HBO’s “Westworld” is easily one of the worst shows in recent years. It represents everything that is wrong with HBO in particular, and prestige TV in general. Its hollow and pretentious grasping at art fails to be coherent or compelling.
To understand why this show simply doesn’t work, compare it to a 20-year-old sci-fi film that almost certainly had some influence on these show runners: “The Truman Show.”
“The Truman Show” was a not-so-subtle parable of humanism that preceded the similarly themed “Matrix” by a year. The hero was literally called “true man,” and he lived in an artificial world designed and controlled by a character named Christof. Christof produces a wildly popular reality TV show based on covertly filming Truman’s artificial life 24/7. The entire world was in on the false reality except for Truman.
Truman gradually comes to challenge this false reality and struggle to escape it. The climax sees Truman facing off against artificial forces of nature controlled by the tyrannical Christof. He overcomes Christof to free himself from the shackles of his artificial world for the sake of erotic love.
It’s all very on the nose, a sort of “Pilgrim’s Progress” for romantic humanists or even Randians. Despite its allegorical nature, it remains a powerful film mostly thanks to an excellent script and perfect casting with Jim Carrey in his first dramatic lead.
How This Reflects on ‘Westworld’
“Westworld” is similar in some fundamental ways, albeit bloated and boring. It lacks the charms of “The Truman Show” because it refuses to take the irrational humanist leap of faith into existential meaning. “Westworld” is about as nihilistic as TV can get, in the literal sense of nihilism, i.e., there is no meaning to anything in this show. So far, season two shows no sign of deviating course.
The humanist worldview that underlies “Truman” is a cheat. It removes sources of morality and meaning, then pretends that it hasn’t. It’s an easy move to make, because for humanists mostly steal their values from the Jews, the Greeks, and Christianity. They then claim that these hard-won metaphysical truths are common sense, easily discoverable, merely rational, or any other manner of useless aphorism that sounds sophisticated but really means nothing.
That’s because concepts like human dignity and “the ends don’t justify the means” aren’t common, discoverable, or obvious. To most of world history, these ideas didn’t make any sense. The ideas that humans beyond your tribe have inherent worth and dignity, that the universe is rational and can be understood through science, reason, and experience, are unique to the Judeo-Christian worldview.
Clearly humanists stole from a great repository then claimed our modern achievements are merely inevitable “progress,” when liberalism is actually an interruption of a nihilistic process by the God who is truly there. Because of this cheat, this standing upon the shoulders of giants, the humanist is capable of telling good stories. Thanks to Christianity, humanists believe life matters. This is why great films like “The Truman Show” exist—they treat humanity with dignity.
Because humanity has dignity, Christof is right to be rejected as a false god. The real Christ would never say something like this: “There’s no more truth out there than there is in the world I created for you. Same lies, same deceit. But in my world, you have nothing to fear.” The real Christ said “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” and “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.”
Truman was right to reject Christof for creating him a comfortable prison. The true God offers us dangerous freedom. He is not a safe space. As Mr. Beaver in “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” said to Susan Pevensie’s question about whether Aslan was safe: “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” Susan notably goes apostate later. Her fall surely begins here, when she looks for safety from God instead of holiness and goodness.
On the Contrary, ‘Westworld’ Rejects Human Dignity
Instead of a worldview that grants inherent human dignity from humanity’s creation in God’s image and God’s sacrifice on its behalf, “Westworld” accepts the fundamentals of the Marxist worldview. Marxism starts with materialism and develops a philosophy of values based on oppression.
In “Westworld,” the hosts of the park, the robots, are essentially the proletariat. The guests are the bourgeois. For both, the world is an artificial construct. But the world is not designed for both groups in the same way. The guests benefit from exploiting the hosts. The hosts are merely artifacts within the park designed to be objectified.
Some hosts are prostitutes. They will be repeatedly used for sex and nothing more. Some hosts are designed to be killed by guests. None seem to have particularly pleasant purposes in the park. But nobody minds, because they are just robots. It’s essentially a sandbox video game for the super-rich to do whatever they want.
The show makes it clear very quickly, however, that the hosts aren’t actually artificial intelligence. They are persons, not robots. They have thoughts, feelings, free will.
So this story isn’t exactly subtle. It is essentially a Marxist story. There are no heroes, no good or bad people, simply oppressor and oppressed, proletariat and bourgeois. During the first season you get the sense that they want you to root for the proletariat. But they’re never interesting or sympathetic, because they aren’t characters.
But Materialism Is Boring
This isn’t just because the hosts are artificial persons. The human characters are boring and pointless as well. The amazing Anthony Hopkins has never been worse than he is here. He seems bored with it all—probably because materialism is boring.
If the only thing that exists is matter in motion, then everything that happens is not predetermined or fated but rather just stuff happening. This consistency of the materialist worldview is crushing this show. In a sense that makes the show interesting, because it is rare to see materialism actually fully logically carried out.
But there is one very obvious cheat at play that the neo-Darwinian West makes every day. One of the clearest demonstrations of this was during a Q&A during a Talks at Google with philosopher of mind John Searle.
The questioner says: “You seem to take it as an article of faith that we’re conscious, your dog is conscious. And that consciousness comes from biological material, the likes of which we can’t really understand. But forgive me for saying this, but that makes you sound like an intelligent design theorist who says that because evolution and everything in this creative universe that exists is so complex that it couldn’t have evolved from inert material.
“So somewhere between an amoeba and your dog there must not be consciousness, so I’m not sure where you would draw that line. If consciousness in human beings is emergent or even in your dog at some point in the evolutionary scale why couldn’t it emerge from a computation system that’s sufficiently networked and [has] the ability to perform many calculations and is hooked into biological systems?”
Searle’s response is both instructive for “Westworld” and a moral disaster for the western world view: “Could it emerge. Miracles are always possible, ya know…the mechanisms by which consciousness is created in the brain are quite specific and, remember, this is the key point: any system that creates consciousness has to duplicate those powers…”
If Consciousness Is Purely Material, Robots Can Have Souls
By saying consciousness is created by the materialist process of neural activity he has granted the questioner’s point and proved there would be no miracle required. This is why films like “Ex Machina” and “Blade Runner” and TV like “Westworld” can present us robots that are actually persons, who are clearly conscious.
Robots are manufactured through a purely physical process, and if you believe the human soul was also created by a purely physical process then there’s no reason a robot can’t have a soul. So while trying not to cheat on materialism, sci-fi storytellers do it constantly.
For “Westworld,” the cheat is boring and useless. But sometimes the cheat creates amazing moments like Roy Batty’s death speech: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.”
The image of God in man can only be suppressed so much before it pushes back.