Meaning and Truth

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As “virtual reality” becomes more prominent, with video game players being paid substantial prizes in competitions and Bitcoin accepted for many purchases, it might be time for a reality check.

Some years ago, philosopher Robert Nozick developed a valuable thought experiment. “Suppose there were an experience machine,” writes Nozick, “that would give you any experience 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?” You could eradicate all trauma and sadness. You could become, virtually, any person you want and have the experiences you chose. You could feel good; you might even feel important.

But here’s the question: Would you be living a meaningful life? Is this the life you would choose for yourself or your children? Nozick thinks the answer is no: “The reason we recoil from the idea of life in the tank is that the happiness it offers is empty and unearned.” You may feel happy in the tank, but you have no real reason to be happy. You may feel good, but your life isn’t actually good: “We care about more than just how things feel to us from the inside.”

Critics of Nozick’s thought experiment claim that its force derives from what they call “status quo bias”: we judge from the perspective we have now. Let’s say instead that you suddenly wake up in a clean, white room and a nurse says, “It is the year 2659, and you have been having the preprogrammed experiences you chose. Would you like to continue? You have chosen to do so three times in the past. If you choose to do so again, you will return without any memory of this intermission.”

What would you choose? Although this is supposed to be a refutation of Nozick’s “Experience Machine,” I’m not so sure it is. Plenty of people would want to know what was outside the white room. If I find out that I am not living in reality, then I would want to know what reality really is.


In the 1999 film The Matrix, the main character, Neo, is famously offered a choice between “the red pill,” which will allow him to learn the truth about the world he believes is real (“the Matrix”), or “the blue pill,” which will return him to his former life with no memory of the choice. Neo selects the red pill – an obvious choice since, if he doesn’t, the movie is over. But we have to account for why there is in Neo (as in the audience anxiously hoping he chooses the red pill) an undeniable curiosity to know the truth of things.

Later in the film, one of the human rebels named Cypher betrays his fellow crew members because, after nine years of suffering in the harsh conditions of the real world, he wants to be reinserted into the Matrix as a wealthy and successful man who enjoys pleasure with plenty of beautiful women. The audience certainly understands the temptation. And yet, they understand it precisely as a temptation that ought to be resisted. Rarely does someone root for Neo to take the blue pill and stay ignorant, or not find Cypher pitiful for choosing to return to unreality. If he returns, Cypher may “feel good,” but his life isn’t actually good. His pleasure was purchased at the cost of other’s lives. Sound familiar? His desire to remain ignorant of the truth will not make his life any more meaningful.

We, the audience, would prefer Cypher to choose to continue the struggle with his fellow humans because we know that this would have been a more meaningful life. Does this not show that what we really want, deep down, is, as Nozick suggests, “to live (an active verb) ourselves, in contact with reality,” i.e., with real things, real accomplishments, among real people, in the real world?

As those who have seen the movie know, Cypher is killed.  It would have been more interesting if the moviemaker had contrasted his life of meaningless, unearned pleasure in the Matrix with the meaningful struggles of his fellow humans in the real world.  The only reason one could give for the movie makers killing him off is that they share the audience’s contempt.  Even the reality challenged creators of “The Matrix” know how despicable he is.

That Greek word Aristotle used for the highest good and chief goal of our lives, eudaimonia, is often translated “happiness.” But Aristotle was not talking about a feeling. He understood the value of pleasure and was not puritanical about enjoying physical pleasures. But he was also critical of those who pursued pleasure as their primary goal in life. Such a life was “slavish,” he thought, and more “suitable to the beasts” than to human beings. Think of a well-fed pig in mud. Eudaimonia, thought Aristotle, involves cultivating the best qualities within you both morally and intellectually and fulfilling your potential. Rather than merely “feeling good,” eudaimonia results from “being and doing good.”

So we don’t want to dismiss “happiness” altogether, especially any well-considered answers to the question about the things that make a person truly happy, but it would likely deepen our reflections if we asked not merely “What would make me happy?” but also “What sort of life would be truly meaningful?” Would I prefer a life spent plugged into modern America’s “experience machine” of shopping, partying, sex, and “virtual” fun? Or am I called to something more – something real?


*Image: Keanu Reeves as Neo in The Matrix

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.