I am a scientific advisor to the HBO television series Westworld, and I am interested in how memory relates to consciousness. In the show the android hosts are continually reset and retain no memory, as though life and time begin again. We don’t know if the same thing is happening to us. Two seconds ago the whole cosmos might have frozen for ten thousand years and then restarted, and we presumably wouldn’t know about it. Your whole life might have been rebooted last night. This is what happens to the hosts in Westworld, and it might be happening to us. We have no way of knowing, because all we ever experience is “I feel like this has been going on”¦” If you are reset with no memory, then as far as you are concerned, you are experiencing everything for the first time.
An ongoing question in philosophy and neuroscience is whether we are a simulation. Descartes asked a version of this question when he wondered how he would know if he were a brain in a vat, with scientists stimulating it in such a way as to make him believe he is eating this, touching that, and having “real” experiences. Unfortunately, we have no way of answering this question. In Silicon Valley, where I live, we talk about this issue a lot: how would we know if we were living in a sophisticated computer simulation, the product of a civilization that is a million years more advanced? Perhaps they are simulating us to see what happens next, or maybe they are running ten thousand different simulations to see what we would do in different circumstances. As wacky of an idea as this sounds, it is part of what is possible, and it is something we need to consider when we try to understand our reality.
About the Contributor
David Eagleman is a neuroscientist and New York Times bestselling author of Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain and Sum: Tales from the Afterlives. He is the writer and host of the Emmy-nominated PBS television series The Brain. Eagleman is an adjunct professor at Stanford University, a Guggenheim fellow, and the director of the Center for Science and Law.