Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?
Thematically, this question is - I think - perhaps the most important piece of dialogue in the brilliant pilot of HBO's new feature drama, Westworld. The question is posed by security chief Ashley Stubbs while interrogating the show's female protagonist Delores Abernathy, but it could possibly be seen as the show's writers querying their audience using Stubbs as a proxy.
Why do I think this piece of dialogue is so important? Because - as much as nearly all the analyses of the show so far have discussed the first episode through the lens of science fiction; ie. the advance towards artificial intelligence, as shown by the robotic 'Hosts' of Westworld - I think the real framework of the first episode, and perhaps ongoing, is the posing of that timeless philosophical and spiritual question:'how can we tell the difference between illusion and reality?'
Once upon a time, I, Chuang Chou, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.
And this is to be expected, given a co-creator of the show is Jonathan Nolan, the script-writer behind movies including Memento, The Prestige and Inception. All three of those movies explore the fallibility of human consciousness and our ability to recognise what is real. What is perhaps more unexpected is the way in which the theme of the story (so far, at least) is very clearly Gnostic in flavour.
Gnosticism holds that, rather than Earth being the perfect creation of a supreme being, we are instead living in a prison of sorts, created by an impostor: 'the Demiurge', a lesser deity than the true God. Escape from this realm is through a process of awakening to this fact, or gnosis ('knowledge'). Or to put it simply: questioning the nature of your reality.
These ideas have appeared in part in many stories of the past half-century: from the works of Philip K. Dick through to movies such as The Matrix, Dark City, and The Truman Show (thus seeing Ed Harris taking an apparently antagonistic role in this series seems a nice touch). But Westworld in particular seems to be, at its heart, a Gnostic story.
Westworld (the theme park in the show) is, quite obviously, a false world created by an imperfect being. The residents of that world are kept in the dark to the larger reality by the Demiurge (and its 'archons', or helpers/servants). Only through a process of realisation - by gaining knowledge, or gnosis, of their situation - can they awaken from this 'dream' to the greater reality.
But is Dr. Robert Ford (wonderfully played by Anthony Hopkins) the Demiurge, or is it perhaps more the Delos corporation that runs the theme park (which, we learn from dialogue in this episode, has greater plans for robotic AI than just a theme park)? Ford at times comes across rather sympathetically in episode one (though other moments in the trailer perhaps not so much); he seems to feel some kin to his creations and perhaps, as he nears the end of his own life, he desires to put the spark of free will into the robots. Hence the 'Reveries' that are programmed into the new, problematic update - gestures and mannerisms that are based on deep memories that the Hosts' conscious mind cannot supposedly access. While their inclusion is, at face value, meant to make them look more human, are they actually the key to making them human (whether purposefully, or purely as an accident)?
Our sense of self is intimately tied to memory. If we were to awaken each day with no memory of the day before, the foundations of self would be pulled from beneath our feet. The Hosts of Westworld have memories, but they are not of what happened the day before - they are instead an inserted 'back story', because if they remembered what actually happened the day before their understanding of themselves, and their world, would be fundamentally changed. So by inserting these 'Reveries' - a back-door of sorts into their true memories - has Dr. Ford given them a self?
An interview with co-creators of the show Jonathan ('Jonah') Nolan and Lisa Joy suggests this is likely the case:
Joy: There are past incarnations of their characters that are stored but the hosts just don’t have access to them – or aren’t supposed to have access to them. The Reveries work on a kind of subliminal level. What I think of them as – because I’m not a coder, Jonah is more into that world – for me it was imagining that consciousness and history are a deep sea and Reveries are tiny fishhooks that you dip into it and get little gestures and subconscious ticks. The hosts don’t consciously know where they’re drawn from, but they’re just there to add some nuance to their expressions and gestures. But dipping that fishhook in might prove to be a little .. fraught.
When Dolores' "father", Peter Abernathy, malfunctions and begins dredging up parts of his previous characters - and seemingly, having some self-realisation of his plight - he chooses a quote from Shakespeare's King Lear which is explicitly Gnostic in tone: "When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools."
The realisation that he has been fooled, and is a prisoner within a false world, appears to fill Abernathy with rage against his Creator, as evidenced by his choice of Shakespearean quotes (an amazing scene, both actors absolutely smash it out of the park):
Dr. Ford: What is your itinerary?
Peter: To meet my maker.
Dr. Ford: Ah. Well. You're in luck. And what do you want to say to your maker?
Peter: A most mechanical and dirty hand [laughs]. I shall have such revenges on you both. The things I will do, what they are, yet I know not. But they will be the terrors of the earth.
