Updated: 2 days ago
In season 1 of the TV show Westworld, the nature of consciousness, the meaning of life, free will, and other philosophical concepts are examined. The series is loosely based off of the 1973 film, Westworld, and the sequel, Futureworld. What makes the 2016 TV series interesting is that the nature of consciousness and meaning are intertwined by what is known as the "maze." Although the original film provided the segue into this, it did not go as in-depth as the series. As such, this topic will be explored below.
According to an article on the Film School Rejects website, the creators of the series base the concepts of consciousness off a controversial book created in the 70s, which argues humans did not become self-aware until the time of Homer; before that, they heard "divine commands" which were really their two brain hemispheres communicating with each other. That is, humans were not yet evolved enough for the two hemispheres to seamlessly aggregate into one consciousness. The theory became known as Bicameralism. Similarly, the robots (aka hosts) in the show appear to trend towards self-awareness; at least that is what they think, and believe by the end of season 1.
In episode 8, Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) discusses with Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright), why he believes consciousness does not exist. In short, Dr. Ford thinks there is no real difference between people and hosts. Instead, the self is a kind of fiction that humans and hosts tell themselves. Humans, like the hosts, Ford explains, are stuck in a loop, waiting to be told what to do, waking up and repeating the same day over and over with only small variations. Thus, like the hosts, humans are not conscious, but rather biological machines reacting to environmental stimuli.
Later, in episode 10, we learn that Arnold (Dr. Ford's original partner) theorized that consciousness was not a journey outwards as initially thought, but rather a journey inwards. Not a pyramid, but a maze—symbolized in the series by a game called Pigs in Clover.
So we have to ask, do the hosts become self-aware or is this just part of the extended story, part of their core programming? For that answer, we will likely have to wait until season 2.
With that said, this is also not the first time that writers and filmmakers have explored the topics of artificial intelligence becoming self-aware and exploring both the purpose and the meaning of life. Ghost in the Shell, Fargo, Star Trek, and more have also been outlined on this website.
In Westworld, Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), an android and Alice in Wonderland look-alike, awakens each day tasting sunshine, smiling, seeing beauty, and wholeheartedly believing that there is a purpose to her existence. Unfortunately for her, her part is to play the damsel—from dropping a tin can on the street each day to watching her father die every night. In episode one, she awakens to say the following: “Some people choose to see the ugliness in this world. The disarray. I choose to see the beauty... To believe there is an order to our days, a purpose.”
Shortly after her father possibly has an existential crisis (debated by the techs), Dolores starts to remember her true past, beyond the memories that she was programmed to have, and all the horrors of what that entails.
In many of the episodes, as will be shown below, the creators often taunt and challenge the watchers to question the nature of free-will and meaning.
Logan: They can even give you a sense of purpose. (Logan to William about his theory that Dolores was planted by the park owners to give William something to care about.)
Dr. Robert Ford: A greyhound is a racing dog. Spends its life running in circles, chasing a bit of felt made up like a rabbit. One day, we took it to the park... the dog spotted a cat. I imagine it must have looked just like that piece of felt. He ran. Never saw a thing as beautiful as that old dog running. Until, at last, he finally caught it. And to the horror or everyone, he killed that little cat. Tore it to pieces. Then he just at there, confused. That dog had spent its whole life trying to catch that... thing. Now it had no idea what to do.
This monologue reminds me a bit how many of us do the same thing our whole lives: chase money, a promotion, etc. and then when we finally get what we've been chasing— we destroy it, lose ourselves, our individuality in the process. What made us—us, is gone. Ford in the above conversation is talking to a retired host and is actually outlining his plans to take the leash off the hosts, to awaken them in his final story.
Later in the episode...
Dolores: Lately, I wondered if in every moment, there aren't many paths. Choices hanging in the air like ghosts. And if you could just see them, you could change your whole life.
William: Is that what you want? You want to change your life?
Dolores: Doesn't everybody want that?
William: Yeah I guess they do. Maybe that's why they come here. Whoever you were before doesn't matter here. There's no rules or restrictions. You can change the story of your life. You can become someone else. No one will judge you, no one in the real world will even know. Only thing holding you back is yourself.
Dr. Robert Ford: Do you know where you are?
Dolores: I'm in a dream.
Dr. Robert Ford: Yes, Dolores. You're in my dream. Tell me, do you know what this dream means?
Dolores: Dreams are the mind telling stories to itself. They don't mean anything.
Dr. Robert Ford: No, dreams mean everything. They're the stories we tell ourselves of what could be, who we could become. Have you been dreaming again Dolores?
Man in Black (William): Do you know why you exist, Teddy? The world out there, the one you'll never see, was one of plenty. A fat, soft teat people cling to their entire life. Every need taken care of except one— purpose, meaning. So they come here. They can be a little scared, a little thrilled, enjoy some sweetly affirmative bullshit, and then they take a fucking picture and they go back home. But I think there's a deeper meaning hiding under all that. Something the person who created it wanted to express. Something true.
