Inception (and the experience machine, utilitarianism, and existentialism)

spinning topSelfAwarePattern’s post from the other day on the problem of solipsism got me thinking about (my favorite solipsistic movie – no apologies to fans of the Matrix) Inception, and its tension with a thought experiment meant to undermine hedonistic utilitarianism posited by Robert Nozick.

The Experience Machine
Nozick asks us to consider whether we would plug in to an experience machine that simulates pleasurable experiences that we select to have before entering the machine. Nozick posits that, given the option of plugging into the experience machine for the rest of our lives, save for moments out of the machine when we are reprogramming it, we would not take it, because there is something of value to actually doing actions that we cherish. As Nozick notes, “we want to do certain things, and not just have the experiences of doing them. In the case of certain experiences, it is only because first we want to do the actions that we want the experiences of doing them or thinking we’ve done them” (Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia, page 43). Rather than programming the machine to produce such events as writing a great novel and learning how to play the saxophone (in the machine we do not realize that these events are not in the “real world”), I would much rather commit to these projects in real life. But if the only entities that have intrinsic value are events wherein pleasure is experienced, then there should be no reason to favor the real world over the programmed world of the experience machine. That we do favor the real world over the programmed world shows that pleasure is not the only intrinsic value that states of affairs can have. As such, our moral theories must be based in other values, and not just pleasure alone.

Christopher Nolan’s Inception draws the opposite conclusion from the Experience Machine thought experiment: people would choose to live in the experience machine, as evidenced by the patrons of Yusuf’s sleeping room in Mombasa. When Eames (Tom Hardy) voices his surprise in anyone indulging in such an activity, an attendant notes wryly, “They come to be woken up. The dream has become their reality – who are you to say otherwise, sir?”

Sophistry at its strangest.

Sophistry at its strangest.

Moreover, the audience comes to find that Cobb (DiCaprio’s character) willingly “plugged in” to the experience machine with his wife, for what felt like a lifetime, and that he plugs in frequently to interact with her (spoiler alert) after her suicide. Although Cobb tortures himself by reliving his memories of his dead wife, we can understand his motivation for doing so as rooted in devastating guilt from his treatment of her. In this way, Cobb’s misery humanizes the lure of the experience machine and it might begin to seem that Nozick was wrong – people might, rationally, opt to plug into the experience machine.

Relevant Differences
One relevant difference between the experience machine and the dream machines of Inception is that time passes more slowly than in the real world for users of the dream machines, such that one might plug in to live a longer life. This is an interesting difference, because we are pushed to ask: why does one really want to live a longer life? I think the answer would be to have more (quantitatively) pleasurable experiences, such that plugging into the dream machines of Inception creates the possibility for more pleasure. What this means is that our question has become: if it is possible to experience more pleasure in the dream machine (over time) than we would if we just lived in the real world then would we plug into the dream machine? As the sleepers and Cobb illustrate, it is quite plain that many would plug into the dream machine.

I myself would plug in to the dream machine, assuming that time does move more slowly than in the real world. If time did not move more slowly, like in Nozick’s thought experiment, then I would try it out but I would surely not want to spend my entire life in the experience machine. So, it seems that differences in lost time are relevant to explaining our different intuitions about the experience machine and the dream machine. (Would you choose as I would?)

Nozick’s argument
So, what we have found is that there is a relevant difference between the experience machine and the dream machine, and this is the delayed passage of time for dreamers in the dream machine, allowing them to experience more pleasure than they would have if they had not plugged in due to having more time to have experiences.

It might be thought that this shows that taking Inception as a counter-thought experiment to the Experience Machine is a fallacious move, as there is a difference in the set up of the experiments that is relevant to the different intuitions we draw from said experiments. That there is a difference in set up is true, but I think it is false that this difference undermines the argument that the dream machine of Inception shows that it is not the case that we would not plug into the experience machine because pleasure is not the sole intrinsic value. That the relevant difference is that we would maximize pleasurable experiences in the dream machine is completely relevant to the comparison of these thought experiments because our intuitions on pleasure are precisely what we have set out to test; in fact, Nolan’s Inception crafts the thought experiment in such a way that we see that maximizing pleasure is valuable to us – a step father towards utilitarianism than Nozick’s denial that pleasure is the only intrinsic good (which does defeat utilitarianism all the same). But it is worth noting that that we would plug into the dream machines of Inception does not disprove Nozick’s conclusion.

