We know more than we can tell. This is chemist and philosopher Michael Polanyi’s thesis in his slim volume The Tacit Dimension. It is also one of the many world-altering theses that we are presented with in HBO’s new series Westworld. We know more than we can tell. But if we cannot tell what we know, how do we know we really know something? This lack of certainty is terrifying.
Modern science would tell us that the only certain knowledge we have is objectively verifiable knowledge, that which can be tested, confirmed, and repeated by experiment. And this method has definitely proved effective. But Polanyi argues that true objective knowledge is impossible, and even more, destructive. All knowledge, all learning, all discovery, depends on personal commitment, and this commitment flows from what he calls “tacit knowledge,” that knowledge which cannot be verified by experiment, cannot be fully specified or articulated, those inexplicable intimations of coherence that, nevertheless, make new experiences intelligible. Objectivity would do away with this. We must have certainty.
But the tacit is vital to our knowledge of the world, and is constantly at work. Tacit knowledge is your recognition of your partner’s sneeze, your prediction of the behaviour of other drivers on the road, your feeling of the air just before it snows. The tacit is a gut feeling, a conviction, an awareness of a significance hiding somewhere just beyond the horizon. The tacit is that simple faith in the patterns and systems and meanings without which this life would be nothing but chaos. Certainly, Polanyi argues, without tacit knowledge and the commitment it entails, the great discoveries of science would never have happened. If Planck and Einstein and Bohr had not been committed to their tacit comprehensions of the world, their imaginings and theorizations, they would never have arrived at the answers which have irrevocably changed our understanding of the universe. For Polanyi, to claim objectivity in knowledge is to destroy the personal commitment that makes knowledge possible in the first place, and is, in fact, to destroy the essentially human element of our understanding.
Integral to the tacit dimension of knowledge is tradition, that knowledge which comes before us and is handed down, is given. Tradition is a gift which we indwell, a narrative we accept while we attempt to supersede it, to expand the scope of what we know. Tradition is that narrative which always precedes invention and discovery; without it, we cannot even conceive of problems to solve, let alone solve them. Tradition is that narrative that allows us to know what we cannot tell.
This brings us to Westworld. In Westworld our sense of certainty is at stake, specifically with regard to what it means to be human. The human is precisely that thing which is more than our ability to tell of it, that given of our experience, and Westworld wants to destabilize our present narrative. Westworld asks, what if a being were to have the capacity to think, know, act, and feel, to intend and to purpose and to envision, and yet all of this was nothing but a program, a script? Would she be human? What if, rather than being a means for her free action in the world, the narrative of her humanity was a means for the ends of others? Would she be human? What if this virtually human being was made nothing but a use-value, so that “real” humans could have their way with her, satisfying their fantasies without restraint, without consequence? Would she be human then? And what if these purported “real” humans were us? This is the destabilizing narrative that Westworld presents us with.
In Westworld, wealthy individuals can pay to make their dreams into reality. Hyper-realistic android “hosts” exist to serve the whims of the guests of the Wild West themed park—carnal, sadistic, and otherwise. With no awareness of their fates, the hosts are doomed to repeat the same narratives over and over again, while the guests are absolved of their deeds. With no memory of their own violation and traumatization, the realities of the hosts are effectively erased. You can do whatever you want to them because they are not real. Where there is no memory of wrong, there is no guilt for the wrongdoer. Though conscious, the hosts are not conscious enough to be considered real humans. Their consciousness, their humanity, is fabricated, a construction. They merely appear to be human.
But if we say that our humanity is, in part, a function of our memory, then we must say that our humanity, or more specifically, one’s identity, is a function of continuity over time. I am the same person who acted yesterday, who acts today, and will act tomorrow, a braid of agency and desire wound between life and death. I say that I am conscious because I am aware of this continuity, I can reflect upon the self that acts in time. The narrative of tradition, then, in its reflective function as the knowledge of the past actions of past people that continue to have present effects, is the tacit indication of, what the historian Hayden White calls, the most real aspect of our existence as humans: our temporality. So we could say that we are conscious because we remember ourselves in time.
Westworld takes this thesis and extrapolates it. What happens when our fabricated slaves begin to remember the atrocities perpetrated against them? What happens when the higher order reality of continuous, conscious experience begins to emerge from a lower order of unconscious repetition? What happens when the inhuman objects of our desires begin to exhibit a humanity possessed of its own? What happens, then, to our absolution? What happens, then, to our humanity? When confronted with another living, willing, acting human, we are confronted with a threat. We fear the human, in all of its agency and desire, that stands between us and what we want. So we tell ourselves that the other is less—less significant, less human, less real—so that we can feel our wants are more meaningful and justified than hers. But when the other speaks, when we are confronted with her humanity—not it, but she—we are forced to reckon with the consequences of our desires. No desire is without consequence; to wish otherwise is to wish to be less than human. This is the truth Westworld reveals. Indeed, in Westworld, we learn what it means to be human from those whom we say are not.