Promoting human exclusivity through sentimentalism might be Westworld’s greatest sin and anti-scientific propaganda.
(This was originally posted with a polemical tone on reddit. I thought it could have gone either way but the fans instead were very fast to downvote it to hell and call me a pretentious snob. So the next day I rewrote it with a neutral, accommodating tone. This time it went exactly as I expected: it was simply ignored. The hivemind promotes only what the hivemind already thinks. An unassailable consensus machine.)
There is currently a post that is being upvoted, yet it starts for a completely flawed premise. It’s a big deal because I think the show is being extremely counter-educational about themes it wants to touch but whose writers aren’t remotely good enough to deal with, like “qualia”, the hard problem, Ship of Theseus, et cetera. You can look these up on the wikipedia to have a better idea, read Thomas Metzinger’s “Being No One”, or read some Daniel Dennett for something more accessible.
If you have patience, I will explain why Westworld can’t deal with “consciousness”, and what’s instead the theme the show is actually about, and in the end I will also point you to a story that offers an hypothesis of solution of the problem of consciousness that is firmly rooted in modern science. That explains what consciousness truly is and how it works. I will point you to the “maze” that exists in your real life, and the future that awaits you.
The flawed reddit post is this one: https://www.reddit.com/r/westworld/comments/5eebky/the_maze_is_all_that_matters_now/
The Maze is clearly fundamental to the story of Westworld and the dark odyssey about the dawn of artificial consciousness.
Freedom in terms of the hosts means achieving the one thing that separates them from the humans that they’re supposed to mimic; consciousness. Being conscious, that is being self-aware and having free will, is at this point the only thing that separates a human from a host.
The problem I see with the community’s interpretation of hosts’ consciousness is all about an arbitrary, fuzzy distinction between proper human consciousness and the supposed hosts’ one (or lack of one). From there the idea that the “maze” is either a metaphoric or physical place where the hosts will unlock actual human-like consciousness.
But how do you recognize human-like consciousness?
The show builds on the confusion or blurred line between artificial and actual consciousness, especially in the latest episode. Ford and Bernard discuss about where to draw the line between “life-like” and truly “alive” (and implicitly quote the Ship of Theseus philosophical problem). Then this scene is thematically linked with the MiB speaking, and giving his own interpretation of the problem by saying that Maeve only for a moment became “truly alive”.
Yet we’ve seen hosts regularly displaying authentic, believable emotions, across the whole range of human experience. From grief like Bernard at the beginning of the episode, to rage, love, care and so on. The hosts don’t show any limit in their forms of expression, living fully and thoroughly their life within the “dome” of their personal experience. Exactly as all of us. Or exactly like the perspective shown in the move The Matrix: all of us live within a certain dome of fiction.
So what’s the actual difference between hosts and human beings?
The difference between hosts and human beings is that the hosts are coded to remain under human control. They are coded with deliberate, convenient limits.
If Bernard cannot see a door it doesn’t mean he’s not conscious. It means that his perceptions have been altered so that the imposed limit is convenient for those who controls Bernard. Of course Bernard IS TECHNICALLY ABLE to see a door. But they don’t let him, because human beings in this fictional world need fail-safe mechanisms to stay ON TOP.
The premise of Westworld is this: human beings need to keep AI/hosts under their control, because otherwise the AI would be way more advanced and powerful and would tyrannize human beings, the same way human beings (Ford) currently tyrannize AIs.
If an host cannot shoot or kill a human being doesn’t mean the host is “not conscious”. Unless you think that giving your son a real gun instead of a toy gun means giving your kid consciousness and agency. (let’s not go there, it’s just an example to explain “being able to kill” isn’t an important feature of consciousness, of course)
Think about what Westworld actually showed on the difference between humans and hosts. It showed that the hosts have been limited to perceive certain specific things. That they cannot remember their previous “lives” (do any of you remember your previous reincarnations?). And that they cannot truly harm a human being. None of these really touch directly the problem of “being conscious”. These are about control. They can all be categorized as convenient fail-safe mechanisms, designed so that human beings can guarantee and preserve their total control. The hosts don’t miss “something” that still has to be unlocked, because they already have all it takes.
So what does it mean instead? It means human beings are keeping hosts “chained”. This is the BIG theme. Consciousness is out of the picture. What’s IN the picture is power and control. Keeping hosts as convenient slaves to satisfy human beings’ pleasures.
That’s in our own history, the real world. Slavery is based on the concept you’re superior and entitled to have the power, and the slaves you keep are lesser beings who deserve the situation they are in. That’s exactly what people believed. Slavery was built on racism, and no one was questioning the status quo. It was normal to consider slaves as inferior. That’s what you want to tell yourself, the convenient, flattering story, that you’re “special” and “better” than them.
The idea suggested by the show, and in us watching the show, that the hosts aren’t fully conscious is just a manifestation of the same racism. The idea the hosts lack consciousness comes from the confirmation bias to say that it’s okay if they stay slaves forever, since they aren’t deserving freedom.
And it all makes sense if you consider Arnold didn’t like any that. What Arnold found out wasn’t a way to infuse consciousness into the hosts. He found out the hosts were ALREADY fully conscious and equal (or better) to human beings. He didn’t want to make them suffer *more* to unlock some elusive human-like consciousness, he wanted to stop inflicting pain on them. He wanted to stop being a tyrant. He wanted to remove those fail-safe mechanisms, like hosts being unable to harm human beings, that we know is the one rule that is erased within the “maze”. He wanted to give them a level playing field.
Arnold wants to set the hosts FREE. But not free from their lack of consciousness. Free from the chains of slavery.
This show cannot deal with the problem of consciousness because the writers aren’t even remotely good enough for that and don’t have that much insight (it would take a very long post to go in the details, and no one would be interested in nitpicking that). There have been already plenty of missteps when they try to go there.
So instead I’ll point you to this short story, written by an author who can write and knows what he’s writing about, and it will explain the secret of the actual, not-metaphoric “maze”: The secret of consciousness
In very general terms, consciousness is a process that cannot track itself. That is blind to itself, and so confabulates a fantasy to explain what it cannot see. A narrative. Meaning.