Philosophy of the cyborg

In the last section of this course, we’ve encountered texts that use discussions of technology to raise philosophical questions about what defines us as human beings.  Both Ridley Scott’s film Bladerunner and Philip K. Dick’s original novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? use the metaphor of the android or cyborg to posit multi-faceted questions about the nature of human experience. Furthermore, Donna Haraway’s challenging “Cyborg Manifesto” also uses the extended metaphor of the cyborg to draw our attention to certain assumptions about human exceptionalism in the natural world.

Think about the ecological, philosophical, feminist and ethical questions raised in these three texts.  Using evidence from at least one, but potentially each of these texts, analyze how the concept of the cyborg challenges us to think critically about our human-centric worldviews.


6 responses to “Philosophy of the cyborg

  1. In “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” by Philip K. Dick, the author uses cyborgs in his novel to raise philosophical question about humans and human nature. Early on in the novel, the main character Deckard is using the Voight-Kampff test to try and identify androids. The test is designed to measure people’s empathic reactions, or in an androids case, the lack thereof. Deckard is thrown off-guard when he tests an android that thinks she is human. When this occurs in the movie “Bladerunner” which is based off the novel, Deckard asks the philosophical question, “How can it not know what it is?”. If this android thinks it is human and even has false memories and emotion, what makes human beings human? What makes humans so superior to other life forms?
    Haraway discusses the way human beings falsely claim superiority over other animals. She states that humans even place themselves in another category, separate from animals, when human beings are animals. Originally, what defined being human was the ability to make and use tools, but then it was proven that other animals can and do use tools. At one point emotions were what set humans apart from the other animals, but it is now known that some animals, especially other primates experience emotions. There is even a primate that has been able to learn sign language, therefore it cannot be language that make humans superior. Perhaps what truly makes human beings different from other animals is arrogance.

  2. In the past, there have been many visions about what the future would be like. There were stories of world-ending battles and wars, flying cars, and the cyborgs that had minds of their own, as seen in Philip k. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and Ridley Scott’s film Bladerunner. But when one thinks of how far society has advanced in technology, how close are we to actually seeing these types of things today? Haraway defines a cyborg as a “cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction”. What do we face when it is no longer a creature of fiction?

    Robots and cyborgs have always been an interest to scientists, but what happens when they are released unto the world? Cyborgs are considered as not being able to fully think for themselves, and as Haraway states, “The cyborg is resolutely committed to partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity. It is oppositional, utopian, and completely without innocence.” But what happens when a cyborg does start to feel, as Rachael feels empathy towards Pris ( P.K. Dick)? It is no longer just this “thing”, but something with feelings and emotions, thoughts for themselves. Besides that it is not an “organic” person, what makes it so different from us? Test-tube babies are a form of inorganic, but they are definitely human.

    This causes us to think critically about our human-centric views. Should cyborgs be created fully in the near future, it is difficult to say how one would react. A famous quote in Bladerunner is “How can it not know what it is”? Would we be able to spot out a cyborg today should it pass us on the street? If it did not know what it was, how could we possibly know? How do we know that we are real? We may not even be conscious. We could all be living in some version of the movie The Matrix. All three of these sources truly make a person take a moment to look and think about our views on life all together.

  3. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? analyzes humans and allows its audience to ponder what a human really is and what defines us as humans. The novel causes us to think deeply about the qualities we as humans possess, which ones are good and positive, and which ones are bad and negative. The androids in the novel pose as humans from the outside appearance, but cannot master the qualities within a human’s mind and heart. Empathy, a major them in the novel, is the essential, crucial quality that helps to differentiate a human from an android. Empathy can be found missing after completing the Voigt-Kamff test. Phillip K. Dick writes: “’An android,’ he said, (Rick) ‘doesn’t care what happens to another android. That’s one of the indications we look for’” (101).
    Phillip K. Dick flatters humans in the novel by suggesting that all humans have empathy. This is quite hard to grasp considering the many criminals the world contains. The novel allows humans to empathize with warzones and the mentally impaired. WWT destroyed the world as the citizens knew it and replaced animals and some humans with artificial ones. In reality, warzones are places of suffering and loss that cannot be replaced. The novel also sheds light on the mentally impaired. (John Isidore) WWT allowed for a radioactive dust to be released into the air causing many to become mentally impaired. The androids who did not share empathy for these people can be, in reality, the issue of those who show less empathy for the mentally impaired.
    Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? allows us as humans to rethink our priorities and replace some of them with a simple one: have empathy for others. It allows humans to understand that only one life is given and that making that life right is very important.

  4. The readings Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick, “A Cyborg Manifesto” by Donna Harraway and Ridley Scott’s film Bladerunner suggest a common theme: With the rapid automation of most entities circling human lives, human conscience is at a risk of being backfired. I personally believe that human faith exudes from fear, the fear of uncertainty of the future. In the process of destroying the fear that creates paranoia in human life, they go to extremes in order to invent entities in the hope of controlling the future. Androids, or cyborgs are the epitomes of such creations. They are created in order to fill the lapse of human beings’ imperfection and their inability to remain in control of everything including nature, ecology, economy, and so on. The dire irony facing humanity, however, suggests that human beings are the targets of the handover of control to the cyborgs . Harraway states that “The boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion”. Is, then, the boundary between human beings and cyborgs an optical illusion too? If so, the very cause for which human beings have existed and invented for will get annihilated, handing over the authority to rule to the cyborgs, machines that are human, only impeccable. By impeccable, I mean capable of using their perfection to control their very creators, triggering a disturbance in ecology, as Harraway suggests: “modern war is a cyborg orgy, coded by C3I, command-control-communication-intelligence, an $84 billion item in 1984’sUS defence budget”.