Teddy: The maze is an old native myth. The maze itself is the sum of a man's life--choices he makes, dreams he hangs on to. And there at the center, there's a legendary man who had been killed over and over again countless times, but always clawed his way back to life. The man returned for the last time and vanquished all his oppressors in a tireless fury. He built a house. Around that house he built a maze so complicated, only he could navigate through it. I reckon he'd seen enough fighting.
William: The only thing I had when I was a kid were books. I used to live in them. I used to go to sleep dreaming I'd wake up inside one of them. 'cause they had meaning. This place, this is like I woke up inside one if those stories. I guess I just wanna find out what it means.
Dolores: I don't want to be in a story. All I want is to not look forward or back. I just wanna be... in the moment I'm in.
Behemoth: The greatest shame in life is to perish without purpose, which is why I always consume my victims flesh.
Charlotte Hale: This shouldn't make you uncomfortable. It's the circle of life, or the approximation of it. Even the dead fulfill a purpose. (to Lee Sizemore while walking through a room of retired hosts)
At the end of episode 8, the older version of William (aka the man in black), talks about how the maze is the only thing that matters, the only thing that can give our life meaning, his life meaning.
In this episode, Bernard, one of the hosts that understands how the machines are made, their coding, and is a replica of Arnold (Ford's previous partner), asks “Who am I?” Ford explains in very simple terms Bernard's purpose is to serve him, to be a partner of sorts, to replace his friend Arnold whom he lost due to suicide. As the series progresses, Bernard begins to ask Ford deeper questions about consciousness as discussed earlier in this post.
But what are memories? Do memories make us who we are? Can we have any meaning without memories?
To answer this question, it may be best to look back to one of the great neuroscientists of the 21st century—Oliver Sacks. In his book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, he encounters a man who lives only in the present but is stuck in the past. He cannot create new memories, and as such, within a few minutes, forgets everything that has just happened. Yet his personality is fully formed, he has memories of his youth.
Sacks struggles here to determine if there is meaning in this person's life, if he has a soul. At first, Sacks concludes that a life without memory is no life at all. But in the end, Sacks observes the man in a chapel, in the act of worship, and then comes to a second conclusion that a person does not consist of memory alone. The man, Jimmy, who Sacks observes in worship has found a sense of purpose and meaning in religion. Interestingly, Westworld's maze is also found near a church.
Yet, it seems that although Sacks concludes this, Jimmy nevertheless derives his personality, beliefs, feelings, etc., from his memories. If for example a person was born not being able to create memories and somehow survived, one wonders what the person would be like. Thus, Ford seems to be correct in that it is vitally important for the hosts to have a backstory upon which to draw their personality. Without a backstory, who would they really be? Unfortunately for Bernard, his backstory is of losing his wife and son was sometimes unbearable.
Dr. Robert Ford: I see you've found the center of the maze.
William: You're serious?
Dr. Robert Ford: I'm afraid so.
William: What is this bullshit (holding the Pigs in Clover game in hand)
Dr. Robert Ford: You were looking for the park to give meaning to your life. Our narratives are just games, like this toy.
William goes on to explain how he was hoping Ford would give the hosts a fighting chance, a world in which they were not programmed to always lose.
So what can we conclude about Westworld and the meaning of life?
There are a lot of great articles on the web pondering this very question and philosophies of Westworld. Yet, in the searches that were conducted, one key ingredient was missing that the series highlighted — reveries. We know the following:
1) Arnold believed consciousness was not a pyramid, but rather an inward maze.
2) The maze starts with memory, or rather for the hosts, a backstory; which is created by the writers of Westworld.
3) Somewhere along the line, reveries are introduced. These reveries are critical for the hosts to truly become self-aware; coupled with the ability to create new memories.
4) This likely leads to the hosts becoming conscious; although as outlined earlier, Ford and Arnold have very different opinions on this. Or does Ford, in the end, come around to the same conclusion as Arnold?
5) As the journey inwards continues, free will evolves.
6) Free will then allows for a host to create meaning.
Although the hosts all have purpose, it is a purpose their creators chose for them. In a sort of Nietzschean fashion, the hosts kill their Gods, their creators. In season 2, one would imagine that the hosts will define a meaning to their existence. Or perhaps not. After all, have we, as a species, been able to define it yet for ourselves? Season one also briefly touches upon in several places that "struggle" is essential to meaning.
It is also apparent from the series that the search for meaning can drive one mad—as was the case with William/man in black (see The Twilight Zone article for another show that explores this). Both the hosts and people seek meaning, and both believe the answers to life lie on the other side of the fence. People go to Westworld to find themselves, to explore the darkest natures of a humanity that remains hidden in day to day life.
So, what do you think? Will humanity treat artificial intelligent (AI) beings with respect, and will AI beings treat us with the same respect?