Last time we looked at how, given the Law of Entropy and neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory, the situation of the people of today is not fundamentally different from the situation in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Sooner or later all life is going to be snuffed out. The difference is that the humanity of today does not really confront the problem. (Thankfully, human extinction is probably not right around the corner.)
Phillip Dick creates a world in which humanity has realized its situation, and develops coping methods. The chief coping method is the religion of Mercerism. Mediating on the life and teachings of the sage Wilbur Mercer, the faithful come to experience empathy for all living things. By sympathizing for the sufferings of others, not only of people but also of animals, Mercerites enter into communion with all life forms as they proceed on the path towards entropy. This experience of non-judgmental, universal empathy is supposed to reduce man’s violent tendencies and help him accept his ultimate extinction. Wilbur Mercer is something of a Christ figure, but it is worth noting that, unlike Christians, Mercerites never claim that the founder of their religion is an historical figure.
Mercerism may sound attractive, but it is problematic. At the heart of Mercerism is the paradoxical commandment: Kill Only the Killers. Just who “the killers” may be is left conveniently vague. Androids despise Mercerism. Despite their superior intelligence they are incapable of empathy, though they may fake it in order to pass themselves off as human. They suspect that empathy, and the entire Mercerite religion, is nothing more than a human plot to keep androids enslaved.
The theology of empathy is at the heart of the tests that the police use to distinguish androids from humans. In Blade Runner this aspect is missing; the police merely look for strange reactions to nonsensical questions. In Dick’s novel, the questions are designed to test the suspect’s reactions to cruelty to animals: if they show no empathy towards animals, they cannot be human. Since androids are incapable of empathy, they are dangerous and must be hunted down and destroyed.
This leads to the central conflict of the plot: if empathy is what distinguishes humans from androids, how can a human bounty hunter kill androids for a living if androids are, in a way, alive?
I’m not going to give away any more of the plot. Read it yourself. I had lots of fun reading and thinking about Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, but I do not completely buy into the philosophical ideas that lie underneath it: evolution may be a good description of how we got so many life forms, but do we really want to accept the idea that the difference between a machine and an animal is one of degree and not kind? That is probably a theme for a future post.
Finally, Blade Runner a great movie, proof that a movie does not have to follow the book in order to be good, but it achieves dramatic tension by simply dropping the philosophical and religious themes of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? in favor of a love story (and hints that Harrison Ford’s character is really a robot.)