2019: Off-World presents --

Philip K. Dick: Reason, Mind, and Being

Roger D. Cook (rogercook@qwest.com) © Roger D. Cook

This was what happened to all the things that came out of the wet earth, out of the filthy slime and mold. All things that lived, big and little. They appeared, struggling out of the sticky wetness. And then, after a time, they died.

Philip K. Dick
Fragment from the unfinished novel: Gather Yourselves Together

Seldom does there arise an artist or novelist who can change our perspectives and the world we live in by changing the world and us. This is the domain of a creative mind. Philip K. Dick has such a mind. He has achieved numerous acclaims. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep garnered great reviews, and it was made into the classic film Blade Runner. He won the Hugo award for Man In the High Castle, and two of his short stories were made into movies, but in spite of this Philip K. Dick remains underrated, and one possible reason might be that he tackles very difficult topics, topics that may be considered the property of philosophers, priests, and psychologists among others. His social critiques are often satirical and subtle, but scoring. By pointing to the frigidity of the foundations of many of our basic beliefs he manages to expose many of society's shared assumptions for what they often are-assumptions. His approach to the topics he discusses are Phenomenological in that he is non-reductive and interdisciplinary. When posing the question of humanness and artificial intelligence, he depicts the android and human in a variety of roles, from a variety of perspectives, and doesn't flinch. Dick exposes the problems of testing for intelligence as the ultimate criterion of humanness. Human beings are rational, but they have other identifying marks as well. Philip K. Dick asks what we can expect from humans as a mirror to test for androids and the converse of what we can learn from androids as mirrors to test for humanness.

Preliminary considerations of what kind of traits an android might possess are often discussed by proponents of artificial intelligence in questions of philosophy, and linguistics. Philosophy of the mind is concerned with what the brain is construction of as a basis for how to understand how the brain behaves in relation to external causation, neophysical states and various psychological interpretations of mental activity. Philosophers often categorize theories of the mind into materialism, dualism, and functionalism. In order to elucidate the various possible positions taken by P.K.D. I will discuss each of these in turn.

Materialism is the view that the mind is simply a phenomena that is not separated from the brain. The brain is governed by the laws of physics and biology. Materialists believe these two fields can give us the answers of how the mind works and consequently how we act. The materialist's central claim is that the brain and our actions are influenced only by chemicals and the firing of neurons. In short, the material of the brain can have causal power over the material of the world. This view is often espoused by the behavioral psychologists like John Watson and B.F. Skinner. In his article on the mind/body problem philosopher Jerry Fodor puts it this way: "All the talk of mental causes can be eliminated from the language of psychology and philosophy in favor of talk of environmental stimuli and behavioral responses" (p. 114). This material interpretation of brain states makes the problem of causation easy for the materialists to explain.

In light of the view that mental activities have external causal power, there arose two branches of behaviorism that attempted to account for mental causation: logical behaviorism and Central State Identity Theory. According to Fodor, "Logical behaviorism is a semantic theory" (p. 115). This semantic theory is presented in terms of a conditional statement, or, in logical terms, if A then B. This reduction of brain states to the logical statement of the conditional corresponds to the stimuli (if) and behavior (then). For example, if the stove is hot, then I will move my hand. This theory has been criticized as logically reductive and therefore too simple an explanation of how the brain operates, a black box theory which says nothing of the mental states, only of inputs and outputs. It should; however, be emphasized that on a certain level of explanation this causal theory of human behavior often seems to get the phenomena of human actions correct-ad hoc.

Central State Identity Theory states that mental causation is explainable in a hierarchical fashion. The microscopic firing neurons have causal power on the more macroscopic cells. Epiphenomenonal causation allows the microphysical causes to supervene on the macrophysical and, therefore, may account for external causation. A positive aspect of the Central State Identity Theory is that it allows for a discussion of mental states on the microphysical and chemical levels. When I put my hand on a hot stove, the pain shoots up my arm in a neurological fashion, analogous to a line of elastic, through my hand, and arm to the brain which receives the sensation of burning. Consequently, my brain fires more neurons through the spinal column to my muscle, then to my hand. Also, this explanation allows for sensations of an internal nature where emotions are nothing more than the firings of neurons, and various chemical balances.

