Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Worth of a Sandwich

Our intrepid heroes, inter-planetary explorers, have landed on the Planet of the Week, a Brave New World where No Man Has Gone Before. Before long they meet the native’s leaders and are having a merry old time - until they begin to discover that things aren’t quite right. The idyllic society has a nasty underbelly, and it is their duty as heroes to Right All Wrongs and expose the evil to the commoners.

Before they can, their once-genial hosts catch them. They are told that they cannot leave the planet, because they might report what they have seen to an outside authority; and they cannot stay, because they might tell the commoners the truth about their utopia. But their captors are not so backwards as to execute them, or toss them in a cell and throw away the key. Instead they are to be hooked up to a virtual reality machine, where they can live out the rest of their lives in a fantasy of their choice, while their bodies are kept alive by IV feeding. Our heroes declare that such a solution is unacceptable, as they could never be happy or find meaning in a life they know to be entirely artificial.

I think most people would agree with our heroes that an artificial existence would be meaningless. We would agree that getting married, having children, a career, being active in the community – in short, all the things we value as indicators of a life well spent – would be meaningless if acted out in a virtual fantasy world. Despite having our every desire catered to, such an artificial existence would quickly lose its novelty and become depressing as we realize that nothing we do really matters.

Why we would feel this way is an interesting question.

An even more interesting question is why we don’t feel this way about the “real” world.

If raising children, being active in the community, etc., are not considered meaningful in the virtual world, then we can conclude that it is not the act itself that has value. The actions and experiences of the individual are the same in the real and virtual world. Rather, the value must be the action’s effect on others. Because there are no “others” in the virtual world, only virtual constructs, the actions are not considered to have value.

The question then is why do we think that the impact of our actions on others give the actions value? Do our actions in fact have objective values, or is it merely that we are wired to believe that acts which help others are meaningful? If so, what if the virtual reality machine could be tweaked to make those hooked up to it believe that making turkey sandwiches has intrinsic value, and they happily spent the next sixty years making turkey sandwiches. Is that bad? They would be happy and would believe they led a meaningful life. How is being programmed to believe altruistic acts have intrinsic value any different than being programmed to believe that making turkey sandwiches has intrinsic value?

If there really is no difference, and person in a virtual world programmed to believe making virtual turkey sandwiches has value can find the same fulfillment that an unaltered human in the real world can find in being altruistic, if in the virtual world tombstones read, “expert turkey sandwich maker,” instead of, “loving father, devoted husband, invaluable member of the community,” then our meaningful, productive, altruistic lives really have no more intrinsic value than the virtual world’s inhabitant’s years of sandwich making.

Havael havalim hakol hevel

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