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Monday, October 17, 2016

Westworld 1.3: Julian Jaynes and Arnold

An outstanding episode 1.3 tonight of Westworld, turning out to be one brilliantly philosophical ride of a series, as we would want a drama about artificial intelligence in android bodies to be.

We learn from Dr. Ford that Arnold, who co-created the androids with Ford, thought that the creations could achieve true sentience via a bicameral mental process, in which the two halves of the mind worked together - one talking to the other - to attain human consciousness.   This, as far as I know, is the first time this theory of Julian Jaynes - that our own human consciousness arose from bicameral minds - has ever been employed as a mechanism in a science fiction television series.

It's appeared in science fiction - including in one of my own novels, The Consciousness Plague - but not as an explanation for the design and emergence of artificial sentience.  Jaynes was a real person, by the way, whose book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of Bicameral Mind caused something of a stir when it was first published in 1976.   Jaynes argued that prior to the invention and adoption of the phonetic alphabet in the Middle East, human beings were not conscious in the way that we have been ever since and are today, but instead heard voices in their heads that told them what to do.   Those voices are now known in our history as the voices of the Biblical prophets, and they survive today in schizophrenics.

We studied Jaynes in the Media Ecology PhD Program at New York University under Neil Postman. I once asked Marshall McLuhan what he thought of Jaynes and he said it was "science fiction" - another prophetic observation of McLuhan, who talked about the global village decades before the Internet and social media.   I met Jaynes a few times - he was charming and erudite.  But I thought his theory foundered in Far Eastern cultures, which are conscious the way we Westerners are, but never had a phonetic alphabet.

But that's no reason Jaynes' theory couldn't be brought into Westworld, which was really on a philosophic roll tonight, also invoking Karl Popper's notion that learning proceeds via mistakes, as Bernard muses about life and intelligence.   Neither Jaynes nor Popper were mentioned by name, but the presence of their core concepts in Westworld makes it not just science fiction but philosophic fiction, an amalgam you don't get on the television screen every day.

Meanwhile, Dolores's story (very well played by Evan Rachel Wood) is progressing beautifully - in beautiful sorrow, apropos her name - and we see some monsters in the park, with unclear origins. Also, a host kills himself with a rock to the head - presumably to stop himself from hurting one of the programmers.

Westworld is a trip for the mind as well as the senses, and I'm all eyes and ears for more.

See also Westworld 1.1: Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick Served Up by Jonathan Nolan, Lisa Joy, and J. J. Abrams ... Westworld 1.2: Who Is the Man in Black?

more about Julian Jaynes
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