Risk, Part 1

Let’s take a break from all the finance stuff! My taxes are 90% done, so I’m ready to move on.

I went to Mount Royal University for an Aviation Diploma and subsequently a Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA), graduating from the latter almost a decade ago. One course that has always stuck with me is an Introduction to Philosophy course. One of those courses you ‘have’ to take to make a well-rounded person.

When we got to the part about Philosophy of Ethics, there were three main branches we studied: Hedonism, Utilitarian and Religion.

At the time, I categorized myself as a Utilitarian. So I was pretty excited when we learned about an “experience machine”, a thought experiment to debunk hedonism or prove how flawed the idea is that “happiness requires pleasure” (i.e. hedonism).

Philosopher Robert Nozick brought this argument forward in his book “Anarchy, State and Utopia”. Basically, the reader is invited into a machine where pleasurable experiences are produced, and – once inside – the reader will not be aware they are inside.

If you’re having trouble picturing this, think of the Matrix movies. I’m convinced they poked fun at this thought experiment, and so is Mazursky in his blog Nozick’s Experience Machine and The Matrix.

You might remember Cipher, who betrays Morpheus (protagonist of the movie). He has a nice dinner with Agent Smith (the antagonist of the movie) and the conversation goes like this:

Agent Smith: Do we have a deal, Mr. Reagan?

Cypher: You know, I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize? Ignorance is bliss.

Agent Smith: Then we have a deal?

Cypher: I don’t want to remember nothing. Nothing. You understand? And I want to be rich. You know, someone important. Like an actor.

Agent Smith: Whatever you want, Mr. Reagan.

Cypher: Okay. I get my body back into a power plant, re-insert me into the Matrix, I’ll get you what you want.

Compliments of Matrix Fans

I won’t spoil the movie for you, but as you can likely predict, things don’t end well for Cypher.

You see, most people, even hedonists, when confronted with the choice of whether or not to go in the machine will choose not to. They pick the “non-perfect” world we live in over a simulated reality, and why? If hedonism is true and “pleasure is good”, they’d be climbing aboard. But this proves that some pleasure isn’t good, or perhaps, more importantly, non-pleasure can also be good.



Star Trek drives this point home. Five years before The Matrix came out, Star Trek Generations came out. It was a great cross-over movie with Captain Picard (The Next Generation) going into something called “The Nexus” to get Captain Kirk (from the Original Series). The Nexus is essentially a sci-fi Experience Machine. For Captain Picard, he gets something he always wanted -> a family, and for Captain Kirk, he chooses to stay with his wife versus pursuing a career with Starfleet.

Picard figures out he’s in the machine and wants out, but has trouble convincing Kirk. That is, until Kirk takes his horse riding and jumps over a small stream. He does it two or three times before Picard catches up to him, and Kirk describes how – when he used to do it (in real life) – he would get butterflies. He’d be a bit nervous. The transcript reads “it scared the hell out of me”. Why? Because he didn’t know if he’d make it to the other side. Now, in this pleasure-inducing experience machine, what could possibly go wrong?


Side note -> Captain Kirk imparts some wise words to Captain Picard.

“Let me tell you something. Don’t! Don’t let them promote you. Don’t let them transfer you. Don’t let them do anything that takes you off the bridge of that ship, because while you’re there, you can make a difference.”

Compliments of Chakoteya

That was good to hear as a young pilot. Actually, as a young man. Find where you can make a difference. And it doesn’t have to be on the bridge of a ship. It can be, but doesn’t have to be. Captain Kirk made his decision and he did make a difference on the Enterprise, but he could have had he retired from Starfleet and stayed with his wife. For him, it was too late, and no experience machine was going to change that.

But for a young teenager watching the movie, with his full life ahead of him, it gave me some direction.

Beautiful Day. How Captain Kirk greets Captain Picard. I still use this phrase with my wife, she gets the reference. Image from TrekCore

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