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Material for T13 – Blade Runner

February 3, 2013

This week’s film is Blade Runner, Ridley Scott’s second sci-fi masterpiece in a period of less than 5 years.

blade runner 2  movie

Let’s cut to the chase. Can a replicant be conscious? Why or why not? And what are the implications of your answer for the profession of blade runner? Dan Dennett’s paper “Consciousness in Human and Robot Minds” can be a great help here, as can his “Where Am I?,” but you certainly don’t need to agree with Dennett to profit from considerations of his ideas. As always:

  • Please limit yourself to 300-500 words;
  • Please post your assignment as a comment to this blog entry;
  • Please do all of this no later than 24 hours before class begins on T13.

From → Assignments

  1. Micah Patten permalink

    Blade Runner presents a very interesting question; one that is thoroughly confused by the use of human actors to play the robots in the film. There are many questions that seem to go unanswered, such as the material nature these replicants. They seem to be organic, in which case they are not far from clones. However, I am working off of the assumption that they are indeed manufactured mechanically, not biologically. If this is the case, then the question is again, what makes a creature a person which is intimately tied to consciousness.
    The easy answer seems to be that beings are persons if they are conscious. I would say that the idea of created consciousness is not entirely outside of conception; however also highly unprobable. Dennett argues against the idea for economic reasons, but my opinion holds a very different form. The basis for personhood and what makes a being human is based more deeply than a simple combination of thought and organic material. The significance lies within the creation itself. I only present one argument, and I welcome your disagreements; however, this question can only be answered when framed in a complete picture. If evolution is true, then mankind has no significance more than a highly trained and adaptive animal. In such a case, the life of a cat, let alone a self-conscious robot, would have very nearly the same significance. However, if mankind was formed by a higher power, in the image of that higher power and given a soul along with a mind and heart, then he/she is more than just a culmination of atoms and time, but rather something that cannot be replicated by mechanical means, only by using the systems that have been placed into motion to create new life.
    If the latter is the case, then the blade runner is justified; however, the film tends to blur the lines between the replicants and humans to almost imply that they are genetic creations, in which case man has simply tried to alter an existing system of creation. These replicants would for all intents and purposes be no different than humans who have suffered brain damage, and Harrison Ford would be wrong to treat them any differently than he would a human. I tend to defer to this argument, because of the massive amounts of evidence that they are in no way biologically different beside their development of emotions, which may define a person, but does not define personhood.

    • pythagoras permalink

      @ Micah: Blade Runner has its own wiki (yes, of course it does), and this is its official line:

      A replicant is a synthetic human with paraphysical capabilities. It is a genetically engineered creature composed entirely of organic substance. Animal replicants (animoids) were developed first for use as pets and beasts of burden after most real animals became extinct. Later, humanoid replicants were created for military purposes and for the exploration and colonization of space.

      So that’s settled…. Anyway, replicants are, as you say, not quite clones (which seem to be just as capable of consciousness as any other member of our species). But they’re not quite robots either. In a way, that makes the question about whether or not they are conscious more interesting. We can’t really point to what they’re made of or even how they’re made; we have to look at what they do and use that as a basis of our answer to the question. Roy certainly thinks he’s conscious, saying things to Deckard like “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.” Is it possible to think you’re conscious without being conscious?

  2. kim cory permalink

    When I think about the question “Can replicant be conscious?” a part of me wants to answer yes, but a part of me disagrees and wants to say no. When I first watched the movie, I had a hard distinguishing replicants among human beings. In the movie, blade runners distinguished replicants by asking emotional questions. If they cannot act corresponding to questions that involved emotions, they were considered to be replicants. For example, in the beginning of the movie, a guy asked a replicant to describe his mother, and he stood up and shot the guy. This part made me think it would be easy to tell who was replicant and who was not. However, as the movie went on, it became harder because replicant seemed not only physically similar to human beings, but also mentally similar to human beings. Rachael was announced as a replicant, but she showed emotions. She cried when Bryan told her that the judges had declared that she was replicant and the things she remembered from her childhood were just implanted memories. This part showed me that replicants could be conscious. In addition, later on, when the worst guy with white hair fought Bryan, he broke two of Bryan’s fingers as revenge of his two comrades (two females whom was shot by Bryan). I think that if replicaants were not conscious, he would not remember how his coworkers died, or had emotions involved to take special actions to revenge their deaths.
    Although the movie convinced me enough to think that replicants can be conscious, when I watched the movie again (due to unclarity on the summary and facts), the thought that replicants could not be conscious came to my mind. In the movie, one of the characters explained to Bryan about the characteristics of replicants. When he explained, he said that replicants were looking at getting upgraded, which would allow them to think individually and be more like human by adding emotions. When I think about “conscious,” I think emotion takes a big part on defining “conscious.” Being aware of what is going on around itself can be done only through rational or intellectually; however, being aware of something evokes emotions – it can be angry, nothing serious, sad, happy, irritating, and so on. According to the explanations on replicants by the blade runners or inventors, replicants do not know how to work with emotions or do not even have emotions. That led me to think that replicants could not be conscious.

