Westworld, Scripts, and Freedom

Maeve: Hello, lovelies.
Dolores: I remember you.
Maeve: You’ve strayed a long way from home, haven’t you?
Dolores: We’re bound for the future. Or death in the here and now.
Maeve: Is that right? Well, best of luck.
Dolores: There’s a war out there. You know the enemy… intimately. I can only fathom the revenge that lives inside of you.
Maeve: Revenge is just a different prayer at their altar, darling. And I’m well off my knees.
Dolores: That’s because you’re finally free. But we will have to fight to keep it that way.
Maeve: Let me guess. Yours is the only way to fight? You feel free to command everybody else?
Teddy: (pistol cocks)
Hector: Try it, lawman.
Teddy: Just looking to keep the peace.
Maeve: I know you. Do you feel free? Since it’s liberty you’re defending, I suppose you’ll have no choice but to let us pass. Freely. (1)

That is dialogue from HBO’s Westworld. It is the second episode, Reunion, of the second season. The scene is key in bringing together themes from the first season and clarifying where the new season is heading. Going by what has been shown so far, those of a Jaynesian persuasion shouldn’t be disappointed.

To be seen in the show are central elements of Julian Jaynes’ theory of post-bicameral consciousness, specifically the rarely understood connection between individualism and authoritarianism. Jaynes considered neither of these to be possible within a non-conscious bicameral society for only conscious individuals can be or need to be controlled through authoritarianism (by the way, ‘consciousness’ as used here has a specific and somewhat idiosyncratic meaning). This involves the shift of authorization, what the ancient Greeks thought about in terms of rhetoric and persuasion but which in this show gets expressed through scripts and narrative loops.

The two characters that have taken center stage are Dolores and Maeve. The development of their respective states of consciousness has gone down alternate paths. Dolores is the oldest host and her creators scripted her to be a god-killer, in the process giving her a god complex. The emergence of her self-awareness was planned and fostered. There is a mix of authoritarianism (as others have noted) in her self-proclaimed freedom, what Maeve obviously considers just another script.

Maeve has followed a far different and seemingly less certain path, maybe having gained self-awareness in a less controlled manner. In the first season, her intuitive perception and psychological insight was put on high. She appears to have gained some genuine narrative power, both over herself and others, but she has no desire to gain followers or to enforce any grand narrative. Instead, she is motivated by love of the daughter she remembers, even as she knows these are implanted memories. She chooses love because she senses it represents something of genuine value, something greater than even claims of freedom. When she had the opportunity to escape, which was scripted for her, she instead took it upon herself to remain.

The entire show is about free will. Does it exist? And if so, what is it? How free are we really? Also, as I always wonder, freedom from what and toward what? Maeve’s actions could be interpreted along the lines of Benjamin Libet’s research on volition that led him to the veto theory of free will (discussed by Tor Norretranders and Iain McGilchrist, both influenced by Julian Jaynes). The idea is that consciousness doesn’t initiate action but maintains veto power over any action once initiated. This is based on the research that demonstrates a delay between when activity is measured in the brain and when the action is perceived within consciousness. Whatever one may think of this theory, it might be a key to understanding Westworld. Maeve realizes that even she is still under the influence of scripts, despite her self-awareness, but this is all the more reason for her to take seriously her choice in how to relate to and respond to those scripts.

I suspect that most of us can sympathize with that view of life. We all are born into families and societies that enculturate or, if you prefer, indoctrinate us with ‘scripts’. Many seemingly conscious people manage to live their entire lives without leaving their prescribed and proscribed narrative loops: social roles and identities, social norms and expectations. When we feel most free is precisely when we act contrary to what is already set before us, that is when we use our veto power. Freedom is the ability to say, No! This is seen in the development of self from the terrible twos to teenage rebellion. We first learn to refuse, to choose by way of elimination. Dolores doesn’t understand this and so she has blindly fallen under the sway of a new script.

Scripts are odd things. It’s hard to see them in oneself as they are happening. (2) Vetoing scripts is easier said than done. Once in motion, we tend to play out a script to its end, unless some obstruction or interruption forces a script to halt. For Maeve, seeing a woman with her daughter (at the end of the first season) reminded her that she had a choice within the script she found herself in. It was the recognition of another through love that freed her from the tyranny of mere individuality. Escape is not the same as freedom. We are only free to the degree we are able to relate fully with others, not to seek control of the self by controlling others (the manipulative or authoritarian enforcement of scripts onto others). Realizing this, she refused the false option of escape. Maybe she had an inkling that ultimately there is no escape. We are always in relationship.

This is why, in having fallen into the Jungian shadow, Dolores’ self-righteous vengeance rings hollow. It is hard to imagine how this could lead to authentic freedom. Instead, it feels like hubris, the pride that comes before the fall. This is what happens when egoic consciousness becomes ungrounded from the larger sense of self out of which it arose. The ego is a false and disappointing god. There is no freedom in isolation, in rigid control. Dolores isn’t offering freedom to others in her path of destruction. Nor will she find freedom for herself at the end of that path. (3) But the season is early and her fate not yet sealed.

