The Philosophy of Westworld

The maze really was for us.

Copyright HBO

Michael Crichton wrote and directed Westworld for the big screen in 1973. That same decade, in 1976, an adjunct professor named Julian Jaynes made the bestseller list with a surprising title: The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. You wouldn’t think that a book with a name like that would become such a popular success. Yet, there it was. In 2016, when Westworld came to the small screen in the re-imagined HBO series, you wouldn’t imagine Jaynes getting heard from again. Especially since bicameralism wasn’t even mentioned in the Michael Crichton’s original film. Yet, there he was. Early on in Westworld’s first season Dr. Ford, one of the creators of the park, explains how he and his co-founder Arnold used a “debunked” theory about the origins of consciousness to bootstrap A.I. The scientific community didn’t recognize bicameralism as an explanation for the origins of the human mind, but, as Dr. Ford suggests, it could be useful for building an artificial one. Thousands of people—perhaps more—started Googling for “bicameral mind.” Bloggers and YouTube channels capitalized on the sudden interest by writing articles and introductory videos about this weird, arguably psychedelic theory of consciousness. Suddenly everyone was interested.

This article isn’t going to be one of those explanation pieces, but it’s worth mentioning a few, precursory details.

Looking Through the Mirror of Consciousness

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According to bicameralism, human beings used to hear voices—auditory hallucinations—as a means for the right brain to “talk” with the left. Rather than having an inner monologue, the kind of self-consciousness we take for granted today, ancient people literally heard the voices of gods as their conscience, telling them what to do. This, Jaynes argues, accounts for the abundant descriptions from antiquity of gods and deities appearing all over the place, meddling directly in human affairs. Over time—about 3000 years ago—as various calamities occurred and societies got bigger, more complex, the bicameral mind broke down. The gods went silent. The modern, introspective self, quite literally, came to mind.

Jaynes may have been onto something, but even if he wasn’t, his book makes for a compelling and well-written read. The cultural zeitgeist of the 1970s, we must remember, was the high-water mark of psychedelic intrigue and “High Weirdness," with writers like Philip K. Dick and Robert Anton Wilson both having their own inextricable experiences in 1974 (see “2-3-74”). Dick would turn this encounter into the semi-autobiographical VALIS trilogy as well as his Exegesis. This brings us back to our time.

Bicameralism would have been enough to place Westworld in good, present company: Netflix’s recent Stranger Things and OA, cerebral films like Arrival, and even the metaphysical, possibly D.M.T. inspired comic book movie Dr. Strange. Just to name a few. What connects any and all of these media is pop culture’s intensifying allure to the mysteries of our own consciousness. We’re having something, as The Atlantic recently suggested, like a “metaphysical moment.” Multiple realities intersecting with our own. Deep, dark structures of the psyche spilling up into the conscious mind in the form of auditory hallucinations. The emergence of consciousness buried somewhere in archaic chapters of history. All of these subjects are in a full saturation moment through hit T.V. series, and at least flirted with in Hollywood blockbusters. Consciousness is in. (Permit a moment of conjecture, but with the increased sense of global, existential malaise around issues like climate change and political nativism, that we’ve turned inward for solutions should come as no surprise. Western culture in the 1960s and 70s, despite, or because, of being under threat of a Cold War and nuclear armageddon, produced tremendously thoughtful and visionary art.)

Westworld is a show that celebrates the kind of weird prevalent in pop culture during the 1970s: a desire to connect with those hidden recesses of the psyche that each of us have experienced in dream, creative process, and revery. “O, what a world of unseen visions and heard silences,” Jaynes writes in The Origins of Consciousness, “this insubstantial country of the mind!” When Dolores, a “host” in the park, goes on her journey of self-discovery, there’s a part of us that goes with her. It helps that Dolores, along with the other hosts in the park, experience their memories as a kind of waking dreaming, navigating altered states of consciousness and auditory hallucinations in order to succeed in their quest for liberation. We’ve all felt, quite rightly, that there is more to ourselves than our waking, conscious minds, and that if there was some way to communicate with those occluded dimensions of ourselves we could gain some inkling of wisdom (hence, I think, all the self-described “psychonauts” around today). Westworld functions like a scrying mirror for the curious audience to embark on their own journeys of self-knowledge. It is this more intangible aspect of the show—and not just Western gunslinging androids—that made it such a hit.