Nozick’s argument was:

  • If we would not plug into the experience machine then pleasure cannot be the sole intrinsic value.

I do think that conditional is valid, such that if our intuitions are that we would not plug into the experience machine then it must be because pleasure is not the sole intrinsic value. That we would plug into the dream machines of Inception might suggest that, to someone unfamiliar with the rules of logic, this faulty argument:

  • If we would plug into the dream machine then pleasure is the sole intrinsic value.

What happened here is that we denied the antecedent of the original conditional, in order to adduce the negation of the consequent: pleasure is not not the sole intrinsic value. But this is not how conditional arguments work; you may only affirm the antecedent to affirm the consequent (modus ponens), or deny the consequent to deny the antecedent (modus tollens). Inception only allows us to deny the antecedent, such that we cannot make any conclusions about the monistic axiological nature of pleasure. Perhaps we might consider formulating a new argument based on the findings of Inception:

  • If we would plug into the dream machine then we value maximizing pleasure.

Unfortunately, thought this is the argument that I have drawn from taking Inception as a thought experiment, I myself am not entirely confident that this is the best explanation for why we might plug into the dream machines. It might take the form of having more time for pleasurable experiences, but the deeper reason may have nothing to do with a desire to maximize pleasure. It could be based in the surface level reason of purely just wanting to live longer. Soren Kierkegaard thought deeply on how we attempt to live more than a finite existence, positing a theory of three stages of existence due to a movement away from the traditional epistemological problem of being in favor of an understanding of what it means to exist. There are three very different stages, aesthetic, ethical and religious, but the main characteristic of each sphere of existence is how a person in that sphere tries to live more than a finite life. In this way, perhaps our desire to plug into the dream machine speaks more to our existential crises than anything like maximizing pleasure.

Inception should lead us to wonder anew whether we would want to plug into anything resembling the experience machine, whether Nozick’s or Nolan’s. I have suggested, with Nolan, that we would plug into an experience machine if it provided us more time to live. But I also noted that this does not necessarily force a win for hedonistic utilitarianism, the target of Nozick’s thought experiment, because there might be better explanations for why we would plug into the experience machine than the maximization of pleasurable experiences.

I'd plug into the experience machine to run around in a tumbling hall way!

I’d plug into the experience machine to run around in a tumbling hallway!

Some notes:
The Ending
I’m familiar with the theory that Cobb’s totem is not the spinning top but his wedding band, in that, in the dream world he is still married to Mal and so wears it, whereas in the real world she is dead and he doesn’t wear it. I think it’s a good theory, and about as complex as a mind game as I’d expect of Nolan, who, I hope to make clear in a series of posts on his movies, is a goddamn genius. Definitely my favorite contemporary director (Tarantino is the only other contemporary director I think is a genius). Anyways, I buy the wedding band theory, and thus, subscribe to the theory that he is in the real world. I will admit that before hearing of the wedding band theory that I was fairly convinced that Cobb was still asleep — when he finally sees his children again they look exactly (EXACTLY!) the same as they did in his dreams. Not only are they the same ages as he remembers them (and we can infer that he has been on the run for some time, since Michael Caine notes that it will take more than the occasional stuffed animal to convince the children they still have a father — which sounds like a dig at it being a long time since Cobb has seen his children) but they are in the same place in the yard and wearing the same clothing? Too many improbabilities for me, and I concluded that Cobb was seeing projections of his children as he is in a dream. This is difficult for me to reconcile with the wedding band theory, but at the end of the day my trust is with Nolan that he hid the truth in plain sight, and thus that Cobb is awake. I also think it is possible that Nolan gave us contradictory information as a teaser in order for the audience to make the decision for themselves.

