"Philosophy Meets Hollywood:
Descartes Among the Androids"

by Stephen T. Asma © 1999
(parts of this article appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jan. 15, 1999)


A few of my undergraduate students approached me after class recently to see what I thought about a hypothesis they were percolating. We had just finished watching an Australian movie called Proof, in which the main character is a skeptical blind man who takes photographs of his experiences and asks people to give verbal descriptions of the developed pictures. He translates each description into braille and fastens it to the back of the relevant photo as a corroboration, a proof, that his experiences were real. I showed this provocative film in class after 3 weeks of wrestling with Descartes’ Meditations, and these students wanted to know if they had detected a “Cartesian Circle” in the film’s narrative.

The Cartesian Circle refers to a famous paradox that Descartes gets caught in while working out his philosophical system. The radical skepticism about his senses and his own thoughts cannot be alleviated until he proves the existence of a benevolent God, for only the existence of this good God can guarantee that Descartes’ ideas are trustworthy (and not the fictional fabrications of a trickster-God). But in order to build the proof of God’s existence, Descartes has to use his ideas (he has to assume that they are indeed trustworthy). He assumes the precise thing that he’s trying to prove. My students explain to me that the character in Proof might be caught in a similar dilemma. The blind photographer, they argue, thinks that he needs the braille descriptions to prove that he can trust his experiences --that he can trust people. But he must trust people in order to accept and translate these descriptions in the first place. My students wanted to know if they had understood the Cartesian problem properly; if a similar epistemic puzzle existed for the film’s character, and so on.

Well, this is the kind of student feedback that teachers live for. The students were not only “getting it”, they were taking the concepts and insights into fresh territory. I was impressed by the fact that my undergraduate students were actually excited about epistemology, which, one must acknowledge, is not ordinarily a sexy topic for them. After many episodes of similar feedback and newly impassioned class-discussion, I began to think that my experiment was indeed working.

My experiment was to try to convey philosophical ideas to my students by using Hollywood movies --a medium to which they were already very attracted. I wanted to use films to draw students into the philosophical traditions, and I discovered, to my great relief and pleasure, that it works.

The study of philosophy can open up vistas of meaning for students, and films can effectively realize abstract ideas in palpable and compelling ways. So, using a handful of contemporary motion pictures together with some traditional philosophical texts, I structure the course into thematic sections, like “The Labyrinth of Skepticism”, or “Problems of Alienation” or “Freedom and Responsibility.” Among other successful pairings, I’ve explored the way in which Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors illustrates the concepts of existential absurdity and morality found in Sartre’s essay “Existentialism is a Humanism.” I’ve also used Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas as a gateway into Plato's argument, in the Republic, that the life of justice is preferable to the life of injustice.

The Republic builds up a narrative of how one becomes an unjust person--it uses a developmental “psyche” analysis to show how and why people sell their souls (submitting to both political tyranny and the psychological tyranny of their own cravings). Scorsese's Goodfellas can be read in this same way. Rather than abstractly moralizing about right and wrong, both film and text admit (with refreshing honesty) the incredible attractiveness of a gangster life. And after parading the intoxicating pleasures and almost limitless powers of such a criminal life, both the Republic and Goodfellas reverse the picture to reveal the inner-slavery beneath the flashy appearances.

Goodfellas illustrates Plato's two central arguments beautifully; The unjust person lacks psychological peace, and no true friendship exists for such people. The reason, according to Plato, why we should live ethical lives has nothing to do with God's punishment and reward, or the police's punishment, or honor from your peers. It has everything to do with inner peace and the power of real friendships. For my students, the film (with its degenerating and increasingly isolated mobsters) makes Plato’s argument come alive.

