An Exploration of Theories of Consciousness in HBO’s Westworld
This summer I didn’t know what I was going to watch when Fall rolled around. I’m a Whovian, but Doctor Who is on a one year sabbatical. Game of Thrones isn’t slated to come back any time soon. What was I to do with my weekend nights? HBO answered my question with Westworld. A show they began billing as ‘the new Game of Thrones’ most likely to win the viewership of people exactly like me. Well, it worked, and I love it.
For those who haven’t explored the show yet, Westworld was a movie from 1973 written by Michael Crichton and starring Yul Brynner about a theme park full of robots that goes haywire and start killing guests. A box-office and critical hit at the time, Westworld is viewed today as a narrative of toxic masculinity, following two beta males who enter the park to have sex with the robots and later fight for their lives, in order to unlock their true potential. There is little-to-no interesting development and, for no reason whatsoever, there’s a 5-minute-long bar fight in the middle of the movie accompanied by piano music. I’m all for bottle-smashing, but overkill is overkill. Considering the source material, it was little wonder that early mumblings in the press about HBO picking it up as a series were met with a healthy dose of skepticism. Why, of all things, would someone remake Westworld?
Early in the marketing campaign, it became apparent that creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy had something far more intricate and nuanced in mind than the Westworld of old. They created a series that questions consciousness and the very nature of humanity in a beautiful, aesthetically stunning way. There are lots of things that we could delve into when it comes to Westworld, and maybe we will in the future. But right now we’re going to focus on those theories of consciousness.
Anthony Hopkins’ character, Ford, introduces the idea of Julian Jaynes’ Bicameral Mind theory as a way his business partner, Arnold, attempted to “bootstrap” consciousness into the Hosts. As he explains it, the bicameral mind assumed that the thoughts provoking it to action were the commandments of the gods, or god. More specifically, Jaynes believed that consciousness was synthesis between two sides of the brain, the ability to create metaphor.
His markers of consciousness are as follows; Spatialization, Excerption, an awareness of analogue (I or Me), and Narratization and Conciliation. Interestingly enough, the Hosts of Westworld have recently been shown to possess almost all the markers of consciousness Jaynes suggests save one. In episode six, Maeve and Felix are having one of their little sessions, and Felix pairs her to his tablet, showing her the map it generates of her speech. If you watch carefully enough, you can observe that Maeve has the ability to reason spatially; she can differentiate between a whole and an excerption from that whole, she has a definite sense that she herself is moving through time and the ability to recognize and connect narrative events. The one thing the Hosts do not possess is the ability to conciliate, or to connect one moment to the next, and connect events to each other in a causal sense (example: I got wet today walking to work because yesterday my umbrella got a hole in it so I left it at home). This is the only thing the Hosts have been designed not to have, outside of knowledge they need to complete a narrative loop for the pleasure of guests at the park. Afterwards their experiences and any knowledge gained from them is erased and they do the same thing all over again. In fact, the entire reason park staff has become worried about the Hosts is because of Ford’s reveries, or learned/remembered behaviors and the potential that they may begin remembering the things that are done to them and act on those “grudges.” Because, as Elsie points out, could you imagine if those poor bastards could remember what was done to them?
On a given day, the Hosts are not kept alive long enough to create a notable string of events. On a given day, the Hosts of Westworld do not stray from pre-programmed loops, and therefore do not learn and conciliate new information. To argue that they have achieved Jaynesian consciousness within their loops would be to argue that your Apple Watch is conscious because it has an alarm that goes off every day at the same time to tell you to take your birth control pills. Jaynes himself did not conflate consciousness with muscle memory and repetitive behavior. Consciousness, remember, does not exist without deeper levels of synthesis, and the Hosts are simply programmed.
Hosts who go far enough outside their loops may, it seems, have the potential to achieve Jaynesian consciousness. We watch Dolores struggle to shoot a gun through three episodes, it seems that she has not been programmed to shoot a gun and therefore, despite lessons from Teddy, cannot synthesize enough knowledge to pull the trigger. However, at the end of episode five she successfully guns someone down stating, “I imagined a story where a didn’t have to be the damsel anymore.” This suggests that, given the option of survival without having their minds wiped at night, any Host could achieve synthesis and thus, consciousness.
