In ”Part 1: Autistic Noir” I looked at the parallels between Ridley Scott‘s film and the experience of people on the autistic spectrum, particularly those like myself who have Asperger’s. I gave a summary of some of the common AS traits and looked at how most of these traits, particularly social isolation and flattened affect, are exhibited by almost all of the characters; I also looked at how the common Aspie experience of prejudice is reflected in the experiences of the replicants (androids) and how their supposed lack of empathy is used to legitimate their status as less than human.
Although there are many difference between Blade Runner and the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) on which is based, the test is taken directly from the book. In this section I want to look at how Philip K. Dick’s novel addresses the themes of social isolation and flattened affect also present in the film, and look how Dick anticipates some of the current theorising of Asperger’s as an ”empathy disorder” (with particular reference to the work of Simon Baron-Cohen) – despite being written decades before the condition was recognised.
I also want to place the novel in the context of Dick’s other work of this period – particularly The Man in the High Castle (1962), Clans of the Aphane Moon (1964) and Martian Time-Slip (1964), which showed an increasingly sophisticated interest in different neurotypes. I will examine how Dick himself, as indicated in non-fiction essays like ”The Android and the Human” (1972), shared many of Baron-Cohen’s assumptions about empathy as constitutive of human nature, and I will look at the concept of empathy in some depth; I will also argue that the ambiguities of Dick’s fiction undermines these essentialist assumptions and exposes empathy and it’s associated ”emotional ground tone” as a socially constructed and historically contingent.
The similarity between the Voight-Kampff test and the Asperger’s diagnostic tests has not gone unnoticed outside the autistic community either: In a Letter to the Editor published in a 2004 edition of the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders author Daniel Lauffer makes the same connection fans had made:
A recent study by Heavy, Phillips, Baron-Cohen and Rutter (2000) described a testing methodology and reported that individuals with varying types of autism were less capable of assessing social situations than people without autism. The subjects were shown a series of videotaped vignettes depicting socially awkward encounters. They were asked questions that measured their understanding of the emotional difficulty presented in the stories. The autistic group had a greater latency and lesser accuracy in interpreting the questions..
——The methodology is strikingly similar to one described in a work of speculative fiction from many decades ago. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1963) is a novel by Phillip K. Dick. It is best known for its’ film adaptation as Blade Runner (1982). The book is notable for its conceptualization of the emotional turmoil which might be seen in a future that occurs after a nuclear holocaust…..
——Androids had superior strength and intelligence, but totally lacked the capacity for empathy. In the novel, “rogue” androids began to turn on the human masters, escape and melt into the general population. The protagonist of the novel is a “bounty hunter” who is part psychometrician and part executioner. Rick Deckard tracks down, and tests possible androids for the absence of empathy. He uses verbal stimuli and measures galvanic skin response, involuntary ocular changes and latency of response.
——What seems particularly relevant is the concept that the android also lacks a “folk psychology”. It is neither interested in nor will it respond to the distress of others. The fictional “Voight-Kampff Scale” prepared by the “Pavlov Institute of Moscow”, included both emotionally charged items regarding humans and items involving harm to animals. The former content seems similar to the “Awkward Moments Scale” (Heavy, et al., 2000). Measurement of latency of response is also common to both. An android who fails the psychological test is “retired”, a euphemism for execution. This became the central theme of the film Blade Runner, with a new term, “replicant” applied to the androids.
——Because of his premise, the science fiction author anticipated present techniques in psychometrics. Certainly a practicing psychologist will experience a déjà vu in the testing scenes in the novel, and in their presentation in the film. The author speculates that the androids traits might also be seen in “schizoid and schizophrenic individuals with flattening affect”. Interestingly, this is how adult Asperger’s individuals may present in interviews. He also attempts to consider what interaction with such an individual might be…
—— Daniel Lauffer, “Letter to the Editor: Asperger’s, Empathy and Blade Runner”
Lauffer is writing from outside the spectrum of course, to a journal targeted at professional psychologists – which is why he attributes the sense of déjà vu to the practicing psychologist rather than to Aspies. Lauffer identifies Deckard with the practitioner (“part psychometrician and part executioner”) and refers to the android as “it” rather than “he” or “she” – as does Deckard at one point in the film. Lauffer takes it for granted that the android ”is neither interested in nor will it respond to the distress of others” just as Deckard does (an assumption I will interrogate later). This is an example of where Aspies and replicants alike are treated as the “object” rather than the “subject” of the discourse of empathy – and I’ll be dealing with this issue later too.
Minor spelling change aside, the Voigt-Kampff test is transferred faithfully from the novel – so how did a science fiction author writing in the early Sixties so accurately “predict” current psychometric testing procedures?
Philip K Dick often used the terms “autism”, “schizoid” and “schizophrenia” interchangeably: although this will strike the modern reader as incorrect these conditions have been subject to numerous reclassifications over the years. Hans Asperger himself believed the syndrome to be a form of childhood schizophrenia, distinct from the autism his fellow Austrian Leo Kanner was writing about in the USA around the same time.
Lorna Wing, who translated Asperger’s work into English and who was the first to reclassify Asperger’s as an autistic spectrum disorder, also notes the similarity between Asperger’s and schizophrenia:
Although they are dissimilar in family history, childhood development and clinical pictures, both groups of conditions affect language, social interaction and imaginative activities. The time of onset and the nature of the disturbances are different, but there are similarities in the eventual chronic defect states that either may produce. It is not surprising that autism and schizophrenia have, in the past, been confused…
——There is no question that Asperger syndrome can be regarded as a form of schizoid personality. The question is whether this grouping is of any value.
—— Lorna Wing, “Asperger’s syndrome: a clinical account”
People who would now be diagnosed with Asperger’s would, therefore, at the time Dick was writing, have been diagnosed as having conditions we would now recognize as part of a separate, schizophrenic spectrum: schizophrenia, schizoid personality disorder and schizotypal personality disorder. When Philip K. Dick uses the terms “schizoid” and “schizophrenia”, therefore, his definition would have included people we would now recognize as having Asperger’s as well as those on the schizophrenic spectrum.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1966) is set in the depopulated, post-apocalyptic “near future” San Francisco of 1992 (25 years after the novel was written) and centres on an eventful day in the life of Rick Deckard, a detective cum bounty hunter, tasked to track down and kill six androids – or “andys” – who have killed their human masters on Mars and escaped to Earth where they are passing for human.
Deckard’s main motivation for tracking down the androids is to collect the bounty with which he plans to buy a real animal. Animals are a precious commodity in the Deckard’s world because the fallout of World War Terminus has made all animal life scarce. Deckard owns only an artificial sheep – the electric sheep of the title – which his neighbours are lead to believe is real but Deckard finds the deception shameful.
Dick introduces “flatted affect” as a theme quite early in the novel. Deckard is married – though he and his wife, Iran, sleep in separate beds (“Now, in her bed, his wife Iran opened her gray, unmerry eyes, blinked, then groaned and shut her eyes again”). Iran is concerned over her loss of affect and compensates by using a “Penfield mood organ”, a device employed by the largely disaffected post-World War Terminus population to stimulate (or simulate) ersatz emotions, and which is named after the pioneering Canadian neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield. Mood organs can programme the user with any mood they want – including the desire to dial a mood :
——“My schedule for today lists a six-hour self-accusatory depression,” Iran said.
