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The Experience Machine Fallacy

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Volume 17 Issue 12


Suppose there was an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Super-duper neuro-psychologists 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 desires? Of course, while in the tank you wouldn’t know that you’re there; you would think it’s all actually happening. Would you plug in? What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside?

Robert Norzick, the famous American philosopher, posits the idea of the experience machine in his book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, from which this quote is drawn. The question, Would you plug in? Has become a standard discussion topic in ethics and philosophy classes worldwide. Mr. Norzick concludes from his own interactions with people that most would not plug in. Ben Dupre, (50 Philosophy Ideas) notes that: from this, Norzick infers that there are other things, apart from pleasure, that we consider intrinsically valuable.

There is much here that we modern day church folks need to think about. Have we substituted an experience machine for the real Christian life? Are we by our theatrical, emotional, hyped-up, come and get a blessing right now, give and get a blessing right now, shout, scream, crank-it-up, jump, pass-the-body-surfer, creating a kind of churchy spiritual experience machine? Don’t leave me here; this is not criticism of true worship or even contemporary worship. I am trying in this short space to make a point.

Do we want our churches to be mere experience machines – all emotionalism unconnected to repentance and redemption? Norzick imagined that his machine might be done in salt water tanks where, as Dupre put it, one could have unalloyed pleasure. In other words, the pleasure of a thing is detached or unalloyed to any real live struggle that might be demanded in order to achieve the pleasure that would be associated with an accomplishment. Today we might call this virtual reality.

Consider all this from a spiritual point of view. A church, for example, could easily get caught up in creating an experience machine, offering attendees an opportunity to plug in to the moment, get with it, fake it till you make it sort of thing. Add some mood lights, numb the brain with beat and volume and you can feel like an overcoming Holy Ghost Christian without actually being one. Other examples: a ministry without commitment, an anointing without a sacrifice, a crown without a cross, a good feeling without a good life, a revolution without struggle, a crop without a planting, praise driven by the beat of the music and not a joy springing up from a transformed heart — you get the idea. And my point here is that, as in Norzick’s surveys, most people rejected the idea of an experience machine that gives one the induced (unalloyed) pleasure without the process. So should we.

Jesus challenged us to follow Him. That meant to live the life and fight the fight of faith. It meant that being a Christian was not about watching miracles being performed. Jesus pointed this out to those who followed Him for the loaves and the fish.

He clearly intended for our lives to be a journey. Take up the cross (Mark 10:21), it’s an adventure of faith (Heb. 11). What missionary would trade the struggles, the adventures, the nights, or even the scars for some induced pleasure or pretense? What is satisfying about a preacher’s license and no ministry? The journey is the joy. The Cross of Christ is our story. It is our testimony. The walk and the talk go together.

Creating an experience machine for our generation is not enough. What are we thinking? The real deal is to instead participate in the greatest struggle ever in the history of the human race: the last days. May we forego the experience machine for the real experience of living a righteous life?

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