Maeve, after her revelations “upstairs” at Delos, she has Felix bump her stats up, specifically one called ‘bulk apperception’ to the very top. The definition of bulk apperception is “the mental process by which a person makes sense of an idea by assimilation it to the body of ideas he or she already posseses.” In Jaynesian terms, conciliation. So, by the end of episode six, we have Dolores and Maeve achieving consciousness using the bicameral mind theory the mysterious Arnold had sought to use to pull them out of robot servitude.
As Ford mentions when introducing the bicameral mind theory to Bernard and the audience, Jaynes’ theory of consciousness has been debunked as the origin of consciousness where human beings are concerned. While fascinating when applied to imaginary artificial intelligence, the theory is ultimately based on flimsy premises. The bicameral mind theory is not, however, the only theory represented in Westworld.
There is, of course, the Turing Test. A test designed by Alan Turing to test a machine’s ability to imitate human behavior. It was hinted at when William arrives at Westworld and finds himself in the company of his first Host and he asks if she is real. She replies, “if you can’t tell the difference, does it matter?” While not a true measure of consciousness, it is a measure of a machine’s ability to think, and is almost more of a challenge to the audience watching Westworld than it is to the characters within the show. If the fan theory threads about the show online are any indication, the robots of Westworld are passing the Turing Test with flying colors.
My favorite theory of consciousness in the show is represented not so much in dialogue, but in the show’s visuals. That theory is Jacques Lacan’s Mirror Phase. A post-structuralist Freudian, Lacan was one of many theorists from the 1960s who built upon Freud’s psychoanalytic theories of self-actualization. To be reductionist about it, Lacan’s Mirror Phase is the phase in which a person can look in a mirror and recognize themselves as an individual both separate from and a part of their environment. In Westworld, the entire Delos building is full of reflective surfaces. Most notably, the glass walls we see when people are repairing, testing and building the Hosts. Surrounded by nothing but their own reflections since “birth,” the Hosts do not recognize their own selves.
In episode three, Ford shows Bernard a photograph of Ford and his business partner, Arnold. Much buzz has circulated in the fan community about this photograph. Fans of the show insist that the photo is framed strangely. That it looks as though there should be a third person in the shot. Given the reveal at the end of episode seven, could it be possible that Bernard was looking at a photo of himself and saw nothing? This lack of self-recognition suggests that the Westworld Hosts do not have enough consciousness to even conceptualize existence. Bernard has Dolores read passages of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in episode three perhaps in his own attempt to “bootstrap consciousness,” but her statement to him at the end of their conversation suggests she is two steps ahead of him.
“There aren’t two versions of me. There’s only one. And I think when I discover who I am, I’ll be free.” Here Dolores demonstrates that she is already participating in the mirror phase. An infant looking in a mirror can not identify its reflection as itself. It instead assumes the reflection is apart from them. Someone else, perhaps. Consciousness comes when you realize that your reflection isn’t separate from you, that you are viewing yourself as a whole. You are not just a collection of parts; a hand, a foot, legs. You are an individual in totality and you act upon the things around you.
This evolution of consciousness is all at once easier and more difficult to obtain than Jaynes’. For one, it does not rely on the same set of rules that Jaynes’ does, it relies entirely on your own psyche’s ability to look at itself and become self-aware. Seems simple enough, right? After all, children who can’t even walk yet can go through the mirror phase. The Hosts, however, seem to be tightly controlled when it comes to recognizing their own image. Their code is written to preclude them from having self-recognition whether that be from looking at a reflective surface, or seeing themselves in a photograph. Dolores and Maeve are still the only two Hosts we have seen spending any amount of time looking at themselves in a mirror.
Westworld is full of nuance and beauty. I think more than a few of us were pleasantly surprised by this remake. It veered far from its source material and successfully captured our curiosity, asking us to question what consent is, where we draw the line between life and artificial intelligence, and what exactly is the nature of consciousness. With so much to unpack in this series, I hope I have presented you with some food for thought. For now, so long and keep watching.