Originally posted October 5, 2017
It’s no coincidence that a lot of philosophers are big fans of science fiction. Philosophers like to think about far-fetched scenarios or ‘thought experiments’, explore how they play out, and think about what light they can shed on how we should think about our own situation. What if you could travel back in time? Would you be able to kill your own grandfather, thereby preventing him from meeting your grandmother, meaning that you would never have been born in the first place? What if we could somehow predict with certainty what people would do? Would that mean that nobody had free will? What if I was really just a brain wired up to a sophisticated computer running virtual reality software? Should it matter to me that the world around me – including other people – is real rather than a VR simulation? And how do I know that it’s not?
Questions such as these routinely get posed in sci-fi books and films, and in a particularly vivid and thought-provoking way. In immersing yourself in an alternative version of reality, and by identifying or sympathising with the characters and seeing things from their point of view, you can often get a much better handle on the question. Philip K. Dick – whose Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, first published in 1968, is the story on which the 1982 film Blade Runner is based – was a master at exploring these kinds of philosophical questions. Often the question itself is left unstated; his characters are generally not much prone to philosophical rumination on their situation. But it’s there in the background nonetheless, waiting for you to find it and to think about what the answer might be.
Some of the questions raised by the original Dick story don’t get any, or much, attention in Blade Runner. Mercerism – the peculiar quasi-religion of the book, which is based on empathy and which turns out to be founded on a lie – doesn’t get a mention in the film. And while, in the film as in the book, the capacity for empathy is what (supposedly) distinguishes humans from androids (or, in the film, replicants; apparently by 1982 ‘android’ was considered too dated a word), in the film we don’t get the suggestion that the purported significance of empathy, through its role in Mercerism, is really just a ploy: a way of making everyone think that androids lack, as it were, the essence of personhood, and hence can be enslaved and bumped off with impunity.
The article is here.