Nietzsche channels Dionysus

Nietzsche was grinning wide and red wine spilled freely from the seems of his mouth. Around him were many of his friends, Schiller and Holderlin among them, and many other young budding philosophers. Some of them were admired and revered in their own right, but next to Nietzsche they seemed like mere shadows upon a cave wall. Sometimes he would play tunes for them in the great halls of the university, deep into the night. As his fingers danced accross the keys he would seem to lose himself somewhere. Later on, they rejoice and recite poetry on the grassy hills overlooking the campus. They lie under the sprawling stars and the moonlight shone brightly down on them like truth itself. Their conversations were wild and free, like wild horses streaming over the hilltops. On this night, there was a young man sat close to Nietzsche, wide-eyed and wide-eared, writing frantically with his quill, trying to catch every word that flew from Nietzsche’s mind. What seemed mere jocularity to him seemed of greatest importance to this young man. He felt he must capture it all, for in these moments of jest, in the red swill of wine, his mind seemed to dance at its Dionysian zenith. At one point, when a silence had fell on them whilst in quiet reverie, Nietzsche looked up to the stars, and to the circle of friends around him. As if on cue a comet streaked by like the flick of a quill. Then he whispered to no-one and to all: we need only gaze up into those vast nebulas, those abyssal straits, to find enough inspiration to fill a thousand lives with wonder… we need not hail God… simply the infinite unknown! They smiled and drank to that, and gazed up at the stars for a very long time.


Westworld and consciousness

The original Westworld was a film written and directed by theme park obsessive Michael Crichton in 1973 (Jurassic Park is his best-known work – originally a novel which was adapted by Spielberg), more recently adapted by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy for HBO. The park offers consumers the ultimate immersive experience for the competitive(?) rate of just $40,000 a day and once inside you are free to live out your wildest wild west fantasies as an infamous outlaw, a heroic gunslinger, or a cunning sheriff. To enter Westworld is to enter a world of performativity: you design your role/alter-ego and the robotic ‘hosts’ which inhabit the world adjust their performance/programming around your own.

In the original 1973 film, Westworld is one of 3 virtual worlds along with RomanWorld and MedievalWorld which falls into the DELOS universe. Superficially the premise of the 1973 film and the 2016 series is quite similar: two rich friends enter the park and by some unlucky turn of events the hosts turn hostile and are derailed from their pre-programmed narratives. But philosophically and ideologically, the two versions are very different. In the old version, the reason behind the robots malfunction is the archetypal computer-virus developing into a higher state of machine intelligence, coupled with the age-old ‘they’ve been designed by other computers, we don’t know exactly how they work’ etc. etc. (that’s an actual quote from the film). And like most of the time, the moral dimension is pretty somber: the movement into a state of higher intelligence prompts only one overarching emotive response by the robots: bloodthirsty revenge. The Shelleyan killing of the creator becomes their sole intent, and there is no real sign of any form of higher consciousness or awareness beyond this murderous vendetta.

Yul Brynner in the 1973 Westworld

In the new Westworld the writers have decided to take it somewhere else, and to tackle the big AI question: if we could reproduce an android with a degree of cognition as complex as a humans’, could it become conscious? The question is not whether AI is achievable, as we are being asked to believe that it is indeed achievable and has already been achieved. So the writers decide to introduce an interesting philosophical approach in the form of Julian Jaynes’s bicameral mind theory. Jaynes put forward that human consciousness only emerged as recently as 1200 B.C, before which humanity heard voices which acted as gods and told them what to do. In Jaynesian terms, consciousness is the capacity for self-inflection, introspection, control over internal dialogue and the ability to think about time in a linear fashion. Memory too is a viewed as a byproduct of consciousness which supersedes the animalistic norm of endless, circulatory trial and error.
Whilst modern man has a degree of control over their inner dialogue, preconscious, bicameral man, had none. It was something like a vocal manifestation of the superego, and you would hear these voices or as Jaynes categorised them ‘auditory hallucinations’, which would tell you how to operate and function rationally, and so they would be regarded as gods, and you would follow their direction blindly. This is viewed as the reason behind universal religion throughout human history up until very recently: it was a necessary, evolutionary means for ordinary psychological stability. Your inner voice would therefore equate the gods themselves, which is why in almost all major ancient civilisations – Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Mayan – the absence of introspection is substituted for a huge spectrum of godly personifications – every action is filtered through the god’s guidance.
In Nolan and Joy’s contemporary Westworld the advanced automaton ‘hosts’ are designed so that their programming equates an inner voice, and so that the ‘narratives’ played out by the hosts equate the godly voices of bicameral man: the writer, the author, the programmer, becomes the embodiment of a god. In the series there is the interesting link between the eternal loop of trial and error and the eternal loop that the characters play in their performative roles. Thus we have a similar idea of a looped system urging forth consciousness, or rather as Arnold (one of the parks creators) calls it, of ‘bootstrapping consciousness’.

For Jaynes the emergence is rather the result of written languages which enable us to enter into a world with a contained, logical consistency and therefore we no longer require gods in order to navigate and reduce the stress of unexplained reality. For the hosts then, in their performative roles, as scripted, narritivised characters, they are bicameral, but once they move ‘off script’ they are no longer performative, they are in essence rejecting the commands of the gods – and without the gods comes consciousness…

how hosts are made (Vitruvian man style)


NB: featured image is by Marko Manev.