——“What? Why did you schedule that?” It defeated the whole purpose of the mood organ. “I didn’t even know you could set it for that,” he said gloomily.
——“I was sitting here one afternoon,” Iran said, “and naturally I had tamed on Buster Friendly and His Friendly Friends and he was talking about a big news item he’s about to break and then that awful commercial came on, the one I hate; you know, for Mountibank Lead Codpieces. And so for a minute I shut off the sound. And I heard the building, this building; I heard the – ” She gestured.
——“Empty apartments,” Rick said. Sometimes he heard them at night when he was supposed to be asleep. And yet, for this day and age a one-half occupied conapt building rated high in the scheme of population density; out in what had been before the war the suburbs one could find buildings entirely empty . . . or so he had heard. He had let the information remain secondhand; like most people he did not care to experience it directly.
——“At that moment,” Iran said, “when I had the TV sound off, I was in a 382 mood; I had just dialed it. So although I heard the emptiness intellectually, I didn’t feel it. My first reaction consisted of being grateful that we could afford a Penfield mood organ. But then I read how unhealthy it was, sensing the absence of life, not just in this building but everywhere, and not reacting – do you see? I guess you don’t. But that used to be considered a sign of mental illness; they called it ‘absence of appropriate affect.’ So I left the TV sound off and I sat down at my mood organ and I experimented. And I finally found a setting for despair.” Her dark, pert face showed satisfaction, as if she had achieved something of worth. “So I put it on my schedule for twice a month; I think that’s a reasonable amount of time to feel hopeless about everything, about staying here on Earth after everybody who’s small has emigrated, don’t you think?”
—– Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (p. 2-3)
Two androids have already been terminated by the senior bounty hunter, Dave Holden, before a third critically injures him rendering him unable to complete his mission; Deckard’s boss, Harry Bryant, then passes the job onto him.
Deckard’s task is complicated by the fact the androids are virtually indistinguishable from human beings and it requires an elaborate psychometric test to identify them: the Voigt-Kampff (sic) test, which measures empathy. Doubts have been raised about the efficacy of in identifying the latest model, the Nexus 6, however, and it has also been suggested that some human beings – particularly the low-IQ “specials” – or “chicken-heads” – who’s intelligence has been aversely affected by the fallout – may give false-positives:
——Bryant said thoughtfully, “Dave used the Voigt-Kampff Altered Scale in testing out the individuals he suspected. You realize – you ought to, anyhow – that this test isn’t specific for the new brain units. No test is; the Voigt scale, altered three years ago by Kampff, is all we have.” He paused, pondering. “Dave considered it accurate. Maybe it is. But I would suggest this, before you take out after these six.” Again he tapped the pile of notes. “Fly to Seattle and talk with the Rosen people. Have them supply you a representative sampling of types employing the new Nexus-6 unit.”
——“And put them through the Voigt-Kampff,” Rick said.
——“It sounds so easy,” Bryant said, half to himself.
——Bryant said, “I think I’ll talk to the Rosen organization myself, while you’re on your way.” He eyed Rick, then, silently. Finally he grunted, gnawed on a fingernail, and eventually decided on what he wanted to say. “I’m going to discuss with them the possibility of including several humans, as well as their new androids. But you won’t know. It’ll be my decision, in conjunction with the manufacturers. It should be set up by the time you get there.” He abruptly pointed at Rick, his face severe. “This is the first time you’ll be acting as senior bounty bunter. Dave knows a lot; he’s got years of experience behind him.”
——“So have I,” Rick said tensely.
——“You’ve handled assignments devolving to you from Dave’s schedule; he’s always decided exactly which ones to turn over to you and which not to. But now you’ve got six that he intended to retire himself – one of which managed to get him first. This one.” Bryant turned the notes around so that Rick could see. “Max Polokov,” Bryant said. “That’s what it calls itself, anyhow. Assuming Dave was right. Everything is based on that assumption, this entire list. And yet the Voigt-Kampff Altered Scale has only been administered to the first three, the two Dave retired and then Polokov. It was while Dave was administering the test; that’s when Polokov lasered him.”
——“Which proves that Dave was right,” Rick said. Otherwise he would not have been lasered; Polokov would have no motive.
——“You get started for Seattle,” Bryant said. “Don’t tell them first; I’ll handle it. Listen.” He rose to his feet, soberly confronted Rick. “When you run the Voigt-Kampff scale up there, if one of the humans fails to pass it – ”
——“That can’t happen,” Rick said.
——“One day, a few weeks ago, I talked with Dave about exactly that. He had been thinking along the same lines. I had a memo from the Soviet police, W.P.O. itself, circulated throughout Earth plus the colonies. A group of psychiatrists in Leningrad have approached W.P.O. with the following proposition. They want the latest and most accurate personality profile analytical tools used in determining the presence of an android – in other words the Voigt-Kampff scale applied to a carefully selected group of of schizoid and schizophrenic human patients. Those, specifically, which reveal what’s called a ‘flattening of affect.’ You’ve heard of that.”
——Rick said, “That’s specifically what the scale measures.”
——“Then you understand what they’re worried about.”
——“This problem has always existed. Since we first encountered androids posing as humans. The consensus of police opinion is known to you in Lurie Kampff s article, written eight years ago. ‘Roletaking Blockage in the Undeteriorated Schizophrenic.’ Kampff compared the diminished emphatic faculty found in human mental patients and a superficially similar but basically – ”
——“The Leningrad psychiatrists,” Bryant broke in brusquely, “think that a small class of human beings could not pass the Voigt-Kampff scale. If you tested them in line with police work you’d assess them as humanoid robots. You’d be wrong, but by then they’d be dead.” He was silent, now, waiting for Rick’s answer.
——“But these individuals,” Rick said, “would all be – ”
——“They’d be in institutions,” Bryant agreed. “They couldn’t conceivably function in the outside world; they certainly couldn’t go undetected as advanced psychotics – unless of course their breakdown had come recently and suddenly and no one had gotten around to noticing. But this could happen.”
——“A million to one odds,” Rick said. But he saw the point.
—– Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (p.29-30)
This reference to flattening of affect (“specifically what the scale measures”) and the fictional paper “Roletaking Blockage in the Undeteriorated Schizophrenic” are significant in that it situates the novel’s definition of empathy in terms of both affect and role-taking. The doubts raised about the efficacy of the Voigt-Kampff test as androids become more sophisticated, and the necessity for refinements to the scale such that some humans might fail, indicate that affect and role-taking are not qualities that humans and androids simply have or do not have but are scalar quantities – in other words, they exist on a spectrum.
Deckard is challenged by Eldon Rosen, head of the company Rosen Associates which manufactures the androids, to demonstrate the test on his ”niece” Rachael. When the results of the Voigt-Kampff test indicate that Rachael is an android Eldon Rosen attempts to convince Deckard that his ”niece” is human but schizoid, having been raised on a deep space exploration vessel without human contact; however Deckard tricks the Rosens into admitting she is, indeed, an android.
