Androids, Persons, Electric Sheep and Empathy

I have just finished reading Philip K Dick’s 1968 classic: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Prior to this I have never read any of Dick’s work, though I have seen three films based on his work: ‘Total Recall’, ‘Minority Report’ and ‘The Adjustment Bureau’. I wasn’t a big fan of any of the films; all of them raised interesting philosophical issues but somehow left me cold. So I wasn’t expecting much when I picked up ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Henceforth referred to as Androids). ‘Androids’ also had a film based on it; the famous ‘Blade Runner’ starring Harrison Ford. But I have not seen the film so really went into book in the dark and expecting nothing. I also have an unread copy of ‘Philip K Dick and Philosophy’ a popular culture series designed to explore the philosophical implications of various cultural Icons; in this case Philip K Dick. A former professor of mine Peter Simons wrote an essay for the collection. However, I want to read a few of Dick’s books before reading any of the essays in that particular collection; with that in mind I started with ‘Androids’.

‘Androids’ is set in post apocalyptic earth, where the aftermath of a nuclear war has resulted in a situation where virtually the entire non-human population has died out. The remaining animals that have not died out are seen as status symbols which people desperately want to obtain. Having a live animal is considered as sign of empathy. And having empathy is supposedly what separates humans from androids. Those who cannot afford a live animal will buy an electric animal that is hard to distinguish from a real one. These animals even require a certain amount of care from their owners.  However, the owners of these animals are ashamed of not having a real animal and hide it from their neighbours.

Because of the polluted state of the earth most people are seeking to immigrate from Earth to the colonies in Mars. Immigration is easy to achieve as long as one has not been designated a special. A special is a person who due to radiation poison is has an IQ below a certain point, typically as a result of the poisoning the person’s IQ will continue to deteriorate over time. The specials are known by their peers by the derogatory term ‘Chicken-heads’.

Rick Deckard is the main protagonist of the book he is a bounty hunter who is charged with ‘Retiring’ (killing) Androids who are illegally on earth. Rick’s previous animal died so he has to make do with an electronic sheep. This fact really bothers Rick and part of his motivation to kill as many androids as possible is the 1000 dollars he receives every time he retires an Android. One of the difficulties that Rick has in ‘retiring’ the Androids is that the new ‘Nexus-6’ type Androids are virtually indistinguishable from humans. The only way to tell them apart is to administer a Voight-Kampff test. The Voight-Kampff test is designed to test the capacity of the person/android being interviewed for empathy. The test measures physiological reactions to various stimuli involving sex, animals, murder etc.  One of the difficulties of the test is that the schizoid people who suffer from flatness of affect will fail the test and be confused for an android and killed. So Rick has to be very careful that the test is administered correctly.

The novel culminates in Rick chasing down three androids that he intends to retire which are housed by a ‘special’ John Isodore. The novel is enjoyable and raises real philosophical issues. It doesn’t reach the heights of a Tolstoy or a Dostoevsky but it does the job of any good novel; as well as being gripping and entertaining, it invites the reader to think.

The novel really makes one think of what it means to be a human. In the world of the novel the key criterion is empathy. Androids while surpassing the humans in terms of general intelligence are incapable of feeling true empathy. Rick muses that evolving in packs over millions of years is what made us emphatic towards our fellow creatures, while Androids created in a factory do not have this essential feature. Very early in the novel one is faced with a contradiction. Androids are not viewed as people because they fail the empathy test; yet Rick and the establishment worry about ‘retiring’ schizoid humans who fail the test. Yet if the criterion for being a person is passing the test then surely schizoid people who fail the test should be deemed non-persons as-well.  This however is not the case. The reason being that the empathy test is a pretext for getting rid of creatures that are not human[1]; creatures not built using the same material as all other humans. The establishment doesn’t want a human to be killed; because they are human, this is independent of whether they pass the test. Furthermore one gets the impression that if the android passed the empathy test but was shown (through the bone marrow test) to be an android Rick would still be licensed to kill him.

Using empathy as a criterion of what it is to be a person is strange. The specials are human beings who through no fault of their own have suffered a form of brain damage. They are shunned by other humans, denied the opportunity to leave the polluted earth, and generally treated with contempt. When John Isodore a ‘special’ helps the three fugitive Androids, they treat him with utter contempt, as sub-human. However this situation is mirrored when John’s boss refers to him as a chicken head and treats him with utter contempt. The lack of empathy here is spread out evenly between the humans and the androids (though it could be argued that at least a human is capable of empathy while the android is not).