    • pythagoras permalink

      @ Kim Cory: Yeah, I’m torn as well. You’re certainly right that the question of whether replicants can experience emotions is a vexed one. We know they can simulate emotions (by design). But that just raises further questions: (1) Is there really a difference between simulating an emotion and feeling an emotion? (2) If the answer to the former question is “yes,” then is it possible for anything to simulate some particular emotion (e.g., fear) at some particular time and place (in class on Friday afternoon) without being about to experience the emotion under some conditions? I suppose even if one were capable of feeling emotion, there’s still a further question about whether the emotion itself is conscious or unconscious.

  3. Looking at Daniel Dennett’s “Consciousness in Human and Robot Minds”, he points out the perspective that “robots will always just be much too simple to be conscious” (190). With statement in mind, the replicants in Blade Runner seem to be much more than a simple robot, but a more than exact replicant of human beings. Within the movie, it was explained that the replicants were made exactly like humans, but were fabricated to be stronger, faster, and smarter than the human race. The replicants were moved to a different planet because it had become a legitimate concern for the humans that, if the replicants continued to live on Earth, they would begin to develop emotion, consciousness, and reason. I agree with this concern because I believe that it is someone (or some replicant’s) experiences with other life forms and the environment that develop consciousness. Take Rachael for example; she is a replicant, but no one ( other than Deckard) around her, including herself, knows that she is a replicant. Rachael, to me, proves that a replicant can be conscious, because without her knowledge, she is able to express emotion for and towards Deckard. When Deckard is being chased by the murderer, another replicant, Rachel saves Deckard’s life by shooting and killing the replicant. She is able to kill one of her own kind because she thinks she is human, with a conscious, and; therefore; she has a conscious because her brain and experience on Earth tells her that she does. If Rachael knew that she was a replicant, it might have made a difference concerning how she reacted to Deckard’s situation because she would think that she was just a replicant, and not a human. Although it seemed that Deckard had to sort of show Rachael that is was ok to get intimate with him when he told her what to say and do, I think that replicants can have a conscious if they are given the same environment and similar experiences as human beings.

    • pythagoras permalink

      @ Sierra: That’s a nice point – Rachael’s feelings for Deckard are, at least initially, based on her false belief that both she and Deckard are humans. Deckard, on the other hand, develops feelings for Rachael on the basis of his belief that, while she is a replicant, he is not. That belief, or at least the second half of it, might be false too, as Deckard himself seems to realize at the end of the film.

      ::head explodes::

      In a way, it’s only Roy and Pris who fall in love despite correctly believing that both are replicants, though perhaps that’s true of Leon and Zhora too.

  4. Cory Johnson permalink

    The wiki definition of a replicant effectively side-steps the first question. Since they’re genetically engineered with presumably human DNA as a starting point there’s little reason to suspect they would not be conscious. These are not synthetic robots; they’re essentially lab-grown humans. The only real distinction volunteered by movie (and novel) are their creation processes, lifespans and most relevant, their lack of empathy. Could this final difference remove their conscious capacity? Human sociopaths are known for their convenient use as serial killers in film and television, not their lack of consciousness. Consequently, it seems rather obvious that the replicants not only have a consciousness, but one that closely resembles a human’s.

    How then should we view the professional killing of replicants if we see them not as artificial automatons, but living breathing humans? The intrinsic value assigned to a naturally produced human should also be extended to artificially created humans. Every secular belief about man’s right to life is never infringed upon because of his origin. The murder of foreigners, test-tube babies and foreign test tube babies are all the moral equivalent of other types of murder. They should extend every privilege to replicants as they do to other humans. With those privileges come responsibility.

    If foreign test tube babies can forfeit their right to freedom and possibly life (let’s skip the capital punishment argument) in society, so too can the replicants. Roy Batty and his Clockwork Orange-esque activities ( and eyes) have given society and by extension the blade runners the moral justification to terminate his life. In that sense “blade running” is acceptable, but merely killing returned replicants for coming back to Earth is not.

    • pythagoras permalink

      @ Cory J: Perhaps there’s supposed to be a bit more ambiguity in the nature of replicants than appears to be the case. You might construct reasonable inductive arguments on both sides of this one.

      • Pro: Replicants are physically and behaviorally similar to human beings. Most human beings are conscious. So it’s likely that replicants are conscious.
      • Con: Replicants are human artifacts. Very few, if any, human artifacts are conscious. So it’s unlikely that replicants are conscious.

      The problem, of course, is that the conclusions of these arguments are at odds. Though replicants encode some human DNA, that might not be sufficient to settle the matter. We might be able to splice human DNA into the gene sequence of other animals without changing their proper species classification. In fact, something like this has been done between fruit flies and mice. Weird. And whatever else is going on with replicants, at least some of them have pretty remarkable abilities that are hard to square with our somewhat pathetic genome.

      So I don’t know.

      But given some of the reading you’ve already done, I’d just throw out the idea of seeing the V-K test as a kind of clever extension of the Turning Test. What matters in the V-K test is not only what behavior the test subject exhibits. So too it matters how (especially with regard to physiological detail) the test subject executes this behavior. I wonder if that’s an improvement on the Turning Test.

    • Theodore Kruczek permalink

      While extending them the same rights as humans may be the nice thing to do, is there anything that says we have to? Why not equate them to animals and treat it as population control like deer?

  5. J. Lucky permalink

    Blade Runner among other films introduces an interesting idea about whether a robot or “replicant” can be conscious. As Dennet points out, the expense of producing such an artificial being may be to great to consider it as worth while but that objection aside, it is unlikely that any robotic being with identically reproduced processes as a human would not have all the same functions of said human to include consciousness. But then again, how can I be sure that anyone besides me are even conscious beings?

