Opinion: Despite what Mark Zuckerberg thinks, you don’t have to be a fan of The Matrix to realize that being habitually hooked up to a machine doesn’t exactly equal the good life

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“Imagine a machine that could give you any experience (or sequence of experiences) you might desire. When connected to this experience machine, you can have the experience of writing a great poem, or bringing about world peace, or loving someone and being loved in return. … You can live your fondest dreams ‘from the inside.’ Would you choose to do this for the rest of your life?”

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Mark Zuckerberg thinks you would—and will. According to reports, the Facebook — I mean Meta — CEO is now obsessed with creating a virtual world in which you can live and laugh and love without ever leaving the comfort of your virtual-reality headset.

Given that this virtual universe — the “metaverse” — can provide us with anything and everything we desire, Zuckerberg envisions a day when it will eventually become preferable to the real world, when we’ll spend most or all of our time there.

In other words, Zuckerberg believes that we’re all inveterate pleasure seekers, that we’re driven by the single-minded pursuit of attaining our own pleasure or happiness. There is a name for this belief: hedonism.

That is not an admirable picture of the human condition, but it’s also not an uncommon belief. Stretching back at least to the classical Greek philosopher Epicurus, ethical hedonism posits that pleasure is the only thing of value in human life. Sure, people seek other things — money, power, love — but they do so only because they believe these things will bring them pleasure.

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An ethical society is therefore one that maximizes pleasure or happiness, which means the metaverse will be the ultimate utopia. Except it won’t be.

Indeed, you don’t have to be a fan of The Matrix to realize that being habitually hooked up to a machine doesn’t exactly equal the good life, even if it does provide you with endless pleasure. The late Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick realized as much long before the metaverse was even conceived.

It was Nozick, not Zuckerberg, who wrote the words and asked the question that opened this column. And Nozick believed most people would emphatically reject the life provided by his theoretical “experience machine.”

In Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974), and later in The Examined Life (1989), Nozick argued that people don’t merely desire pleasurable experiences, but really want to do the things that produce them. Furthermore, I have assumed that people really want to be a certain kind of person, not just vegetables attached to a machine making them feel like they are one thing or another. In fact, he described hooking oneself up to the experience machine as “a kind of suicide.”

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Over the last half century, Nozick’s thought experiment has been the subject of extensive philosophical commentary. And with the advent of the metaverse, at least two philosophical essays have reignited discussion of the experience machine, including detailing recent evidence from empirical studies, some of which called into question Nozick’s conclusion that people would resoundingly reject the virtual life.

Nonetheless, the theoretical experience machine and the “real” metaverse both suffer from the same fatal flaw: a lack of authenticity. Authenticity — the quality of being genuine — is, by definition, difficult to fake. After all, a fake experience is still, in some sense, an experience, but fake authenticity is a contradiction.

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And numerous studies have demonstrated that people seek, even crave, authenticity even more than they desire pleasure — or perhaps because it produces pleasure. A recent meta-analysis of 75 studies found authenticity — being true to oneself — in human life is essential to well-being, while other studies have demonstrated that authenticity enhances happiness and self-esteem.

None of this evidence provides a refutation of ethical hedonism, since people might seek authenticity for the pleasure it supplies. But it does drive a stake through the heart of the metaverse — or at least the belief that we will one day leave this world behind in favor of a virtual existence.

Sure, the metaverse might provide a welcome distraction from the vicissitudes of life, much like a good movie. But despite the superficial seductiveness of the metaverse, life — real life — will still triumph over the virtual one.

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