Thomas Metzinger on Bliss Machines & the Inadequacy of ‘Delusive’ Happiness


Daniel Friedman

In The Ego Tunnel, German philosopher Thomas Metzinger cites the late political philosopher Robert Nozick’s book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia to utilize a fascinating thought experiment:

You have the option of being hooked up to an ‘Experience Machine’ that keeps you in a state of permanent happiness. Would you do it?” 

– Metzinger, The Ego Tunnel, p. 198

Simple enough. The experiment assumes that society would’ve developed a mechanism for synthesizing happiness, likely via mapping the neural correlates of the subjective experience of happiness and stimulating these neural structures to conjure happiness in anyone willing to hook themselves up to the machine. He continues:

Interestingly, Nozick found that most people would not opt to spend the rest of their lives hooked up to such a machine. The reason is that most of us do not value bliss as such, but want it grounded in truth, virtue, artistic achievement, or some sort of higher good. That is, we want our bliss to be justified. We want to be not deluded Bliss Machines but conscious subjects who are happy for a reason…Nozick took this reaction to be a defeat of hedonism.” 

– Metzinger, ibid.

Nozick found that generally, people would not want to be in a permanent state of ‘artificial’ bliss. If this is consistent with the actual attitude of most humans, it’s fascinating. We don’t simply want to be happy, we want meaning, something real, something worthwhile.

I answered in accord with Nozick’s findings, and whenever anybody asks me what I want out of life, I can no longer say, “I just want to be happy”. This response to such existential questions, that so many people who fancy themselves clever or deeply thoughtful employ, is now bullshit.

But Metzinger takes this in a fascinating direction, inline with the message of his book. His metaphor of an Ego Tunnel states that our experience of self is a neurally-crafted one, the content of an evolutionary model created by our brains, and not reflective of an objectively existing thing. Living in the Ego Tunnel is similar to living in a virtual reality, except that we’re unaware of its contrived nature.

But if this is the case, that we’re living in a virtual reality constructed by our brains and represented to our self-models by our consciousness, then even if we find happiness in this state, are we any better than those who would hook themselves up to the Bliss Machines? Metzinger writes:

…’actual contact with reality’ and ‘certainty’ can be simulated too, and…nature has already done it in our brains by creating the Ego Tunnel…Are we in a state of constant self-deception? If we are serious about our happiness, and if we don’t want it to be ‘sheer’ hedonistic happiness, we must be absolutely certain that we are not systematically deceiving ourselves.”

Given that the primary metaphor of his book does indeed claim that we are in a state of constant self-deception – a claim ratified by millennia of contemplative work and the emerging scientific insights into consciousness – he concludes that our pursuit of how to live must immediately shift its gaze towards consciousness, so that we may better understand the nature of our experience.

Delivering the final blow to hedonism, Metzinger concludes:

If it makes any sense at all to speak about the value of human existence, we must concede that it depends on more than the conscious experience of happiness.” 

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