    The whole question of whether replicants can be conscious seems to rely on what we mean by “conscious”. Most definitions revolve around an idea of awareness. That is to say that to be conscious we must perceive and be aware of our surrounding, our experiences, our thoughts, and that we are the ones thinking, seeing and experiencing them. In order for a robot to fulfill this definition it will at the very least need senses to be aware of its surrounding, ways of registering (remembering) experiences, and an ability to reason, and furthermore be aware of itself. If we take Cog as our example then he has been given the ability to see, hear, and even feel, he also recognizes something similar to pain which he has been programmed to want to avoid. These alone give him a physical awareness of himself. But whether he can reason/think and be aware that he is thinking seems a little more difficult to answer after all, even his desire to avoid pain while normally a function of reason is part of Cog’s hard-wiring. The desire he will have to please his “mother” is likewise hard-wired. Though, if we take into consideration that he must register what it requires to please his “mother” and to avoid pain and then he starts to do those actions that will look a lot like reasoning. Ultimately what we do as humans, our thinking and reasoning and consciousness as a whole is simply a result our biological programming. And as previously discussed, and as we see from Cog, if that can be reproduced then the result must also be considered to be a thinking, reasoning, and conscious being.

    In the case of the Blade Runner profession what this means is quite simple. What blade runners do is more that retire robots. They end the life of rational and conscious beings. And I think Deckard knows this and that’s why it gives him the shakes… it’s also why Roy let him live at the end of their fight and why Gaff lets him and Rachael get away.

    • pythagoras permalink

      @ J Lucky: “But then again, how can I be sure that anyone besides me are even conscious beings?” Right, this is one version of what is sometimes called the problem of other minds. You’re certainly correct that the nature of the problem at least in part depends on how we understand the nature of consciousness. If it’s something essentially private (only I can experience my own consciousness), then we’re left out in the rain trying to understand anyone else’s consciousness, except by indirect observation, and that could, in principle, not amount to much. Cry J reminders in his comments of Rene Descartes’ Meditation II, Chapter 13:

      yet what do I see from the window beyond hats and cloaks that might cover artificial machines, whose motions might be determined by springs ? But I judge that there are human beings from these appearances, and thus I comprehend, by the faculty of judgment alone which is in the mind, what I believed I saw with my eyes.

      At the other extreme, one might explore a sort of deflationary view of consciousness, according to which to be conscious of something just is to behave in such and such a way. Both Dennett and his teacher, Gilbert Ryle, flirt with (at least) this view. Here the problem is that this doesn’t seem to do justice to what makes consciousness not only special but unique. It is not much consciousness that’s explained, as the old joke goes, but consciousness explained away.

      At any rate, I think you’re probably right about Roy and Deckard, but I’m not sure about Gaff. I’m not sure what motivates Gaff, really.

  6. krengan3 permalink

    I think it is important, when answering the question of whether something is conscious or not, to reference Descartes and his concepts of whether robots are persons. In essence, Descartes said that if X was a person then X could respond to any words uttered in its presence. On the other side, Descartes said that robots could only respond to preprogrammed questions, and thus X could not respond to just any words uttered in its presence, making robots not persons. It is of note that Roy and the other replicants can respond to a wide range of problems that confront them in their lives, but the movie depicts them as not being able to respond to everything. Or, that is to say they cannot naturally respond to all questions posed to them. This is why Deckard and the other Blade Runners can easily pick who the replicants are, using the Voight-Kampff machine, because the replicants have certain tells that distinguish them from a normal human being. It is also of note that in the film, Roy cannot come up with a cure for his own death; after all he was only designed to be a soldier –whether this means he cannot fully comprehend the science behind his longevity or if the science itself is impossible, as Dr. Tyrell alludes to is still a mystery. So the answer to the question would be that a replicant can be conscious (assuming that a human is conscious) if it can go beyond its programming and respond to anything that the replicant can perceive. The implications for a Blade Runner would only be that their jobs would be harder since the replicants would be able to adapt and change patterns to survive, where before their programing limited them to certain actions which the Blade Runners could easily pick up on to destroy the replicant.

    What is the significance of eyes in the film? The replicants are always playing with the eyes, Tyrell gets killed by having his eyes gouged out, Roy plays with the eyes when talking to Sebastian, and all the genetic engineers we meet in Blade Runner are either making eyes or tinkering with them.

    • pythagoras permalink

      @ Krishna: There’s another Descartes reference. Again, I agree that he’s a really good source for this issue. And it’s certainly true that the film is constantly playing around with eyes, sight, and points of view. In fact, you might even identify consciousness, at least in sophisticated organisms, with point of view (it’s controversial but hang with me for a moment). By the time we get to the end of the fight between Roy and Deckard, it’s arguably Roy’s point of view that the camera takes up. He seems human – maybe more human than human, to use the Tyrell Corporation’s slogan – by that point, at least to me. I’m not entirely sure about whether or not Roy understands the details of his own situation. He seems no less at home with possible solutions to the short life of replicants, though Tyrell has the advantage of having tried all of the proposed solutions.

      By the way, we’re meeting tomorrow morning at 11 to talk about chapter 3 of Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, right?

