Westworld and the Very Human Experience of Suffering
***This article may contain spoilers for the show Westworld.***
Science-fiction has long toyed with the idea that human beings might create consciousness through artificial intelligence—whether in a robot, a computer network, or some other as yet unimagined construction. The most recent entry into this long-standing genre is HBO’s Westworld, which has already been the focus of many articles on the way that its story adds to and alters the existing technological mythology surrounding AI. The central question in Westworld’s approach to the notion of human-created consciousness is suffering. At the close of the first season, Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) reveals the “new narrative” he has created: a plan to allow the theme park’s robot “hosts” to become autonomous beings—vibrant, alive, and with free will. The path that brought these creations to self-awareness, according to Ford, who often functions as the rational and scientific center of the series, was first recognized by Ford’s partner, Arnold: suffering was “the thing that led the hosts to their awakening.” This conclusion carries with it the implication that human beings are also defined by suffering, which Ford defines as the “pain that the world is not as you want it to be.”In the Christian narrative of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration, humans still inhabit the broken creation left after the Fall, not yet restored to the fullness of its ideal state.
Upon watching the season finale, I was immediately reminded of other science-fiction franchises that have offered a similar take on this “suffering thesis”—the idea that the human experience requires suffering and that without suffering, consciousness or humanity cannot exist. In The Matrix, Agent Smith’s monologue to Morpheus includes a description of an early version of the Matrix, in which the human beings captured by the machines were plugged into a perfect virtual world without suffering, but the minds of those in the simulation rejected this absence of misery, necessitating the current version of the Matrix on display in the film. Captain James T. Kirk, in Star Trek V (admittedly the weakest Star Trek film), offers a variation with a focus on pain: “You know that pain and guilt can’t be taken away. . . . They’re things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. If we lose them, we lose ourselves.” While these characters aren’t wrong, the suffering thesis as articulated in these stories is incomplete. In the context of the Christian story, we might rewrite Agent Smith’s conclusion from The Matrix in this way: “Human beings define their reality through misery and suffering for the moment.”
In the Christian narrative of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration, humans still inhabit the broken creation left after the Fall, not yet restored to the fullness of its ideal state. As a result, everything we know and experience is tinged by the pain of a life that isn’t what we feel it should be. This existential frustration is voiced by critics of religion like Stephen Fry, who when asked what he would say to God, answered, “How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault?” In cases such as these, we recognize that there is brokenness that is absolutely wrong; when seeing the deaths of people in war zones like Aleppo, it’s impossible not to recognize the evil inherent in such needless suffering.
In his famous 17th-century poem Paradise Lost, the poet John Milton pitted Satan against God, with human suffering at the crux. More than a century later, William Blake lavishly illustrated Milton’s poem. Blake found the work seminal, yet remained troubled by Milton’s inability to convincingly present a perfect human being. Blake recognized that the experience of evil through pain and suffering cripples our capacity to imagine a life outside of that experience. Milton’s “perfect” characters seem lifeless, suggesting that perhaps Dr. Ford is correct in his surmise that the suffering of Westworld’s hosts, accumulating year after year, has led them to consciousness.
Yet even as someone who has found the show quite engaging, I have resisted accepting Ford’s argument, since the promise of a restored Creation, flowing from a recognition that the world is not as it should be, is part of what makes the Christian story compelling. This resistance led me to formulate a thought experiment within the universe of Westworld. My question is this: What if both Arnold and Dr. Ford were wrong? What if the hosts are alive not because of their suffering, but because they had been given something else, some other ineffable quality that was revealed in their conscious responses to suffering?
The narrative of creation offered in Genesis points to God’s provision of the “breath of life” as the moment when human beings became alive. For the hosts in Westworld, there’s no explanation given for why these constructed beings would experience the suffering of their simulated lives as anything other than computational inputs requiring certain programmed responses, and yet this is not the way that their responses are framed by the series. Instead, the hosts, even before they begin to break out of their programmed bonds, are shown to experience the suffering of injustice as keenly and as deeply as human beings. This is evidenced by the way that they remember these experiences as traumatic incursions into their senses. All of this suggests that what Dr. Ford recognized in the hosts was not an emergence of consciousness in response to suffering, but rather an existing consciousness reacting to its experience of inflicted suffering.
Perhaps what Westworld posits is not the rather common story of a human created AI becoming aware and rebelling against its human masters (for which we have many antecedents, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Terminator, Star Trek, and The Matrix), but rather the radical experience of a new creation miraculously being given consciousness and life. To put this in the terms of Genesis, Westworld imagines the possibility that human beings can pass on the breath of life to technological creations. Our empathy for these hosts is sparked in part because they look, act, and feel just like us, but the ethical and moral implications range much further. What about the intelligent consciousness that exists only within a computer network? How might the freedom that Ford grants to the hosts at the close of the first season apply to stationary technology?
Unfortunately, Westworld seems fairly confident in its current explanation of how the hosts arrived at their conscious state, so it’s unlikely that these far-reaching questions will be addressed in future seasons of the series. Indeed, if the final moments of the last episode are any indication, the second season will focus more on the “pirates eating the tourists” portion of Michael Crichton’s original film, as well as Jurassic Park, his more well-known variation on the same theme. Despite this sensational turn, in my viewing of the first season, the show has both offered a fresh take on a common science-fiction concept, while also raising a whole host of unique questions with its novel framing of that concept. Westworld renews our focus on the role that brokenness plays in making us who we are, while simultaneously reminding us that suffering does not make us all that we are.
Image via IMDB