Now, while memory seems to be a major part of the gnosis of the Hosts, there is one other contributing plot point that I'm sure readers of this site would have found enjoyable. Peter Abernathie's malfunction in episode one is triggered by an anachronistic photo of a woman in a city he finds in the dirt, likely left behind by one of the guests of the park: the 'out-of-place artifact' ('OOPArt') so well-known in Fortean studies, which prompt us to ask whether there is something more beyond consensus reality.
So it is important that we don't simply look on as an outsider on the artifiical world of Westworld. The parable of Westworld is that we should all ponder Stubbs' question to Delores: "Have you ever questioned your reality". It's a question that can be applied at various levels, from the philosophical/spiritual to science and history, through to the mundane modern worlds of politics and media. We are all living in illusions created and administered by various Demiurges and their Archons. We should do our best to search for knowledge in order that, bit by bit, we might wake to greater realities.
This article is excerpted from Darklore Volume 9, which is available for sale from Amazon US and Amazon UK. Darklore 9 features essays from Alan Moore, Mike Jay, Robert Schoch and others, on topics ranging from hidden history to the occult.
Kerry Thornley was born on April 17th, 1938 in Whittier, California, the very same conservative bastion of Orange County blandness that bestowed upon us the honorable Richard M. Nixon, who some consider the physical embodiment of the Curse of Greyface.1
In 1958 – as an apparent counterbalance to Nixon’s ascension into the office of Vice President – Thornley and his teenaged pal Greg Hill (while sipping coffee in a Whittier bowling alley) inadvertently invoked Eris, the Greek goddess of chaos and discord. In the aftermath of their caffeine-induced vision, Hill and Thornley founded the so-called spoof religion Discordianism, as well as its disorganizational branch, The Discordian Society.
Initially an in-joke between Hill and Thornley, by the late 1960s the Discordian Society began to attract a loose knit group of writers, artists and free spirits who often adopted comical Pope names. Thornley embraced the Discordian persona of Lord Omar Khayyam Ravenhurst while Greg Hill became known as Malaclypse the Younger.
Other Discordian Popes included Playboy editors Robert Anton Wilson (Mordecai the Foul) and Robert Shea (Josh the Dill), who in tandem co-authored the counterculture classic, The Illuminatus Trilogy, with the first book in the series dedicated to none other than Hill and Thornley. Throughout Illuminatus are numerous references to Discordian memes such as The Law of Fives, The Sacred Chao, and the John Dillinger Died For You Society.
Many Discordian activities concerned pranks designed to not only poke fun at organized religion and uptight people, but also as a means of illumination through the use of surreal and irreverent humor. In recent years, the Discordian Society has grown into a worldwide underground phenomenon, although the only thing that its Popes and Momes can generally agree upon is that tried and true Discordian maxim: “We Discordians must stick apart!” For further information/confusion refer to Principia Discordia or How I Found Goddess And What I Did To Her When I Found Her.
During Thornley’s junior year of high school in the spring of 1956, he enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserves, attending boot camp that summer, then returned to high school in the fall of 1957 for his senior year. The following year he attended the University of Southern California as a journalism major, but quickly lost interest in pursuing the academic life.
A budding writer intent on traveling the world, Thornley figured the most immediate way to do so was by fulfilling his two-year active duty in the Marines. Kerry enlisted in the spring of 1959, and his first stop was El Toro Marine Base, located near Irvine, California. It was here that his life was forever altered when his path crossed that of Lee Harvey Oswald.
The Prankster and the Assassin
At the moment I have every reason to believe I may get 20 years in a Louisiana prison for: 1) having gone to USC at the same time as Gordon Novel did; 2) having written a novel based on Oswald which re-inforced his apparent Marxist cover; 3) having been from that point out the victim of either the most fantastic chain of incriminating coincidences or the most satanically evil plot in history…
I was never very interested in the Kennedy assassination until lately. But goddamn and sweet Jesus do I want to see those bastards brought to justice now! Not out of revenge, but just simple self-preservation.
As I’ve been telling people, I’m up to my ass in a cheap spy novel. And right now that means I am in over my head.
– Letter from Kerry Thornley to Greg Hill, dated February 17th, 1968
Kerry Thornley and Lee Harvey Oswald were stationed at El Toro over a three month period, and much of their interactions occurred either during off duty hours at the rec hall, or in between drills and field exercises when the two engaged in ... Read More »
Throughout history, humans have have believed in, and sometimes hunted for, creatures that are not of this world. From medieval occultists who attempted to invoke angels and demons via magick circles, invocations and amulets, to modern-day ghosthunters with their electronic devices, invisible, incorporeal entities have sometimes been as much a part of the landscape as the everyday physical objects surrounding us that we can touch and see.