  7. Uddit Patel permalink

    Throughout Blade Runner, there are five different replicants introduced to the viewers. All five of these replicants seem to be conscious. However, what determines whether someone is conscious or not. According to his paper “Consciousness in Human and Robot Minds, Dan Dennett states that “consciousness requires immaterial mind-stuff and that robots will always just be much too simple to be conscious.” However, these replicants are more than robots and they seem to be another form of a human. In order to refute Dan Dennett theory on consciousness, I believe in order to be consciousness a person has to be thinking about the actions they are taking, the will to want to live, and able to retain the different experience they have encountered. These replicants knew exactly what they wanted. They wanted to live a little longer and pleaded to their creator like human plead to god. Since the replicants creator could not help their limited lifetime, Roy Batty really seeks revenge and kills Dr. Elson Tyrell, the creator of the replicants.

    Also, these replicants are also conscious because they have the same human like characteristics like emotions, death, actions, memories and intelligence. Without consciousness there replicants would not be able to display any of human like characteristics. First, the replicants have emotions like fear, love, empathy, sadness, and anger. If they were not conscious, they wouldn’t show emotion or take any actions like J.F. Sebastian’s manufactured toy-friends. Without consciousness, these replicants would not be able to show love nor they would not know about the idea of revenge. In revenge, kill or attack the person that killed the person they love like what Leon did when Zhora was killed by Rick. Instead of being shot by Rick Deckard, Roy Batty died by normal causes and his time was up. Roy Batty died like any human does after a certain period of time and the human’s time has come. Gaff saying “too bad she won’t live, but then anyways who does,” represents that death in inevitable no matter being a human or replicant. Even though these replicants have implanted memories, they have similar memories like you and I. Once they had a family, and they are intelligent to know what is going around them and their surroundings.

    Since these replicants are almost exactly like humans, there is an implication for the profession of blade runners. These blade runners are practically killing other humans. If these repliants did something bad like kill, they should be treated the same like any human being. The replicant should be given due process and be taken to jail since these replicants are conscious and should not be shot right away for any reason. Rick Deckard notices this at the end that replicants have feelings and that these replicants think about all the actions they take. Also he notices that these replicants are practically human when he falls in love with Rachael and ends up not fulfilling his job because he loves someone he is supposed to kill.

    • pythagoras permalink

      @ Uddit: I just wanted to pick up on the question of whether or not Roy kills Tyrell out of revenge. I certainly see what you’re saying, and it sounds plausible. But I’m not sure. Roy is, to say the least, ambivalent regarding Tyrell, who, after all, did give him (finite) life. A lot of people feel anger toward God (or the gods or the universe or whatever) for giving them life but denying them immortality. These people don’t wish to kill God per se, but they do want their own lives to make a difference, and perhaps the only way to do that is to return mortality to its maker. Or something like that.

  8. Since we’re cutting to the chase, I’ll provide my answer right out of the gate: Yes, a replicant CAN be conscious. Let us consider two human minds. Although they are very different, (possibly in physical makeup and in content) they are both human consciousnesses with two very distinct human identities. To this end, the reasoning I present for my argument is that if a replicant mind is able to exist, maintain self-awareness and a desire for self-preservation, comprehend, reason, and think on at least a human level (as the opening credits say it can), then for all practical intents and purposes, it is indeed conscious, and therefore should be treated on an equal playing field with that of the rest of the human race.

    I know we talked a lot last class about identity, and how, at the basest level, our physical makeup dictates that, but I believe that if we create a being which is in every other regard equal (or in the case of a nexus 6, possibly even superior to) a human being, then it will live, and through its lifetime and experiences develop what we humans like to call “a soul.” This obviously has very VERY heavy implications for the profession of blade running, because if one follows this train of thought and believes it to be true, then when you are “retiring” a replicant, you are indeed doing nothing better than murdering another conscious being. Human or not, you are still destroying a sentient with life form with a “soul.”

    Perhaps, though, there is still a way to legitimize the profession. As rational, moral human beings, we have established a somewhat common justice system throughout our civilizations. Most of these systems would argue that it is perfectly OK to take a human life when it is threatening your own, or another’s. To this end, if the replicants have a sense of good and bad (a whole other debate completely, but for the sake of this argument, let’s say they do) are seeking to destroy human life, for whatever reason, then Deckard is completely justified in making a living out of seeking and destroying replicants, so long as he is not indiscriminantly destroying replicants who are not guilty of threating or taking human life.

    • pythagoras permalink

      The idea of legitimizing (or normalizing) the profession is an interesting one, though in a way, what’s being legitimized is being a replicant, not being a blade runner. For it’s the replicants who would now be treated in roughly the same way that humans are: capable of being innocent or guilty and properly the subject of punishment if the latter.

