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The Meaning Of Being Human In Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? And Blade Runner (I)

I. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

What Philip K. Dick thinks of the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is clear enough from interviews and commentary. He thinks it addresses simultaneously the questions What is reality? and What is illusion?

Dick’s science fiction is not deeply philosophical, but the author was interested, from the time he read Plato at Berkeley, in the core problem of philosophy: Is the world as it appears the true world, or instead is it a mere appearance, with the true locus of reality elsewhere?

For Plato the world of appearances is not the real world. And Dick agreed. He viewed appearances, phenomena, and sensory data generally as so much of a veil that masks true reality. In one letter, Dick claims to have gone through decades of skepticism about the “apparent world,” before finally settling on a peculiar version of monotheism that he derived from Presocratic Greek philosophy. He had rejected Christianity as essentially polytheistic.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? might be seen as a product of Dick’s skepticism about the apparent world. The novel imagines a world in which androids and humans are apparently the same, so that much of the novel is concerned with the problem of telling them apart in reality. The typical way of telling them apart depends on features of being human that we might think are essential to humanity. But in the end the novel goes much further than skepticism about appearances and we are left with an almost empty concept of humanity. If the novel is concerned with the question What is illusion? the answer to that question seems to be: our usual concept of what it means to be human.

For the implication of the novel is that the distinction between the two kinds of being, android and human, however valid it may be in itself, will eventually become if not unreliable then at least undetectable. That can mean robots are very like humans. But it can also mean that humans are very like robots.

The first basis of the distinction in the novel is the so-called faculty of empathy. The ability to empathize, to care, is imagined as being an exclusively human faculty. The empathy test designed to determine whether the tested subject is an android looks for an empathic response to questions that typically involve the mistreatment of animals.

In Blade Runner, the somewhat loose adaptation of the novel, the same test is used, although Ridley Scott does not make it entirely clear how the test is supposed to work.

In the novel, the reliability of the empathy test depends on human attachment to animal life following a war that caused mass extinctions. Owls were falling from the sky. With living animals harder to find, humans developed a peculiar fondness for toads and ostriches, chickens, spiders, and sheep.

Thus in one of the opening scenes of the novel, we find Deckard upset about the fact that his animal is merely an electric sheep, not a real one, as he eventually confesses to his neighbor, who owns a real horse. Fake animals exist in the film too, but the love of animals is not one of Blade Runner’s themes.

In the novel, this love of animals is linked to the religion Mercerism. Mercer is believed to be some kind of cosmic entity, one apparently exposed as a fraud by Buster Friendly, a TV host who turns out to be an android with an irrepressible attachment to cliches.

Mercer actually is neither cosmic entity nor mere fraud. He is some kind of projection of Isidore, himself a Moses-like figure who was rescued from a rubber dinghy floating on a river by a couple with the name Mercer.

Isidore was subjected to some form of brain surgery to remove a peculiar nodule that gave him the ability to reverse time and return dead animals to life. Those who harmed him are the killers of which Mercer speaks, issuing a law, like Moses, prohibiting all killing, but with the exception of the killing of the killers. So Isidore is himself intimately connected with the Mercer figure, and is himself a Moses figure, one destined, like Mercer, and Moses, not to reach the promised land.

For Isidore is what is called “Special.” He’s a “chicken head,” intellectually challenged, and for that reason not allowed to leave for Mars. Because he is a lonely outcast, Isidore identifies and likes the visiting androids, at least until they start to torture a spider, by cutting off four of its legs.

The corresponding character in Blade Runner is called Sebastian. He is a genetic engineer rather than an assistant, like Isidore, at a fake animal clinic. But he is himself special, if in a different way. He has Methuselah syndrome. He ages prematurely. (It’s really the opposite of what happened to Methuselah).

Like Isidore, but for different reasons, Sebastian is sympathetic to the Androids. He is impressed by them, and in fact worked on them. Sebastian apparently could take the place of an empathy test, since he recognizes the androids easily, without the help of the test. Sebastian’s aging disease is at the root of the mutual sympathy between him and the androids. Because they too are destined to die young, in fact after only four years of life.

In both the novel and the film, what is apparently stressed is the proximity between android and human.

In the novel we are told of other humans who might make the task of distinguishing between human and android quite difficult. These are humans who might be mistaken for androids if given the empathy test. They exhibit what is called a flattening of affect. They have a diminished empathic faculty (37, 38); they are humans with some form of mental disorder such as schizophrenia. If they were stopped by a routine police check, they could be mistaken for androids and killed.

But this is only one of the more obvious ways in which the novel broaches the problem of determining the difference between human and android. There is also the question of Deckard’s response to the problem of empathy. He starts to feel empathy for the adroid Luba Luft, and feels none for the human bounty hunter who kills Luba. At one point the novel briefly raises the possibility of Deckard himself being an android, when Luba Luft asks him if he has taken the empathy test (101). But the novel does not really pursue this possibility; it does not so much question whether Deckard is human as much as it questions whether the fact that he is biologically human is enough to distinguish him.

The androids do apparently lack empathy, but they do not seem to be wholly without emotional response in the novel, and they do not seem to be wholly without desire. The answer to the question that the title poses is not really clear, but when the last three survivors meet at Isidore’s apartment their conversation is full of pathos. They experience a range of emotions, including joy, shock, and fear (155). Yet Isidore senses that there is something different, something “peculiar” or “malign” about these characters (156). So at this point in the novel there remains a difference, at least for someone as sensitive as Isidore. But it is not clear that the difference makes a difference, or if it will always make a difference. It’s not clear for instance if it will be detectable when the next generations (Nexus Seven or Eight) are produced.

