Tag Archives: Joshua Knobe

The Status Quo Machine

Will Wilkinson has a carved a nice niche out for empirical moral philosophy on his diavlogs at Bloggingheads. This week he and Joshua Knobe chat about some research concerning Robert Nozick’s Experience Machine. It seems little Bobby Nozick had it wrong, Knobe tells us. Nozick thought our intuitions against plugging into the machine demonstrated that what we value extends beyond what we feel on the inside. What we care about, at least at some fundamental level, is reality. So Nozick thought, anyway.

But Knobe, who could pass for Syler on Heroes, says Nozick has merely rationalized his intuition. Since Nozick is arguing for a mind-independent aspect to value, his left brain inner lawyer interprets his reluctance to step into the machine as a confirmation of his view. But that inner lawyer he and a majority respondents to the thought-experiment have summoned is misreading their gut reaction. Instead of demonstrating any care for how real our experience is, Knobe says our intuition is just another instance of the status quo bias. 

To illustrate this Knobe mentions a “reverse experience machine.” In this version, your current experience is an illusion. But all of a sudden, the walls of that ersatz reality come crashing down and you wake up in a laboratory tank. Alarmed, your monitors tell you there was a malfunction. They give you some options. They say either you can stay awake, here in reality, where you are a weak, beta male, lumpenprole, or you can return to your regularly scheduled program in the experience machine where you are, well, you. So the status quo has been reset in this thought experiment: now instead of stepping into the machine, we’re offered a chance to step out of it. Knobe says the majority of respondents in this case prefer to reboot. Status Quo, QED.   

But Knobe and Wilkinson are clearly not Cohaagen’s bosom buddy:

Quaid: All right, let’s say you’re telling the truth and this is all a dream, I could pull this trigger and it won’t matter?  
Dr. Edgemar: It won’t make the slightest difference to me Doug, but the consequences to you will be devastating. In your mind I’ll be dead, and with no one to guide you out, you’ll be stuck in permanent psychosis. The walls of reality will come crashing down. One minute, you’re the savior of the Rebel cause, next thing you know you’ll be Cohaagen’s bosom buddy. You’ll even have fantasies about alien civilizations as you requested, but in the end, back on Earth you’ll be lobotomized!

Sorry, I couldn’t resist. But my left brain interpreter has to object. Let’s assume the walls of my reality come crashing down and I wake up in the laboratory as Knobe says. Why would I take my monitor’s word that I am a beta? Shouldn’t I be a tad suspicious of anything they say? (Think of it this way, Knobe’s thought experiment would have been the optimal strategy for the malevolent artificial intelligence in the Matrix. Whenever some poor soul like Neo wakes up in his pod, tell him it’s not worth waking up. That’ll keep him there.) Furthermore, doesn’t a willingness to reboot demonstrate a woeful lack of curiosity? It is true, reality may be an ugly sight. Have you been to Los Angeles? But wouldn’t it be worth investigating? What strange civilization produced these machines you find yourself in? And why? These questions lead to another weakness in the Knobe results: the fear of self-knowledge. Contrary to the herd, I would want to know who I was before I entered the machine. Why did I program it the way I did? (Why so average? Why not a Nobel winner?) Or: why did I program my loved ones that way? Am I my parents’ creator? Why did I make them that way? Answers to all these questions would be interesting and they would shed some light on who I really am.

So I propose Knobe tries another experiment to follow this one up, asking respondents questions like, “Would you care to know who you were in this reality before you signed up to Recall?” and “Would you want to investigate this new world?” 

Ask those questions. Some will still want to return to the machines. It cannot be denied. Some need security blankets. But my bet is that most will still want a taste of reality, however small and brief.


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