Do Humans Dream of Electric Empathy?

Philip Dick wrote Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? in 1968, but the novel is set in January 2021. The movie Blade Runner was based on some of the concepts in the novel, but the book’s plot is different and its themes more complex. One of the key themes of the novel is the human capacity for empathy, something that seems to be lacking in the real-life January 2021 of legalized abortion and vaccines developed or tested on human baby bodies. 

In Dick’s 2021, America is surviving from a nuclear war that caused an ecological disaster. The weather reports tell people about how much radioactive dust will fall instead of precipitation. Many species of animals and even insects are extinct, and live pets are so expensive that some people buy artificial electronic ones. Some people are healthy enough to get permission to leave for Mars. Others, called chickenheads, have been damaged so much by radioactivity that they are required to stay on earth. A new religion has developed called Mercerism, based on a concept of empathetic fusion with others by means of a machine (the black empathy box) that connects the believer to Wilbur Mercer, called a superior entity but really a kind of symbolic character. Everyone left on earth watches Buster Friendly’s talk shows, depicted in a prophetic satire that looks as bad as many shows on cable television today.

Dick’s hero is Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter in Northern California, who lives with his wife in an apartment with only their Pennfield artificial brain stimulator machine and a fake sheep for distraction, aside from Buster Friendly’s dusk to dawn blather. Deckard’s job is to capture androids—robots that look and act like human beings—who have escaped from the colonies and try to mix in with the human population. Receiving $1000 each time he kills an android, Rick dreams of owning a live animal, like his neighbor who owns a horse.

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To detect the androids, the bounty hunter uses the Voigt-Kampf Empathy Test. This enables him to see that the android has no understanding or compassion. A machine that measures empathy is hooked up to a subject who is presented with various hypothetical scenarios. These include stories that mention animals—androids have no feeling for them—and babies. Deckard suspects an android that does not react about a woman having an abortion. The “human” response would be appalled shock, but the robotic woman only says, “I would never get an abortion. Anyhow you can’t.”

The decisive indication that he is dealing with an android comes when Deckard casually mentions that his briefcase is covered with genuine baby-hide, and the robot has no evident emotional reaction. Indifference about what is living is the true sign of the android.

The novel has some intriguing ideas about what it means to be human. It is set in 2021, perhaps because the first “robots” were described in Karel Capek’s play R.U.R. What startled me was that abortion and babies would be elements in a futuristic novel of 2021. 

Would our new president fail the Voigt-Kampf Empathy Test? His first executive orders would seem to make him a prime suspect as an android. But he is not alone—what about the broader culture? Sentimentality about animals abounds, but for human life in the womb there is a much less sympathetic response. The Quisling “Catholic” press that criticized bishops and clergy for the Capitol Hill disturbances will probably not be bothered to sound off about Biden’s pen strokes for his allies at Planned Parenthood. Some people would call that hypocrisy.

The android in the novel revealed herself by not being shocked by a remark about the skin of a baby on a briefcase. Take baby skin and then read it as baby cells. What about vaccines developed and tested (is there a clear distinction between developing and testing—aren’t they part of the same process?) using live cells from aborted babies? 

Abby Johnson has complained that the bishops tell us we can accept the vaccine that was “tested” with cells that had their source in abortion, but have also asked us to protest the use of such testing. Her blanket rejection of any vaccine associated with what are euphemistically called “tainted lines” has more clarity for me than the one favored by so many people, including the bishops’ conference. The proof would seem to be in the purchase. “I protest what I am buying” might be a point of honor, but how potent is that as a witness?

We are living through a quandary, wrapped in a dilemma, inside a crisis with the COVID-19 pandemic-plague and the confused governmental responses. Uncertainty seems to dog the steps of scientists and health professionals, and their lack of confirmed knowledge (you can’t get the virus from the vaccine but yes you can; you have antibodies if you’ve had it, but it can mutate and can get it again, et cetera) is translated into a great deal of ambiguity. 

My problem with the vaccine, like my opposition to the new president’s policies, is what Dick’s fable about 2021 signaled: “Where is the empathy?” Are we all turning into androids now?

[Photo Credit: Shutterstock]


  • Msgr. Richard C. Antall

    Monsignor Antall is pastor of Holy Name Parish in the Diocese of Cleveland. He is the author of The X-Mass Files (Atmosphere Press, 2021), and The Wedding (Lambing Press, 2019).

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