Coincidences and Determinism:
While re-watching Inception, my father, who I hadn’t talked with recently, texted me asking if I had given him Inception as a Christmas gift last year (I hadn’t, I had given him Momento and The Prestige — other incredible Nolan movies). It felt like a very strange coincidence, as I hadn’t watched Inception in a while (I over-watched it early on — saw it twice in the theater alone) and it is not like my dad to text me asking if there was a copy of Inception around the house, such that they occurred at the same time is strange indeed.
I’ve been noticing a lot of strange coincidences recently and I’ve been wondering if they might be due to complex causal networks that stretch out over vast areas of human interaction. In the example of Inception, perhaps some distance cause created a series of causes and effects that eventually resulted in me wanting to watch Inception last night. That same distance cause created a series of causes and effects that eventually resulted in my dad wondering if he had a copy of Inception, presumably to watch it. This is just an example, but it instantiates an idea that has been haunting me: that coincidences are evidence of hard determinism. Moments when we sense the strangeness and improbability of coincidences are perhaps moments when our ability to ignore our lack of free will is weakened by intellectual intuitions that determinism best explains these coincidences.


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  1. #1 by SelfAwarePatterns on January 25, 2014 - 8:28 pm

    Thanks for the link. A fascinating analysis, as always.

    I wonder how I’d react to the pleasure machine. I suspect a part of me would reject it, although I can only fall back on my usual explanation: instinct, or base programming.

    Your last paragraph is interesting. I’ve noticed the same thing, and have come to be suspicious of pure coincidence, although finding the actual cause is often elusive, sometimes just having the habit of looking for it provides possible answers.

    • #2 by ausomeawestin on January 25, 2014 - 9:11 pm

      Thanks for the kind words, and for sharing your thoughts on the questions I posed, I really do appreciate it! I would like to hear more about the instinct that would ground your reaction to avoid the pleasure machine… a sort of instinct to avoid the unknown? That’s the instinct that comes to mind for me, but I’m not sure what you have in mind, you have thought more on instincts and evolutionary tendencies than I have, that I am certain.

      In many ways I think the causes would remain unknown, as I would imagine the cause acts outside the perimeter of our awareness. I do think that many people sense the strangeness of coincidences as rooted in determinism but that they then move to the more spiritual conclusion that god is the causal force that determines such actions. Perhaps many people overstep the evidence for the lack of free will and come to god.

      • #3 by SelfAwarePatterns on January 25, 2014 - 9:52 pm

        My intuition is that, toward the pleasure machine, I would have some feeling of decadence, some violation of healthiness, or self respect. (That doesn’t necessarily mean I wouldn’t go in for it, at least temporarily.) Why would I have that feeling? I think it’s due to some adaptive instinct, an instinct that probably exists for some evolutionary advantage in my pleistocene ancestors. Probably in some way related to the instinct that inclines me to shun spoiled meat or diseased animals. Hmmm, this might be worth a full post.

        I agree that the causes of coincidences will often be unknown, and that we should resist easy, superstitious answers. Sometimes we just have to admit that we don’t know. But true coincidences do seem exceedingly rare. Most of the time there’s no cost to wrongly accepting a coincidence, but I’ve found it pays to ponder what the common cause might be. I’ve headed off some nasty surprises with that habit over the years.

        On Sat, Jan 25, 2014 at 8:11 PM, ausomeawest

      • #4 by ausomeawestin on January 26, 2014 - 1:11 pm

        Very interesting! What if the machine was designed so that while in the machine your body did not degrade in muscle mass, and there was no shortage of nutrients and proteins, so that your body would not become less healthy while in the machine? Battling instincts are interesting; I wonder if the instinct that pushes man to self medicate (drugs, alcohol, whatever vice) would push on man to plug into the machine? I say this because it seems to me that some of the instincts you mention would seemingly lead me to disregard such vices (I think you are right when you note the decadence of the machine, which seems to speak of plugging in as a vice), but given the commonality of self-medicating, it seems a fair explanation for its banality is its being rooted in instinct. I am not in any way convinced of this, just a conjecture relating to the Kierkegaardian interpretation I had of the experience machine. Thanks again for your thoughts on the matter; I, for one, would be interested in reading a full post on the matter.

  2. #5 by Erik on November 11, 2014 - 10:40 am

    Solipsism and coincidences/synchronicties haunted me like the plague

  1. Descartes’ Song | ausomeawestin

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