In order to offer a richer explanation of mental phenomena that can account for our ability to have causal power as well, Roger Pinrose presented an extended version of the Central State Identity Theory in his book, The Emperor's New Mind. In this theory he presents the brain-states as explainable not just by the conditional statement but by the other primitive laws of logic as well: the law of the bi-conditional, the law of negation, and the law of the conjunction. Pinrose states, "An important feature of nerve transmission is that the signals are entirely 'all or nothing phenomena' . . . That gives the action of the nervous system a digital computer-like aspect" (p. 392). He does, however, admit that the brain is more complex than a digital computer because the speed of the signal transfer in the computer is 102 times slower than a signal transfer in the brain due to the number of synapses in the neurons. Synapses are infinitesimally tiny gaps between neurons which neurological transmitters must essentially leap across to reach the next neuron. An extension of this theory also accounts for our ability to learn. This is the most operational theory that the materialists espouse.

Pinrose's Central State Identity Theory accounts for the ability to have empirical causal power, internal causal power of brain states, and also allows us a discussion of the most primitive laws of logic where brain states are concerned. The more primitive laws of logic are what the more advanced laws of logic are founded on. Pinrose's theory is also very similar to the way that a digital computer actually operates.

Dualism is now an unpopular theory among philosophers, cognitive scientists, and the more scientifically inclined. Classical dualism can be found in the writings of many of the world religions. Descartes was a modern philosopher who espoused this view. Dualism is the theory that the world of extension, or the empirical world, and the world of the mind or the soul which is non-physical coexist. The biggest problem with this view is that the dualist has not been able to account for material causation. As Fodor asks, "How can the nonphysical give rise to the physical without violating the laws of conservation of mass, of energy, and momentum?" (p. 114). As a result of the difficulties of dualism, it is a view not advanced by many proponents of artificial intelligence.

The third theory I wish to sketch out is the functionalist theory. The functionalist is not concerned with the stuff or material that a possible thinking thing is made of, biological material and/or Silicon, but with the way that it is put together and works. The functionalist is not hampered by the talk of the material of the possible thinking thing because the material is considered to be hardware and interchangeable. In principle, a computer can be made of any substance. The software is what tells the hardware how to operate. Obviously, the computer metaphor is already strongly at work here, and by drawing on the analogy of a computer to help explain the structure of the brain/mind, the functionalist can account for both mental states- software, and physical states- hardware. By allowing both forms of materialism and Central State Identity Theory to play a part together in functionalism, we can account for mental states in a more complicated way than that allowed by either of the theories separately.

Now, we shall turn to a discussion of logic, algorithms, and Turing machines. In accordance with all the above mentioned theories of the mind, computers function in a strictly logical way. Computers can be seen as input/output devices, in agreement with the conditional statement that permeates the behaviorist interpretation. On another more discreet level, computers function using all the primitive laws of logic, according to the view of logical behaviorism. Finally, the view of functionalism compromises these two theories of the mind and allows us to speculate as to whether non-biological entities that are able to perform complex functions are capable of intelligence.

Computers can be seen to be logical processors in the sense that they are "black box" systems where you can give one an input and it will return an output with out recourse to what actually occurs in the "black box." On another level, the computer can be seen as having internal functions as various inputs and outputs functioning simultaneously, but all of these input and output functions are the products of the computer's logic circuits and algorithms. A logical circuit is another input/output device. Computers operate in what is referred to as a binary language or in a base 2 number system. This allows the functions of computers to be consistent with that of first order logics. The signal is either all there or it is not. Recall that Pinrose gives an account where the firing neuron behaves in almost exactly the same as the way logic circuit works.

