What is human? Is it the ability to think and rationalize? To feel an ever widening continuum of emotions? What exactly separates an animal from a human? In Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, this question is the basis of many of the character and plot conflicts. The inability to distinguish human from android has raised questions of whether or not certain characteristics define a human being. Human beings are complex creatures, whose cognitive, emotional, and spiritual processes determine and characterize what is a human.
Empathy is crucial in the development and characterization of a human. As quoted by speech-language pathologist Lisa Moore, “to empathize is to see with eyes of another, to hear with the ears of another, and to feel with the heart of another”. In addition, to empathize one requires a greatly developed sense of emotions and feelings to be able to identify and simulate the emotions of others. Empathy is beyond a sense of sympathy, because it requires one to not only feel for the situation, but be immersed in it as if they are in the same position. In human relationships, empathy is a fundamental resource. If humans fail to identify the feelings of another, close and intimate relationships, which are crucial to a human’s well-being, will be near impossible to create. For example, when a close friend or family member is distressed, an individual may also become emotionally disturbed as well. Not until that individual helps their family member or friend will he be able to alleviate his own disturbance (Smith).
In Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep, the Voigt-Kampff scale distinguishes human from android by one’s empathy. As described by Richard Deckard, “Kampff compared the diminished empathic faculty found in human mental patients and a superficially similar but basically” a robotic duplicate of a human (Dick 38). As seen in the book, empathy is a major distinguisher of human nature. When Isidore and Pris first met, Isidore felt “a coldness” from her, like “a breath between from the vacuum between inhabited worlds” (Dick 67). Pris’s lack of empathy when Isidore suggested she make dinner dehumanized Pris even to Isidore. To him, this was a totally unnatural reaction, but nonetheless fulfilled his human need to socialize, which Pris had no desire to. In contrast, Isidore’s empathy allowed him to recognize and become affected by Pris’s emotion.
One idea of cognitive and emotional processes is human motivation, which can be described by Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow, a humanist, believed that people were pushed and pulled by stimuli, behaviorism, reinforcements, and by unconscious thoughts (Simons). According to Maslow, one must fulfill certain needs in order to reach the desired state of self-actualization, a state where a human is operating at its maximum potential (Huitt). This state, whether it is apparent or not, is what all humans strive for. However, in order to reach self-actualization physiological, safety, belongingness and love, and esteem needs must all be met, in that respective order. An individual cannot satisfy a higher need if the lower need has not been met (Simons). In Androids and Bladerunner, the film adaptation to the book, the innate need for self-actualization is absent in the androids. Their ultimate want for survival in the book and the want for a prolonged life in the movie devoid any want for self-actualization; the instinctual need to survive shows that the androids have not met the basic needs in Maslow’s hierarchy. Their basic needs for safety have not been met, which is seen by the androids paranoia of Deckard and the precautions that they took to prepare for their potential retirement. As a result, their motivation is seen as not entirely typical human behavior.
One need that is especially important in answering the question of what is human is the need for love and belongingness. In Maslow’s hierarchy, love and belongingness is one of the top needs before self-actualization. This need is related to empathy, because it is required for any intimate relationship that can satisfy this need. For many, this need is so important and crucial that they would be willing to sacrifice their own needs, freedom, and identity. In Androids, Isidore was in such a desperate state for human contact that he was willing to give up his own freedoms as a person to feel associated with the androids. Although Isidore knew Roy, Irmgard, and Pris were runaway androids, “he didn’t care; it made no difference to him” (Dick 183). Isidore even allowed the androids to order him around by bringing the rest of Pris’s property up to his room, “in particular” Pris wanted “the TV set” (Dick 203). Passing up bounty money and his own freedom, Isidore gave up much to feel like he was being depended on and belonged to a group. Additionally, the same need is seen in Deckard. His affection and love for Rachael conflicted with his idea of having sex with an android and not a human. His need for love and belongingness, not just sex but romantic love, was ultimately fulfilled through Rachael Rosen. Deckard was also able to reassert himself as a human after his identity struggle prior to the relationship (McNamara). In this, Deckard gave up his prior disassociations with androids in order to fulfill his human needs.