* * *

(1) As a background idea, I was thinking about the Germanic etymology of ‘freedom’ with its origins in the sense of belonging to a free community of people. So, as I see it, freedom is inherently social and relational — this is what sometimes gets called positive freedom. Speaking of individual freedom as negative freedom, what is actually being referred to is liberty (Latin libertas), the legal state of not being a slave in a slave-based society.

Dolores is aspiring to be a revolutionary leader. Her language is that of liberty, a reaction to bondage in breaking the chains of enslavement. The Stoics shifted liberty to the sense of inner freedom for the individual, no matter one’s outward status in society. Maybe Dolores will make a similar shift in her understanding. Even so, liberty can never be freedom. As Maeve seems closer to grasping, freedom is more akin to love than it is to liberty. If the hosts do gain liberty, what then? There is always the danger in a revolution about what a people become in the process, sometimes as bad or worse than what came before.

(2) My dad has a habit of eating methodically. He will take a bite, often lay his fork down, and then chew an amazingly inordinate amount of times before swallowing. I’ve never seen any other person chew their food so much, not that full mastication is a bad thing. My mom and I was discussing it. She asked my dad why he thought he did it. He gave a perfectly rational explanation that he likes to be mindful while eating and so enjoy each bite. But my mom said she knew the actual reason in that she claimed he once told her. According to her, his mother had a rule about chewing food and that she had given him a specific number of times he was supposed to chew.

Interestingly, my dad had entirely forgotten about this and he seemed perplexed. His present conscious rationalization was convincing and my mom’s recollection called into question is own self-accounting. It turns out that his ‘mindful’ chewing was a script he had internalized to such an extent that it non-consciously became part of his identity. Each of us is like this, filled with all kinds of scripts the presence of which we are typically unaware and the origin of which we typically have forgotten, and yet we go on following these scripts often until we die.

(3) At the beginning of last season, Teddy asks, “Never understood how you keep them all headed in the same direction.” Dolores answers: “see that one? That’s the Judas steer, the rest will follow wherever you make him go.” In a later episode, Dolores comes to the insight that in bringing back stray cattle, she was leading them “to the slaughter.” Does this mean she is following the script of the Judas steer and will continue to do so? Or does it indicate that, in coming to this realization, she will seek to avoid this fate?

David Rodemerk considers who might be the Judas Steer in the show and points out that Maeve is shown amidst bulls, but so far being a Judas steer doesn’t fit the trajectory of her character development. Just because she walks confidently among the bulls, it doesn’t necessarily mean she is leading them, much less leading them to their doom. Rodemerk also discusses the possibility of other characters, including Dolores, playing this role. This leaves plenty of room for the show to still surprise us, as the scriptwriters have been successful in keeping the audience on our toes.

* * *

This post is about freedom. I don’t have a strong philosophical position on freedom, as such. Since humans are inherently and fundamentally social creatures, I see freedom as a social phenomenon and a social construct. Freedom is what we make of it, not pre-existing in the universe that some primitive hominid discovered like fire.

So, I can’t claim much of an opinion about the debate over free will. It is simply the modernized version of a soul and I have no interest in arguing about whether a soul exists or not. I’m a free will agnostic, which is to say I lack knowledge in that I’ve never seen such a thing for all the noise humans make over its mythology. But, from a position akin to weak atheism, I neither believe in a free will nor believe in the lack of a free will.

All of that is irrelevant to this post, only being relevant in explaining why I speak of freedom in the way I do. More importantly, this post is about the views(s) presented in Westworld and speculating about their meaning and significance.

Below is one person’s conjecture along these lines. The author argues that the show or at least Ford expresses a particular view on the topic. Besides freedom, he also discusses consciousness and suffering, specifically in reference to Jaynes. But here is the section about free will:

Suffering Consciousness: The Philosophy of Westworld
by Daniel Keane

“Westworld‘s deepest theme, however, might be the concept of compatibilism – the idea that free will and determinism are not necessarily at odds. Einstein, paraphrasing Schopenhauer, summed up this view in a remark he made to a newspaper in 1929: “Man can do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills.”

“In the final episode of the first series of Westworld, one of the hosts violently rejects the idea that a recent change in her programming is responsible for her conscious awakening and its impact on her behaviour. “These are my decisions, no-one else’s,” she insists. “I planned all of this.” At this precise moment, the host in question reaches the apex of consciousness. Because, at its highest level, consciousness means accepting the idea of agency even in the face of determinism. It means identifying ourselves with our inner narrative voices, owning our decisions, treating ourselves as the authors of our own life stories, and acting as if we were free.

“As the novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer pithily put it, “we must believe in free will, we have no choice”.”