An Algorithm is a procedure that one follows to solve a math problem, operate a system, or any number of other things. The mathematician Keith Devlin defines algorithm as "a step by step method for performing some kind of calculation . . . instructions should be complete and unambiguous . . . examples of algorithms are the rules for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division of numbers" (Devlin p.134).

Proponents of artificial intelligence speak of Turing tests as a way of testing whether computers possess intelligence. Pinrose states that in order to test we "simply ask that it behave as a human being would" (p. 6). Furthermore, we "would say that the computer thinks provided that it acts; indistinguishably from the way that a person acts when thinking". The operational aspect characterized by the Turing test possesses a few problems which P.K.D. explores. For instance, a person could ask a computer to perform a huge calculation which might give the computer away as it would violate the Turing criterion. The operational aspect of a Turing test calls for the subject to act "indistinguishably from the way that a person acts when thinking" (Pinrose p.6). Due to the difficulties of the Turing test, rules are set up to keep the test fair. Most importantly, the communication between the testers and computers is performed via terminals. Also there are a number of people mixed in with the computers to cast a measure of doubt on the testers as to whether they are indeed speaking to humans. Of course, if computers were to look like humans, the first criterion would be no longer needed. Philip K. Dick examines this problem in his many of his stories and in his discussions of androids and humans.

In his stories, Philip K. Dick exploits the functionalist criterion that the software is important to intelligence independent of the software that tells the hardware how to operate. He also constantly points out the difficulties of using the operational criterion of Turing tests as a measuring device for intelligence and other human qualities. In the process of pointing out the above-mentioned difficulties, he attempts to generally define what it is to be human being, or to run human software, in the functionalist's language. P.K.D. insists that a true human possesses four qualities that the materialist, dualist, and functionalist do not recognize: empathy, paranoia, autonomy, and being.

P.K.D. worked out his preliminary idea of what it is to be human in 1955 with a story entitled "Human Is." In an end note about this story he says that, "It's not what you look like . . . It's how you are" (p. 380). This is part of the criterion of what a human is for P.K.D. Of course, this alters what a test would be for P.K.D. as well. In this story, "Human Is", the main character, Jill Harrick, is married to a scientist, Lester. Lester is constantly criticizing her for making "value judgments" (p. 257). When she tells him that she wants her nephew to come to stay with them, Lester rudely refuses to allow it because, as Jill tells her brother, "childish laughter and play bothered Lester" (p. 258). As luck would have it, when Gus, Jill's nephew, shows up at her house, her husband gets called off on a trip to an ancient civilization on another planet. While Lester is gone, Jill tells her brother that she plans to leave him because "He's so-so inhuman. Utterly cold and ruthless" (p. 259).

When Lester comes back he is polite and warm. He speaks in metaphors now rather than the rough analytic scientific manner that he spoke in before. Jill tells her brother of Lester's change in attitude, and her brother gets the police to arrest Lester. His' body was taken over by the software of an alien. In order to kill the alien intelligence, and recover Lester's software, they have to get Jill's testimony. Of course, she refuses and lives happily ever after with Gus and Lester.

For P.K.D. the human who is cold and calculating is less human than the alien who is more humane, warm, and sensitive. In this case alien software operates in human hardware which is consistent with the functionalist analogy between hardware and software where the software is what is important to intelligence, and in P.K.D.'s case, it is empathy and consequently humaneness. In this story, the alien enjoys life, he make Jill's life complete, so complete she decides that he, the alien intelligence, is the real human she wants to stay married to.

In order to cloud the functionalist criteria, P.K.D. usually has characters who are biologically human but tend to be less than human, and, at times, less human than some of the androids or aliens in his stories. For P.K.D, there may be a time when a biological non-human becomes a human. It is central to P.K.D. to understand that if an android learns to be empathetic, it is, in some sense, more human, and if a biological human does not have the ability to be empathetic, then it is less than human, or possessing of an android mentality.