Usually, the most effective portrayals of philosophical issues in film can be found in narratives about ethical dilemmas. It is extremely difficult (some might say impossible) to dramatize thought itself. The inherently private nature of cognition makes its representation on the screen very challenging. But ethics is that branch of philosophy concerned with action; “What ought I to do?”, “How should I live?” etc.. Being concerned with actions, ethical questions can make a relatively easy transition from text to film medium (one thinks of popular films like Do the Right Thing, Broadcast News, Amistad and Schindler’s List). Other philosophical traditions, like metaphysics and epistemology, are not so easily tied to dramatic characters or plot narratives. Nonetheless, exceptional films can shed light on these more abstract areas as well. The Ridley Scott film Blade Runner, for example, can be used very successfully to engage metaphysical and epistemological issues.

This cult-classic film centers around the main character Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) who makes his living as a bounty-hunter in the degenerating techno-environment of futuristic Los Angeles. His job is to hunt down and kill (retire) “replicants”. Replicants are highly sophisticated artificial humanoids which have been engineered so beautifully that they are indistinguishable from natural human beings. Replicants are extremely powerful because they were manufactured to serve as slaves on space-stations or other planets. This makes them highly dangerous if they should make their way back to earth, and hence a small cadre of exterminators (“bladerunners”), like Deckard, make a living sleuthing for cyber-criminals. Replicants are manufactured with short life spans (e.g., 4 years) and they are given memories, language, and general intellectual skills to maximize their particular slave functions. The plot of the film tracks Deckard as he in turn tracks 4 fugitive replicants who are trying to reach their maker --a genetic engineer/corporate mogul named Tyrell. Right away the premise is philosophical, since these rather likable creatures are on a mission to beg their God to grant them a little more life. As we get to know these characters, other philosophical issues emerge.

The implications for knowledge theories (epistemology) in Blade Runner are extensive. Many of Descartes’ problems of skepticism (and those of Modern philosophy generally) are raised throughout the film. Blade Runner highlights questions of certainty in the same way that the literature of hallucination throws doubt upon truth in perception. Knowledge, for Descartes, is defined in terms of foundational certainty and this certainty is lacking in every belief that is capable of doubt. Thus radical skepticism takes root in claims for knowledge of the external world and of our selves. The senses are incapable of delivering up indubitable certainty. Films like Blade Runner, Total Recall , Proof and Jacob’s Ladder nicely illustrate the blur lines between waking consciousness, dream states, failed perceptions and other altered states of perception. We appreciate the confusion even more readily where we as audience are not given that privy perspective of objective observers--where we are deprived of the standard dramatic mechanism of privileged perspective. In Blade Runner, for example, we the audience are as unsure as Harrison Ford is, regarding his status as human or android. These sorts of confusions are philosophically illuminating because they illustrate points about the radical subjectivity of the knower and raise points about the inconclusive nature of the known. We begin to appreciate that truth and knowledge are fugitive things--open to paralyzing doubt, breakdown and transformation. One can see, through these films, that perception and memory can be extremely misleading avenues to knowledge of the world and the self.

One of the important philosophical issues raised by Blade Runner is the problem of other minds. Descartes’ skepticism puts us in a serious puzzle when we think about the minds of the people around us. We assume that other human beings are thinking and feeling in much the same way that we are, but on what grounds are we entitled to make this assumption? On what grounds can we assume that the person next to us has a mind at all? The behavior that we observe is compelling but it is not a direct experience of the contents of someone’s head, and only that (impossible)direct experience would seem to give us certainty about the matter. “The problem begins to look less frivolous or academic when one starts to ask seriously after the mental life of animals like the great apes, or domestic dogs, or dolphins. Do they have genuine consciousness? And the current explosion in computer technology promises a new location for the problem. How can we distinguish a truly conscious intelligence from a complex physical system built to resemble a thinking being in all of its behavior, verbal and emotional behavior included? Would there be a difference? How could we tell?”(Churchland 1988, p.4)

In addition to this epistemological problem, there are a variety of metaphysical dilemmas that crop up in Blade Runner. The crucial issues can be organized under one basic rubric: What are the defining traits of a “person”? And what are the entitlements or rights that “person hood” entails?