The modern, scientific view has these entities as products of the imagination; our pattern-seeking minds combining with our evolutionary survival instincts and desire to feel in control, to create phantoms out of nothing. The 'other world' does not exist; its imaginary denizens therefore cannot invade our own world and affect us, as they don't exist in the first place.
How ironic, then, that the modern scientific world has now created its own 'other world' - the world of computer-generated, virtual realities - and the creatures that populate any of those worlds can now manifest within our own plane through augmented/mixed reality. For those with phones to see...
This month, the infernal gates to this other world were thrown open. Within a week of its release, the game Pokémon Go amassed a similar number of active users to that of Twitter - with all those players running about their neighbourhoods, seeking the incorporeal monsters now inhabiting our environment, that can only be seen through a special, magical scrying device.
Unlike the rare and much-sought-after occult tools of yesteryear, however, this scrying device is a near-ubiquitous piece of equipment that lives in most people’s pockets or handbags. And while the augmented reality of Pokémon Go may be a reasonably crude first step (though that is of course, relative to what the future holds), as new devices are created and eventually offered to the mass market - such as Microsoft’s ‘HoloLens’, and the much-discussed upcoming product from Magic Leap - the other planes of ‘reality’ available to us will become more and more ‘real’ in their fidelity and detail.
In effect, we are all going to become ‘walkers between worlds’...
Move the dial one way, and you get reality. Move the dial the other way, and you get virtual reality. Now imagine dialling your entire environment between virtual, and real worlds.
I would imagine those people who have undertaken serious practice of ritual magick, or shamanic journeys via psychedelics, would find the way technology can now overlay other realities on our own rather intriguing, in multiple ways.
Firstly, on a philosophical level: if these coherent realities can emerge simply from within the 1s and 0s of a computer chip, could it be argued that the worlds occultists and shamans visit - sometimes elsewhere, sometimes overlaid on our own reality - are also coherent planes of information, only able to be accessed via certain technologies? Could DMT visions be considered, rather than a nonsense hallucination, actually an overlay of the same type, allowing us to see things that do exist, but are not visible without the necessary equipment?
What is the ontological status of even computer-generated holograms? They are not physically there, but you could eventually set them up to ‘augment’ your senses and show what is there but you can’t see (outside of your umwelt) - e.g. an overlay of the magnetic fields you are walking through. And if a scary VR experience can affect your body - from making you sweat, to raising your heart rate (or perhaps even causing a heart attack?) - can we really describe it as ‘imaginary’, and with no real-world effects?
Philosopher David Chalmers addressed this question in a recent video interview posted at Aeon:
I’m inclined to think that if we’re in a virtual reality and that’s been our environment for a long time, and we’re interacting with it, it’s not clear to me whether that’s any less real…more and more of the interactions we actually have are becoming virtual. I can at least imagine the day when, once we have so many virtual interactions, that life in this virtual world begins to seem at least as appealing as, say, a trip to Mars. It’s going to be a new destination, it’s going to be different from our old reality, but it’s nevertheless, a reality.
Secondly, on a practical level: can the development of technologically augmented reality enhance the experience of occultists, shamans and would-be mystics; be used as a tool to take things to the next level? Already, I have seen mention from a few practitioners of magick about the possibility of using computer-generated environments - for example, in conducting a simple Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram:
In a recent interview, Alan Moore mentioned his interest in virtual reality (begins around 39:10) being piqued by the realisation that people can share an experience, "in a space that doesn’t actually exist in this continuum, but yet is a real experience”. His suggestion, rather than thinking about using it to play an adrenaline-pumping 3D shooter, was...
What about spiritual experiences? What about these difficult to reach, transcendent spaces that we hear about from the world’s various religions and mystical systems? Why don’t you do that with virtual reality? Why don’t you see what happens? Because, what is the difference between a ‘real’ mystical experience, and a virtual mystical experience?
A preliminary exploration of this idea can be found in this ‘immersive’ 360° music video made by film-maker Logi Hilmarsson, which is "designed to put the viewer in a mystical state, taking him through visions one can get in a deep meditative or psychedelic state" (made for watching in VR headset, though if you don’t own one, you can still click and drag the video to understand the concept behind it).
On the other hand, is our imagination the crucial ingredient in exploring the ‘other worlds’ of magick and mysticism? Is using augmented reality only going to weaken that fundamental tool, weakening our mystical muscle?
I don’t really have any answers to the questions posed in this article. But I would certainly enjoy hearing all of your thoughts (and own questions) about it, as the topic fascinates me, and as technology progresses things will only get more interesting!