Is it possible that the episode “Rose’s Room” of Steven Universe may be able to help us determine what it is that we find worth living for? In this article, I compare Steven’s experience in Rose’s Room with the famous ethical thought experiment of Robert Nozick’s “experience machine” to explore this question.
Imagine, for a moment, that you have found yourself in a room where any experience that you wanted to have could happen. This room distorts and changes based on your whims, allowing you to live out all the fantasies you could want, limited only by your imagination. Just what exactly would this room be like?
In the episode “Rose’s Room” of the Cartoon Network show Steven Universe, main character Steven Universe got to experience such a room. As the title suggests, this room belonged to the character Rose, a Crystal Gem who gave up her physical form to create Steven Universe with her lover Greg Universe. As her son, then, Steven is able to gain access to this fantastical room upon desiring to get away from his guardians – the other Crystal Gems – Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl. Upon entering this room of fluffy, pink clouds, Steven quickly discovers it bends to his whims, providing him with his wants and desires without a second thought.
In the end, however, things go awry as Steven’s wishes get too big for the room to handle, leading to it practically crashing and rebooting after trying to recreate Steven’s hometown of Beach City for him.
But let’s imagine, for a moment, that we could make a few changes to this room so that such things are avoided. The room is capable of producing any experience we want, no limitations. In fact, this room is so good at creating experiences that we’re incapable of telling it apart from the real world.
In other words, what would happen if Rose’s Room became an experience machine?
Nozick’s Experience Machine
Robert Nozick was an American philosopher who, during his career at Harvard University until his death in 2002, wrote on a wide range of topics: political philosophy, epistemology, and even metaphysics. For our purposes, we’re going to focus on a thought experiment Nozick devised in his 1974 work Anarchy, State, and Utopia known as “the experience machine.” This thought experiment was designed to challenge the claim of classical utilitarian ethics* that pleasure was the only inherently valuable good in life, a claim known as “hedonism”. The thought experiment goes something like this:
Suppose there was 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 experiences? […] Of course, while in the tank you won’t know that you’re there; you’ll think that it’s all actually happening […] Would you plug in? (44-45)
According to Nozick, people would reject the offer to plug-in for some reason or another. Perhaps we want to truly do things, not just have the experience? Or maybe plugging ourselves in would be almost like committing suicide as we want to be certain people? Whatever the case may be, the point is that refusing to plug ourselves in suggests that there is something more than just simply having the experience that matters. To quote Nozick: “Perhaps what we desire is to live (an active web) ourselves, in contact with reality.”
As mentioned, Rose’s Room isn’t a perfect experience machine. It isn’t capable of completely replicating experiences and will in fact break down if pushed too much. It can’t even let you eat donuts for crying out loud! Furthermore, Steven is at least initially aware he’s in the room, at least till he wants to go get a “real” donut and it creates the fake town for him. Finally, he’s not in a tank: his physical body is still going around experiencing things.
For the most part that last bit will be rather unimportant: the question is does it matter if the experience is real or not? Even if Steven himself is still moving around in his real body, all experiences within Rose’s Room are, well, fake. Badly fake at that. But, for the sake of argument, imagine that it was able to perfectly replicate experiences without limitations. The humans act like humans and the donuts are in fact edible and quite tasty! And, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that being half-gem means Steven does not in fact actually have to eat, or that the room is somehow able to provide him with nutrients to live (whichever assumption you like best). Would it truly be in his best interest to leave? Let’s find out.
Steven and the Experience Machine
Imagine that when Steven “leaves” the room and goes to the Big Donut, the Lars and Sadie that the room creates are exact replicas of the real ones. They chat with Steven, make the donuts, and Steven never finds out that they were in fact created by the room. The same applies to the entire town and its inhabitants. In fact, the room even recreates the Crystal Gems so Steven can go on missions and everything!
Having never found out that he has not in fact left the room, Steven continues his life and enjoying what happens. He goes on missions, gets more powers, and maybe even dates and marries [insert ship of your choice].
One day, however, this perfectly pleasant life is interrupted by a glowing, magical door appearing and the real Crystal Gems barging in. They tell Steven that it took many years, but they had finally found a way into Rose’s room without his gems and that he is now free to return to the real world. The shock of discovering all this, however, sends him into great mental distress as he debates whether to stay or whether to go. The Gems, despite wanting him to return to the real world with them, give him an offer: either he can come back with them or, using Gem magic, they can erase his memory of their arrival and allow him to remain in Rose’s Room for the rest of his life.
According to Robert Nozick, the choice should be easy: Steven would leave the machine and return to the real world. But is the choice really that simple?
The Hedonist Responds
In their recent book The Point of View of the Universe, utilitarians Peter Singer and Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek respond to Nozick’s “experience machine” argument with a scenario quite similar to the one I created for Steven above. According to them, the hesitance to enter the machine may not in fact be because of some desire for “reality” but the result of natural human biases in thinking. Human beings are, generally, risk aversive and have a bias towards favoring the “status quo”. Nozick’s scenario, they argue, is assisted by these biases to inadvertently lead to the result of people rejecting plugging into the machine. Rewriting the scenario so that being within the machine is the status quo and reality the great unknown should therefore change the result while still retaining the basic question being tested.
So, does doing this make a difference? According to Singer and Lazari-Radek, it makes a radical difference. Both Nozick’s original description and the modified description have been presented in studies to see which option people would pick: plug in or not? When presented with Nozick’s scenario, the number of people willing to plug-in is rather low: one study found at most 16% would. But when the scenario was changed so that being plugged in was the status quo? The numbers started rising. In one case, with no information about what “reality” was, 41% said they would plug in, and in another case where they were told it was a stranger and not themselves 55% said the stranger should stay in. Some studies also included information on what reality was like: one group was told their reality was a maximum security prison, another they were a multi-millionaire, and another remained neutral. No surprise that 87% of the “prisoners” stayed plugged in, but even in the case of the millionaire exactly half of the people said they would stay plugged in!
In other words, the hedonist argues, rejection of the machine does not appear to be due to a desire for real experiences but an understandable hesitance grounded in a bias towards what we are familiar with than with the unknown.*
Therefore, when the Gems barge into Steven’s world in the scenario above, it is Rose’s Room, not the “real world” that is the status quo. To give up the Room would mean giving up and accepting that all the adventures he had, the love of his life [insert choice of ship here], everything was fake and meaningless. He has no idea what the world outside the room is like at all. That doesn’t necessarily mean he won’t go, but it may be enough at least to make him pause and consider staying “plugged in”.
In the end, of course, Rose’s Room wasn’t as fantastical as Nozick’s experience machine. Instead of offering ultimate pleasure, it offered a creepy town filled with mechanical humans and Frybo before falling apart into an endless void. Still, take a moment to imagine it was an experience machine capable of giving you all the pleasures that you ever wanted. You might want to ask yourself one important question.
Would you plug in?
And if you want to check out Singer and Lazari-Radek’s book, it’s available at:
*While not an important aspect of this article, for those interested in utilitarian ethics please feel free to read “Is Pinkie Pie an Ethical Hedonist?” and plenty of my other articles for an indepth discussion on the topic.
*Singer and Lazari-Radek mention other arguments of a similar nature, such as that Nozick’s description also brings in doubts about the guarantees of the machine and horrific images of sci-fi that may bias people further. This is especially the case after movies like “The Matrix” popularized such ideas.