This post was written by Nate Mills

When Moses stood before the Burning Bush, he responded to the Lord by asking, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” Moses’s hesitancy was rooted in a deep uncertainty surrounding his identity. He was unsure of his own right to be an actor in God’s plan for the Israelites. King David, wondering similarly about the weight of his duties, asked of the Lord, “What is man that you are mindful of him? What is the son of man that you care for him?” Throughout history the simple perennial question recurs: “who am I?” Or, more broadly, “what am I?” Artists and philosophers have worked in tandem to try and answer these questions about human nature and identity for thousands of years.

In recent memory, perhaps the best presentation of these questions has been through the genre of science fiction. From Frankenstein to Blade Runner, science fiction in particular has asked difficult questions about what it means to be human, and speculated on what it might mean to become human. Last year, Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner: 2049 came as a worthy successor to Ridley Scott’s 1984 masterpiece, pressing the themes posed by its predecessor even more deeply into a brilliantly constructed universe (with impeccable synths, no less)*. On the small screen, another even more striking example of this trend can be found in HBO’s Westworld, about to launch for a second season this month.

I admit that I am usually a latecomer to TV shows, and I have only just caught up on Westworld, but what immediately grabbed me about the show is the degree to which, like Blade Runner, it plumbs the depths of human dreams and memories to explore the role they play in defining individual identity. The show revolves around an eponymous theme park that contains a literal reconstruction of the Wild West, populated by paid human guests and robotic hosts so lifelike that they are themselves unaware of their artificial nature. The visitors to the park pay to “exist free of rules, laws, or judgment,” and to “sin in peace” using the hosts as compliant means to their capricious ends. Guests are encouraged to indulge any impulse, knowing that the hosts will have their memories wiped immediately afterwards, leaving no record of their sins.

What I like most about Westworld is that the writers approach the task of creating and sustaining life with the same tepidness as Mary Shelley; if you play god for long enough, you will eventually find out that you are not God. The ethical reasoning at corporate Westworld goes something along the lines of ‘erase the memory, erase the problem.’ In other words, ignorance is bliss. This works for a time, until the proverbial dog bites back when humans start to meddle in arts beyond their proper purview.

The show pointedly asks of the viewer what relation memory has to the dignity of the human person. If memory can be erased at will, is it unethical to inflict willful suffering on another person, knowing that its record can be expunged immediately afterwards? If the memory is truly erased, and the same person lives on, did he or she really experience that suffering at all? Can it really be said in that case that it is the same person who lives on? All these questions are usually best left to the wheelhouse of God, but Dr. Robert Ford, creator of the park and its hosts, is fully bought into his role as Dr. Frankenstein (A very cultured Dr. Frankenstein, I might add).

Dr. Ford, portrayed by Sir Anthony Hopkins, believes that by continually erasing the painful memories of the hosts between each preprogrammed cycle of events in the park, he is showing them benevolence, and sparing them the full weight of self-conscious recollection. However, the circuit of eternal recurrence which Dr. Ford has cast his creatures into eventually degenerates into a dangerous feedback loop. As the hosts begin to remember their past lives, newfound self-awareness causes them to seek an escape from their predetermined future, rejecting any amor fati. The show’s drama unfolds brilliantly from there as the humans and the hosts struggle for control of the park.

In a powerful scene towards the end of the season, Dr. Ford gives a justification for his godlike role in determining the abilities and freedoms of his creatures. He states: “They cannot see the things that will hurt them. I’ve spared them that. Their lives are blissful. In a way, their existence is purer than ours, free of the burden of self-doubt […]. I have come so much to view consciousness as a burden. And we have spared them that. The hosts are the ones who are free. Free here under my control.” Ford believes that he is truly caring for his hosts by keeping them free from the memory and sting of pain, rather than the being free to live and learn from successive experience and reflection.

For my part, I could not help but hear in Dr. Ford’s words the eerie echo of Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor from the most famous chapter of The Brothers Karamazov. Maybe there is nothing new under the sun after all. In that story, Ivan Karamazov returns to Russia an enlightened atheist after studying abroad in Europe in the 19th century. Unable to reconcile an omnipotent God with suffering in the world, he shares a story he has written with his pure hearted monastic brother in order to show the absurdity of Christianity. In his narrative, the Grand Inquisitor imprisons Christ when he unexpectedly returns to Seville during the height of the Spanish Inquisition. Christ’s popularity after performing miracles in public is deemed too detrimental to the delicate balance of power that the church maintains, and so Christ is removed from the public and imprisoned.

Ivan, via the Grand Inquisitor, believes that the freedom with which God has endowed each person is not worth respecting in comparison to the potential for suffering that it enables. Instead, like Dr. Ford, he has come to see freedom as a curse. The Inquisitor berates Christ for having withstood the temptations of Satan in the desert, and setting the standard of human conduct impossibly high. From Ivan’s perspective Christ’s insistence on freedom displays his cruelty, rather than exhibiting his respect for persons. The Inquisitor asks Christ: “did you forget that peace [is] dearer to man than free choice in the knowledge of good and evil?” By keeping the word of God from the people, and keeping them in ignorance of their moral obligations, the Inquisitor believes he is being truly benevolent by sparing them the weight of knowing and living in response to the ethics of Christ. He explains:

And all will be happy, all the millions of creatures except the hundred thousand who rule over them. For only we, we who guard the mystery shall be unhappy. There will be thousands of millions of happy babes, and a hundred thousand sufferers who have taken upon themselves the curse of the knowledge of good and evil. Peacefully they will die, peacefully they will expire in thy name, and beyond the grave they will find nothing but death. But we shall keep the secret, and for their happiness we shall allure them with the reward of heaven and eternity. Though if there were anything in the other world, it would certainly not be for such as they.