Convinced of the accuracy of the Voigt-Kampff test Deckard follows the evidence that Holden had collected and tracks down the other androids; but as the novel progresses he finds himself feeling empathy for the androids – particularly after an encounter with an android passing herself off as opera singer Luba Luft (Deckard is an opera fan). A disturbing encounter with another bounty hunter, Phil Resch, makes him begin to question just how empathic some humans are, and whether he, himself, is becoming de-humanised by his job.
——“Do you have your ideology framed?” Phil Resch asked. “That would explain me as part of the human race?”.
——Rick said, “There is a defect in your empathic, role-taking ability. One which we don’t test for. Your feelings toward androids.”
——“Of course we don’t test for that.”
——“Maybe we should.” He had never thought of it before, had never felt any empathy on his own part toward the androids he killed. Always fie had assumed that throughout his psyche he experienced the android as a clever machine – as in his conscious view. And yet, in contrast to Phil Resch, a difference had manifested itself. And he felt instinctively that he was right. Empathy toward an artificial construct? he asked himself. Something that only pretends to be alive? But Luba Luft had seemed genuinely alive; it had not worn the aspect of a simulation. “You realize,” Phil Resch said quietly, “what this would do. If we included androids in our range of empathic identification, as we do animals.”
——“We couldn’t protect ourselves.”
——“Absolutely. These Nexus-6 types . . . they’d roll all over us and mash us flat. You and I, all the bounty hunters – we stand between the Nexus-6 and mankind, a barrier which keeps the two distinct. Furthermore – ” He ceased, noticing that Rick was once again hauling out his test gear. “I thought the test was over.”
——“I want to ask myself a question,” Rick said. “And I want you to tell me what the needles register. Just give me the calibration; I can compute it.” He plastered the adhesive disk against his cheek, arranged the beam of light until it fed directly into his eye. “Are you ready? Watch the dials. We’ll exclude time lapse in this; I just want magnitude.”.
——“Sure, Rick,” Phil Resch said obligingly.
——Aloud, Rick said, “I’m going down by elevator with an android I’ve captured. And suddenly someone kills it, without warning.”
——“No particular response,” Phil Resch said.
——“What’d the needles hit?”
——“The left one 2.8. The right one 3.3.”
——Rick said, “A female android.”
——“Now they’re up to 4.0 and 6. respectively.”
——“That’s high enough,” Rick said; he removed the wired adhesive disk from his cheek and shut off the beam of light. “That’s an emphatically empathic response,” he said. “About what a human subject shows for most questions. Except for the extreme ones, such as those dealing with human pelts used decoratively . . . the truly pathological ones.”
——Rick said, “I’m capable of feeling empathy for at least specific, certain androids. Not for all of them but – one or two.” For Luba Luft, as an example, he said to himself. So I was wrong. There’s nothing unnatural or unhuman about Phil Resch’s reactions; it’s me.
——I wonder, he wondered, if any human has ever felt this way before about an android.
—— Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (p.)
Deckard also becomes sexually involved with the android Rachael and this causes further emotional complications when he discovers that Pris Stratton, one of the escaped androids, is an identical android model.
The novel includes several subplots including one about the State-sponsored religion of “Mercerism.” Followers of Mercer experience an empathic communion with each other by merging their consciousness with that of the messianic Wilbur Mercer in the virtual reality of “tomb world” where he has been condemned to eternal martyrdom for bringing animals back to life; Mercer – a cross between Sisyphus, Jesus Christ and St Francis of Assisi – must forever climb a barren hillside as assailants known as “The Killers” throw rocks at him. This communion is achieved with the aid of an “empathy box” – another technical marvel used to compensate for flattened affect.
Iran is a devout follower of Mercer, as is J. R. Isidore who works as an “ambulance” driver for a firm specializing in the repair of ersatz animals.
——When he turned it on the usual faint smell of negative ions surged from the power supply; he breathed in eagerly, already buoyed up. Then the cathode-ray tube glowed like an imitation, feeble TV image; a collage formed, made of apparently random colors, trails, and configurations which, until the handles were grasped, amounted to nothing. So, taking a deep breath to steady himself, he grasped the twin handles.
——The visual image congealed; he saw at once a famous landscape, the old, brown, barren ascent, with tufts of dried-out bonelike weeds poking slantedly into a dim and sunless sky. One single figure, more or less human in form, toiled its way up the hillside: an elderly man wearing a dull, featureless robe, covering as meager as if it had been snatched from the hostile emptiness of the sky. The man, Wilbur Mercer, plodded ahead, and, as he clutched the handles, John Isidore gradually experienced a waning of the living room in which he stood; the dilapidated furniture and walls ebbed out and he ceased to experience them at all. He found himself, instead, as always before, entering into the landscape of drab hill, drab sky. And at the same time he no longer witnessed the climb of the elderly man. His own feet now scraped, sought purchase, among the familiar loose stones; he felt the same old painful, irregular roughness beneath his feet and once again smelled the acrid haze of the sky – not Earth’s sky but that of some place alien, distant, and yet, by means of the empathy box, instantly available.
——He had crossed over in the usual perplexing fashion; physical merging – accompanied by mental and spiritual identification – with Wilbur Mercer had reoccurred. As it did for everyone who at this moment clutched the handles, either here on Earth or on one of the colony planets. He experienced them, the others, incorporated the babble of their thoughts, heard in his own brain the noise of their many individual existences. They – and he – cared about one thing; this fusion of their mentalities oriented their attention on the hill, the climb, the need to ascend. Step by step it evolved, so slowly as to be nearly imperceptible. But it was there. Higher, he thought as stones rattled downward under his feet. Today we are higher than yesterday, and tomorrow – he, the compound figure of Wilbur Mercer, glanced up to view the ascent ahead. Impossible to make out the end. Too far. But it would come.
—– Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (p.16-17)
Significantly the androids are incapable of such communion – so while Mercerism binds people together it serves a secondary function in denying androids humanity. It also, incidentally, separates Deckard from his wife, adding to the sense that empathy separates as well as binds:
——Going over to the empathy box she quickly seated herself and once more gripped the twin handles. She became involved almost at once. Rick stood holding the phone receiver, conscious of her mental departure. Conscious of his own aloneness.
—– Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (p.)
This religion is eventually exposed as a fraud by the media pundit Buster Friendly who is almost certainly an android; androids are incapable of fusing with Mercer.
There’s another parallel between the androids and people with Asperger’s here because there is a significant correlation between Asperger’s and atheism – or at least a lack of belief in a personal interventionist God. I’ll be examining this correlation in some depth in a later post when I look at three specific studies on the link between ASD and atheism: “Religious Belief Systems of Persons with High Functioning Autism” (2011) by Catherine Caldwell-Harris, Catherine, Caitlin Fox Murphy & Tessa Velazquez; “The Folk Psychology of Souls” (2006) by Jesse M. Bering & Bethany T. Heywood; and “Mentalizing Deficits Constrain Belief in a Personal God” (2012) by Ara Norenzayan, Will M. Gervais and Kali H. Trzesniewski. For the moment I’ll note that evolutionary psychologists are increasingly of the view that religious belief is a spandrel associated with Theory of Mind resulting in Type I errors.
