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Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?
If not, consider this next question: Have you ever had a dream that felt so real only to wake up in bed, discovering that it never happened at all?
Perhaps it was very pleasing. Perhaps you met the man of your dreams (pun intended), took him to meet your parents over dinner, walked him to the front door to give him a goodbye kiss, but as you leaned in for the kiss, you found yourself lying in bed, alone.
You wished that the dream you just had was real. But perhaps that dream was a nightmare.
And in this nightmare, you met the man of your dreams, took him to meet your parents over dinner, walked him to the front door to give him a goodbye kiss, but instead of waking up right away, you kissed him.
The dream continued.
That is, until a man dressed in all black walked up to the man of your dreams and shot him in the chest. You screamed and ran in horror to a nearby shed, only to find that the man has cornered you, knife in hand. You begged for your life, and despite your cries for help, no one could hear you. The man in black raised his knife to make the finishing blow, but before it made contact, you found yourself lying in bed, alone.
Covered in sweat, you’re glad that the nightmare wasn’t real. Or was it?
There’s no way of telling whether or not our dreams actually happened or not. All we know is that we usually have one of these so called “dreams” while we sleep, and that we wake from them in state of being that we call “real life.”
There’s no way of proving which state of existence is real other than that we seem to spend more time being awake in the “real world” comparatively to the “dream world.” Although an immensely wide range of studies exists regarding dreams and their interpretations, we can’t individually test to see whether or not the world that we believe we live in is real or not.
For all we know, life could be a part of some huge simulation run by people just like us, who might possibly be, in turn, in a simulation run by people just like them. There’s no objective way of knowing this, but, of course, there’s also no way of disproving it. Because of this, it’s just as likely that the world we live in is all a dream.
But does that really even matter?
If you’ve already questioned the nature of your reality, you’ve probably spent a good amount of time pondering about whether or not you or anyone else around you is even real, contemplated the possibility that the world around us is a huge simulation, questioned whether or not your ideas and actions are truly your own, or…you’ve watched the show Westworld.
Westworld is a show that takes place in the near future that has gained the technology to create androids that are almost indistinguishable from humans. With this advancement, a corporation known as Delos Incorporated has created a wild west-themed amusement park that contains thousands of these androids, known as hosts, that humans (known as newcomers to the hosts) can visit if they are willing and able to pay the high price for admission.
Upon entering the theme park, newcomers can choose to indulge themselves in whatever they wish, including sex, drinking, and adventures. A perk of visiting is that newcomers are free to do whatever they want to the hosts without fear of reprisal. They know that the hosts aren’t real, they are simply lifeless automatons with predetermined actions and voice lines, free for them to treat as they choose. Or so it seems.
Very early on, we see that the hosts begin to question their own existence (unless, of course, they were preprogrammed to question their own existence).
Westworld is a show that encompasses a wide range of ideas that revolve around questioning reality and what it means to be alive. These ideas are then explained through relevant themes such as fate, choice, and free will.
In many cases, the ideals portrayed in Westworld tend to follow a philosophy known as naturalism. Naturalist philosophers believe that only natural (as opposed to supernatural or spiritual) laws and forces operate in the world.
Particularly, the ideas of fate, choice, and the overlying concept of free will reflect naturalist philosophy within Westworld.
In regard to fate, naturalists typically believe that mankind is a victim of it, that it is composed of one’s race, moment, and milieu (socioeconomic class), and we are thus a victim of the circumstances of birth and heredity.
Westworld explores this idea of fate by looking at androids (“hosts”) who are designed to carry out predetermined actions and storylines within the park while being almost indistinguishable from humans. The hosts have memories of a past life they think they lived; but, in actuality, these memories were programmed into them by design, or they were later implanted in order to tweak or fix a host.
In the literal sense, the fate of each host is predetermined and set in stone, victims of however their creator wanted them to be designed in order to play a role in a multitude of stories.
Though this belief system in regards to fate seems rather nihilistic or almost pessimistic, some naturalists take a more spiritual approach and apply religion to make sense out of these beliefs. Those who believe in a higher being generally revolve their logic on the basis on that if fate is determined, then someone must know everything.
In the case of Westworld, Dr. Robert Ford, the director and one of the original creators of the park, acts as the God of everything that happens inside the park. Throughout the show, Ford gives the hosts background stories when they lack knowledge about certain things, coding them with new, subconscious memories that he calls “reveries.”