In the novel, We Can Build You, the plot is partly based on the manufacturing of "simulacra" or synthetic humans. The main character, Louis, operates a "mood organ" business. Pris, the schizophrenic daughter of one of his businesses partners, Maury, designs first an Edward M. Stanton, then an Abraham Lincoln simulacra. In We Can Build You, the main character, Rosen, falls in love with Pris. Pris is in possession of part of what it is to be human for P.K.D. She possesses the ability to be creative, which is connected to P.K.D.'s autonomy criterion which I will discuss in more detail later. However, she lacks paranoia and the capacity for empathy, "in a crisis she is even colder, more efficient, more in command than ever" (p. 138). Again, P.K.D. trades on the functionalist position when he gives the synthetic Lincoln being, empathy, spontaneity, and other human traits. Rosen says,"I had a natural trust and like for Lincoln and this was certainly the opposite to what I felt toward Pris" (p .182). Rosen likes the human Lincoln and dislikes the biological human Pris. Earlier in this work, the Lincoln gives business advice to the Rosen factory. In fact, the Stanton is made president of the company because of his hard headedness and his ability to make tough decisions. This is an attempt to show that the synthetic humans know more about human nature than the biological humans, because the synthetic humans are more human.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is based on the premise that off- world androids that look exactly like humans return to an earth advanced in entropic decay, where it is illegal to be an android. The crime is punishable by retirement, or death. In this novel as well as We Can Build You, P.K.D. exploits the relationship between human and android in relationship to the idea of testing. Recall that the Turing test is based on an operational testing procedure. If the computer, or android in this context, behaves like a human, it is said to be intelligent, or in this case, empathetic. It is here that P.K.D. clouds what it is to act human according to the proponents of the Turing test. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, P.K.D. has Deckard test for androids by using an empathy box which "measures capillary dilation in the facial area . . . a primarily automatic response, the so called 'shame' or 'blushing' reaction to a morally shocking stimuli" (p. 41). The human presumably reacts without conscious or intellectual reflection. The android has to consider if it should be embarrassed or not and, in the time it takes to decide, the machine detects the indecision. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, P.K.D. has characters that are "chickenheads" who possess low IQs. These citizens are often able to be more empathetically human than the android or the other "real" humans. The operational word here is empathy. This is one aspect of humanity P.K.D. was working towards in his stories Human is, We Can Build You, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. The ability to be empathetic is one important element that separates the humans from the non-humans.

In the article, "The Android and the Human", P.K.D. suggests that we can look to ourselves to learn more about how machines and computers operate. This contrasts with the Functionalist thesis of the analogy between hardware and software in the human, but P.K.D. still trades on this distinction. In this essay, P.K.D. makes two very important claims that are central to his writings. The first claim is focused on androids: "to assign motive or purpose to them would be to enter the realm of paranoia," (p. 186). In a later interview, P.K.D.. stated that, "paranoia is an atavistic sense. It's a lingering sense, that we had long ago, when we were--our ancestors were--very vulnerable to predators, and this sense tells them they're being watched. And they're being watched by something that's going to get them" (p. 1). This paranoia permeates almost all of his stories. P.K.D. is famous for the since of paranoia that his novels and stories convey. In Maze of Death, when Seth and the others find the building, Seth felt fear, "Enormous instinctive fear" (p. 106).

P.K.D. goes on to extrapolate on a second important claim that is central to his idea of what it is to be human. He tells us of his distrust of the government, society, or anyone whose desire is to make obedient persons. P.K.D. says that biological humans can become equivalent to androids or autonoma by "allowing oneself to become a means, or to be pounded down, manipulated, made into a means without one's knowledge or consent" (p. 191). He goes on to say, "Androidization requires obedience. And most of all, predictability" (p. 191).

Dick's account of what it is to be human is very close to Kant's vision of the autonomy of the will as found in The Ground Work for the Metaphysics of Morals. Kant writes, "The will is concerned as a power of determining ourself to action in accordance with the idea of certain laws. And such a power can be found only in rational beings . . . Now I say that man, and in general any rational being exists as an end in himself, not merely as a means" (p. 95). The problem is that computers are more rational than humans, on the whole. They are rigid logic machines which have their foundations on performing algorithms, logic, and mathematical computations. As such, they can be said to be more rational than most, if not all, human beings. However; earlier in the Groundwork, Kant states, "It is impossible to conceive anything at all in the world . . . which can be taken as good without qualification, except a goodwill. Intelligence, wit, judgment, and any other talents of the mind we may care to name . . . can be extremely bad and harmful when the will is not good" (p. 61). It is my contention that the good of Kant's goodwill is none other that Dick's ability to be empathetic.

