Westworld S3

HBO, Jonathan Nolan

Westworld Season 3 changes dramatically from the first 2 seasons. Gone are the dust bowl ridden, western Cowboy and Indian gunslinger storylines. Enter the real world: a slick, futuristic technological paradise in which all your dreams come true, or maybe not.

This season is so different that it warrants it’s own column. While staying true to the characters and the storyline, the focus this season is on 2 main theoretical concepts: 1) the future and all future human action is predictable if we can just build a big enough computer to calculate the potential outcomes and 2) human action is deterministic and not based on free will. Both of these ideas are of great interest by economics and the philosophy of human action, praxeology, so let’s take a look!

Action is Predictable

This has been The Major Contention between the various schools of economic thought throughout history. On the one side, many economists believe that economics is an a posteriori science akin to physics and chemistry. If we collect enough data and we can create hypotheses and prove/disprove those hypotheses with that data, then we will be able to not only understand important truths about economic science but will also be able to predict or forecast future human action. With this knowledge, we can centrally plan economies rationally, as one of the problems with planned economies is the lack of knowledge by the central planners of disparate information and states of various individual’s current needs throughout society. If we have enough mathematical formulas that say that 100,000 people will need this product, it becomes much easier to allocate resources towards that goal.

On the other side, economists such as Ludwig von Mises and others of the Austrian school of economics claim that economics is an a priori science. Economics must be defined by apodictic, absolutely certain statements about reality that cannot be disproven. The fact that humans act, for example, is one of these statements: to argue against acting is itself an action; the very act of arguing implies an action taken by the person arguing. It also implies previous or historical action: human beings require food, water, air, safety, rest in amenable conditions, and other things that require action on the part of the individual to attain. Children grow into adults only through action. Eating is an action; drinking is an action.

The implication of the a priori approach is that mathematical formulae are not a sufficient means of determining what people are going to do in the future. Action is done by an individual who has their own goals in mind. That individual has different preferences and goals and knowledge than other individuals. No computer therefore, however powerful it is, can predict human behavior because it is actually indeterminable. Goals and preferences are inordinately complex (I prefer lobster to salmon unless I am in a restaurant known for their salmon or have not had lobster in the past few months or happen to be vacationing in an area that catches salmon fresh, etc etc etc) and are also completely hidden in the mind of the single human who holds them. This does not bode well for those who think central planning is effective or even possible.

One of the main characters introduced in season 3, Engerraund Serac, is fascinated by systems of predicting human behavior before it happens. After seeing his home city of Paris destroyed by what seems to be a nuclear bomb or some other military attack, he comes to believe that humanity is it’s own worst villain. He thinks that if only we can control the actions of individuals and society, we can keep societal problems from occurring.

He and his brother create a machine called Rehoboam which is able to predict the future actions of billions of people. The investor for the project, Liam Dempsey, is only interested in the machine for economic gain: predicting the stock market and the future state of the economy for his own material gain. Serac has other, more lofty goals in mind; he wishes to change the outcomes of society to create a “better” world. The catch is that he is the ultimate arbiter and judge of what is to be deemed “better” or not.

He decides that his brother, the same one who helped him cope with the loss of his home city of Paris and who helped him build the machine, is a total loss. His actions are not “acceptable”, and so Serac attempts to edit him. To change him. To modify his behavior so that it is in line with the new world and the “new man” that Serac envisions.

Serac sets up an entire infrastructure for the world based on these interventions which he pioneered by experimenting on his brother. All people are documented, classified, and set on the path of their predicted outcomes. Those not “acceptable” are deemed outcasts; they are prevented socially and technologically (unknown to them) from gaining wealth, finding relationships, and other social ostracism by manipulating people and the technology of the world. He bullies governments and other leaders by predicting dire outcomes for them if he is not obeyed.

Action is Pre-Determined

This is what determinism is: your actions are pre-determined (in this case as forecasted by a machine) and are not actually your own choice. It is odd therefore that Serac believes that further intervention is necessary: if things are really pre-determined, why all the additional social constraints and manipulation?

Indeed, things not going according to plan has been the historical bane of the central planner. As their original plans wander further and further away from their predictions, more and more intervention is necessary to bring it back into the fold. Generally, the individuals who refuse to act in the way the central planners wanted are blamed, not the plan itself. If people don’t like your new idea about how farming should be managed (mostly because they are starving to death) well then we must double down on the plan and intervene more, never questioning whether the plan itself is the reason agriculture is failing.

Serac finds that there are annoying “anomalies”, i.e. things predicted by the machine that fail to come to fruition. Resistance to his interventions and other unannounced actions which people take defy all his predictions. As times goes on, these anomalies increase especially as people gain knowledge of the caste system he has built into society to prevent certain ne’er-do-wells from “breaking” society.