    Impeccability is dangerous. It fosters that one form of life can exist in isolation from any form of support, or empathy. This trait will create an unprecedented disturbance in ecology, destroying the very base of human co-existence, by destroying a sense of community. The lack of this empathy makes cyborgs headlong in their destruction, as seen in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.

    I personally believe that every activity performed by human beings is dictated by fear. There is no reason but fear that drives humans to put faith in uncertain aspects of life. These uncertain aspects can range from the much controversial religion to the simplest of human activity like invention. Human beings fear the dire consequences of not doing something, hence they do it. They fear not being able to remain in control, therefore, drain their resources in creating “comforts” that make them feel in charge. For instance, a person goes to a church because he is dictated by fear, the social fear of facing the consequences of being an atheist. It might not always be the case, though. The person might go to the church driven by his faith for God. But this very faith, I believe stems from fear: the fear of not having faith in anything good. I would like to tie this to the philosophical issue associated with cyborgs. The creation of cyborgs is a result of the human fear of being inadequate in utilizing their inventing creativity and freedom to the fullest, or the fear of wasting the resources that great inventors have granted to other human beings in order to do something unprecedented.

    I would like to include the feminist and ethical issues associated with cyborgs in my last paper.

  5. Humans believe with every fiber of their being that they possess free will; they believe they are free to do whatever they want, whenever they want. Human beings cling to the idea that they are set apart from the rest of world and are supreme beings. However, in Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and in Ridley Scott’s film Bladerunner, the metaphor of androids as human beings cause the audience to reflect on what it means to human.
    For example, in the movie Bladerunner, Deckard asks the pivotal question “How does it not know what it is?” Deckard learns that Rachel Rosen is an android and is surprised to know she is unaware of what she is. However, throughout the film Deckard and the audience question if Deckard is a human or an android. Deckard, like many humans, is so quick to assert that he is superior, when he is not even sure what he is. Deckard’s predicament forces the audience to ask themselves how do they really know what they are. People believe they possess free will and that they are superior beings, but how do they know? If an Android can believe itself to be human and a human being cannot know what he is , then how is it possible to truly know anything about one’s self.
    Consequently, how do human beings react based on what they “know” about themselves? In the novel Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick examines how a being defines itself and the impact it has on its emotions. For example, the novel’s main character Rick Deckard begins to suspect he feels empathy towards Androids, he is baffled: “Empathy toward an artificial construct? He asked himself. Something that only pretends to be alive?” (Dick 141). The reason for Deckard’s confusion is because he cannot fathom feeling emotions for something that is not even alive. However, Deckard is not even sure of his own status as a human being. Deckard’s feelings show that humans often believe they are superior, even when they are unsure of what they actually are. The only reason Deckard reacts the way he does is because he has been taught that androids are not worthy of his feelings. When Deckard discovers through the empathy test that he feels empathy towards Androids, he is almost ashamed. Again, Deckard’s reactions critique the way humans look down upon other creatures, even when they are unsure of what sets them apart. Deckard has been taught to believe that he is better than an android; that he is the superior being because he can feel empathy. However, he tries to deny these feelings towards androids, because it is not “right” for him to feel them. Similarly, Rachel, who is an android, is confused when she feels emotions for another android. “I never felt this way before. We are machines, stamped out like bottle caps. It’s an illusion that I—I personally—really exist; I’m just representative of a type” (Dick 189). She has been told that it is not possible for her to have these feeling, but yet she still has them. Rachel has based her entire value as a being on what she has been told that she is capable of doing. She believes this so firmly that she is willing to deny her own feelings, because she is convinced they do not exist.

  6. soon-to-be-wifey

    The creation of the cyborg challenges us to reevaluate our position in the hierarchy in life. As humans, we place ourselves higher on the totem pole than any other thing, including animals. We may see ourselves as rulers of all other living beings. Donna Haraway argues this concept specifically by stating that “Biology and evolutionary theory over the last two centuries have[…]reduced the line between humans and animals to a faint trace,” even to the point of concluding that statement with: “teaching modern Christian creationism should be fought as a form of child abuse” (Haraway). She explains that the line between humans and animals is diminishing.

    The evolution of the cyborg complicates the hierarchy even more. According to Haraway, machines were “not self-moving, self-designing, autonomous. They could not achieve man’s dream, only mock it. They were not man, an author to himself, but only a caricature of that masculinist reproductive dream” (Haraway). These machines at one point were basic and simple and did no function on their own. Now things have changed. The machines are lively and have made the line between real and artificial very hazy and blurry. They have super human skills and strengths that humans would only dream of, making them more desirable for tasks. They put humans at risk for jobs because it is possible that the cyborg could do it better.

    We see examples of lively cyborgs in the movie Bladerunner as well. In the movie, Deckerd, the main character, has the task of “retiring” (killing) cyborgs. Upon discovering that a woman is not aware that she is a cyborg, he poses the philosophical questions of: “How can it not know what it is?” (Bladerunner) It sounds like a silly question but it’s true. How does one not know if one is real or artificial? Furthermore, how could you tell if someone was a human or android? I would suspect that it would be harder to recognize an android that is unaware of its artificiality than one who is aware. The unaware android would not be attempting to hide anything or cover anything, taking away the cues of guilt. This just adds to the complication of adding in the realistic cyborgs.

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