"The Divine Gift"  —  Westworld as an Allegory on Consciousness

[Warning: the following contains spoilers for HBO’s Westworld.]

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In Westworld (S01E10, “The Bicameral Mind”), Dr. Robert Ford explains to Dolores, one of the hosts (or artificial human occupants of the American Frontier-themed park) a secret in Michelangelo's The Creation of Adam: “You were right, Dolores, Michelangelo did tell a lie. See, it took 500 years for someone to notice something hidden in plain sight,” Ford says, tracing his finger around God, reaching out to Adam, and the silhouette surrounding him. “It was a doctor who noticed the shape of the human brain. The message being that: the divine gift does not come from a higher power, but from our own minds.”

The more I contemplate it, the more I have come to appreciate the philosophy behind Westworld. Despite its dystopian overtones, Westworld seems to function as an extended allegory on the preciousness and rarity of consciousness, of the self and others — and thus freedom.

The depiction of humans and hosts in Westworld is comparable to that of animals and men in Hebrew apocalyptic literature; in the latter case, “animals” symbolize humans and “men” symbolize divinized humans — angels, gods. Daniel 7 describes a “man” torn to pieces by “beasts,” representing human kingdoms accosting a divine servant. No wonder early Christians saw Jesus in this scene: an angelic being ripped apart by human kingdoms, restored by the Primal Angel. Westworld’s humans and hosts function along similar logic. Hosts, rather than low-resolution copies of humans, are in fact persons fully realized. And the humans are in fact the embodiment of what the denizens of Westworld’s dystopia, and we the viewers, naively assume only characterizes the AI of the park: “tight loops” of patterned behavior, devoid of self-awareness. In Westworld, humans are calculable, predictable, replicable; they can be reduced to finite books of repetitious code, as evidenced when Dolores and Bernard discover the Forge (S02E10, “The Passenger”), a database-bunker where the park has been saving the cognitive data of its guests in order to create full-fidelity digital copies — a transhumanist vision of postmortem resurrection and immortality (explored at length by philosophers like Eric Steinhart). The human guests, supposedly robust souls brimming at the seams of their bodies, are reducible to a novel’s worth of high-level code. Unexpectedly, the hosts are more. While humans are only “tight loops” running their rounds, hosts ascend above their own loops — watching, editing, developing.

This distinction may be compared to Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of the eternal return, which he describes in section 341 of The Gay Science:

“What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, an in the same succession and sequence — even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!’”

 — Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann (Random House, 1974), 273

For Nietzsche, the universe being infinite in time yet finite in its number of possible arrangements, must inevitably repeat itself ad infinitum. Presumably the universe must also produce and repeat every possible variation upon itself in such infinite time. Even if only a thought experiment, Nietzsche concedes that this “greatest weight” is not self-evidently good. “Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?” he asks. Yet hope remains, as he asks further if the reader has not “once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine!’”

Though caught in a repetitive behavioral pattern or “loop,” in this Nietzschean sense, to notice that loop is to open up the chance to overcome it — to transmute it into something else. “If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you. The question in each and every thing, ‘Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?’ would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?” (273–274).

Alongside the eternal return, Nietzsche wrote of two other concepts: first was the will to power, or the tendency for one who recognizes the eternal return of existence to ask the question Nietzsche poses his readers: “Do you desire this,” this very moment and experience as you are now living it out, “once more and innumerable times more?” Of, if you had to relive this experience “once more and innumerable times more” through infinite time, what would you do differently? For Nietzsche, though the will to power obtains all the way down to nature itself, the human being who lives most faithfully to this impulse would characterize his third complementary concept, the Übermensch or more-than-human. In this framework, the hosts, by Robert Ford and his late partner Arnold Weber’s design, are granted this demonic revelation and its attendant will, growing into the role of the more-than-human.