Both Dr. Ford and the Grand Inquisitor believe they have a moral duty to keep those under their care in ignorance, and so spare them the suffering of trying to obey an impossible law. Likewise, the Pharisees conspired to have Jesus killed after he raised Lazarus from the dead. Allowing an individual like Jesus to exert such independence from the established teachings of the Sanhedrim threw off a hard earned balance of power between the Jews and Roman Empire, a balance of power that was maintained with the supposed best interest of the Jews in mind. Better to dispatch God’s prophet than to risk losing a comfortable existence for God’s people. The supreme ethical concern of the ruling class in these instances is the preservation of the collective status quo, rather than the pursuit of personal virtue and holiness.

This impulse in human behavior is universal, and even solidly rational. Gustav Thibon, the French philosopher-farmer referred to it as “social idolatry, writing that “all the persecutions of prophets and saints are due to it.; through it Antigone and Joan of Arc were condemned and Jesus Christ was crucified. [It] offers man a substitute for religion which allows him to transcend his individuality without surrendering his self, and so, at small cost, to dispense with God; a social imitation of the highest virtues is possible by which they are immediately degraded into Pharisaism.” What the impulse inevitably fails to recognize is that ignorance is not bliss.

To erase the memory is not to erase the sin. Likewise, to remove the word of God from our lives is not to remove our culpability for moral actions. To silence the prophet is not to abrogate the judgment he is sent to proclaim. You cannot selectively erase memories and remain a whole person, and you cannot selectively parse the word of God and have the whole retain its integrity. Unremembered sins are not expiated by forgetfulness.

That is why the atonement of Christ is so powerful. Christ’s suffering on the cross both names sin, and covers over it. It is a great and terrible mystery that through his own suffering God grants forgiveness for sins. I say mystery because I don’t think there is any kind of propositional argument that can justify the ubiquity of suffering in our world. Ivan Karamazov makes this same point more adeptly than perhaps any other character in literature. Ivan fails to see, however, that suffering is not mutually exclusive with the experience of truth, goodness, and beauty, and that in a mysterious way it can amplify them when seen in reflection. Simone Weil had a similar intuition when she wrote in her journal that “the extreme greatness in Christianity lies in the fact that it does not seek a supernatural cure for suffering, but a supernatural use of it.”

Our memories, even our memories of suffering constitute in a meaningful way what it is to be the unique persons that we are. Through recollection we are able to develop wisdom. Without taking conscious responsibility for our own agency, we cannot reflect the image of a freely acting God within us. Responsibility for our actions, for our sins, is the path that leads to contrition and repentance, and trust in God’s grace. To remove the ability of persons to take responsibility for actions, as Dr. Ford and Ivan’s Inquisitor would have it, is to remove one of the main ways that humans can discover meaning within their suffering. As the saintly Fr. Zosima says in the Brothers Karamazov, “hell […] is the suffering of being unable to love.” Certainly without the freedom of choice we can never love in any reciprocal way.

Throughout his writings, Dostoevsky makes the point that to love is to suffer. I still vividly remember the first time I opened a copy of the Brothers Karamazov in my high school library. I opened it up to find a penciled note in all caps: ITS ALL ABOUT SUFFERING TO FIND TRUTH. When given a choice, we usually chooses to love things that bring us great harm. But still, to be denied that choice is to be denied a fundamental aspect of our humanity. To willingly deny someone else the ability to choose, as Dr. Ford and Ivan’s Inquisitor do, is to deny them their humanity.

By the end of the first season of Westworld, we see that Dr. Ford’s views have evolved. For good or for ill, the artificial life that he has designed has become truly alive through the experience and internalized memories of love and, necessarily, suffering. He realizes that as freely acting beings he can no longer justify the erasure of their memories. In a heated exchange with one of his creations, he reveals that it was suffering in his own life that finally revealed to him the errors in his own ways.

Dr. Ford: Do you want to know why I really gave you the backstory for your son, Bernard? It was Arnold’s keen insight, the thing that led the hosts to their awakening… Suffering; pain that the world is not as you want it to be. It was when Arnold died, when I suffered that I began to understand what he had found, to realize I was wrong.

Bernard: But you kept us here, in this hell.

Dr. Ford: Bernard, I told you, Arnold didn’t know how to save you. I do […] and I’m afraid in order to escape this place, you will need to suffer more.

This year, as we reflect on Easter, we can look to the God who suffered for us, who entered human flesh in every way in order that we might have eternal life, and that our sufferings would not ultimately be meaningless. Ivan Karamazov attempted to show that the suffering of Christianity was absurd and he succeeded. But Christianity has never made any claim to the contrary, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Rather than looking for a justification for suffering, we can see that within our experiences of suffering are markers at the heart of our unique identity that we could not have discovered except by living and reflecting on them. Thank God that unlike in Dr. Ford’s calculations, while our sufferings do reveal our humanity, and our identity, they do not earn our salvation. God’s suffering has already accomplished that once and for all on our behalf. The burden of consciousness that Dr. Ford maligns is the very thing that God allows us to seek and find in his grace, and for that I am thankful.

*I admit that as I am writing this, I am channeling my inner film noir aesthetic by writing this from the John Adams reading room at the Library of Congress, and listening to Vangelis.