P.K.D. goes on to discuss another android quality which is that of "an inability to make exception" (p. 201), or, in a manner of speaking, to be dogmatic. This quality is related to his claim of the need to autonomous. The android doesn't know how to be autonomous. P.K.D. points to the parallel between the schizophrenic personality and "android personality." He says that the schizophrenic "thinks rather than feels his way through life" (p. 201) He continues by saying that they both have a "mechanized, reflex quality" (p. 201). This is similar to an insect which is a reflex machine but which is also reflective in a conditioned way but devoid of autonomy. P.K.D. outlines what he takes to be the "authentically human mind" (p. 202). He states that this mind would get bored with repetitious work and do things to "break up the monotony" (p. 202).

P.K.D. claims that "certain agonizing situations create . . . a human where a moment before, there was only . . . clay" (p. 202). Examples of this activity occur in most of P.K.D.'s work. In We Can Build You, he writes about the moment that consciousness is attained for the Lincoln android:

We were . . . watching a living creature being born . . . In the eyes no emotion showed, only pure perceptions of us . . . The black, opaque eyes rolled, focusing, seeing everything and in a sense not picking out any one thing . . . I could glimpse thereby the dreadful fear it felt . . . it was fear as absolute existence. Maybe once we all had lain quietly in that fusion, the rupturing was long past; for the Lincoln it had just now occurred --was now taking place . . . . The basis of life is not greed to exist, not desire of any kind but fear, the fear which I saw here. And not even fear; much worse. Absolute dread. Paralyzing dread so great as to produce empathy (pp. 72-73).

This is very similar to the way the German Existentialist Heidegger states "every being, so far as it is a being, is made out of nothing" (p. 255). This dread of nothing is the core of being. Heidegger states that in the contemplation of negation itself is dread, which reveals nothing. This nothing is the origin of being. For the Lincoln being is manifested when we become conscious, in the very moment of transition from nothing, or negation, to something which possesses consciousness.

In closing we can see that Philip K. Dick manages to reacquaint us with those forgotten aspects of ourselves that we have forgotten, and in a sense, create a human where a moment before there was only clay. Being is essential to empathy, and both are essential to being human. To stay human requires a sense of paranoia and creativity. Yet all these things temper and are tempered by our logical capabilities. We shift and alter in the continuum of humanness according to our context, yet to be human is a gift we who are so have earned.

I mean, after all; you have to consider, we're only made out of dust. That's admittedly not much to go on and we shouldn't forget that. But even considering, I mean it's a sort of bad beginning, we're not doing to bad. So I personally have faith that even in this lousy situation we're faced with we can make it. You get me? The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (p. 206).


Crossley, J.N. What is Mathematical Logic? New York: Dover, 1990.

Devlin, Keith. Mathmatics: The New Golden Age. New York: Penguin, 1988.

Dick, Philip K. A Maze of Death. New York: Vintage, 1994.

---. Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick. Vol. 2. New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1991.

---. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep: Blade Runner. New York: Del Ray, 1982.

---. "The Android and the Human." The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick. Ed. Lawrence Sutin. New York: Vintage, 1995.

---. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. New York: Vintage, 1991.

---. The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick. Ed. Lawrence Sutin. New York: Vintage, 1995.

---. We Can Build You. New York: Vintage, 1994.

Fodor, Jerry. "The Mind Body Problem." Scientific American. New York, 1981. 114-123.

Heidegger, Martin. "The Quest for Being." Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre. Ed. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Signet, 1975.

Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Trans. H.J. Paton. New York: Harper and Row, 1956.