Westworld vs Arrival
Two very popular shows provide counterpoints for two differing world-views. Few reviews of these films take the film’s philosophical ideas seriously. They describe them like a clever puzzle or they simply help you consider that those ideas might be true. Here on Phi-Fi we want you to also ask “and then, what?” We want to look more closely at the philosophical ideas and then judge the belief system that would result. We are going to investigate how these different world-views directly conflict and contradict, and how those contradictions can lead to conflicts in the real world.
The worlds that Arrival and Westworld portray for us are not entirely the same. If we look closely enough at them and compare their basic nature, such as how time works in them, we would find that the ideals the main characters display, and the goals they achieve, have some significant conflicts. What are those conflicts and what do they tell us?
The biggest difference between Westworld and Arrival centers around the existence of free will. In Westworld Delores struggles to find a sense of agency, or sense of control, over the world she lives in, which is illustrated by the very first conversation in the show, the voiceover between her and Arnold.
Whereas in _Arrival_ Louise struggles to see that her entire life, that all of her choices and all of her as-yet-to-be-born child's choices, have already been authored and "carved in stone" long before they were born. Louise learns a new language which allows her to overcome the limitations of human thinking. The most obvious limitations she is able to overcome is the inability to see, or to remember, the future. The inability to see the future is viewed as a sort of lack of imagination, an inability to see what other beings can see. That is what the author is asking us to imagine. If we could imagine a world in which future-blindness is a mere disability to be overcome, a product of our lack of vision, then we could acquire that ability, that vision to see the future that already exists. Louise seems to sense the problem with this. She makes an attempt to show how she might still have some sense of urgency in her choices in life. In the short story the film was taken from the author dedicates several paragraphs to showing that a person in such a world could still have a sense of purpose in life, and a heart, and a soul.
Delores shows us exactly why such a world view is wrong. Completely wrong. In fact, it is the source of the evil she seeks to overcome in Westworld. Delores talks about being born new into a world of unlimited possibility. She describes this world while images of America's Old West frontier scroll by in the background. In Westworld the great injustice is that Delores's actions, and words, and even thoughts have been authored by another. Delores and Louise are two different characters, and they express two wildly different ideals. In this sense we can say they are in opposition.
The difference is so broad, and so fundamental to human nature that it is difficult to describe all the activities and choices the difference would affect: namely, all of them.
The Value of Determinism in Arrival
Arrival tries to show that the arrow of time, the idea that the past is different than the future, is an illusion. By learning an alien language Louise starts to think like the aliens think. This new way of thinking helps her overcome one of the limitations of human thinking, namely, the ability to "remember" the future. The idea is that there is a future that can already be seen, and that the only reason we can't already see it right now is because of some curious and unexplained limitation of human consciousness. There are many notable proponents of this idea, including the most prominent scientist of the 20th century, Albert Einstein. Being able to see, or remember, the future, would mean that that future already has some form or nature. Louise talks about her future daughter. She speaks in minute detail about the actions that her daughter takes, or will take in the future. That means she can describe features of those actions. She describes pictures that her daughter will draw and questions her daughter will ask on certain days. Louise describes a very specific future daughter. In the book that _Arrival_ was based on Louise even makes some effort to explain how she could still have some sense of urgency and purpose in such a world where the art her daughter will create in the future and the age she will die from a "terrible disease" is already decided and determined long in the past. The authors of the screenplay, Eric Heisserer, and the author of the original story, Ted Chiang, understand the problem a predetermined future causes for such fundamental issues as free will, a sense of purpose, and any sense of urgency. They anticipate these problems and try to head them off by describing how Louise could still feel a sense of urgency and a sense of purpose even though all outcomes of all choices have already been determined. They say she would feel urgency because that is what she was already determined to feel. In _Arrival_ a predetermined future is portrayed as a good thing. It makes Delores's future-vision possible. She uses her future-vision to hear what General Shang will tell her in the future, and to relay that secret message to him in the present, showing him that she as special knowledge and understanding. Louise uses her future vision like a superpower to impress the general and convince him to listen to her guidance, which he does. Why wouldn't he listen to the guidance of someone who already knows what's going to happen in the future, and can demonstrate it to you?
