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Excessive Machine from film Barbarella by Roger Vadim

Would You Use a Machine that Guarantees Infinite Pleasure?


There might be more to life than finding pleasure and avoiding pain.

Imagine a hypothetical situation in which scientists create a machine to which we can connect and then feel only pleasure. All of our discontents, all of our painful memories will be left behind, and we’ll be receptive only to the powerful waves of sensations that the machine generates. Are these experiences artificial? No doubt. But scientists explain that these “false” experiences are preferable to the very real experiences of suffering, pain, and loss. Under such premises, would you be willing to immerse yourself in an eternity of uninterrupted pleasure? Or would you remain within the common, ordinary existence in which happiness and pain alternate?

Philosophy and psychology have, for centuries, been responsible for expanding the debate over whether or not life should be a constant quest to procure pleasure and avoid pain. For example, the disciples of the Greek philosopher Epicurus (whose doctrine still bears his name: “Epicureanism”) believed that pleasure and happiness are the only valid motivations of the human being. But they didn’t call these “excesses.” The ultimate aim is not limitless sensory pleasure but “ataraxia” which usually translates simply as “happiness,” but which also carries a sense of physical and spiritual balance and in which reason is the basis for avoiding a fall into excess.

Epicureanism also condemns excess, with an understanding that the pursuit of grandiose but momentary pleasure (such as the use of drugs) could bring long-term pain. This bears not a genuine pleasure, but a delusion.

According to the philosopher Robert Nozick, probably the right choice in the face of the pleasure machine dilemma would be to simply not go in. Why? Our valuations of experience are mediated not only by pleasure. Some people will feel that they adopt a passive position before the sensations produced by the machine in them. Their particular pleasure needs to be found elsewhere. An assessment of the effort and the difficulty of learning certain things (like mathematics, languages, or cooking) can lead to frustration at first, but eventually, they’ll make us feel more self-possessed as we’ve surpassed our own limits.

According to Nozick, the idea that pleasure is the only good in the world is false from a rational point of view. Pleasure and pain are not always clearly identifiable. What do we do when a masochistic personality receives an enormous amount of pleasure through physical pain, for example? And what happens when we get something that we want, only to realize that upon possessing it that we no longer care for it?

Any human being is more complex than simple binary choices between pleasure and pain. Think about the cases of people who become depressed upon entering Facebook and other social networks, feeling envy for the approval that “likes” from others will generate. Reducing ourselves to a dichotomous record of pleasure/pain denies humanity its larger construct. Or as the Buddha put it: “Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.”


*Image: the Excessive Machine from film Barbarella by Roger Vadim

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