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What Does Nozick’s Experience Machine Argument Really Prove?ABSTRACT: Nozick’s well-known Experience Machine argument can be considered a typically successful argument: as far as I know, it has not been discussed much and has been widely seen as conclusive, or at least convincing enough to refute the mental-state versions of utilitarianism. I believe that if his argument were conclusive, its destructive effect would be even stronger. It would not only refute mental-state utilitarianism, but all theories (whether utilitarian or not) considering a certain subjective mental state (happiness, pleasure, desire, satisfaction) as the only valuable state. I shall call these theories “mental state welfarist theories.” I do not know whether utilitarianism or, in general, mental-state welfarism is plausible, but I doubt that Nozick’s argument is strong enough to prove that it is not.

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Nozick’s well-known Experience Machine argument can be considered as a typically successful argument: as far as I know, it has not been very discussed and has been widely seen as conclusive, or at least convincing enough to refute the mental-state versions of Utilitarianism. (1) Indeed, I believe that if his argument were conclusive, its destructive effect would be even stronger. It would not only refute mental-state utilitarianism, but all theories (whether utilitarian or not) considering a certain subjective mental state (happiness, pleasure, desire satisfaction) as the only valuable state. I shall call these theories “mental state welfarist theories.” (2)

I do not know whether utilitarianism or, in general, mental-state welfarism is plausible. But I doubt that Nozick’s argument is strong enough to prove that it is not.

This note tries to explain my doubts. Let us begin by briefly recalling the argument:

“Suppose there were an experience machine 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 experiences? […] Of course, while in the tank you won’t know that you’re there; you’ll think that it’s all actually happening […] Would you plug in?.” (3)

II

According to a first interpretation of Nozick’s argument, it proves (or attempts to prove) that we have strong reasons not to plug into the Machine. Such reasons could not be accepted by mental state Welfarism.

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