The fact that the novel doesn’t answer the question its title raises is important. It means that we do not know if the android’s experience desire. And that means, for example, we don’t know if they could want vengeance, a question Deckard raises at one point in conversation with Rachel (184).

More important still in terms of the difference between androids and humans is the fact that the android’s lack of empathy is not something that androids must inherently lack. Quite the opposite. It’s the result of a built-in defect (185).

The built-in defect in the film of course is a lot different, a matter of being condemned to a four year life span because of an engineered virus. It’s a sickness essentially. But here the defect is a lack of empathic ability. That’s important because it means the one attribute in the novel on which the distinction between human and android is based, even if it is for the moment a reliable distinction, is only artificially missing from androids. Their being different from humans is a design feature but it comparable, as a defect, to human mental illnesses that cause a flattening of affect. If the defect were not designed, if it were not artificially created, the implication is that the androids would in fact have an empathic faculty just as most healthy humans do.

So the deprived condition of the androids cannot be said to be a natural condition. And if that is the case, then the distinction between android and human too cannot be said to be natural distinction.

Consider also the opening of the novel. We find human characters having an argument about the use of the Penfield artificial brain stimulator. This is a device that humans use habitually to determine their mood. Humans might want to call androids artificial, and to see their lack of empathy as a measure of their distance from being human, but in this world you will never know if the emotional responses of even the ostensibly human characters are natural or just a product of artificial stimulation.

But if the distinction between android and human is not a natural one in the case of differences in the empathic faculty, then it is also not an essential one.

What then is the essential difference between the human and the android? For the novel everywhere else does seem to suggest that there is an essential difference. But if that essential difference is not empathy, then what is it?

Recall that the humans are most empathic about animals (which, hardly by coincidence, happen to be extraordinarily expensive; they care about animals the way we care about material possessions).

Such concern for animals would seem to distinguish the humans from the androids to be sure, given for instance the way in which the latter torture the poor spider, but again there is nothing essentially human about such a caring attitude. Or, at least, we should say there is something very ironic in Dick’s making animals the object of greatest empathy. I don’t just mean the ironic joke that Deckard should care more about a sheep than his wife; I mean that animals obviously, and with the exception of a few cute ones, such as dolphins, are what humans have always cared least about.

Indeed most of the questions that are used on the Voigt empathy test, questions that relate to the use and abuse of animals, for instance, even if they work to distinguish the androids in the novel from the humans in the novel, would probably not work to distinguish the androids in the novel from humans in the real world today. Many of the questions in fact are rooted in practices, ways of treating animals, that were common before the World War Terminus of the novel that ushered in the extinction of many species: the eating of oysters, the boiling of lobsters, the making of a decorative wall ornament out of a stag’s head.

By the same token, the killing of the androids, which is itself a kind of butchery with which Deckard himself feels increasingly uncomfortable, especially when it comes to killing the opera singer, all of that killing is motivated in Deckard’s case just by the desire to own his own animal. And of course that desire is constantly frustrated; his first sheep dies, his second is electrical; the owl he almost earns when he tests Rachel Rosen turns out also to be fake, and after half a day of killing he can afford to buy a goat, which Rachel will eventually hurl to its death.

Finally at the end of the novel, he finds a toad, which he thinks is real but it too turns out to be fake. He will have to keep killing if he is ever to realize his hope of owning a real animal.

In the film by contrast Deckard is simply sick of his job, and lacks altogether the motivation that Dick gives his protagonist in the novel, that is, to purchase an animal that can become the object of empathy.

With its references to the artificial stimulation of moods, the identification of animals as the distinctively human object of empathy, and the cruelty toward a spider as the exemplary instance of the android’s lack of empathy, with all of these Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is irreducibly ironic.

And all of this irony in the novel should make us suspicious of what elsewhere seems a hard and fast distinction between the human and the android when it comes to matters of empathy, of human caring and kindness, and of the android’s imagined malignity, as if signs of that malignity were not drawn from the history of humanity.

At the same time, the novel does provide one other way of distinguishing between android and human. It is a biological analysis; an analysis of bone marrow. And here the implication is that such a test, though bothersome, is fully reliable. So even if there were no recognizable difference, there would be some irreducible difference. How significant is that?

The novel raises the specter of the possibility that with some fine tuning an android might be developed which passes all of the empathy tests (just as it can now, in the present of the novel, pass the old IQ tests). It suggests that androids who fail the test are in any case defective as androids; they have an inbuilt defect. It suggests that humans too can have a defect that makes them liable to fail the test. And it suggests the basis of the test is itself suspect, in sofaras the novel relentlessly ironizes at the human capacity for empathy. The difference that remains seems immaterial.

Except insofar as it is precisely and only a material difference. The kind of difference you could detect in a laboratory, a difference in biological or mechanical matter. Whether the (presumably) human reader will find that satisfying will depend on the extent of the readers attachment to traditional myths about human being as ideal or spiritual. For some modern philosophers the essence of human being is existence, but that still leaves the question of what counts as human existence. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? doesn’t leave us with any non-material grounds for judging our existence different, let alone superior.

Philip K. Dick may have started from an interest in Plato, but his novel is materialist through and through.

So what about the film?

See Part 2
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May,12 2011

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