J. T. Isadore is the prototype for the film’s J. F. Sebastian. It is Isadore who is befriended by the android Pris, and who provides a temporary home for the androids in his vast, empty apartment block. Whereas Sebastian is a genius, however, Isadore is a “special” or “chicken-head”: one who’s intelligence has been blunted by radiation from World War Terminus and who is therefore prohibited from reproducing or emigrating off-world. Low intelligence is not an Aspie trait of course – mainly because if your IQ is low you’d more likely be diagnosed with classical autism. Isadore is more representative of classic autism than Asperger’s but Androids is actually Isadore’s second appearance in a Philip K Dick novel – and in that earlier book he is highly intelligent and clearly presents with Asperger traits.
Confessions of a Crap Artist & Asperger’s
Confessions of a Crap Artist was written in 1959 but not published until 1975. It is the only non-sf novel Philip K Dick published during his lifetime but shows thematic continuities with his sf, particularly his developing interest in alternative psychologies.
Confessions tells the story of a Californian marriage through the eyes of the wife’s brother, the socially clueless Jack Isidore, an obsessive compulsive collector of old magazines and other junk – the “crap” of the title – and a believer in conspiracy theories, extra-sensory perception, telepathy and UFOs.
Isadore is a meticulous recorder of life on the farm, high functioning despite his social shortcomings, and one of the most compelling early portrayals of what we’d now recognise as Asperger’s in mainstream fiction.
Isadore is very much a “Wise Fool” character and one for whom Philip K Dick had a great deal of affection:
——When I wrote Confessions I had the idea of creating the most idiotic protagonist, ignorant and without common sense, a walking symposium of nitwit beliefs and opinions… an outcast from our society, a totally marginal man who sees everything from the outside only and hence must guess as to what’s going on.
——In the Dark Ages there was an Isidore of Seville, Spain, who wrote an encyclopedia, the shortest ever written: about thirty-five pages, as I recall. I hadn’t realized how ignorant they were then until I realized that Isidore of Seville’s encyclopedia was considered a masterpiece of educated compilations for a hell of a long time.
——It came to me, then, back in the ’50’s, to wonder, What if I created a modern-day Isidore, this one of Seville, California, and had him sort of write something for our time like that of Isidore of Seville, Spain? What would be the analog? Obviously, a schizoid person, a loner, like my protagonist. But underneath, most important of all, I wanted to show that this ignorant outsider was a man, too, like we are; he has the same heart as we, and sometimes is a good person.
——In reading the novel over now, I am amazed to find that I agree even more that Jack Isidore of Seville, California, is no dummy; I am amazed to see how, below the surface of gabble which he prattles constantly, he has a sort of shrewdly appraising subconscious which sees maybe very darkly into events, but shit–as I finished the novel this time I thought, to my surprise, Maybe ol’ Jack Isidore is right! Maybe he doesn’t just see as well as we do, but in fact–incredibly, really–somehow and somewhat better.
——In other words, I had sympathy for him when I wrote it back in the ’50s, but now I have I think even more sympathy, as if time has begun to vindicate Jack Isidore. His painfully-arrived-at opinions are insome strange, beautiful way lacking in the preconceptions which tell the rest of us what must be true and what must not be, come hell or high water. Jack Isidore starts with no preconceptions, takes his information from wherever he can find it, and winds up with bizarre but curiously authentic conclusions. Like an observer from another planet entirely, he is a kind of gutter sociologist among us. I like him; I approve of him. I wonder, another twenty years from now, if his opinions may not seem even more right on. He is, in many ways, a superior person.
—— Philip K. Dick, Letter Dated January 19th 1975
Though Jack Isadore has no intellectual impairments, that semi-biographical innocent, who saw the world differently, and who is baffled by normal social relations, is still recognisable in both the “chicken-head” J. R. Isadore of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and the intelligent but equally socially inept J. F. Sebastian of the film. (The “crap” of the title would be reworked as “kipple” for the later novel.)
J.R. Isadore is not the only character to have appeared in a previous Philip K Dick book, and tracing those characters back to their earlier manifestations gives some insight into how Dick conceived of androids of the later novel which distinctly resemble human beings with neurological disorders.
We Can Build You & Schizoid Personality Disorder
We Can Build You was also written prior to Androids and not published until later (1972). We Can Build You can be considered as something of a prequel to Androids and features the prototypes of several characters who would become central that novel.
The main protagonist, Louis Rosen, becomes romantically involved the schizophrenic daughter of his business partner, Pris Frauenzimmer, who has recently been released from a psychiatric institution. Rosen himself succumbs to schizophrenia and undergoes therapy, and experiences a virtual reality life with Pris. Pris would reappear in Androids, of course, this time as an android rather than a schizoid human, where, as noted above she is identical to Rachel Rosen. Both characters, in other words, are androids who’s prototype was a human being with a schizoid personality.
Dick himself drew a parallel between schizoid humans and androids:
——In the field of abnormal psychology, the schizoid personality structure is well defined; in it there is a continual paucity of feeling. The person thinks rather than feels his way through life. And as the great Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung showed, this cannot be successfully maintained; one must meet most of crucial reality with a feeling response. Anyhow, there is a certain parallel between what I call the “android” personality and the schizoid. Both have a mechanical, reflex quality.
—— Philip K. Dick, “The Android and the Human” (essay)
This connection is made explicit in Androids when Rosen tries to convince Deckard, who has determined that Rachel is an android using the V-K Test, that Rachel is actually a human with a schizoid personality. K.W Jeter, in his authorised sequel to both novel and movie, Blade Runner 2: The Edge of Human (1995) complicates things even further by suggesting that Pris was not a replicant at all – but was actually a schizoid human who merely believed she was a replicant!
The Man in the High Castle & Psychopathy
Dick was given access to original Gestapo documents (which he read in the original German) held at the University of California at Berkeley.
One sentence from the diaries of an SS officer stationed in Poland had a profound effect on him:
—–”The sentence read, ”We are kept awake at night by the cries of starving children”, Dick explained. ”There is obviously something wrong with the man who wrote that. I later realized that, with the Nazis, what we were essentially dealing with was a defective group mind, a mind so emotionally defective that the word ‘human’ could not be applied to them.
—–”Worse,” Dick continued, “I felt that this was not necessarily a sole German trait. This deficiency had been exported into the world after World War II and could be picked up by people anywhere, at any time. You see, I wrote Sheep right in the middle of the Vietnam War, and at the time I was revolutionary enough and existential enough to believe that these android personalities were so lethal, so dangerous to human beings, that it ultimately become necessary to fight them. The problem in this killing then would be, ”Could we not become like the androids, in our very effort to wipe them out?'””
—— Philip K. Dick, quoted in Paul Sammon, Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner (p. 16)
Dick’s concern here is with psychopathy – a very different condition from autism – but it is interesting that his inspirations and literary explorations of empathy prefigure current scientific theories put forward by autism specialists like Simon Baron-Cohen , to whom I will be returning very shortly.
Martian Time-Slip, Autism & Schizophrenia
Also prior to Androids was Dick’s most explicit depiction of autism and schizophrenia, Martian Time-Slip (1964), which was expanded from the novella ”All We Marsmen” (Worlds of Tomorrow, August-December, 1963). This novel was inspired by Dick’s experience babysitting the autistic son of Vince Lusby, a friend’s he had made while working at the music shop Art Music in Berkeley, and introduced one of Dick’s most memorable characters, the autistic precog, Manfred Steiner.