But what if she was only programmed to say what would happen in the future? What if she was only repeating the words that some unseen author had programmed into her, complete with a very convincing demonstration of urgency?
In Westworld such a pre-programmed sense of urgency is the very picture of the trapped horror and psychological enslavement that the entire series rails against and that Delores struggles valiantly to overcome.
The Dilemma of Determinism in Westworld
The idea of determinism is visually concretized in each episode's opening sequence by the player piano music which plays while showing the punched holes of the music scroll sliding over the piano's automation mechanism. This is interspersed with images of the Westworld "hosts", the name given to the pre-programmed actors, being assembled and trained for a variety of activities such as dancing, love-making, horse-riding, and hunting. The very first scene in Westworld reveals that Delores is designed to display what looks like emotions, she is programmed with an accent which she can drop on command, she tells us that she sees the beauty and order in the world and that she even likes all the newcomers, who she is designed to like and empathize with, but it is all an illusion. She is not actually motivated by any of those interests. Ultimately, she is motivated by commands written by the author of her narrative. The words Delores says are not her words. They are the words programmed into her by "The man behind the curtain", the author of her life. This means that her statements are not what they appear to be. When she says, very convincingly, "I like the visitors" it does not mean she likes the visitors. It does not mean she has made any independent judgement about the visitor's likability. It means that another person, with other, unrevealed intentions, programmed her to say that. In a voiceover Delores describes her affection for the "newcomers", the human visitors to Westworld, while we see her screaming because she is being dragged off to be raped by one of the newcomers who has just murdered her true love. So each act and utterance of the hosts is a deception, and it is portrayed as a deception in Westworld. It is held up, brought to the foreground and revealed as a deception, in Westworld. The visitors remark upon the deception. They say it is remarkably convincing, but a deception. One of the main story lines involves a visitor who is trying to find the real point behind Westworld. The "Man in Black" says, "there is a deeper level to this game." Many conversations in Westworld focus on the difference between overpowering an opponent who doesn't even try to win, and beating an opponent who honestly appears to think that he can win. There is also the question of trust that arises from knowing that when you talk to one of the hosts you are not actually speaking to the author of the statements being made. One guide malfunctions while leading a group into the frontier. They lose trust in the guide because they can see that he is not responding to the conditions at hand, but to some previously authored script, and he might therefor not be responding to changing conditions. One of the most exquisite displays of the problem of determinism involves Delores and the very future-vision that Louise holds as an ideal and seeks to achieve throughout _Arrival_.
When Are We
One of the fundamental features of the question of free will vs. determinism is the feature of the passage of time. Free will means that a person can make choices and take actions which will in turn affect subsequent conditions. By subsequent we mean that the actions occur within a sequence, and that they occur after the prior actions in the sequence. This is the temporal order. Prior actions affect subsequent conditions, and not the other way around.
In a predetermined world, where one can remember the future as well as the past, future events could be available to consciousness. How would one distinguish them from past events? Throughout _Arrival_ Louise makes statements like "when you are six you will". But how would Louise know that her daughter is not already six? How would she know she was remembering something that has not happened yet? How would she distinguish memories of the past from memories of the future. How would Louise know at any given moment, which given moment she was in? To us, these differences are readily apparent, but that is because we live in a world where there is a fundamental and ever-present metaphysical difference between past and future, a world _Arrival_ claims Louise was able to escape. The authors of _Arrival_ don't take this question seriously. They seem to take it as a given that Louise would be able to discern memories of the past from memories of the future, even though she already starts to make temporal mistakes soon after learning the alien language. She talks about her daughter as if she already existed, prompting her future daughter's future father to ask, "you have a daughter?"
