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Philip K. Dick- Megan

“I wonder out loud if it is real, and I wonder out loud if all of us are real.”

Philip K. Dick

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?”



3 thoughts on “Philip K. Dick- Megan

  1. Thanks for this incredibly interesting look at the legendary sci-fi author’s metaphysics, Megan. Thorough and articulate stuff!

    Do you think the mode of fiction in some ways makes it easier to communicate these types of philosophical arguments? What I mean is, do you think the use of analogy or symbolism allow an author to create a ‘purer’ expression of some of these ideas than trying to express them more literally?

    In reading over the other metaphysics posts in the last few days, do you see examples of philosophers working in some of the same terrain as Dick? Do you feel that there is more clarity in their treatment of some of these concepts, or in the allegories Mr. Dick wove?

    Posted by Bryan | October 25, 2012, 9:57 pm
    • Thank you very much!

      That’s an interesting thought which I definitely mulled over as I tried to pull forth his ideas and frame them in a blog post. In my opinion, the ideas may be considered “purer” because they enter directly into ones stream of thought through stories we can understand and characters we empathize with- When you read a story rich with philosophical ideas, I would tend to say that one feels them more than they would if they were to read an essay. Not to say that an essay can’t change your opinions, but stories have a way of impacting our emotions and enveloping us in every way. I believe a philosophy coming from a source such a this, like the novel I chose to investigate, is felt quite profoundly and intensely, but may be more difficult to describe to others because one is not given pre-determined wording or an effective way to communicate the idea to others. One is given simply the raw power of the idea, and thus it may be felt more intensely, more “pure”, but when trying to communicate it, may seem muddled and confusing because it has been developed in a very different way and structure than a formally laid out argument.

      In regards to clarity, I suppose that comes back to what I was just talking about. For me, I found the ideas in the novel much easier to digest than a dense Wikipedia article. However, when it came to writing them down, it was very difficult because the easiest way would be to tell someone to go read the book. In this way, I think other philosophers have more “clarity”, if we are to say that they are more easily able to directly express their opinions to other people. I do believe this is very important, and I suppose I think there needs to be a balance between the two. Stories have their place in showing ideas rather than telling them, but it is also crucial that ideas can be spread and talked about in wording which we have all previously agreed upon and understand. If we were to all simply “feel” things, without more direct ways to express this, conversation would be much more difficult and we wouldn’t be able to bounce our ideas of each other in the same way. What do you think?

      Posted by meganedmunds | October 26, 2012, 4:48 am
  2. “In the end, “what constitutes the authentic human being?””
    I think you identified the main metaphysical question of the book. And I think you should probably explore why you think empathy and the thought process that leads to it can only be performed by humans. Would it not be possible in the future to model and simulate it on a machine?

    Posted by Celso Gonzalez | October 31, 2012, 4:59 pm

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