taken care of, in fact, they can even plug in, too. But remember: once you’re plugged in, you won’t know it. Would you do it? Before you sign that waiver, let’s look at the fine print.

Before you “plug in”, Nozick wants you to know that while you are in your experience, you aren’t actually doing anything. You’re not accomplishing anything besides sitting in pleasure. If that makes you feel a bit icky, it is because it probably should. In Anarchy, State, and Utopia, where Nozick proposes the thought experiment, and from which all my citations on the matter will be taken, he asks, “ . . . Why do we want to do the activities rather than merely to experience them?[1]” That’s the first thing to think about.

The second thing to consider is that if you “plug in”, you will not actually be happy or even be a person in any genuine sense. In actuality, you kind of wouldn’t be anything. You will be, as Kozick puts it, “ . . . an indeterminate blob. There is no answer to the question of what the person is like who has long been in the tank. Is he courageous, kind, witty, intelligent, loving?. It’s not merely that it difficult to tell; there is no way that he is. Plugging into the machine is a kind of suicide.”[2]

The third thing to contemplate is that once you “plug in”, you are “ . . . limiting yourself to a man-made reality, to a world no deeper or more important than that which people can construct”[3]. Another way of putting it would be to say that, if you did “plug in”, you would be prohibiting yourself from anything that really mattered. You would cause a self-enforced restriction to anything that had any objective meaning. You would also be limiting yourself to quantities and qualities of pleasure you can only presently imagine, while genuine life experiences could exponentially expand your understanding of the concept of pleasure.

So, let’s recap, if you “plug in”, you won’t actually achieve anything, you won’t actually be anything, and you won’t actually mean anything. That is, if you actually care about anything else besides “feeling good”.

Would you “plug in”?

If your answer is still a resounding “Yes!”, then I am afraid to tell you that your life, as you understand it, is pretty much a sham. If you are more than willing to just “plug in”, then you are, ironically, less willing to be happy at all. I know a few people who would hop readily into the machine, and let me tell you, they suck. Life is of no interest to them at all. They’re burdens to themselves and the unfortunates who are forced into their “lives”. They are, in a grim yet unambiguous sense, inhuman.

And if you’re reading this and still can’t decide, that’s fine. Maybe you’re in the middle of the old saying, “sick and tired of being sick and tired”, and I get that. I am, too. But consider this . . .

This sense of weariness that confounds you is also what makes your life meaningful; it makes your life good. It is a necessary element to happiness. Without it, there is no point of reference in which to give pleasure its definition. Without your sorrows and struggles, there is no contrast in which to judge what is your joy and peace. In despair, you come to understand its opposite and demonstrate your own exquisiteness.

Obviously, you can imagine how I, as an addict in a constant state of recovery, am affected by this thought experiment. I tried for years, at categorically insane costs, to “plug in”. I’ve been to too many funerals for friends that tried, to death’s end, to “plug in”, as well.

I walk into recovery meetings, churches, even family gatherings, and oftentimes feel as if I’m surrounded by people who still want to be in the experience machine, not realizing that if they received their wish, it is logically impossible for it to be them who experiences it.

Therefore, be thankful for pain because it is you who experiences it and the wide spectrum of pleasure is balanced, likewise, in the equally wide spectrum of pain. Though your evil might have caused pain, your pain is not an evil. There is no candid human within an experience machine, if such a machine did exist. Embracing this is to be alive. The question is: How much do you really want to live?

Most men pursue pleasure with such breathless haste that they hurry past it.” [4]–Soren Kierkengaard

[1] Nozick, Robert (1974). Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Pg. 43 New York: Basic Books.

[2]Nozick, Robert (1974). Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Pg. 43. New York: Basic Books. Print.

[3] Nozick, Robert (1974). Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Pg. 43. New York: Basic Books. Print.

[4]Kierkengaard, S., Hong, H. V., Hong, E. H., (1983). Either/Or. Princeton University Press. Princeton, NJ. Print.


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