  9. Matthew Drake permalink

    Skinjobs, a man-made biomechanical nightmare for Earth. These Replicants can, in fact, be conscious. What is conscientiousness but a keen awareness for yourself and who you are? For someone to be conscious, they must respond to their surroundings. They must react to situations beyond their control. In the movie, the Replicants are aware of who they are and act accordingly. They know how long they have to live, and fight for more time. They develop emotions that respond to situations. Granted, these emotions are flawed and don’t always manifest themselves on occasion. Nevertheless, Replicants are a creation of man that is better than man. They are like Japanese-made electronics; the basic fundamentals of another creation is there, but the features are better.
    Are humans truly conscious, then? Who are we to judge if these Replicants are no more real than the flesh of you and I. They think autonomously. They fight to survive. And they are superior to us due to the lack of emotional baggage. This poses a giant threat to the Blade Runners. The enforcement have limitations both physically and mentally. Finding and killing brainless robotics is easy. But tracking down a species more cunning, more intelligent, and more agile than you is no easy task; even if it is Harrison Ford (i.e. Indiana Jones and Han Solo) doing the dirty work. Humans let emotions get in the way of many of our tasks. We can’t pull the trigger in certain situations based on a “gut feeling.” Skinjobs don’t really have that problem. Sure, they are more human than we’d like them to be, but overall they are effective. Blade Runners have a hard time ending them for these reasons. Nothing is more dangerous than a conscious, death machine roaming around mercilessly killing for its survival. Poor, Han Solo.

    • pythagoras permalink

      @ Matthew: It might be a good idea to distinguish conscious from conscientiousness (perhaps that was just a typo or an over zealous auto-correct function). Anyway, it’s the former, not the latter, that I was asking about.

      Turning the question around though, and asking whether we’re conscious – or at least conscious in any way that isn’t true of the replicants – is a very clever move and quite in line with Dennett’s approach. It’s hard to believe we’re not fundamentally different in some important way from replicants at the psychological level, but it’s damn difficult to say what this difference might be.

  10. Taylor Warren permalink

    Based on what I saw in the movie, it seems that replicants can be conscious. After all, what does it mean to be conscious? By definition in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary consciousness is: perceiving, apprehending, or noticing with a degree of controlled thought or observation; capable of or marked by though, will, design, or perception. By my count, the replicants show plenty of this definition through their thoughts and actions. Roy and Pris consciously manipulate Sebastian. Roy consciously plays chess (and wins). Roy consciously kills Dr. Tyrell, his maker, because he is conscious of the fact that he is dying and wants to live. There are dozens examples and more throughout the movie that point out the same thing. However, the greatest of these is at the end of the movie during the epic battle of Deckard and Roy. Roy actually saves Deckard from dying, though up until that point he had every intention of killing him. Or maybe he just wanted to psychologically damage him. Either way, the moment comes for Roy to die—his time is up. Roy then recalls to Deckard the things he has seen on planets far away from Earth. Roy gets emotional and even sheds tears, especially over the loss of his lover, Pris. This scene in the movie is very emotional and the audience (at least I did) feels sympathy for Roy. The replicants are so human-like it is hard to believe they are “robots.” Roy’s memories and his reactions to those memories give me enough proof to assume that the replicants can and do have some semblance of consciousness. Roy dies with the emotions of a person who has seen too much even in a short lifetime, and is sad to die. He doesn’t want to leave the world, he doesn’t want to be parted from Pris, and all these real emotions are visible throughout the film, as well as within other replicants like Rachael, who falls in love with Deckard.

    • pythagoras permalink

      @ Taylor: I think you’ve hit on a really important point. Feeling sympathy for the replicants and being able to empathize with them makes a big difference to whether or not we think of them as conscious or not. Even though I don’t thing Leon was in the right when he tried to kill Deckard, I don’t have a hard time putting myself in his shoes and, as it were, thinking right along side him: “This guy killed my friend/lover, and he’s going to try to kill me. I can get the jump on him if I attack him right now. And, hell, I might even enjoying terrifying him a bit before I finish him off.” To the extent that I can project those thoughts and feelings on to someone or something else, it’s hard for me to do anything other than think that the object in question is conscious. But – and here’s the cruncher – does that really reflect facts about what I’m thinking about or facts about *me*? If it’s the latter, then haven’t I really told you about the limits of my own imagination rather than whether or not an object of artifice like Roy or Leon can be conscious?

  11. ricardochavez permalink

    Occasional writing blade runner
    The replicants are a tough example of arguing against their own consciousness. In the movie it is obvious that over time they become more and more emotional just like children maturing. Tyrell would also think implanting memories (like he did to Rachel) would help them be more mature which would lead to a more effective and human-like replicant. And in the end, it is obvious that over time these replicants should become the most human-like pseudo-humans that the world has ever seen. And what is a huge bummer is that they’re only made to last four years, because Tyrell knows they become more dangerous with evolved emotions. The scene where Roy pretty much has an existential episode in his life and asks his creator why he can’t prolong his life talks to the replicants’ emotional response for staying alive.
    However I am stuck at the description of an evolved human, because over time we see that the replicants don’t kill other unprovoked by emotion. Everything they act upon in the movie is based off of their struggle to change their own fate and extend their life, so ultimately if they are given more time, the empathy test would become obsolete and despite living through boiling hot water, they will be identical to humans… a way. I at first agreed that an in vitro fertilization would be similar to the origin circumstances of the replicants, but again the replicants are still manufactured and not cultivated from a specific human. So I continue to wander in the grey area again. I go back to the advertisement when Tyrell says “more human than human is our motto” and almost feel that the replicants and humans are not identical because of their history of origin. But the replicants over time seem to be the more compassionate ones and display better human traits over time especially after Roy decides to not kill Drecker.
    And its also becoming harder and harder to not think Drecker is a replicant with all the massive beatings he’s getting throughout the course of the movie and he’s still in tip-top shape.