The question of when a thing is “a person” is not simply the raving of a science-fiction drenched mind. It is oftentimes considered the root philosophical question in the debate over abortion. This lively public debate is infused with the philosophical question over the metaphysical status of the fetus. Is the fetus an organic entity which does not yet have “person status” and thereby lacks rights and value, or is the fetus a “person” capable of sharing in all the rights that adults enjoy? If a zygote is a blob of genetically driven cells, then at what point does this biological entity begin to have protectable interests? Must the organism have a mind, or a nervous system, or self-awareness, or a “soul”? Granted that a dividing cell may easily qualify as “life”, the problem of establishing “person hood” is quite different.

The philosopher Boethius defined “person” as “an individual substance of a rational kind” (naturae rationalis individua substantia), and the philosopher John Locke clarifies this definition by stating that the word applies “only to intelligent agents capable of a law, and happiness and misery.” (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Bk. II, Ch. 27). Immanuel Kant adds the interesting addendum that it is because persons can impose law upon themselves that they are worthy of respect. From these reflections we may derive a working definition of the concept “person.” Whatever a person is, it must be rational, capable of feeling emotions, have the ability to impose law upon itself and thereby be worthy of moral respect.

Lest students think that these definitions have only academic interest, they should be reminded of their role in early anthropology and natural history. The father of modern taxonomy, Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778) defined the different human races in his hugely influential Systema Naturae. Lamentably, but unsurprisingly, he claimed that only the European race was capable of ruling itself through laws, whereas the other races governed themselves either by “custom”, or “opinion” or “caprice.” By defining non-European races as sub-human, natural historians fostered a way of thinking that refused to recognize the rights of indigenous peoples. How one defines a person is not just an intellectual exercise, it can have dramatic ethical implications.

The film Blade Runner invokes all these issues by asking the question: What makes us “human”? A variety of different criteria for inclusion in the category “human person” are entertained throughout the film, and these criteria nicely mirror the variety of actual historical debates. For example, Descartes himself argued that humans differ from all other creatures and things in their exclusive power to think. To be a human person is to possess a mind, and this mind is what gives human organisms something that no other animals enjoy--namely, freedom. Sophisticated problem-solving skills that can adapt to new situations are particular hallmarks of being human. Darwin argued, contrary to Descartes, that animals had at least rudimentary intellects and were therefore different from humans only by degree rather than kind. And given this basic presupposition, we do seem to recognize a vague scale or hierarchy amongst animals such that killing a chimp, for example, seems more offensive than killing an ant. Both animals are clearly alive yet one seems to have a higher metaphysical status than the other. Is the better “problem-solving ability” of the chimp the criteria by which we measure its value? Or does it simply physically resemble more closely our own species--a seemingly shallow aesthetic rationale?

If we have an entity that can both remember and solve novel problems, do we owe it respect? Do we owe it autonomy (the freedom of self-determination)? In other words, does something which fits the above two criteria of memory and problem solving deserve a right to freedom? These are important questions (blending metaphysics and morals) that take on particular importance in this age of chess playing computers and other neural net machines. One of the steadfast beliefs of many thinkers has been that computers--however powerful and complex--can never actually “learn.” Learning involves trial and error self-evaluations and these powers seemed beyond the ken of digital systems. But neural networks that learn through trial and error, like Fujitsu’s neuro-drummer, already exist. Computers “memorize,” they “choose” between options, they “recollect,” and they even “learn.” Yet computers remain unconvincing as moral equals--indeed they fail even to measure up to the status of low-level animals. How and why we intuit such distinctions is unclear.