Human empathy is indeed a strange and variable thing. It is biologically determined to a degree and shared with other species (again to a degree), though it is massively culturally variable. Moral Philosopher Peter Singer; has famously described our capacity to increase those we view as members of our moral community as our expanding circle of morality. He notes how there was a time when people viewed those who were outside of a particular tribe as sub-human. There was a time when people viewed members of a different race as being sub-human. Thus black people were viewed by Europeans as being outside the circle of empathy. Through moral philosophy using reason to show that those outside the circle were just as much people as those inside it, and novels painting vivid pictures of the rich inner life of those traditionally deemed outside the moral circle, our circle expanded to include the mentally ill, people of other tribes, people of other races and people with different sexual orientation into the circle.

Peter Singer has argued that we now need to expand the circle to include animals as non-human persons. Typically people argue that the key reason that animals should not be included within the circle is because they cannot reason to the degree we can. Singer has argued that if we take reasoning ability as the key reason to include creatures within the circle then we are faced with a conundrum. People with profound intellectual disability have in general got much poorer reasoning abilities than a lot of non-human animals. So those who make reasoning ability the criterion will be forced to exclude humans with profound intellectual disabilities from the circle. It is always open for a person to say that being a human biologically defined interms of DNA is the key criterion to be included within the circle. However this criterion seems no less arbitrary than using Skin Colour or Tribe membership. Furthermore some people with severe intellectual disability have DNA damage so DNA criterion is problematic in that respect. Eva Feder Kittay a moral philosopher whose daughter has a severe intellectual disability has challenged Singer for using people with intellectual disabilities as a tool to further animal rights. The debate between them is respectful as they both recognise that each is trying to minimise suffering. But the issue is emotional and keys in on our deepest held moral intuitions.

Discussions between people like Kittay and Singer are subtle and deep; a far cry from the casual test for personhood used in ‘Androids’. Even outside of moral philosophy our everyday empathy varies from situation to situation. Sociologist Roger Yeats has written on the strange fact that in western society we are socialised as animal lovers who casually exploit animals and eat them. Facebook is chocked full of people (including me) who fill their wall with videos of cute animals. I recently posted a video of a cute baby pig. I love pigs they remind me to some degree of dogs with their intelligence and loyalty. I abhor animal cruelty. But yet I eat meat. I eat pork. So my empathy only goes so far; though reflection on animal life makes me less and less comfortable with my choosing to eat meat.

When Rick watches another bounty hunter (Phil Resch) kill an android opera singer he admires he realises he has some empathy for the android. This empathy is increased when he has sex with the android Rachel Rosen. Resch himself worries that he may be an android at one point in the novel. The boundaries blur as to who is an android and who is a human. This forces the reader to think through the issues for themselves. Just when one is thinking that maybe the Androids are misunderstood one sees an android torture an almost extinct species of spider for her own amusement, and we wonder if all androids are capable of this kind of cruelty. We know some humans are; but not all of them. So the novel constantly gets us to evaluate our moral stance as we read it.

In his most recent book ‘Intuition Pumps’ Dennett talks about the importance of intuition pumps (thought experiments) for helping us think. He reminds us that they are vital tools for philosophers to use when mulling over a problem. A lot of science fiction tales are basically long entertaining thought experiments to help us think through certain possibilities. However, Dennett correctly notes that some thought experiments result in us being directed to think in a particular direction and ignore alternatives. John Searle’s thought experiment is an example of a thought experiment that can lead us to uncritically think in certain directions if we are not careful.

I think some science fiction has this possibility inherent in it. A lot of science fiction describes mechanical intelligence as unfeeling, uncaring, calculating machines: thus we have Data, Hal, The Terminator etc. I think we need to re-think this intuition, a lot of current AI centres on social interaction, embodied cognition etc. There is no reason a-priori to think that Androids need to lack empathy (ignoring for a minute the hard problem of consciousness which effects humans just as much as androids).

Overall, I think philosophers could benefit from reading more science fiction as a way of expanding their imagination, as long as they are aware of the possibility that they may be inadvertently having certain unhealthy intuitions pumped. Dick’s ‘Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep’, is an excellent thought experiment, but one that only works if it is used as a tool for people to switch key variables in when thinking about it. Discussion between philosophers of science fiction can only help to stretch the imagination of the philosopher and help them think outside of the narrow academic culture they have been taught how to think and reason in.

[1] Animals are not human but having lower IQ’s are no threat to the establishment and hence are viewed as valuable in the world of ‘Androids’.


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