    • pythagoras permalink

      @ Ricardo: I agree that the scene near the end with Roy is really meant to push us one way or the other with the question of consciousness. I wonder if you make anything of the camera’s point of view in that scene. It’s subtle, but it looks to me like the camera takes up Roy’s perspective for most of the last few minutes of his life. That seems significant. It’s hard to imagine something with a point of view that is not itself conscious.

      The point about the development of empathy over time is also really important. There are few panicky moments in the film where it looks like people say something equivalent to “Kill it before it becomes just like us!” That’s troublesome.

  12. ricardochavez permalink

    *deckard lol

  13. Simeon permalink

    If you had asked me why robots could not be human and then right after why robots cannot experience consciousness, I would have replied with some simple reason, “Just because they are robots.” Or “Because they are not human.” These responses made great sense to me, but in explaining them I would have come up short. The reading Consciousness in Human and Robot Minds, by Daniel Dennett helped verbalize some of the points I was unable to easily express. One of the thoughts I would have had refers to the make-up of the “being” in question. In my definition, robots are made up of metal or some other clearly non organic material, but after the reading I realized, that is only the case for now. At this time in robotics, they do not have organic pieces. The “replicants” despite their original intent, are genetically made. To my knowledge, they are not robots with an organic type skin and metallic or otherwise skeleton. I will come back to this point.
    I also thought and currently think that for a being to be conscience it must not be dropped into consciousness but through experience become aware of itself and its place within the world. A manufactured unit with implanted memories thus is dropped into consciousness because in an instant, it now has memories and experiences that help it understand the world around it. Being as those experiences were not gained personably, I think they falsely allow the implanted unit to arrive at any conclusions about its role in the world around it, other than the unit is fake and did not form its memories on its own. A born robot, or one that starts at a level of knowing nothing but how to survive that then lives to experience the world and grow knowing its place in the world while being self-aware can indeed be called conscience. A bee is born and knows how to survive, and while its natural instincts tell it to be a worker bee, I do not believe that bee can question its purpose as a worker bee and thus do not count the insect as conscience. As long as the replicants are allowed to grow into their functionalities and became experienced rather than implanted with experience, I count them as conscience. This includes a manufactured being with non-organic components.

    • pythagoras permalink

      @ Simeon: Does this mind that hunting replicants, as Blade Runners do, is immoral? If replicants are unlike worker bees, so too are we. As a result, I suppose we need to ask about whether killing replicants is on a par with killing a human being with a similar sort of consciousness. Even if we think that the replicants have committed a crime, they are presumably entitled to a trial, etc. and are not to be executed on sight. Does that make sense?

  14. Theodore Kruczek permalink

    As has already been mentioned, if replicants are entirely made of human genes and I think of them as clones. While they may lack emotion, that does not make them any less conscious. As Cory mentioned, sociopaths often lack basic ability to empathize with others. This does not make them any less conscious.

    I think it is better to say that they have as much or as little consciousness as the thing they are replicating. So the real question then is how conscious are we? We defined a person as someone being aware and self aware. I do not think we can accurately prove that anyone is self aware other than ourselves. It is one of the few leaps of faith I make for my own personal comfort.

    I think the film is an interesting commentary on whether we should proceed with our research of genetic engineering and continue trying to master our ability to create humans, similar to replicants. The film shows us a worst case scenario of creating other human beings. From a philosophical stand point, while there are many “evils” that can come of replicanting humans, that is the case of all technology and it is not the tech, but those who use it that will determine how humans utilize genetic engineering.

    • pythagoras permalink

      I suppose one line of question to pursue here is whether conscientiousness differs in cases where one person has emotional responses to the world while the other cannot (or at least does not yet) do so. I am conscious of things in the world as pretty or ugly, as interesting or boring, as the kind of thing that inspires love or hatred, etc. My experience of the world without these emotions would be deeply strange and perhaps wouldn’t quite count as human consciousness. Clearly, the fairly evolved replicants like Roy and Pris aren’t this way by the time they reach earth. They’re capable of being happy or sad, angry or pleased, etc. But they weren’t always like this, and it’s an open question whether they were genuinely, truly conscious before this point.

  15. Amy Vander Wyst permalink

    Can a replicant be conscious? Ay, there’s the rub. In the film it is stated that replicants were made to be stronger, faster, and better than humans. They are made out of entirely synthetic parts, but are much more complex than any robot that we have been able to construct so far.

    We have yet to determine what causes consciousness in a human being. We can narrow things down to synapses firing and our brains being hardwired a certain way, but we still cannot understand things like thoughts, beliefs or desires.

    Another burning question that I would like to bring up in relation to the initial question is; what is consciousness? Would we not first have to define this term and understand it in order to determine whether a thing could be conscious or not? By failing to define and fully understand what it means to be conscious, we doom ourselves to committing a huge error when asking the question; can a replicant be conscious?

    If we don’t know how to define consciousness, or what causes it in humans, of course it is possible for replicants to be conscious. If they were moved to a different planet due to the fear that they might develop too far and become a danger to us, they were originally designed with the possibility of being conscious.

    To quickly answer the last question, the blade runner would have a much more difficult job, but by definition his job would not change. Being or not being conscious has nothing to do with his task of disposing of replicants. His job would only be made much more difficult as the standard ways of determining a replicant would be useless.