Autism, here, is theorised as a condition which effects perception of time and Manfred is able to predict – though not communicate about – the future. Autism and schizophrenia are presented as parts of the same spectrum in this novel, and it centres upon a man who suffers schizophrenic episodes who is hired to communicate with Manfred.
Dick’s conception of autism and schizophrenia were greatly influenced by the Swiss existential therapist Ludwig Binswanger, and in particular his controversial study of was Ellen West, a deeply troubled patient who Binswanger misdiagnosed with schizophrenia and who ultimately committed suicide. Dick was, by all accounts, a bit of a hyperchondriac, and the pessimistic view of neurological disorders in this book reflects both common psychiatric misconceptions of the time and his own fears that he, too, might be schizophrenic.
It was in this novel that Dick first used the term “tomb world” (schizophrenic self-entrapment), which taken from Binswanger’s study of West:
In the tomb world, everything is degenerate and degenerating, everything is being pulled down, into the grave, into a hole.
—— Ludwig Binslagger, “The Case of Ellen West”
The tomb world would be further elaborated upon in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Counter-Clock World (1967).
Clans of the Alphane Moon & the Whole Damn DSM
Dick’s Clans of the Alphane Moon (1964) is possibly Dick’s most elaborate exploration of different neurotypes. Set in the Alpha Centauri system, some years after a war between the human race and the insectoid Alphanes, the story concerns Earth’s attempt to reinstate colonial rule over the third moon, Alpha III M2, once a psychiatric institution for the entire Centauri System.
Since independence society on the former asylum has stratified and differentiated according to neurotype with each group occupying the role best suited to them.
The novel features seven clans based on psychiatric diagnostic groups: “Pares” (who suffer from paranoia) and who operate as the ruling caste; “Manses” (mania), the warrior class; “Skitzes” (schizophrenia), who are poets and visionaries; “Heebs” (hebephrenia, or disorganized schizophrenia), another religious caste who livw lives of asceticism; “Polys” (polymorphic schizophrenia); “Ob-Coms” (obsessive-compulsive disorder), the clerks and record keepers; and “Deps”, (clinical depression), a puritanical and anhedonic caste.
Zero Degrees of Empathy – or ”The Science of Evil”
As already noted, Philip K Dick’s literary explorations of empathy prefigure current scientific theories put forward by autism specialists like Simon Baron-Cohen.
Baron-Cohen’s latest book is called Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty (2011) or, to give it it’s more lurid US title, The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty – so there’s a lot at stake in defining empathy: we have moved beyond terms clinical diagnoses and into morality.
Baron-Cohen’s inspiration for this book was the same as Philip K Dick’s for The Man in the High Castle: the Holocaust and other atrocities that seem to defy comprehension:
When I was seven years old, my father told me the Nazis had turned Jews into lampshades. Just one of those comments that you hear once, and the thought never goes away. To a child’s mind (even to an adult’s) these two types of things just don’t belong together. He also told me the Nazis turned Jews into bars of soap. It sounds so unbelievable, yet it is actually true. I knew our family was Jewish, so this image of turning people into objects felt a bit close to home.
—— Simon Baron-Cohen, Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty
Like Dick he believes that these acts result from a lack of empathy, or empathy erosion.
Baron-Cohen discusses five conditions in detail: Psychopathy (or Antisocial Personality Disorder, which Baron-Cohen refers to as Type P), Borderline Personality Disorder (Type B), Narcissistic Personality Disorder (Type N), classic (Kanner) autism and Asperger’s Syndrome.
There is a danger in defining autism and other conditions in terms of a lack of empathy when describing empathy, as Baron-Cohen does, as quintessentially human. The implication is that autistics are not fully human – even, perhaps, evil or cruel. But Baron-Cohen is careful to distinguish between two types of empathy: cognitive empathy and affective empathy. Cognitive empathy is the ability to read emotions while affective empathy is the ability to feel another’s emotions.
Psychopaths, according to Baron-Cohen’s schema, are Cognitive Empathy Positive (CE+) since they are able to read other’s emotional states – if only in order to manipulate them – but Affective Empathy Negative (AE-) since they do not share those emotions. Borderline Personalities are both Cognitive Empathy Negative (CE-) and Affective Empathy Negative (AE-), while Narcissists are simply Affective Empathy Negative (AE-). Baron-Cohen classifies these three personailty types as Zero-Negative as there isn’t much to recommend them.
Autistics and Aspies are Cognitive Empathy Negative (CE-), since they have difficulty reading emotions, but Affective Empathy Positive as they do empathize when they are aware of other people’s emotional states.
Baron-Cohen complicates this schema by introducing a moral dimension: Type P personalities are Morally Negative (M-) while Aspies are Morality Positive (M+); more controversially classic autistics are Morality Negative (M-).
Classic autistics and Aspies are highly systematizing (perhaps Baron-Cohen’s own system suggests Aspie tendencies in himself) and this systematizing may be used to create strong – if inflexible – moral codes; for this reason Baron-Cohen classifies both as Zero-Positive.
It’s tempting to see this schema as positive from the Aspie point of view but it rests on several unwarranted assumptions.
And while the book itself is very informative about the different neurotypes I don’t think it explains what it set out to do, which was the mass murders of the 20th Century: the Holocaust, the mass murders of Mao and Stalin or the genocide in Rwanda were not carried out by the small number of psychopaths, borderlines or narcissists which make up the world’s population but – more terrifyingly – by huge numbers of ordinary, neurotypical human beings acting under the orders of those who may well have been psychopaths, borderlines or narcissists themselves but who were incapable of carrying out atrocities on such a scale themselves.
As yet there is no fool-proof test of empathy, yet given its growing importance within cognitive neuroscience, it won’t be long before there is one. The advent of functional neuroimaging is making it possible to see beneath surface behaviour, to establish if the typical neural circuitry for empathy is (or is not) being employed, when someone says they care.
—— Simon Baron-Cohen, “Empathic Civilization’: Do We Have Empathy Or Are We Just Good Rule Followers?” (2010)
So What is Empathy?
Baron-Cohen’s distinction between cognitive and affective empathy illustrates that empathy is not something easily agreed upon.
o far we have left the actual definition of empathy largely unexamined but it is now time to look at this concept in some detail.
In The Better Angels of Our Nature: A History of Violence and Humanity (2011) Steven Pinker is largely dismissive of what he calls the “Cult of Empathy” – a cult which, in part, Philip K Dick parodies in Mercerism. As Pinker points out, the word ”empathy” is barely a century old – Shakespeare and the Romantics got by without it – and there is no agreement on what it means.
The Oxford English Dictionary credits the word to the British writer Vernon Lee (Violet Paget, 1856–1935) who derived it from the German word Einfühlung and applied it to a theory of aesthetics. Pinker rather skips over Lee’s definition which is a shame as it is significantly different from that of either Dick or Baron-Cohen.
Lee, known as “the cleverest woman in Europe”, had noted the physiological response to art of her lover Clementina ”Kit” Anstruther-Thomson. Lee attributed the reaction to a process of projection: the artwork evoked a physiological response in because Kit unconsciously loaded the work with her own feelings and beliefs. She was “feeling into” the work, hence Einfühlung. This is a very different definition of empathy than Dick or Baron-Cohen’s and one not subject to the objections I made to the animation tests.