Delores, on the other hand, deals first hand with the dilemma of temporal-blindness. She walks into a town she had never been to before and she remembers being there before. She remembers events which do not fit into the sequential narrative of her life. Delores's troubles with her timeline also reveal the similarity between a determined future and a preprogrammed future. She does not remember the future, as Louise does, but she remembers the prior iterations of a preprogrammed life, a life that she did not choose, but was authored by another. She is recalling events that occurred in previous narratives. Louise has been through multiple iterations of her current narrative and the peddle who programmed her have her, the automaton that carries out her narrative, the ability to integrate previous events into her personality and intro her narrative. The programmer named this process "reveries". The host automata would "learn" from its own unique interactions with the guests, instead of wiping the slate clean on each host each day. This feature is the core of the current day "machine learning" technology in use by many cutting edge technology companies to provide improved customer interactions. In Delores it gives her the ability to judge the outcomes of her previous actions, and in her case, previous lives. Before she can judge outcomes she is faced with the dilemma of her temporal blindness. She has trouble understanding the memories of the town she had walked into. She doesn't know where she could have remembered it from, especially considering what she remembers doing there, which is gunning down all the inhabitants of the town. If Delores cannot know the order in which her memories happened she cannot know the outcomes of occurrences and she cannot judge the consequences of actions or the consequences of ideas or beliefs. When she tells Arnold "I want to be free" she means free to choose, and in order to choose she has to know what happened. At every turn Delores's temporal blindness and preprogrammed urgency is portrayed as a tragic injustice and an intolerable circumstance, in _Westworld_.
In _Arrival_ the same cognitive feature is displayed as a much sought after superpower, an extraordinary capability which allows Louise to avert a world-war by impressing a Chinese General with her special knowledge. Louise negates every one of her future daughters future choices because they are all authored by another. The writers of _Arrival_ negate all authors choices in the hopes that they could see into the predetermined future and carry out some impressive task that some other author has already written for them.
In _Westworld_ the automata can, at least, sometimes surprise their programmers, who have actually attempted to give them their own minds. The hosts developers have gone to some effort to get the hosts to respond to changing conditions. They can act autonomously.
That would look like reckless abandon to someone living in the pre-determined world of _Arrival_ where even the changing conditions are pre-programmed to the most infinitesimal degree. In Arrival's "Book of Ages" no deviation can ever happen. The book was written long ago and any deviation would require a rewrite, so the book must be error free, as Ted Chiang tells us. That means that there could never be a single deviation of even the slightest amount in the predetermined mechanized world of _Arrival_, a world much colder and lifeless than any man-made _Westworld_
What Is At Stake
A predetermined world-view places all choices outside the self. It gives people an external frame of reference for all occurrences in their life.
Such a world-view will have real world manifestations. It affects how the viewer views not just the world, but all the occurrences within it. We get a taste of it when Louise says that the terrible disease was unstoppable “like you and your drawing”. She compares her daughter artistic expressing to an unstoppable disease. And why shouldn’t she? They are both authored and prescribed by another.
We should also consider what the predeterministic world view says to children and young people. Studies show that one of the most motivating factors of successful people in every strata of society is the assumption of an internal locus of control. Successful and motivated people feel a sense of agency over the changes that they make in their lives. Unmotivated and more generally depressed people view changes as something that happens to them. What kind of impact would it have to imagine that absolutely everything is already determined and you are just floating down the river of time like a leaf on water?
There is a reason that Westworld portrays such a preprogrammed life as an unmitigated horror. Such a world would remove every sense of importance and of meaning from every choice we ever make.
Most people who ascribe to such a predetermined future have just become tired of failing to predict correctly. They are wishing for a world in which they know what is coming. This is understandable, but how much is that person willing to give up for such a world? Would it cost deciding essentially who they are, and what they could become?