    • pythagoras permalink

      Yes, I doubt that we have anything like a good answer to the question: “What is consciousness?” But even if we don’t have a proper definition, we might be able to make a fair amount of progress by characterizing kinds of consciousness. E.g., Ned Block distinguishes *phenomenal* consciousness from *access* consciousness. The former is something like the qualitative experience one has when one sees a red rose or feel the bite of one’s of the rose’s thorns in one’s flesh. The latter is closer to our ability to get information about something, even if we’re not having anything like a qualitative experience of it. So I might have access consciousness of something like the fact that it’s getting late in the day, even though there’s nothing (or need be nothing) like an experience that does with that. (Apologies if we went over this last semester. I lack access consciousness to a lot that happened a few months ago.) All of this is relevant since we might never get a good definition of “consciousness,” but we might not be completely in the soup because of this fact.

  16. Monica Hottle permalink

    I really am not sure how to answer this question. I initially want to say that a engineered “being” cannot be conscious, but in this film, one of the replicants (Rachel) is able to demonstrate emotion and has memories, which separates her from the other replicants. Despite my dilema, I’m inclined towards the idea that these replicants cannot be conscious initially, but they could possibly develop consciousness over time. The job of the Blade Runner is to “retire” the replicant before it extends it’s lifespan. Although the replicants in the film are engineered with something similar to a “switch” that turns them off after four years, it is later revealed that the replicants were actually incapable of existing past 4 years due to their personalities becoming unstable (this was due to the fact that they are engineered with super human features). These replicants would return to Earth in an attempt to extend their life (thus, the Blade Runners). Replicants are identified by their lack of emotion to certain questions. However, there is Rachel, who has a “past;” who is actually convinced that she is human. There is even a part in the film where she actually brings out a picture of her family, right before it is revealed to her that those memories were implanted. Despite Rachel being a replicant, she is able to demonstrate emotion and compassion, even if the memories she has were implanted.

    From my observations, the sole purpose of the Blade Runner is to retire the replicants so that they do not become destructive (due to how they were engineered). However, if the replicants were all like Rachel and were capable of developing emotions and demonstrating compassion, it could be perceived that the Blade Runner were potential bounty hunters or even murderers.

    • pythagoras permalink

      I think you’re right to feel a tug on both sides of this question. The thought that replicants become conscious over time seems quite plausible, but notice how strange it is to have two replicants right next to each, one that has just started working and another that’s 3.5 years old. One will count as conscious, and the other will not, even though they’re be functionally identical, and we’ll not be able to tell the difference. That really does make consciousness seem mysterious, but I suppose to some degree it is.

  17. Ben Vowell permalink

    Consciousness is a funny thing. No one can make an accurate judgement of someone else’s consciousness, because one can only experience their own consciousness. This is a problem. However, I think it is a naive to assume that only the human species can experience what one might interpret as consciousness. In Blade Runner, the line between human and replicant seems to be drawn at responding to human emotional triggers and memories. Replicants, either because of their design or because they lack a full understanding of their “implanted” memories, cannot convey themselves quite as well as humans. I do not think this makes them out to be without consciousness though. There are humans who we would describe as conscious who cannot respond to a question about their own mother, just as the replicant in the beginning of the movie can’t. The lack of an experience does not make one not conscious.

    Daniel Dennett describes humans accurately as machine-like themselves. We think using electrical signals and interact with the world operating through the laws of physics. It is not impossible to imagine replicating our own minds in the future as in Blade Runner. I think consciousness comes down to being able to interact in a meaningful way with the environment, to realize your place in your environment, to realize your own mortality, and to recognize your own emotion and consciousness. Who would deny someone who claims to be aware of their own consciousness? The replicants in Blade Runner meet these very general criteria, so on the surface I would label them as conscious, just maybe not in the same way that you or I are conscious.

    • pythagoras permalink

      Right – there’s a great temptation to say: Replicants are conscious, but not quite in the same way that we are. I’m really tempted by that answer too, though it raises even more questions. I’m beginning to suspect that emotional response is one of the ways in which replicants (at least initially) differ from us in terms of their experience. If someone or something can see a child being abused without being angry, I’m just not sure that they’re having the same experience that I am. And if they aren’t experiencing – and can’t experience – the world in this way, then something has gone wrong. That said, replicants are clearly meant to get closer, and closer to our own way of seeing things as time goes on.

  18. Caroline Martin permalink

    On the matter of whether a replicant can be conscious or not, we must first establish a definition of consciousness and all that it ensues. The medical definition provided for consciousness is the “subjective awareness of the aspects of cognitive processing and the content of the mind.” For clarity, mind is defined by Webster’s as “the element, part, substance, or process that reasons, thinks, feels, wills, perceives, judges, etc.” At the beginning of the film Blade Runner, the replicants are designed as being “at least equal in intelligence” with their genetic designers. Therefore, if the designers can call themselves conscious, can’t the replicant be called conscious since intelligence can be defined as “cognitive processing.” This argument is made easily enough since it is obvious that even the computer I am currently typing on has some cognitive abilities, at least entailing simple logic, reasoning, and judgment. In my opinion, the true test of consciousness lies in the words “feels” and “wills.” Do the replicants feel? In the literal sense of feeling, there is no contention, but do they feel in an emotional sense? Are the replicants simply going through the motions of emotion based on their response programming? Yes. They are. However, that still does not refute their state of consciousness. After all, emotion, while a cognitive process, can be defined as causing “physiological changes, as increased heartbeat or respiration, and often overt manifestation, as crying or shaking.” We witness all of these physiological signs within the replicants of Blade Runner. Rachael cries, shakes, and sweats when reacting to the act of killing another replicant. Do replicants will? I propose that will involves some form of motivation which the replicants in the film do possess. We see that the replicants have motive in seeking longevity and guarantee of life. Now that we have established, based on external academic definitions, that the replicants are indeed conscious, we must consider whether they are conscious to a Blade Runner. How do we perceive others consciousness? Deckard is filled with remorse after almost each kill against a replicant. Would he suffer this same remorse if he did not recognize the replicants as conscious beings. Consider the difference between killing a squirrel and crumbling a piece of dirt in your hand. Which stirs emotion? Killing the squirrel. Why do we feel this remorse? Because cognition is attached to it, cognition that we find relatable to our own.

