“I wonder out loud if it is real, and I wonder out loud if all of us are real.”
I’m going to bend rules slightly because the philosopher I chose to study is not technically a philosopher in profession. He’s a writer. However, as we discussed in class, the definition of a philosopher is related to the “pursuit of wisdom”, the process of asking questions and seeking answers, the act of thinking. In these terms, this man is most certainly a philosopher.
I’m speaking of the science fiction author Philip K. Dick.
Now, the philosophy of his which I will be investigating stems from the novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”, and because he is an author, and not specifically a Philosopher with a capital P, there is no convenient description of his beliefs. Instead, they are implied through his writing.
For those of you who haven’t read it, I’m sorry if I spoil anything, but I must explain a few things first. For those who have, bear with me.
Essentially, the premise of the novel is that Earth has become largely uninhabitable due to nuclear warfare, and so many of its inhabitants have moved to Mars. Here, they live life with the assistance and company of androids, very human-like robots, almost identical. However, the story is not set on Mars. It is set on Earth, where a portion of the population still exists. It is here where we are introduced to the main character Rick Deckard, and the problem which all humans are facing. The infiltration of escaped androids into human society, androids who are trying to blend in. Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter, and his job is to hunt down these androids, and retire them.
There are plenty of philosophical angles one could look at this from, but I will focus on two. The first, and one of the most noticeable, is the concept of “reality”.
Reality takes on an interesting shape in this novel, because the androids are given false memories of false lives, and so it is possible for an android to not know it is an android. When any escaped android is to be killed instantly, this presents an interesting dilemma. How can one know if they are an android? One can believe it with all their might and still be wrong. There are tests which the characters use to determine such a thing, but Philip K. Dick suggests throughout the novel that these are ultimately unreliable, being performed by humans and read by humans and based on human emotions, the tests are automatically subject to the bias of the individual test-giver. These tests are merely tools the people of the world use to assess reality (in this case whether or not one is an android) as best they can, and attempt to come to conclusive ends. However, when life and death are involved, there is little room for error. It is impossible to tell for certain if one is an android based on these tests alone, yet many androids are retired based upon it. Throughout the novel, the “reality” of a person is based purely upon assumptions, and it is only after death when they can open up the body to see what’s inside, that they know for sure.
I believe this emphasizes a very important aspect of reality which Philip K. Dick was intrigued by; the idea that we cannot prove our own existence. We can use tools we have available to make our best guesses at what we are experiencing, to quantify or speculate, but ultimately, we must base our “knowledge” upon human bias and assumption. Like Plato’s allegory of the cave, all that we see could be simply an appearance. Like the androids, our very memories could be false.
I will now move on to the second point I find fascinating, and this is one surrounding the idea of “self”. You see, the test I was speaking of earlier used to determine whether or not someone is an android, is an empathy test. The assumption made here is that all humans feel empathy where as all androids do not. This is the logic used by the characters of the novel. Empathy is the one thing they can say separates humans from robots. An android will not hesitate to turn in another android, where as a human cannot help but feel empathy toward another human. The characters must believe this, because this test is all they have.
However, although we cannot say for androids, I believe it would be fair to say that there are certain human beings who do not feel empathy. It is explained in the novel that certain mental illnesses can cause one to fail the empathy test, thus wrongly pegging the person as an android, and thus leading to their death. The test is flawed. Empathy cannot be used as a definite divide between humans and androids.
Now consider this: Suppose the actions of empathy could be programmed into an android, the actions only, and suppose that most humans experience empathy of some sort. This raises an interesting point. If we are to say that empathy distinguishes humans and androids, and we can agree that is possible for both sides to display empathy, whether through conscious decisions or calculations, is this the same thing? What truly differentiates the two? How does one define empathy? Is it the actions, or the thought process behind the actions? In the novel, there are human characters who have no empathy, and androids who appear to empathize with others. If this area is so grey, what makes us human, other than the wetware? What is the self? Philip K. Dick shows his opinion through this novel, that truly, there is little difference between man and machine other than the material our bodies are made of. He defines empathy through the physical side, for this is what can be measured. Not all humans display empathy. Androids can be programmed to be empathetic. What we deem to be uniquely “human” is something that can just as easily be programmed into a machine.
However, I disagree. I would say that empathy is the thought process, and because a robot is based off of calculations, it does not experience the emotion of empathy, only the appropriate action corresponding to this emotion. I would say that what makes us human is the thinking.
But like Philip K. Dick suggested in his ideas of a non-existent objective reality, perhaps our thoughts are not reliable either.
In the end, “what constitutes the authentic human being?”