The show claims these anomalies are actual choices, whereas people who simply go along with their pre-determined fate are not really making choices. They’re on auto-pilot. This has a certain alluring ring to it: these people don’t think about their choices and therefore aren’t making choices.

Ludwig von Mises rejected this notion. All human action is the result of purposeful behavior on the account of the individual. All social pressure, environmental conditions, and other considerations are taken into account by the actor when they are making decisions to act or not act, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s a purposeful, deliberate choice.

These instances of free will, as Serac sees it, must be stamped out and eliminated. They are too unpredictable for him as he cannot see what the outcomes will be. Far from being a campaign of suppression of what he considers to be dissidents not bowing to his perfect society of planned outcomes, however, his actions are all for the common good, of course! His predictions show him that mass extinction will take place if too many people act of their own free will. But is this a reasonable assertion?

Property Rights

Delores, as part of her plan to wipe out humanity, releases information about Serac’s plot to the world. Everyone now knows that they were manipulated, tracked, lied to, and controlled. Freedom was just an illusion after all. They react by returning to their “base instincts”, as one character laments. People generally rampage, kill, steal, commit suicide, beat people up, and otherwise commit atrocities that would be inexcusable in civilized society.

When ethics is derived from what laws the State passes or does not pass, we would indeed expect this type of outcome. In this world, if the State says murder is wrong, only then is it wrong. If the State says murder is o.k, then murder is o.k. If the State says that no one may pay someone below a minimum wage, only then is it wrong even though it was o.k. up until the point that the law was passed. We see this lately also with the rollback of drug possession laws: where “drug dealing” was once evil and a sin in the eyes of the State has, overnight, become a legitimate business model which thousands of people now frequent and purchase from. This is the wishy-washy nature of State declared, relative ethics.

Once the State has been shown to be an illegitimate organization, as Delores did by releasing information about Serac’s secret manipulations of society presumably via the State, so does ethics itself seem to be an illegitimate concept. People then reject all ethics.

However, a society built on the ethical bedrock of the decentralized ideas of property rights does not waver in the face of such societal whims and the shifting ideological maelstroms of history. Property rights means that no one may use violence or threaten violence against anyone or their property. Murder is wrong strictly because it is wrong, not because a State leader has declared it to be. Stealing is also wrong, not because someone in a special hat or who had a majestic throne said so, but because it inexorably violates the rights of another individual human.

This decentralized approach to ethics, i.e. an objective ethics that is a golden rule of society at all times and under all circumstances for all human beings, is the only true way to safeguard society. Far too often do States violate even their own relative ethics: despite having laws against murder, they start wars and kill people in far off lands or commit mass genocide of their own people. They even break the law with taxation (since taxation is theft, after all). States consistently have proven to be quick to drop any judgement of their own behavior when it suits their goals and preferences.


Serac, in attempting to safeguard society, unleashes a pandemonium event of mass chaos and violence. This is all too often the case with the “law and order” of the State: it claims to safeguard society while somehow also causing mass calamity through it’s wars, financial manipulations, social upheavals, overturning of democratically elected leaders worldwide, and other interventions.

Moreover, the Serac’s approach of “everything is pre-determined by my machine but I must still take action to change people’s behaviors to make an ideal world” is so riddled with contradictions that it would take years to investigate the intricacies. Why would you even try to change other people’s behavior if their behavior is already determined? Unless his decision to change their behavior was also determined.

This is an extremely unlikely thought process for Serac, however. It is far more likely that he thinks of himself as a god among fools; he is one of the superior humans who’s actions are not determined. He knows what the future must look like, and it is this future that fully conforms to his preferences and expectations. The control and manipulation he uses is meant to bring about his ideal state of affairs and to determine other people’s actions, as Mises determined that all human action is, while those he manipulates has their plans crushed and destroyed.

Such is always the case in social structures: either the central planner’s plans are carried out, or the plans of the individuals are carried out. There is no compromise possible here within these mutually exclusive means.

Westworld continues to be an excellent show investigating some pretty heavy moral and ethical ground. The “deterministic” nature of the world was also played with, albeit not as heavily, in the first 2 seasons. The hosts were said to be acting in “loops”, and these loops control them and lock them into a tightly bound ideological and limited-action box. No action outside that which is permitted is even thought of much less discussed or carried out; they happily go about their day without questioning their lives or the overarching control that other humans, namely the Delos corporation and the guests of the park, were holding over them.

Such is often the case in humans, as well.

“There is no threshold that makes us greater than the sum of our parts, no inflection point at which we become fully alive. We can’t define consciousness because consciousness does not exist. Humans fancy that there’s something special about the way we perceive the world, and yet we live in loops as tight and as closed as the hosts do, seldom questioning our choices; content, for the most part, to be told what to do next.”

Dr. Robert Ford

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