The Last Experience

Apathy degrading the fabric of our society

Robert Nozick put forth the notion of an experience machine in his 1974 book Anarchy, State, and Utopia. He was very concerned with the idea that there are things which matter more to us than simply having pleasurable experiences. He describes the idea of an experience machine1 as follows:

“Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Super-duper 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’s experiences? […] Would you plug in?”

Nozick provides an argument for why no one would want to plug in – He demonstrates with a thought experiment that being in touch with reality (instead of living out a fantasy) matters to us in a very primal sense. In our post-modern times, Nozick’s expectations for society are falling apart. And the driving force is apathy. We can try to understand the rise of apathy through the framework of another philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche.

Thus Spoke Zarathustra

In Nietzsche’s work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he talks about the idea of Übermensch – A man that can overcome men and rise above the mind of masses, a superman. To him, the idea of ubermensch was wrapped within spiritual and religious contexts, because this superman would create his own set of morals once spirituality from God was gone. The superman is one fate that humanity might aspire to build for itself, but Nietzsche also highlights the opposite – The last man, an antithesis to the superman.

The epitome of complacency and mediocracy, the last man wants a banal life without any desire for spirituality or anything that is more than himself. He lacks any sense of creativity and only wants to consume. The last men actively seek ways to avoid dealing with issues that are degrading the very fabric of our society. They prefer being sedated because that sensation is the only proof of any humanity left inside of them.

They have found a new master to serve in this materialistic society. Their connection to reality is rotting away as they turn towards sedation for an outlet, just like Borges fable of the cartographers. If these last men were given the choice that Nozick offered, they would end up taking it as the ultimate path towards eternal sedation.

Is sedation going to be our last experience?