During our discussions in the Narrative and Technology class, the need for defining human nature came up more than once. As we all concluded, in the future, it would be extremely difficult to characterize human nature because of the rise of new and very powerful technologies that can create replacements for human beings. I was especially intrigued by this problem while reading Lyotard’s essay, Can Thought go on without a Body? and Dick’s novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? . I do realize that these texts are quite different. One is an extremely convoluted philosophical essay, and the other is a science fiction novel that holds no great value for the majority of people. However, both of these writers were concerned with the problem of continuing human civilization after a devastating catastrophe.
Lyotard’s essay presents us with problems that need to be overcome if we are to create a machine that can think as a human, and in the case of the ultimate catastrophe continue our legacy. At the same time, he is giving an ode to a beautiful complexity of human mind and thought, which is inseparable from the body. According to him, the major problem for creators of an artificial human is the binary mode, the basis of all our thinking machines. Also Lyotard states that if these machines are to represent us fully, they must be capable of suffering and they must have gender. Anything less would not suffice as a legitimate human replacement.
The novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (DADOES) paints us a picture of “the cold desert of our human world after nuclear war” (Lyotard) where we encounter androids, creations of human technologies, which have triumphed over all of Lyotard’s obstacles. Because they are not made of wires nor circuits, but rather of organic matter, they do not think in binary mode. In fact, many humans, corroded by the radioactive dust that covers the Earth, are intellectually inferior to these artificial creations. Additionally, androids come in both sexes. Therefore, they have another characteristic, according to Lyotard, that is essential for representation of humans. But, the most valuable feature they have is their capacity to suffer, and Lyotard states that human thought is inseparable from suffering. For him any creation that is to replace humans has to be able to suffer. We see this trait most clearly in the case of Luba Luft, an opera singer whose quality can be “… rated with that of the best, even that of notables in his collection of historic tapes.” (Philip K. Dick) For Lyotard, the fact that this humanoid robot “ could obtain the emptiness from mind and body” necessary for any true art “that doesn’t take place without some suffering” would be enough to call it human. So, why androids are not perceived as humans, or even living beings, in the world of DADOES? In that world, which we nearly destroyed, where the Sun cannot penetrate the shell of radioactive dust, without any plants, with some miraculously-surviving animals, and with human population reduced to hundreds, we exterminate, no questions asked, the life form that is the most similar to us. Why?
In order to understand this paradox, I turned to Camus’ book The Plague. I am certain that there are probably better and maybe more relevant books out there that could shed some light on this question. However, I like Camus and I will do my best to connect these two texts together.
The Plague is a novel about a fictional town, Oran, located in Algeria, and struck by (surprise, surprise) THE PLAGUE. We learn about the suffering and events that took place in this small town during long months of this epidemic, through narrator’s accurate and unexaggerated descriptions. He introduces us to diverse characters, Dr. Rieux, Tarrou, Ramber, Father Paneloux, Cottard, Dr. Castel, Grand, and we get glimpses of their experiences during the plague. Many of these characters are not fully developed and realized. At times, the narrator feels detached and without emotions, but I feel Camus intended for him to report events and give his observations rather than his emotional responses to them. Because of this, we can accept narrator’s interpretations as truthful representations of human behavior.
After declaring the plague epidemic and closing the gates of Oran, all of its citizens have a sense of exile and isolation. Similar feelings can be assigned to people in Dick’s DADOES. People on Earth are trapped by radioactive radiation, and those who live on Mars are given an android to lessen their sense of loneliness. But, the androids are the ones that are the most isolated and exiled of all as they are hunted and killed on Earth and reduced to slavery on Mars. As the plagues progresses and takes the town in its deadly grip, the narrator notices the need for belonging and community in the people of Oran. “Yes, it was quite true that men can’t do without their fellow men …” (Camus). Similarly, in DADOES, the same necessity is satisfied by the empathy box and Mercerism. Through this device people achieve a sense of unity and belonging. Because of “ a deliberately built-in defect [androids] remained excluded” (Philip K. Dick) from this experience, which only enhances their feelings of isolation and exile. Androids, even though hardly distinguishable from humans and necessary for their survival, are by design left outside the human community.
The plague, from a conversation between Dr. Rieux and his friend Tarrou in Part IV of the book, can be understood as a metaphor for human aggression. In this conversation Tarrou opens up to his friend for the first time and confesses to him that he indirectly played a part in murders of numerous men and women because of his fight against capital punishment. Later he became conscious that he was indirectly participating in the act he was fight against, and the sense of shame he had because of it never left him. Tarrou realized “that each of us has the plague within him, no one on Earth is free from it” (Camus). This is certainly true of Rick Deckard, who at one point in his hunt for androids perceives himself as the plague, the force that destroys. The androids, in order to escape the slavery and isolation they are subjected to, must kill. When asked by his friend what it is he wishes to achieve in life, Tarrou answers “The path of sympathy” (Camus). The plague is a shortfall of human nature that keeps us back from achieving peace and our full potential. In this regard natural and artificial human are the same. But, because man creates artificial human, android’s deficiencies are actually reflection of our own defeat by plague.