Bending Realities: ‘Westworld’ and Our Conception of Free Will

“Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?”

Oh many times, Jeffrey Wright, many times—perhaps more now than ever before. I never thought a show could bring out this feeling in me, but it turns out that a TV addiction has its perks. ‘Westworld’, a show I was unfamiliar with a mere month ago, has challenged my perspective, changed my opinions and thrilled me to no end. For four weeks I sat in front of my computer screen, avoiding responsibilities and personal connections to see the fate of star-crossed robots realizing their potential in the world.

The premise of ‘Westworld’ is simple on the surface. Based on the Michael Crichton movie of the same name, ‘Westworld’ is a Western-style theme park populated by robots, referred to as ‘hosts,’ that look and feel exactly like humans. Real humans come and visit the park with its humanoid counterparts, and are set free to live out their wildest fantasies. Sex, murder, exploitation run rampant and humans can commit these acts seemingly without consequence. However, it quickly turns for the worse, as the hosts begin to question their reality and attempt to change it.

Through it all is an ethical and philosophical meditation on the meaning of life and the rise of artificial intelligence. While much of this invites timely debate on the rise of the internet and the stealing of data and DNA, what I find most incredible about the show is how it shifted my perspective on the idea of free will and what separates us from our robotic counterparts. In a sense, the show acts like a Turing test, trying to see if not only the hosts can convince the viewers of their humanity, but transcend humanity’s capabilities and live beyond them.

Part of the show’s genius is its ability to deceive its viewers and convince those watching that the hosts are humans. This hits on an important question, if we can conceive and believe in something being real, is it? One great example to look at throughout the show is Dolores, a host who plays a ‘rancher’s daughter’ in sweetwater. As the series progresses, she becomes crucial to the hosts discovering their own sentience and is a crucial aspect of how the show’s creators feel about the robots themselves. She comes to the conclusion that what is real is “irreplaceable.” Is she irreplaceable?

To me this line is crucial: in order for Dolores and the other robots to become human, they must transcend their own creators so they can become truly irreplaceable. Despite her recognition of this, she is still, in a sense, a being controlled by her creator, Robert Ford. So while she may be able to deceive the viewers into believing that she has unique qualities, many would argue that what continues to separate us from them is our “free will.”

However, things get trickier as the series begins to poke holes in that basic assumption. One of the main characters, Bernard, alludes to a self-perceived free will as humans just ‘following their own code,’ in the same way the hosts are.

For years now, free will seemed so obviously under my control that I never even concerned myself with arguments that seemed to question otherwise. Neuroscientist and philosopher, Sam Harris, argues that while we like to believe that we have agency over our decisions, we are being tricked into thinking as much; things like genetics and our surroundings all contribute to how we may act. Even as I started to gravitate toward his arguments on politics and international affairs, I generally ignored his opinions on free will.

What both of these studies indicate is how our minds can follow factors we may not be aware of in our decision-making. Whether that be genetics, family situations, wealth, or how hungry you are, what is going on beneath the surface is much more complicated than we think.

However, my thoughts have slowly begun to change as mounting evidence and fictional reinterpretations forced me to reconsider my views. Recent studies suggest that thoughts come from our neurons before we are consciously aware of them. Another notable study showed that judges were significantly more likely to give parole when sentencing was before a meal rather than after.

What both of these studies indicate is how our minds can follow factors we may not be aware of in our decision-making. Whether that be genetics, family situations, wealth, or how hungry you are, what is going on beneath the surface is much more complicated than we think. While I still believe that we have a choice or control in the end, more and more of what we believe is our own decision may be controlled by other factors. This is a viewpoint I have become more open to, all based on watching fiction and heeding its warnings.

It is in this sense that ‘Westworld’ is an accomplishment in itself. It is overcomplicated, overambitious and at times seemingly mind-bending. However, it does what some of the best pieces of science-fiction manage to do: examine the human condition and warn its viewers of possible outcomes in the future. Whether it is the validity of life for a machine or the free will of humans and robots, the show refuses to stay pinned to one thing or ideal and constantly reinvents itself in hopes of getting to a greater truth.

Those are things that every show should strive for, to create and awe viewers while also appealing to broader implications. If after reading this, you feel compelled to binge ‘Westworld’ as I have done this summer, it will at times feel complicated and messy. However, I cannot recommend it enough, as it will challenge you in ways that may even make you question the nature of your own reality. That is something sorely missed from fiction in general and I am grateful that this show was willing to take it on.

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About Noah Garfinkel

Noah Garfinkel was editor in chief of the Michigan Review.