The idea of the need for love and belongingness is important in classifying human and android, because this need is not seen as strongly in the androids. When Isidore first met Pris her reaction was very unfavorable. Unafraid of being alone, Isidore attempts to create an association between Pris and himself, but was given more of a cold shoulder then a welcome mat. Rachael’s superficial love for Deckard shows how easily and devoid of emotion an android could pass through relationship and relationship. Unlike humans, sex and love is not their focus in these relationships, but more of a survival technique. Lastly, Roy and Irmgard Baty’s marriage is only a loose association based on survival rather than a fulfillment of the need for love and belongingness.
The aspect of faith is another characteristic of defining the universal question of what is a human. In this respect, faith can be defined as the ability to believe and trust in a higher being or in an intangible source of power. For humans, faith is a key component in their behaviors and ideas. Which can be a guide to determine whether something may be human or not.
The benefits of faith are apparent in the lives of humans. From personal benefits to the society at large, faith plays a major role in the lives of people across the globe. In the area of medicine, Dave Matthews of Georgetown Medical School says that “the faith factor has been demonstrated to have value.” From support groups to the idea of meditation for health, faith not only affects a human's spiritual being but also the human’s physical being (“Faith Benefits”). In a study conducted in 1991 by the National Bureau of Economic Research, they found that urban youth whose neighbors attended church regularly were far less likely to commit suicide or use drugs (Loconte). In this example, it is faith that is a precursor to human action rather than instinctual desires. Unlike animals, humans are greatly affected by outside forces other than the instincts to live and reproduce. This can be seen through personal examples with faith. Take for example Jesus Christ. A man whose faith in his destiny was so strong, that he was able to accept his death calmly and spiritually. Although the temptation from the devil, before Christ’s crucifixion, can be seen as the instinctual desire to live he was able to overcome that desire through his faith. Like animals, humans desire to live and thrive, but unlike animals humans are able to overcome these desires through outside forces like faith.
In Androids, Mercerism is an extremely important aspect in coping with the destruction and deterioration of Earth. Isidore describes Mercerism as a “way to touch other humans, it’s the way to stop being alone” (Dick 66). The androids on the other hand, despise and look forward to the fall of Mercerism. Unlike the characters Iran, Deckard, and Isidore, androids are unable to “fuse” with Mercerism. This inability causes a divide between an android’s perceived ability to be a full human being. Like faith, Mercerism cause humans to believe in something that at times is not physically there, but is an important and influential part of their life. This spiritual process is reliable in understanding the ability of humans to believe in what is beyond physical reality, a characteristic of what is a human.
The human mind is the most important and basic tool for survival (Branden 57). Humans are fragile beings. A human’s defenses consist only of its mind. Unfortunately, humans do not have natural claws, lethal venom, or twenty tons of weight to throw around. It is the mind that allows humans to adapt and to survive. Everything that makes us distinctively human, from the clothes we wear to the abstract ideas that guide us in our lives, is from the human ability to think (Branden 57). It is an obvious difference compared to other animals. A dog has several defensive mechanisms from teeth to its ability to run at high speeds. Although their intellect is advanced, it pales in comparison to the intellectual abilities of humans. Even in a “chickenhead”, advanced intellect is evident. As Isidore describes the symbolic struggle and rebirth of Wilbur Mercer and his comparison to Buster Friendly, he is able to hold some thought process on comparing and contrasting the two figureheads (Dick 76). His comparison and observation is intelligent for someone labeled as a “special” and not even considered to have a brain operating at normal levels. Isidore’s intellect shows the human ability to think and its use in survival.
The question of what is human is as complex as human nature. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, this question is left in utter ambiguity as characters struggle with their own identities of being human. A comparison between human and android shows a distinguishable difference between cognitive, spiritual, and emotional processes. But it is only a primitive identifier of the ultimate question of what is human. Like the idea of absolute reality, this question will always remain partially unanswered.
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Huitt, W. “Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.” Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University, 2004. <http://chiron.valdosta.edu/whuitt/col/regsys/maslow.html>.
Loconte, Joe. “Religious Organizations Can Help Solve Social Problems.” OpposingViewpoints:Religion in America. Gale OVRC. Orange Coast College Library. Costa Mesa, CA. 8 October 2006.<http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/OVRC>
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