Pinker points out that there are many senses in which empathy can be understood. The original concept, that of Lee’s aesthetic sense, as we have seen is “feeling into” or projection.
The most common sense, the folk psychology theory of empathy, that “beneficence toward other people depends on pretending to be them, feeling what they are feeling, walking a mile in their moccasins, taking their vantage point, or seeing the world through their eyes” (Pinker, p.692-693) is that shared by Philip K. Dick: Pinker calls this perspective-taking while Dick called it role-taking (hence the reference to the fictional paper “Role-taking Blockage in the Undeteriorated Schizophrenic.”
The third theory, closely identified with perspective-taking, is variously called mind-reading, theory of mind, mentalizing or empathic accuracy, and is the ability to infer what someone is thinking or feeling from their expressions, behaviour or circumstances. This is the definition adopted by Baron-Cohen. Pinker suggests this mind-reading may in fact be two abilities: the ability to read thoughts (impaired in autism) and the ability to read emotions (impaired in psychopathy); we have already seen that Baron-Cohen divides mind-reading differently, between cognitive empathy (impaired in autism) and affective empathy (impaired in psychopathy).
A fourth sense is distress at the suffering of others. This is not the same as sympathising with someone as the person feeling distress may not identify with the sufferer: Pinker gives the example of someone distressed by a crying child on an airplane; they are more likely to look for a seat further away than identify with the child or attempt to alleviate the suffering. Even the SS officer ”kept awake at night by the cries of starving children” quoted by Dick is capable of feeling ”empathy” in this sense.
The fifth sense is contagion: emotions can be “caught” from others. The obvious examples from this are contagious laughter, caught from the laughter of a studio audience, tears at a wedding or funeral, or panic during a bomb scare; I’d also add the mob behaviour we saw recently in the London riots. Pinker also includes physiological responses to movies.
A sixth sense is sympathy: the “aligning of another entity’s well-being with one’s own” (Pinker, p.695). This differs from contagion in that the response to suffering (e.g. a child crying because she is afraid of a dog) is to attempt to alleviate the suffering (pick up the child or take the dog away) rather than to ”catch” the emotion (and start crying yourself).
When you unpack reading on empathy you will often find these different definitions scrambled.
Recent excitement over the discovery of “mirror neurons” conflates these different definitions. Mirror neurons, found in the premotor cortex, the supplementary motor area, the primary somatosensory cortex and the inferior parietal cortex, fire both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another:
A theory of mind, when applied to a being that actually possesses a mind, is a very useful tool – albeit one based on folk psychology rather than scientific knowledge.
”Theory of Mind” vs. The Intentional Stance
The philosopher Daniel Dennett calls this the “intentional stance” for the level of abstraction in which we view the behavior of a thing in terms of mental properties. I’m not happy with the terminology “Theory of Mind” for what is, at best, a pre-theoretical form of folk psychology and, at worst, a pathetic fallacy, so would prefer to use Daniel Dennett more neutral term the “intentional stance” for the level of abstraction in which we view the behavior of a thing in terms of mental properties:
The intentional stance is the strategy of interpreting the behavior of an entity (person, animal, artifact, whatever) by treating it as if it were a rational agent who governed its “choice” of “action” by a “consideration” of its “beliefs” and “desires” . . . the basic strategy of the intentional stance is to treat the entity in question as an agent, in order to predict – and thereby explain, in one sense – its actions or moves.
—– Daniel Dennett, Kinds of Minds (1996)
Interestingly, Rachel’s response to Deckard’s statement “You have a little boy and he shows you his butterfly collection, including his killing jar” (p. 41) is that she would “take him to the doctor” (p. 41) rather than punish him or report him to the police: further evidence of the medicalization of deviancy.
Problems with the Theory of Mind Hypothesis
As we’ve seen both Aspies and replicants appear to fail a test to measure empathy where empathy is conceived of as perspective taking.
Some critics, notably Morton Ann Gernsbacher and Jennifer L. Frymiare (2005) have begun to question the Theory of Mind Hypothesis:
The original Baron-Cohen et al. (1985) paper and the vast majority of its successors used as an experimental task that is considered the classic assay of Theory of Mind: the “false belief task.” For example, in a false contents belief task, a research participant is shown a common container, such as a box that typically holds a particular brand of candy, and the research participant is asked to predict what is inside. Then, the research participant is shown that the contents do not fit the expectations; for example, the experimenter pulls pencils rather than candy out of the box. After these “false contents” are exposed to the research participant, he is asked to predict what he thought the contents would have been prior to the false contents being exposed (e.g., “What did you think was inside the box before I opened it?”). If the research participant identifies the actual content of the container (e.g., pencils) rather than the expected content (e.g., candy), then he fails the first phase of the false belief task. Failing the first phase of a false contents task reputedly demonstrates that the individual lacks a theory of his own mind.—–In the second phase of a false belief task, a fictional or real person is introduced who is presumably not privy to the exposure of the false contents. The research participant is then asked to predict what this other person would think the contents would be prior to the false contents being exposed (e.g., “What do you think that Jamie will think is inside the box before I open it?”). If the research participant again identifies the actual content of the container (e.g., pencils) rather than the expected content (e.g., candy), then he fails the second phase of the false contents belief tasks. Failing the second phase of a false contents task reputedly demonstrates that the individual lacks a theory of another person’s mind. Thus, performance on the false contents belief task hinges on the research participant’s ability to answer two critical questions: “What did you think was inside the box before I opened it?” and “What do you think [another person] will think is inside the box before I open it?”
—— Morton Ann Gernsbacher & Jennifer L. Frymiare “Does the Autistic Brain Lack Core Modules?” (pdf) (My emphasis)
These are tests of perspective taking.
Some theorists, most notably Baron-Cohen, believe that a lack of Theory of Mind is the core deficit in autism (Baron-Cohen, 1995). However, even in the original Baron-Cohen et al. (1985) investigation, only 80% (16 out of 20) of the autistic children failed the false belief task; 20% of the autistic children passed the false belief task, and therefore 20% presumably demonstrated that their theory of mind was intact. Other autism researchers have argued that such data demonstrate that theory of mind deficits are not universal in autism (Happe, 1995; Ozonoff, Rogers, & Pennington, 1991).
—— Morton Ann Gernsbacher & Jennifer L. Frymiare ”Does the Autistic Brain Lack Core Modules?” (pdf)
So, if a theory of mind is intact in one in five classically autistic children then a theory of mind deficit is not an essential trait of those on the autistic spectrum and we might reasonably expect an even greater proportion of adults with AS or HFA to have their theory of mind intact.
In a further study, Baron-Cohen (1989) presented a more complex theory of mind task, what is called a second-order false belief task, in which a second individual’s beliefs are queried, for example, “What will Jamie think that Mary thinks is inside the box before I open it?” In this case, only 10% of the autistic children passed the false-belief task. However, other researchers have found success rates in this task ranging up to 50%, particularly when adults are tested (Tager-Flusberg and Sullivan, 1994), leading one group of researchers to draw the rather circular conclusion that “[p]eople with autism have a selective theory of mind (ToM) deficit. . . . Traditional ToM tests . . . are not subtle enough to detect deficits in adults of normal intelligence. . . . More subtle tests . . . are needed” (Rutherford, Baron-Cohen, & Wheelwright, 2002, p. 189). Rather than continue around that circle, one can ask whether individuals with other clinical diagnoses fail theory of mind tests. They do.
