Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) is an AI 'host' who believes she is human. Alas, she has reason to believe that her world, Westworld, is not 'real'. But what is real?
TV show Westworld is laden with philosophy. Here are some of the questions watchers may find themselves asking:
Metaphysics: Is the mind reducible to the body? Can the mind be altered, copied, and moved? Can non-bodily matter produce consciousness? Are any of us free?
Existentialism: Are there meaning and purpose in the world? Can we redefine ourselves to find them? What if they’re rooted in lies?
The central theme is ontology: though Westworld is artificially designed, its people and narratives might still exist. As plots develop we see humans immersing themselves in relationships with hosts and joining their quests, muddying the border between fiction and reality.
Perhaps the answer is simple: Westworld isn’t real because humans fabricated it. Atoms, laws, essence … these are real because they belong to the natural world.
But we can simulate features of the natural world—for example, by creating humanlike bodies that house their own consciousness and pain. Everyone in Westworld might defined by code but we, too, are programmed by DNA and released into a world we must make sense of but can’t.
Much of human experience is already meaningfully established in modes of fiction outside of itself: we emotionally respond to books, films, and games; we entangle ourselves in the unknowns of other minds in relationships; we place faith in greater purpose. So maybe our response to the external world is what constitutes reality: identity shaped around the concepts and puzzles presented to us.
More, maybe the authenticity of people’s responses to Westworld makes it a realer place than the natural world. William, a character roaming within its walls, thinks so. He plays out his sick fantasies without punishment, providing the conditions for unabated self-discovery—life’s real quest, not searches for truth or pleasure à la Nozick’s experience machine:
Can you—a person of unestablished unified identity, an agent of unconscious desires, living on a rock hurtling through an expanding, mostly-empty universe—a construction of things—reasonably usurp his world with something realer than that?
I repeat: what is real?