Westworld Doesn’t Understand the Nature of Consciousness

Of course, nobody else does either. But Westworld understands it less.

Consciousness is simultaneously the most intimately known and least understood aspect of reality.

Take a second to let that sink in.

The most important possession of ours is at one and the same time perfectly familiar and utterly incomprehensible.

That is not a contradiction, of course — there is nothing we’re more acquainted with than our first-person, subjective experience of the world, and nothing we understand less than the nature of consciousness itself.

HBO’s Westworld (spoilers ahead), which just wrapped up its first season, is the latest show to explore the abiding familiarity and mystery of consciousness and center the narrative around it.

The problem is they get it badly wrong.

The fundamental confusion stems from the fact that the show misunderstands that the salient aspect of consciousness is experience.

It is not, as the show implies during the early part of the season, memory. Nor is it, as the later episodes have it, self-directedness, which is closer to self-consciousness or to the popular notion of free will.

Consciousness either involves or is closely connected to these other aspects, but is essentially something else: experience.

By “experience” I’m referring to the subjective, ongoing mental representation of the world; the vivid inner rendering of that which is out there.

The philosopher David Chalmers explains the problem this way:

The really hard problem of consciousness is the problem of experience. When we think and perceive, there is a whir of information-processing, but there is also a subjective aspect. As Thomas Nagel has put it, there is something it is like to be a conscious organism. This subjective aspect is experience. When we see, for example, we experience visual sensations: the felt quality of redness, the experience of dark and light, the quality of depth in a visual field. Other experiences go along with perception in different modalities: the sound of a clarinet, the smell of mothballs. Then there are bodily sensations, from pains to orgasms; mental images that are conjured up internally; the felt quality of emotion, and the experience of a stream of conscious thought. What unites all of these states is that there is something it is like to be in them. All of them are states of experience.

It is undeniable that some organisms are subjects of experience. But the question of how it is that these systems are subjects of experience is perplexing. Why is it that when our cognitive systems engage in visual and auditory information-processing, we have visual or auditory experience: the quality of deep blue, the sensation of middle C? How can we explain why there is something it is like to entertain a mental image, or to experience an emotion? It is widely agreed that experience arises from a physical basis, but we have no good explanation of why and how it so arises. Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all? It seems objectively unreasonable that it should, and yet it does.

Because this is the most morally significant and philosophically interesting aspect of our mental lives, it is also the most narratively important in a universe such as Westworld’s.

Yet Westworld doesn’t realize it.

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