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Thoughts on the Theological Implications of HBO's WESTWORLD

westworld-tile-a3576d50The 1970s science fiction film Westworld remains one of my favorites from the decade, having seen it as a child while growing up. HBO has taken the basic premise of the film, a futuristic robotic theme park based on the Old West where guests can indulge their fantasies, and has just finished its first season. I've only been able to watch the season premiere, and bits of two other episodes, but I am intrigued by the various issues it raises.

Today I read a piece at Religion News Service titled "HBO's 'Westworld': Robot sex and the nature of the soul," and some of what was said in that essay got me to thinking even more about not only the issues the series raises, but some of the theological assumptions Christians make that are then brought into interaction with the series by those who aren't put off by the violence and graphic sexual elements it includes. What follows in the rest of this post are some of my observations and my own questions that come with my theological reflection, as well as my research in various disciplines that relate to this subject matter.

My first observation has to do with neuroscience. The essay at RNS includes the following quote in this area:

“The disturbing message … is that machines could one day be so close to human as to be indistinguishable – not just in intellect and appearance, but also in moral terms,” Tony Prescott, a cognitive neuroscientist and director of a robotics center at the University of Sheffield, said of “Westworld” in the online magazine The Conversation.

I'm certainly no neuroscientist, but I've read enough in the discipline to disagree with the statement of Dr. Prescott above. I recently saw a piece online which stated that robots that could be taken for human are very unlikely given that the human brain is wired to recognize faces in mere milliseconds, and that we can also quickly recognize an artificial approximation. When this happens our brains are put off with a negative reaction where the artificial is both recognized but also seen as foreign at the same time. The result is an uncanny response where we are wary of the artificial. The irony here is that the more lifelike a robot looks, the more likely it will be seen as upsetting. See the research on the "uncanny valley" in robotics on this. So in terms of the possibilities for the future in lifelike robots that could be taken for real human beings, although I suppose anything is possible, given what we know now from neuroscience, this seems highly unlikely. It is far more likely that such scenarios will remain in the realm of science fiction.

The next major area I was struck by is the essay's discussion of how Westworld raises questions about religion. I was pleased to see the essay mention "affect theory," one of my areas of research, and in the next paragraph the piece goes on to say the following:

“Are humans all that special?” Chitwood said. “Are they unique in the world, or are we more like the animals around us than we think? We immediately recoil from that because we believe we are created in the image of God. … What ‘Westworld’ does is get us to think about, ‘Can nonhumans have souls, and how is that soul connected to our biology?'”

Several theological issues and questions came to my mind after reading this. Christians are usually loathe to consider themselves in close relationship to animals, but evolutionary theory would seem to pose a serious challenge to this assumption. How then are we unique? The quote above mentions creation imago Dei, in the image of God. This is usually interpreted ontologically, that is, there is something different and special about the essence of human beings that sets them apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, whether their intelligence, self-awareness, or an immaterial spirit or soul. But several issues are challenging here. First, a good case can and has been made that the Genesis idea of creation in the image of God refers not to human ontology, but instead to an ancient near eastern understanding of calling to represent the divine king to the rest of creation. See Richard Middleton's fine discussion of this in The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis One. Second, is it theological necessary to posit a soul for human beings to be thought of as special? Although it is a minority view, there are evangelical theologians who reject body-soul dualism and who hold to a non-dualistic alternative called non-reductive physicalism. Nancey Murphy is an example of this. My third thought after reading this paragraph was the dangers that sometimes take place when we assume a special essence that makes us valuable that makes others less valuable who don't have this special something. In my research in genocide this is an issue. We assume a special essence for human beings, and that we then sit atop the metaphysical Great Chain of Being with lesser things below us. All well and good I suppose for us, but what about other animals, or other human beings who can become dehumanize when we assume that they lack our essence and instead are beastly and monstrous?

My final reflections after reading this RNS essay touched on the problem of violence. The premise of the Westworld park is that people know the "hosts" are robots and not humans, and this gives them the "freedom" to engage in acts of violence and brutality as dark fantasies are lived out. But this is highly problematic on a number of levels. First, that the robots are virtually indistinguishable from humans makes the possibility of violence toward them more unlikely not less so. Our brains are wired to make violence toward others challenging, unless this facet of our makeup is overcome by various processes. Second, assuming this neurological problem is overcome, serious psychological damage takes place in the wake of violence and murder toward others. Think of the post-traumatic stress disorder that now afflicts our military people returning from our various little wars around the globe. Even with the best military training making people into killers, we have a difficult time engaging in these acts, and they produce serious psychological damage. Would a theme park like this be able to overcome such neurological and psychological challenges? And what of the relationship between technology and violence? Consider our use of drone strikes in the War on Terror, for example. This program began with the Bush administration and was escalated under President Obama. It provides a way to use high technology to monitor and kill terrorists at a vast distance with less cost in terms of dollars and American lives than conventional warfare, but it has resulted in a high civilian death toll, and a negative psychological impact on those who pilot the drones.

Once the Blu-ray of season 1 of Westworld is released I plan on watching it and adding it to my collection. The thoughts above come to mind after just seeing snippets of the series, and reading an essay that raises theological and philosophical questions. I'm pleased to see Crichton's story providing continuing inspiration for entertainment that provides thought provoking material on some of the most challenging ideas and issues of our time.

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