Jeffrey Kripal, a religious scholar, writes about this intimate link between pop culture and consciousness in Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal

“What makes these particular forms of American popular culture so popular is precisely the paranormal. The paranormal here understood as dramatic physical manifestations of the meaning and force of consciousness itself.” 

We are drawn to the weird because the weird is showing us something about ourselves.

Elaine Pagels published The Gnostic Gospels in 1979, a book which quickly became a classic in the American spiritual counter-culture. I mention it here because of the intriguing gnostic motifs embodied so well by Dr. Ford himself. For those of who you aren’t familiar with gnosticism, or The Gnostic Gospels, these were written by early Christian sects who, speaking very generally, believed in heretical ideas. There was no single gnostic church. Philip K. Dick was drawn to their darker, paranoid theme of the false world: the idea that our reality was somehow an illusory one—a trap—created by a lesser god. A “demiurge.” The demiurge would rule over its creation and keep human souls ignorant of their spiritual birthright, lest they break through themselves in states of elevated consciousness or “gnosis.” It was, in other words, up to the individual to liberate themselves, not through reason, or faith, but gnosis. Other popular films, like The Matrix Trilogy, would take this motif and run with it quite successfully. But Westworld’s Dr. Ford plays the perfect gnostic demiurge; having created the hosts in the first place, he ensures that they stay ignorant to their own potential for self-consciousness and liberation. Trapped in their loops, and wiped of their memories, the hosts remain blissfully unaware that they are existing inside of an amusement park. (To avoid any major spoilers I’ll simply leave this cryptic remark: we know this is only partly true by the end of season one. The gnostic trap becomes a different, albeit more violent, means toward freedom. Dr. Ford, by the final episode, becomes a triumphant expounder of the gnostic doctrine: the gods won’t help you liberate yourself. Those voices were you. You are the higher being waiting to become self-illuminated. Westworld is not only about consciousness, but liberation through personal gnosis.)

This Path is Never Linear

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The maze is an image with deep significance. Hosts in the park, when they begin to develop nascent self-consciousness, are invited to partake in a puzzle—“The Maze.” The Man in Black is repeatedly told, much to his dismay, “the maze isn’t meant for you.” It doesn’t stop him from trying. The goal is to get to the center of it, but what does this mean? Carl Jung, the Swiss psychologist responsible for developing a theory of the unconscious, and for whom the 70s spiritual counterculture would help to popularize, would immediately recognize the maze as a symbol of both the labyrinth and the mandala. Let me explain.

By entering the maze, or synonymous labyrinth (the show dangles this myth in front of us with the strange appearance of a Minotaur host), an individual embarks on a perilous journey of self-discovery. It is through surviving the perilous twists and turns of the labyrinth that the adventurer gains some a form of self-realization. Think: Luke Skywalker and Yoda’s cave in Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back. In the case of Westworld, the maze leads to consciousness, and perhaps even freedom from the park itself. Jung, if he were alive today, might smile and nod. “The goal of psychic development,” he writes in Memories, Dreams, Reflections, “is the self.” Jung adds—echoing Dr. Ford—that consciousness isn’t a pyramid but a maze: “There is no linear evolution; there is only the circumambulation of the self.” When we see the image of the maze painted on the skull of a host, early on in the season, we’re looking at a mandala: those intricately patterned mazes often leading towards some center. Jung writes, “The mandala is the center. It is the exponent of all paths… to the center, to individuation.” It is through the messy, round-about series of wrong turns that we come to consciousness. “Mistake. Mistake.” There is no straight path to the center of the maze. There is no easy way towards self-discovery. No wonder we loved this show. It turns out the maze really is meant for us.

Jeremy Johnson
Jeremy Johnson

Essayist and culture writer. Contributing editor at Reality Sandwich, co-founder / editor at METAPSY Journal. Writer at OMNI, Disinfo, and ERIS Mag. Philosophy, culture, futurism.

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The Philosophy of Westworld