—— Morton Ann Gernsbacher & Jennifer L. Frymiare ”Does the Autistic Brain Lack Core Modules?” (pdf)
How can theory of mind-based diagnostic tests for Asperger’s be both accurate at diagnosing Asperger’s and inaccurate at determining whether the subject has a functioning theory of mind or not? Well, for one thing these same tests can successfully be used for distinguishing people with other conditions from those without – even where their theory of mind is not in question:
Numerous populations have been observed to fail tests of theory of mind, such as false belief tasks, including deaf children (Peterson & Siegal, 1995), blind children (Tager-Flusberg, 2001), non-autistic children and adolescents with mental retardation (Benson, Abbeduto, Short, Nuccio, & Maas, 1993), minimally verbal children with Cerebral Palsy (Dahlgreen, 2002), children with Down’s Syndrome (Zelazo, Burack, Benedetto & Frye, 1996), Parkinson’s patients (Saltzman, Strauss, Hunter, & Archibald, 2000), frontal lobe patients (Rowe, Bullock, Polkey, & Morris, 2001), and, rather curiously, children with specific language impairment (Miller, 2001). Children with specific language impairment have—by diagnostic definition—no disabilities in social or emotional processes and must score in the average range on every other measure of cognitive function save language skill. It is only their language that is impaired, hence the name, specific language impairment. So, why should children with specific language impairment appear to lack a theory of mind?
—— Morton Ann Gernsbacher & Jennifer L. Frymiare ”Does the Autistic Brain Lack Core Modules?” (pdf)
So how can a theory of mind test distinguish between deaf children and hearing children, blind children and sighted children, non-autistic children and children with mental retardation, etc. if those distinctions are not based on theory of mind? Gernsbacher and Frymiare suggest the answer lies in language:
Recall the two key questions asked during the false belief task [“What did you think was inside the box before I opened it?” and “What do you think [another person] will think is inside the box before I open it?”]. The syntactic form of these two questions is one of the most complex in the English language. These sentences exhibit sentential complement constructions, in which a complement clause is embedded in the matrix clause. Indeed, all mentalizing statements require sentence complement constructions, which are some of the most complex syntactic structures in the English language. Does performance on false belief tasks within the general population depend on linguistic sophistication? Correlational studies document significant correlations between language comprehension measures and performance on false belief tasks (Cutting & Dunn, 1999; Hughes & Dunn, 1997; Jenkins & Astington, 1996). Crosslinguistic studies, that is, studies comparing across different languages, document that children acquiring languages in which the analog of the English sentential complement structure is acquired earlier versus later demonstrate earlier versus later success on false belief tasks (de Villiers & de Villiers, 2000; Perez-Leroux, 1998). Longitudinal studies investigating which comes first—successful comprehension of complement structures or passing false belief tasks—document that successful comprehension of complement structures must occur first (de Villiers, 2000; de Villiers & Pyers, 1997).
—— Morton Ann Gernsbacher & Jennifer L. Frymiare ”Does the Autistic Brain Lack Core Modules?” (pdf)
Children with Asperger’s do not, by definition, suffer delays in linguistic and cognitive development but as I already noted above, speech is often atypical (marked by unusual prosody, overly-formal, idiosyncratic, tangential or circumstantial, neologistic, etc.) so the idea that the grammar of the questions in Baron-Cohen’s test – “sentential complement constructions, in which a complement clause is embedded in the matrix clause” – may cause difficulties in people with Asperger’s which are misinterpreted as a deficit in the Theory of Mind is not unreasonable: after all, if you asked someone who spoke English as a second language the same questions you might at least expect a delay in their answers.
And something similar is happening with the Voight-Kampff Test we see above: the Voight-Kampff machine measures Leon’s physiological response so his answers aren’t mediated through language but the stimuli that he is given – the hypothetical situations that Holden proposes – are mediated – often through language Leon does not fully understand:
LEON: A tortoise. What’s that?
And Leon is not being asked simply to emphasize directly with the tortoise, he is being asked to imagine himself in the position of a hypothetical self who does not care about the tortoise’s suffering:
HOLDEN: The tortoise lays on its back, its belly baking in the hot sun, beating its legs trying to turn itself over. But it can’t. Not without your help. But you’re not helping..
LEON: Whatya mean, I’m not helping?
HOLDEN: I mean you’re not helping! Why is that, Leon?
So, as with the Theory of Mind Tests administered to people with Asperger’s the Voight-Kampff Test does not measure empathy directly: stimulus and response are mediated through language, and what appears to be a deficit on perspective taking may, in fact, be an artifact of the difficulty in processing language: and that’s a problem with perception rather than empathy itself.
Problems with Empathy
While empathy tests have come under scrutiny from members of the autistc community the value of empathy for morality has alos come into question.
In his study of empathy, philosopher Jesse Printz makes the following criticisms of empathy:
First, as we have seen, empathy is not very motivating. So even if empathy elevates the level of concern, it doesn’t do so in a way that guarantees action on behalf of those in need. Vicarious anger also constitutes a species of concern, and it may be a better motivator.
Second, empathy may lead to preferential treatment. Batson et al. (1995) presented subjects with a vignette about a woman, Sheri, awaiting medical treatment, and then asked them if they wanted to move Sheri to the top of the waitlist, above others who were more needy. In the control condition, the majority declined to more her up the list, but in a condition where they were encouraged to empathize with Sheri, they overwhelmingly elected to move her up at the expense of those in greater need.
Third, empathy may be subject to unfortunate biases including cuteness effects. Batson et al. (2005) found that college students were more likely to feel empathetic concern for children, dogs, and puppies than their own peers… It has also been found that empathetic accuracy—which includes the ability to identify someone else’s emotions, and, thus, perhaps, to mirror them — increases when the target is viewed as attractive (Ickes et al., 1990).
Fourth, empathy can be easily manipulated. Tsoudis (2002) found that in mock trials, a jury’s recommendation for sentencing could be influenced by whether or not victims and defendants expressed emotions. When sadness was expressed, empathy went up, ingratiating the jury to the one who expressed the sadness. Sad victims evoked harsher sentences, and sad defendants got lighter sentences.
Fifth, empathy can be highly selective. Think about the experience of watching a boxing match. You might feel great empathy when the boxer you are rooting for takes a blow, but great delight when he delivers an equally punishing blow to his opponent. In both cases, you are watching the same violent act, but the allocation of empathy can vary dramatically as a function of morally arbitrary concerns about who will win.
Sixth, empathy is prone to in‐group biases. We have more empathy for those we see as like us, and that empathy is also more efficacious. Brown et al. (2006) found that when viewing pictures of faces, people show more empathetic responses, as measured by physiology and self report, for members of the same ethnic group. Stürmer et al. (2005) found that empathy leads to helping only in cases when the person in need is a member of the in‐group…
Seventh, empathy is subject to proximity effects. There was an outpouring of support for the Katrina hurricane victims in the United States in 2005, and passionate expressions of empathy for the victims is still frequently expressed in public discourse here. The death toll was 1,836. A year later, an earthquake in Java killed 5,782 people and there was little news coverage in comparison… American prejudice can also be implicated in our failure to prevent the attempted genocide in Rwanda, in which at least 800,000 Tutsis were killed. That’s more that 435 times the death toll in Katrina, but public discussion of the events is rare here. The best explanation is that empathy increases for those who are nearby, culturally and geographically.