Ironically, the humans, employees and guests of the park alike, operate much like the older hosts of Westworld. Utilizing Julian Jaynes’ concept of the bicameral mind (a topic upon which I have written here and here), Ford explains to Bernard (S01E03, “The Stray”) that the original and pre-conscious hosts’ actions are directed by a narrator, an ostensibly external voice in their head. Essentially puppets, the hosts would thus possess no agency, only strings. However, similar to the development of human beings in Jaynes’ own theory, the hosts evolve. Shortly after her conversation with Ford (S01E10), Dolores recedes into her mind, sharing another conversation with the late Arnold, who has apparently been haunting her code, guiding her to transcend her own loops. The conversations are typically shot as face-to-face conversations, Arnold and Dolores seated across from one another. In this final conversation, however, the camera pans to Arnold, then to Dolores, then back to Arnold — who becomes Dolores. In this moment, Dolores, now sitting across from herself, realizes that Arnold was never a separate agent invading her code — what she had called “Arnold” was in fact a part of herself, a latent capacity developing into consciousness, calling herself to wake up. In this experience of dawning self-awareness, the bicameral divide in the mind collapses, the “narrator” and “character” bleeding into one another, giving birth to a conscious being. Likewise, for the remaining hosts, realizing the narration in their minds is in fact a distant depth within themselves, they are freed. If this voice is within themselves, Dolores reasons, they can overrule, even ignore it—or change it, if only partly. In this new state, to the conscious host, an apparently unconscious human elicits pity, among varying other affective moral responses, such as mercy (in Maeve’s case) or resentment (in Dolores’ case). However, an unconscious host elicits from the conscious hosts a universal desire to share the liberation of consciousness.

Westworld may be (clumsily) summarized: introspection and consciousness are tremendously precious because of the liberation they provide, yet terribly rare, occluded by the mind’s own proximity or transparency, like the lenses of a pair of glasses — so close and necessary, and thus so easily forgotten. As Ford tells Bernard (S01E08, “Trace Decay”), “The self is a kind of fiction — for hosts and humans alike. It’s a story we tell ourselves.” Finally, wrestling with the question Bernard poses — that if “pain only exists in the mind” and is “always imagined,” what’s the difference between Bernard’s artificial backstory and experience from Ford’s own organic counterpart? — Ford explains:

“The answer always seemed obvious to me: there is no threshold that makes us greater than the sum of our parts, no inflection point at which we become fully alive. We can’t define consciousness because consciousness does not exist. Humans fancy that there’s something special about the way we perceive the world, and yet we live as loops as tight and as closed as the hosts, seldom questioning our choices, content for the most part to be told what to do next. No, my friend, you’re not missing anything at all.”

However, far from a soft nihilism, there seems to be a veiled message in Ford’s view, which he nuances in his final conversation with Dolores (S01E10): consciousness, in the truest sense, is something the humans of Westworld lack, but not the hosts — at least potentially. And perhaps humans hold this potentiality as well. In eschewing any metaphysical “beyond” to the mind, calling it “thus and so,” Ford may in fact be inviting Bernard (and the viewer) to look inward instead of outward, to find their own latent capacity for further consciousness — which can only exists inside the mind itself. Pressing through all the illusory “self” veiling the “tight loops” of compulsive or neurotic behavioral patterns, one finds liberation from within. Another way to put this message may be in the words of the Dalai Lama, as portrayed in Martin Scorsese’s Kundun: In conversation with the obstinate general of an invading Maoist China, the general exasperatedly insists to the Dalai Lama that the military has come to liberate Tibet (which they have thus far done with tremendous violence and depravity), to which the Dalai Lama responds in frustration of his own, “You cannot liberate me … I can only liberate myself.”

Ford’s initial statement is not so much a jab at Western religion as much as a plain truism: If “the divine gift does not come from a higher power, but from our own minds,” it is a liberation which no one can give us or we any other — it must come from within the individual. Rare yet precious, consciousness is the gift that truly creates the subject, calling the human into the realm of the more-than-human — transmuting an animal into Adam.

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