The Reading Room

Three Ways of Looking at Individualism: Freedom in Agency

In Anarchy, State, and Utopia Robert Nozick asks readers to imagine that we could connect ourselves to “experience machines”. These devices could manipulate our brains into believing an entirely virtual reality where we can vividly experience our wildest dreams as if they were really happening. We wouldn’t even be aware that we were in a virtual space – our memories of connecting with it are erased, and so the space would be indistinguishable from reality in our minds.
Would you hook yourself up to the machine? Nozick thought most people in decent circumstances would not, at least not permanently, no matter how awesome the experiences might be. One point of Nozick’s thought experiment is to suggest we value more than merely experiences. This active existence still involves valuing experiences, of course, but ones linked to real events and not passive neuronal stimulation. Nozick suggests that we seek the genuine article, not the Matrix.
Why, though? One reason for this preference is that most of us desire not only to be free, but to have free agency. We fundamentally value being a player in the course of events, being active causes, not merely receptacles of desirable mental states. When hooked to the machine we are not just unfree, we’re arguably even dead in a way since it’s not us acting on our purposes - things are merely happening to us, not much differently than a canvas or movie screen. Significant numbers of us value our individual freedom to have some level of control over our lives, free of machines. We value individual freedom in its own right, not just for the experience of being an agent. 
J.S. Mill’s conception of persons as progressive beings is relevant here. For Mill, we are not fixed by any unalterable instincts or predetermined goals. Our capacity for choice and reflective thought means that each person - for it to be her life - must make numerous decisions about what forms her journey will take. Even the decision to follow some traditional or hierarchical way of life is itself a result of the individual’s sustained judgment that this life is best for her. Is Mill’s view controversial? Sure, but is it any more controversial than thicker conceptions of persons or good lives? The more comprehensive a conception, the more liable it is to sectarian premises unshared by a wide swath of people.   
A skeptic of my thesis might still insist on why it matters whether we’re really free or just experiencing it. Why not be indifferent between the two states of affairs? Why not just flip a coin if given the choice? There is probably nothing more fundamental I could say that would change the skeptic’s mind. Premises must bottom out at some point, but appealing to imagination is another route.   
Imagine you’re on your deathbed, having lived a full life of accomplishment, with your friends by your side. They take turns letting you know how much they loved you. You pass away peacefully, tears in your eyes, your final thought being how much they meant to you. A few moments pass…then your “friends” all start cackling in hysterics. “I can’t believe he bought it for all those years!” says your mentor. “That moron was always so proud of us!” say your beloved wife, daughter, and son in unison. The night of revelry ends when they toss your body in the nearest dumpster and sell the film rights about their lifelong deception, captured with hidden cameras, to an unscrupulous but talented documentary filmmaker.  (I take no credit for this great thought experiment. Eric Mack raised the original version in class when teaching Nozick.)
Of course, such a conspiracy is vastly improbable, but that’s not the point of the thought experiment. And yes, you’re not there to experience the devastation and humiliation of it all having been a lie…but that’s not the point either. The point that remains, and this is an entirely rhetorical appeal: would you really be indifferent if given the choice between a life of genuine friends and accomplishments versus a life of fake ones? If you wouldn’t be indifferent, then you value more than just experiences. 
However, what if our free agency really is illusory? Suppose it’s discovered that we are, in fact, entirely determined by forces beyond our free causal control. My sense is that most of us - maybe some philosophers aside - would continue living as normal and value the illusion as if we were actually free. Does this undermine what I tried to show above? I don’t think so. That we could still value the illusion, the subjective experience, doesn’t mean that we’re indifferent about it being real or illusory. That we’d prefer illusory freedom over nothing doesn’t imply that we wouldn’t prefer real freedom over the illusion.