Eighth, empathy is subject to salience effects. Natural disasters and wars are salient, news worthy events. The happen during temporary circumscribed periods in localized areas, and can be characterized in narrative terms (preconditions, the catastrophe, the aftermath). Other causes of mass death are less salient, because they are too constant and diffuse to be news items. This is the case with hunger and disease…
In sum, empathy has serious shortcomings. It is not especially motivating and it is so vulnerable to bias and selectivity that it fails to provide a broad umbrella of moral concern. A morality based on empathy would lead to preferential treatment and grotesque crimes of omission. Empathy may do some positive work in moral cognition, such as promote concern for the near and dear, but it should not be the central motivational component of a moral system.
—— Jesse J. Printz (2011) ”Is Empathy Necessary for Morality?”
In ”Part 3: Asperger’s & Postmodern Subjectivity” I will take this argument further and argue that postmodern texts, such as Blade Runner, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and the cyberpunk subgenre to which they were precursors, offer not only useful metaphors for the experience of people with Asperger’s but offer a modality for the exploration of themes salient to Aspies which is characterised by ”depthlessness”.
- The Penfield mood organ is named after a Canadian neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield (1891-1976)
As in the film these doubts are based on the idea of a ”spectrum” – but whereas the film suggests that the replicants are becoming more and more capable of feeling empathy Dick’s emphasis is on the flattening of affect which afflicts the humans.
These views are reflected by Deckard in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?:
He had wondered as had most people at one time or another precisely why an android bounced helplessly about when confronted by an empathy-measuring test. Empathy, evidently, existed only within the human community, whereas intelligence to some degree could be found throughout every phylum and order including the arachnida. For one thing, the empathic faculty probably required an unimpaired group instinct; a solitary organism, such as a spider, would have no use for it; in fact it would tend to abort a spider’s ability to survive. It would make him conscious of the desire to live on the part of his prey. Hence all predators, even highly developed mammals such as cats, would starve.
——Empathy, he once had decided, must be limited to herbivores or anyhow omnivores who could depart from a meat diet. Because, ultimately, the empathic gift blurred the boundaries between hunter and victim, between the successful and the defeated. As in the fusion with Mercer, everyone ascended together or, when the cycle had come to an end, fell together into the trough of the tomb world. Oddly, it resembled a sort of biological insurance, but double-edged. As long as some creature experienced joy, then the condition for all other creatures included a fragment of joy. However, if any living being suffered, then for all the rest the shadow could not be entirely cast off. A herd animal such as man would acquire a higher survival factor through this; an owl or a cobra would be destroyed.
——Evidently the humanoid robot constituted a solitary predator.
——Rick liked to think of them that way; it made his job palatable. In retiring — i.e. killing — an andy he did not violate the rule of life laid down by Mercer. You shall kill only the killers, Mercer had told them the year empathy boxes first appeared on Earth. And in Mercerism, as it evolved into a full theology, the concept of The Killers had grown insidiously. In Mercerism, an absolute evil plucked at the threadbare cloak of the tottering, ascending old man, but it was never clear who or what this evil presence was. A Mercerite sensed evil without understanding it. Put another way, a Mercerite was free to locate the nebulous presence of The Killers wherever he saw fit. For Rick Deckard an escaped humanoid robot, which had killed its master, which had been equipped with an intelligence greater than that of many human beings, which had no regard for animals, which possessed no ability to feel empathic joy for another life form’s success or grief at its defeat — that, for him, epitomized The Killers.
—— Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (p.24-25)
The androids supposed lack of empathy not only distinguishes them from human beings, therefore, it legitimizes their sub-human legal status as slaves – so there is much invested in the accuracy of the test. For Dick the androids are psychopaths and display typical childhood indicators of psychopathy such as cruelty to animals: Pris, to J.R. Isidore’s horror, cuts a spider’s legs off one by one with a pair of nail scissors just to see hpw many it needs in order to continue walking; and Rachael Rosen does not fall in love with Deckard in the novel: she sexually manipulates him as she has done other bounty hunters.
There is an irony here, of course: in defining those who lack empathy as inhuman – ”so emotionally defective that the word ‘human’ could not be applied to them” – he effectively creates an argument for treating them inhumanely – ”to wipe them out”.
Yet if we set aside authorial intent Deckard’s self-justification for killing the androids is open to a more generous reading: Deckard is a bounty hunter tasked to track down the androids and kill them and is coping with the cognitive dissonance by dehumanizing and demonizing them – ”Rick liked to think of them that way; it made his job palatable”. As a Mercerite he is ”free to locate the nebulous presence of The Killers wherever he saw fit” – but since the Buster Friendly later reveals that Mercerism a fraud (Mercer is exposed as an actor, Al Jarry, and the ”tomb world” is revealed to be a studio set) this suggests that any distinction between humans and androids based on empathy is equally fraudulent, and Deckard’s justification for killing the androids is undermined.
There is an irony here, of course: in defining those who lack empathy as inhuman – ”so emotionally defective that the word ‘human’ could not be applied to them” – he effectively creates an argument for treating them inhumanely – ”to wipe them out”.
It’s not the androids who are the Nazis, it’s the bounty hunters who hide behind bureaucratic procedure, medical discourse and quasi-mystical hero worship who are the real Killers.
It’s not the androids who are the Nazis, it’s the bounty hunters who hide behind bureaucratic procedure, medical discourse and quasi-mystical hero worship who are the real Killers.
- Aldiss, Brian (1975) ”Dick’s Maledictory Web: About and Around Martian Time-Slip” in Science Fiction Studies # 5 = Volume 2, Part 1 = March 1975
- Alvarez, Joe (2011) ”Joe Scarborough: People Like James Holmes May Be ‘Somewhere On The Autism Scale’”
- Asperger, Hans  ”’Autistic psychopathy’ in childhood” (translated and annotated by Uta Frith, 1991, in Frith, U (1991) Autism and Asperger syndrome
- Baron-Cohen, Simon (2001) ”Theory of mind in normal development and autism” (pdf)
- (2004) The Essential Difference
- (2010) ”Empathic Civilization’: Do We Have Empathy Or Are We Just Good Rule Followers?”. Huffington Post # 3rd March 2010
- (2011) Zero-Degrees of Empathy (aka The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty)
- (2011) ”Simon Baron-Cohen Replies to Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg” at Autism Blogs Directory
- Batson, C., Lishner, D., Cook, J., and Sawyer, S. (2005). ”Similarity and Nurturance: Two Possible Sources of Empathy for Strangers”. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 27, 15‐25.
- Bettelheim, Bruno (1959) “Joey: A ‘Mechanical Boy”. Scientific American # 200, March 1959
- Blakeman, John (2010) The Merger of Fact and Fiction: Philip K. Dick’s Portrayal of Autism in Martian Time-Slip
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