Androids, Cyborgs, & Transhumanism. Oh My! — Part II: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Electric Sheep

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As an afterthought of the last post, I want to begin this one by offering up some clarification and justification for how and why I chose to focus on compassion as part of the human essence, rather than some other emotion. This will hopefully help make sense of what is to follow in today’s post. 

To help explain this, I like to use Dr. Neel Burton’s analysis of the three emotions — sympathy, empathy, and compassion, as adapted from his book Heaven & Hell – The Psychology of Emotion. Everything that follows is a paraphrase of his ideas towards the three emotions.

Sympathy is an emotion that many humans feel. It is the ability to “feel for” someone else’s experience or situation. For instance, I could be sympathetic towards a friend’s lost kitten, remarking on how sad they must feel and hoping that she finds it. But sympathy stops there. I don’t have to become any more emotionally invested than just feeling “for” her. Empathy takes it one step further. Empathy implies that I must also understand and feel the same emotion and in a way share the experience with her. It provides us a type of connection because I can see myself as my friend, feeling the same emotions that she would knowing her kitten is lost. But empathy stops there. There is still no requirement to act upon that feeling. Compassion however, does require me to act on that. I would argue that compassion is as much an action as it is an emotion, because it requires one to take the feelings of sympathy and empathy, and then do something about it. In this case, I would go help my friend go look for her lost kitten because I feel for her situation, and am just as sad about it as she is.

In all honesty, all three are important to human emotion and human essence, but I feel that compassion is the most sophisticated of the three. Perhaps it is setting the bar too high, as we shall soon see, but nonetheless, I feel it is a good marker to look for when assessing what it means to be human when technology is integrated into the being. Once again, before we delve any further, I want to state that I do not think compassion is the only indicator of humanity or the essence thereof. It is just what we will be looking at in this series.

So without further ado, here we go!

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? This question is also the title of a book by Phillip K. Dick, and was the inspiration for the moving picture film Blade Runner. The book follows the story of bounty hunter Rick Deckard, as he attempts to track and bring to justice a group of androids who are almost indistinguishable from humans. The only way to tell the difference is through an empathy test to see if they have the ability to empathize like a human. In a way, Dick is establishing empathy as one of markers of what it means to be human, but throughout the book he flips the idea on its head and rather questions a human’s ability to empathize with androids.

Empathy is the overarching theme of this book, and is represented in the title. “Do androids dream of electric sheep?” is a question asked after Deckard reminisces about his dreams of owning a real owl (which would be almost impossible since most “real” animals are extinct in the book). He postulates that if he dreams of having a real owl, then do androids dream of having electric sheep? The underlying question here is if androids have hopes and desires in the way that humans do. If they do, then what else is there to separate them from humanity?

Throughout the book, we see Deckard’s ability to empathize with androids as a whole, even with the ones that he is tracking down. He sees their actions as a reflection of their desires, to merely be free and prosper. You see, in order to prevent androids from uprising, they were created with a short lifespan, and with the intention of being workers. A short, demeaning existence.

The rogue androids that Deckard is hunting down escape to try to change their situation. This answers the titular question of the book — yes, androids do dream of electric sheep. Only their “electric sheep” is freedom, and the ability to experience life just as a human would. This speaks to their humanity, but unfortunately it is not what I’m looking for to show that they do have an essence of humanity.

This brings us full circle and back to the idea of compassion. Whereas we don’t see examples of androids’ compassion towards humans in the book (the movie is a different story), we do see compassion in the actions that the androids take towards each other. It is subtle, and usually plays out with someone’s death, but it is there.

One of the best examples of this is in the actions taken by the android Rachael Rosen throughout the book. When Deckard first meets her, she fails the empathy test, revealing that she is an android. Later in the book however, she reveals that she has seduced many bounty hunters in an attempt to dissuade them from hunting down other androids. She attempts to do the same thing with Deckard.

While not outwardly an act of pure compassion, the intention of her actions is. To even begin to do this, Rachael must have empathy for other androids, otherwise, why would she care about what happens to them? This shows empathy, which is the foundation of compassion. On top of that, her actions in order to try to dissuade the hunting down and “retiring” of rogue androids is an action based on that feeling of empathy — compassion. Even with empathy she could have not had the ability to act on those feelings. But she did.

Her actions were an attempt so save androids that she didn’t even know. If we were to replace “android” with people in the last sentence, it would have easily portrayed compassion. So what is the difference? I would argue that there isn’t.

In this way, I believe that the androids featured in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? do in fact contain an essence of humanity — that is, the presence of compassion.

Later in the series I will try to take a look at Blade Runner, since there are some HUGE differences between the book and the movie both in plot and philosophy. It explores some different facets to this same question, and in some ways goes deeper than the book. It is definitely worth a mention as it is partly the inspiration for this entire series.

If you haven’t yet, be sure to check out last week’s post that kicks off this series. In the meantime, I need to get back to my book keeping duties. See you next week!

– The Bookkeeper