Is there some additional property that entities must possess if they are to be considered persons? The philosophical strategy of Blade Runner is to slowly build-up progressive layers of biological traits upon originally inanimate objects (the replicants). And the question is tacitly asked at each stage: Do we have a “person” yet? How about if we add memories? How about if we add learning skills? And so on. In many ways Blade Runner is a modern version of Condillac’s (1714-1780) early psychological meditations. Condillac asked his readers to envision a lifeless statue, and then one by one he added sense powers like “sight,” “touch” and so forth. The essence of the argument was that, given the right biological powers even a stone could have a mind--in other words, “mind” was not an occult spiritual quality. Just as Condillac wanted to isolate the essence of “mind” independent of where it obviously resides (in humans), so too Blade Runner asks us to reflect upon intelligence and personality independent of where they obviously reside (in humans). The film poses the weird but tantalizing conjecture that personality may be possible outside the traditional organic containers (humans). This is not simply an exercise in mental torture, for it forces us to face ambiguities in concepts like intelligence, respect and personality--concepts we use uncritically everyday.

One of the crucial traits that Blade Runner adds onto the replicants is “imagination.” When Darwin wrote the Descent of Man (1872), he had to argue vehemently that non-human animals possess imagination. Prior to Darwin, the idea of animal imagination was both rare (because Descartes had persuaded many that animals had no minds) and heretical (for it seemed to imply some unholy kinship between man and animal). Darwin realized that this trait was a serious hurdle, pronouncing that “The Imagination is one of the highest prerogatives of man. By this faculty he unites former images and ideas, independently of the will, and thus creates brilliant and novel results.”(Ch.III) But even so high a faculty as imagination, Darwin argued, could be found in animals and the place to look for it was the dream. Dreaming is the involuntary art of poetry (Ch.III). If animals can dream, then they are “uniting former images and ideas” and “creating brilliant and novel results”--they are imagining.

Not unrelated is the original title of Blade Runner, Philip Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The question posed here is whether a computer could ever dream at all. Darwin’s heretical argument began with the question of whether animals could dream; moved to an inference about their possessing imagination and ultimately suggested a very close metaphysical and moral kinship between animals and humans. Blade Runner’s tacit suggestion seems to be that if a thing (in this case, a replicant) can dream, then it has an imagination; and if it has an imagination, then it is not very different (metaphysically and morally) from you and I (persons).

The film recognizes that all these intellectual powers are still not enough to bestow “person hood” to a machine. So, the film, again mimicking the philosophical tradition, poses the possibility of “emotions” as a criterion for person hood. Descartes argued that non-human animals were brutes incapable of thought and therefore incapable of having basic rights and respect. Kick a dog all you want, don’t worry it’s just a machine. In the nineteenth century, however, philosophers like J. S. Mill argued that the question of animal dignity does not revolve around whether they can solve intellectual problems, but whether they can feel pain. If an entity has emotions, it generally falls higher on the metaphysical ladder. Blade Runner suggests the idea of replicants with varying degrees of emotional life (pain, hopes, disappointment, desire, etc.). Is something a person (deserving basic rights and respect) when it is capable of feeling emotions? But not just any feelings will suffice. We recognize certain emotions in animals and yet we do not reward them person status (for example, we continue to devour them heartily). There seems to be an unspoken premium placed upon the emotional levels of sophistication. Fear, for example, seems widely prevalent in the animal kingdom, but “empathy” is an emotion that seems very rare except in the human species. Empathy is the power to place one’s self in the position of someone or something else and intimately feel the emotions, or motives of that other person or thing.

In the film, bladerunners are equipped with a special testing device (the Voight-Kampf test) which enables them to distinguish androids from non-androids. The device measures the changes in the subject’s pupils when asked increasingly difficult questions, and the questions are designed to elicit “empathy” responses to scenarios of animal and human suffering. (The “eye” as the “window of the soul” is repeated theme throughout the movie.) The film suggests that some of the replicants are rudimentary in their emotional equipment (the character Leon for example) and these can be easily detected through the test. Other characters, like Roy, evolve emotional sophistication that eventually reaches the level of empathy. The climax of the film, in fact, can be read as a transfiguration of replicant-Roy to fully-human-Roy by the empathic act of saving the life of a fellow-sufferer (Deckard). Actually an even higher transfiguration is implied since Roy not only saves a fellow sufferer in this case, but actually saves his enemy.