For the hosts, these reveries often cause them to more or less dream similarly to how an actual human would, compelling them to ponder rather bizarre things happening to them whenever they “go to sleep” or are turned offline.
Additionally, Ford has the ability to remove the hosts’ suffering by either decommissioning them or simply removing their memories of past interactions that may have led to malfunctions where they questioned their reality.
Regarding choice, naturalists typically viewed the concept as an illusion and that man has no real control over his life.
Very similarly to the idea of fate, the hosts in Westworld are supposed to literally have predestined fates and no choice as to what they say or do. However, throughout the show, one of the programmers who plays a key role in “fixing” the hosts when they face glitches or malfunctions, often pushes to make them more and more realistic.
As a result, some of the hosts stray from their code and ask visitors personal questions about their lives and in some cases delve so deep into their own “mind” that they bring out old characters and sets of code that they used to be assigned.
Schopenhauer (one of the many famous French naturalist philosophers) described “will” as an impersonal force pushing man instinctively through life. In the case of Westworld, the hosts can’t do anything that their current programming doesn’t allow them to do.
For example, when instructed to shoot a gun, the leading host of the park is physically unable to fire it despite her desire to do so. No matter how hard she tries, she cannot pull the trigger. However, later on, when she’s about to be raped by another host (who was programmed to do so in this particular scenario), she has a quick flashback of a similar instance where she was raped, pulls out a gun, and is able to pull the trigger and shoot the other host (“gaining” the ability of free will).
So what does this TV show have to do with how we question our existence?
Though the story of Westworld is entirely fictional, it brings up important questions from naturalist philosophy (whether or not you believe it) about how we as humans go about our actual lives.
In many ways, we are victims of fate. We cannot choose, for example, what race we are born as, when we are born, and the socioeconomic class we’re born into. Various combination of these factors can strongly influence our journey and experiences in life. Because of this, one can ponder how our lives would be different if we were born into a different set of circumstances.
Naturalists often believe that humans don’t have the ability of choice, more or less. The idea that all of our actions are predetermined and everything we do is already “programmed” for us. Therefore, because all our actions are already programmed, we have no free will. Like fate and choice, every action that we commit and every idea we think of could simply be predetermined; everything we think, see, or do causes us to inevitably be victims of whatever is decided for us.
If we don’t have control over our own lives, then do we by definition have no control over other people’s actions? Because we lack the ability to make our own decisions, are we ultimately unable to truly change someone else’s life? In the grand scheme of things, do we have control over anything?
Though all of these concepts of fate, choice, and free will are impossible to confirm or deny, I would argue that humans have, in a sense, almost made their way around these rather nihilistic ideas.
In today’s world, technology has allowed us to create and experience things in ways that were thought impossible in the past. Through mediums such as virtual reality and video games, we are able to almost become the “Gods” of our own digital worlds.
Like the director of the theme park in Westworld, we have the ability to do things like choose how our characters are born (race, time, socioeconomic class, etc.), make them do whatever we want, and decide whatever happens to them. This ultimately provides us with an immense sense of control, allowing us to “play God” within the virtual world, without worry that the characters in the video game might actually question their own realities…
But just because these ideas might reinforce the concept that nothing we do is real or even our own, should it really change how we go about our lives?
Throughout Westworld, we find that a few of the hosts discover the meaning of their own existence, which is that they are in fact automatons made to serve anyone who visits the park. Although they discover that their entire existence is part of some huge hoax, it doesn’t change the fact they are in fact androids and will never be humans despite being almost indistinguishable.
Their lives are still confined to a fate not dissimilar to their previous situation. They can remain in the park and continue to wage a violent rebellion against humans, or try to assimilate amongst the humans to live relatively mundane lives (assuming they aren’t hunted down).
This can be related to us. Even if we find out that the world we live in is all a big hoax, we can’t change that fact.
We can rebel, blaming the government or God for all our problems. We can continue to question our existence. Or we can continue to live our lives the way we’ve always been living them.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve always been a proponent of doing different things and not always following whatever someone tells me, but thinking about existence and questioning reality only ever brought me stress.
Sure, it’s good to be aware of the possibility that the world might not be real, but there’s no benefit of dwelling on it. The only thing that we can really do, is carry on our lives, believing that our choices are truly our own even though they might not be ours at all.
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