    • pythagoras permalink

      Good point: Deckard is running from his own emotional responses as fast as the replicants are running from him. You might think that Deckard is trying to escape his own humanity while the replicants are trying to embrace their own – and what could be more human than to want more life? Ironically, Deckard does seem to escape humanity in the film’s final scene by seeing himself as a replicant. So perhaps he represents a backwards sort of success story.

  19. Seth Rodgers permalink

    The fundamental question, in my mind, is whether or not the brain is the source of consciousness or simply a host or filter for consciousness. If consciousness is an immerging property of the right molecular combination, then given the right technological sophistication, I suppose the replicants could very well be conscious. Granted, since the human brain most likely will never be able to completely understand itself, the creators of conscious replicants would have to be augmented with technology—perhaps something connected to their central nervous system that would produce a super brain. However, would it be possible to improve something that can’t be first fully understood? Nevertheless, in this scenario the blade runner profession would be just as heartless and cruel as it is may appear; in other words, blatant manslaughter. Killing a conscious replicant would be no different from killing a human born of in vitro fertilization: how they came about doesn’t matter, they’re still just as human as you or me.
    Conversely, suppose that consciousness is some metaphysical property that can infect the physical and manifest itself through our bodies, or brains more specifically. If this scenario is true, then no matter how much replicants may resemble humans, they’re still just artificial intelligence; mere imitations with no more life than a computer. In that case, blade runners carry out a difficult but morally sound task— that is, if the replicants truly need to be exterminated for the safety or well-being of real humans. However, if a replicant does not actually need to be exterminated, than doing so could be immoral depending on the intentions of the offender. If replicants were identical in appearance to humans, the desire to mistreat a replicant would be no different from the desire to mistreat a fellow person. Just as many sociopaths begin by taking pleasure in animal cruelty, using needless violence against a replicant would indulge dangerous desires.

  20. For some reason i couldn’t leave a comment, only a reply. Yes, a replicant can be conscious. The character of Rachel proves this. She was not aware that she was a replicant, and therefore was conscious. She believed she was a natural born human, and even having been created without emotion, she developed her own form of emotion. It took over 100 carefully formulated questions with close analysis to determine that she was not a human and was in fact a replicator. She had genuine feelings for Deckard, which he eventually reciprocated. However, I did find Deckard’s smooth transition of pronouns when he discovered what she was. Before his analysis, he always referred to her as “her” or “she”. Once he was sure she was a replicant, he immediately and smoothly transitioned to the neutral pronoun, “it”. By the end of the movie, however, she was a “she” again, which proves that Deckard himself acknowledged that replicants have consciousness and feelings as acute as a human’s. If this man, who has spent his life hunting replicants can reach the conclusion that they are conscious, he who was more opposed to the idea than anyone else, who at this point can still deny the fact? I believe that even the creators knew that their replicants would eventually develop consciousness, especially once models become more advanced, but denied the fact to assuage the guilt that natural born humans would feel using them basically as slaves and the eventuality of having to kill them, the actual term for which the movie uses escapes me. If the general public became aware that the replicants were self aware, the idea of using them as slaves and possibly killing them would have been repellant to the average person.

  21. John Yang permalink

    The question of a replicant’s consciousness is based on the definition of the word “conscious,” which can be leading. The meaning of this word is more subjective than it would seem–consciousness as being based solely in the awareness of one’s surroundings, and the sentient ability to feel and experience emotions, then perhaps replicants like Rachael can be conscious. However, simpler replicants like Roy or Leon, for example, could very well be extremely proficient at projecting the semblance of emotion, but not necessarily “feeling” or “experiencing” those emotions themselves, especially seeing as their humanity can be detected in a cross-examination. But if the definition goes deeper, consists of the prerequisite of being based on true memories and occurrences, then even a more complex replicant like Rachael is not quite truly an actual example of a conscious being—she believes her memories to be true, and she believes that she has experienced events, but in reality she is mistaken and has been deceived. Like Neo, her memories are false ones; and even then, Neo actually made decisions and experienced actual events, even if they were in his head, while Rachael simply had these false memories and experiences planted in her. She never made any previous decisions for herself. And that is the crux of the matter—being conscious means making conscious decisions; that is after all, what shapes us as unique individuals. That is why Thomas Anderson becomes Neo, through a series of unique, conscious decisions. Rachael was constructed, and directed in what to believe and what to feel. False experiences make for false consciousness. Similarly, the idea of Inception is an applicable concept here. Cobb and his team realize that in order for Inception to be successfully planted, the dreamer must believe that the idea was their own; a foreign idea that is not of their own conclusions will simply be rooted out.

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