At least two points are interesting about the “empathy test” used in Blade Runner. First, we have a kind of Deus ex Machina or cop-out resolution of the Cartesian (Descartes) problem. How do we “know” if the thing next to you is a human or an automaton? Give it the empathy test, and if it fails then it’s an android. Of course, Descartes would object that you still do not have certainty, because the test itself must be read by the senses, and we know how fallible the senses can be. But secondly, and more interestingly, the suggestion that the different replicants have different levels of emotional qualities--some bordering on real empathy, some completely void--implies that they are different levels of being. Some of these levels are clearly sub-human but some border on “person hood.”

We are forced to contemplate whether empathy might be a sound criterion for inclusion or exclusion from the category “person.” And this reflection takes us beyond the dramatic storyline, for we can legitimately ask this same question of the people around us. There appear to be levels of empathy in human beings--highly sensitive individuals and cold-blooded killers. Does less empathy mean “less human”? When we talk of the emotionless individual, we say that he is “cold” perhaps even “inhuman” and so forth. Is compassion for other beings a defining feature of what it means to be human? Does the inability to feel someone else’s suffering, make us less of a person--more like a machine?

Philip K. Dick, the author of the source novel for the film, explained the work by stating that “Although it’s essentially a dramatic novel, the moral and philosophical ambiguities it dealt with are really very profound.” The Story “stemmed from my basic interest in the problem of differentiating the authentic human being from the reflexive machine, which I call an android. In my mind “android” is a metaphor for people who are physiologically human but behaving in a nonhuman way. I first became interested in this problem when I was doing research for High Castle. I had access to prime Gestapo documents at the closed stacks of California at Berkeley, and I came across some diaries by S.S. men stationed in Poland. One sentence in particular had a profound effect on me: ‘We are kept awake at night by cries of starving children.’ There was obviously something wrong with the man who wrote that. I later realized that what we were essentially dealing with in the Nazis was a defective group mind --a mind so emotionally defective that the word human could not be applied to them.”

Issues of humanization and dehumanization can be raised not only in the context of developmental psychology, but also in the context of physiology. Diane Ackerman, in her book A Natural History of Love for example, discusses a medical case in which a man (whom she refers to as “John”) had a benign tumor removed from his brain, but the operation damaged the ventromedial region of his frontal cortex. This led to a radical change in the man’s personality such that he ceased to feel emotions of any kind. A neurologist from the University of Iowa “hooked John up to a machine similar to a lie detector, and presented him with a barrage of emotionally charged slides, sounds and questions. Some were violent, some pornographic, some unethical. John had no response to any of them. A field of flowers registered no differently than a murder.”(pg.140) Ackerman then likens this real life scenario, particularly the test for emotions, to the film Blade Runner. If to be human is to be emotional, then has John lost his humanity?

In my experience, students become even more excited about films when they begin to see them as vehicles for larger questions like “What does it mean to be human?” My objective in raising these kinds of ethical and metaphysical questions for students is to get them thinking more critically and creatively about the films that they’re consuming. A good film, like good literature, can work on many different levels. Philosophical questions can give artists more depth to their creations (be it film or some other media), and these same questions can give audiences the conceptual tools needed for a more active participation in the artwork. I have raised just a few of the philosophical issues that can be read out of a film like Bladerunner. Sometimes filmmakers are cognizant of these intellectual nuances and try to convey them explicitly, other times we as interpreters can use unintended subtleties as jumping-off points for our own intellectual reflection. In either case, students can learn to read films as more than just entertainment.

Dr. Stephen T. Asma
Professor of Philosophy
Department of Liberal Education
Columbia College Chicago
600 S. Michigan Ave.
Chicago, IL 606051