Brave New World: Do You Want a Soma Machine?

I sat down, trying to think of a way to write a review for Brave New World. My problem was, the book came out almost a century ago, there are probably hundreds of reviews on it. I’m probably not going to say anything new, so this is not a review on the book, but rather a philosophical reflection on its concept. And speaking of philosophy, maybe you have heard of a philosopher called Robert Nozick. If you have heard about him, you probably are familiar with his idea of an Experience Machine.

Nozick, in his 1974 book Anarchy, State and Utopia, put forth a thought experiment, mainly to argue against hedonists. Hedonism derives from the Greek word ηδονή which means pleasure, and is a school of thought which supports the idea that pleasure is the ultimate goal in life. In other words, pleasure is the only thing that matters, and there is nothing else that matters in life. Nozick tried to prove this statement false with the following experiment and argument:

Suppose that there is a machine, perfect in design so that no technical problems may arise, which plugs into your brain and by electrical impulses gives you infinite pleasure, and eliminates all pain. The machine is so good in its function that when you are plugged in you cannot tell the difference between that and real life. Would you agree to plug into the machine for the rest of your life?

Infinite pleasure, no pain of any sort, and you will never be able to tell the difference between that and the time when you weren’t plugged in. Nozick’s argument is that if there is any reason whatsoever for a person not to plugged into the machine, then by default there is something else beside pleasure that is worth living in the real life, therefore hedonism is flawed.

Nozick himself, but others as well have come up with reasons not to plug in. The most important one is that we have  a need to live in reality, we want to know the truth, by nature. We want real experience even if it isn’t all pleasure. I would also argue that when contrasted with pain, pleasure is even greater and meaningful. But how does this all tie in with Brave New World?

Of course, in the last “ideological showdown” between John Savage and Mustapha Mond. In essence, John tells him that he wants real human experiences instead of the desensitized New World, and Mond tells him that that life would also include diseases, getting old, pain and everything else, to which John replies with the famous quote “But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin. […] I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.”

So the experiment shows that to a certain degree we were not ready for the Brave New World to come in 1974, but maybe we need to conduct it again. In the age of online gaming, Netflix, automated pizza delivery, Amazon drones and online banking, there has never been such an absence of reasons to leave the couch. So the question remains: Do you want to plug into the ultimate pleasure machine?

Leave a comment below with your answer, I’m gonna go watch The Matrix.


Platon Poulas