Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

Blade Runner: Catnip for Philosophers


Descartes and Deckard. “I think, therefore I am.” Sophisticated artificial intelligence. Real memories and implanted memories. Humanity and personhood (and androidhood?).

Philosophers can’t resist the bait Blade Runner lays out for them.

Two recent articles explore philosophical issues in the original film, and of the Blade Runner world.

The first is Lorraine Boissoneault, a writer for Smithsonian Magazine. In her article, she discusses Descartes and Locke, as well as contemporary philosophers like Susan Schneider (UConn), Andrew Norris (UC Santa Barbara), Deborah Knight (Queen’s University), and Eric Schwitzgebel (UC Riverside).

She writes:

Part of the reason for the original movie’s enduring popularity is Deckard’s personal struggle, one that plays out similarly in movies like Her and shows like “Westworld”: Who or what counts as human, especially in a world of advanced technology?

And continues on to explore questions of memory and rationality.

But it’s not just memories or rationality that make a human in Blade Runner. Most importantly of all, according to the Voight-Kampff test, is empathy.

How should we view the empathy test, from a philosophical perspective? Surely Deborah Knight has it right here:

“Emotions themselves will never be a perfect test of humanity: sociopaths are human, too, after all.”

So, yeah, it’s not a great test.

In an article for the Institute of Art and Ideas, Helen Beebee (University of Manchester) also takes up the empathy test. She points out that Philip K. Dick, author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the book on which Blade Runner is loosely based, recognized that this wasn’t a great test for personhood.

In the film [as opposed to the book] we don’t get the suggestion that the purported significance of empathy … is really just a ploy: a way of making everyone think that androids lack, as it were, the essence of personhood, and hence can be enslaved and bumped off with impunity.

Beebee, too, discusses Locke’s theory of personal identity:

He came up with what’s often referred to as the ‘memory theory’ of personal identity: person A (at some time t2) is the very same person as person B (at some earlier time t1) just in case A can remember some of B’s experiences.

Of course philosophers disagree about whether to attribute this theory to Locke, but it’s a provocative starting point for discussion. The article then turns to contemporary philosophers Sydney Shoemaker (Cornell) and Derek Parfit, who passed away early this year:

They appealed to the idea of a ‘quasi-memory’ or q-memory. A q-memory is just like a real memory, except without the requirement that the experience that you q-remember must be a memory of your experience. And the (hotly contested) idea is that we can define personal identity over time in terms of q-memory rather than memory.

So Blade Runner can introduce the important philosophical distinction between memories and q-memories to people who aren’t interested in sitting down to read dozens (or hundreds) of pages of dry philosophical text. Beebee then goes on to explain how q-memories may be able to avoid an objection to Lockean memory-based theories of personal identity.

Both authors suggest that Blade Runner (and therefore also other narrative artworks) can help us familiarize ourselves with philosophical concepts and think through philosophical issues. In that sense, they are a useful pedagogical tool, as well as an extended thought experiment: What might the world really look like with sophisticated artificial intelligence? It’s one thing to conceptualize this question when it’s posed in a philosophy classroom; another to enter into and explore the world of this thought experiment, with all its attendant subtleties and ramifications.

Whatever we think about the philosophical fine points of these discussions, Boissoneault certainly gets it right in her closing remarks:

It’s important for scientists to confer with philosophers … but also for members of the public to think through the repercussions of this type of technology.

Art at least can help us with the latter.

Image credit: “Gaff’s Unicorn” by Andromeda Trade Collective, available for purchase here.


  1. Nice piece but the quote about emotions and sociopaths is mine.

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.