The Nature of Humanity: Commentary on Blade Runner

Ruiyan Xu

In cognitive science and neuroscience, one will occasionally encounter a vehemently defended opinion on the difference between the mind and the brain. Although it is fairly accepted that the mind is the brain currently, nevertheless some cling to the notion that the mind is, in effect, a higher entity than the brain; that the brain, although being the biological basis for the mind, is not the mind itself.

This sort of romanticism extends to our entire physical beings as well. Most major religions in the world believes in an afterlife: the continual existence of an entity(whether it be a soul, a spirit, a ghost, etc.) after the death of the physical self. Whether it takes place in reincarnation or heaven/hell, the notion we seem to adopt is that what makes us human is not the body that we occupy. In the ability to transcend our shells, we know that somewhere, some intangible exists that makes us a part of humanity.

In Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, and Bubble Gum Crisis, though, it seems that we are not so tolerant towards those who don't possess the physical bodies that we are allowed to pass in and out of. The cyborgs in each of the three films all possess intangibles that we ourselves value as part of our humanity. The contrast of their humanity to those of their pursuers -- the "true" humans, is startling.

I found the character portrayal especially fascinating in Blade Runner. Disregarding for a moment the theory that Deckard is a replicant (for most of the film, the spectator can identify with him both because of his position as protagonist and also the assumption that he is human), he is, as his ex-wife calls him, "a cold fish." Seemingly betraying no signs of emotions, Deckard is wary but also indifferent. If he has a spirit, we certainly can't find it. The replicants, however, possess both emotions and memories. The antithesis of Deckard is Batty, replicant in his construction but human in his wants and desires. His sense of self-preservation, his love for Pris, his seeking out Tyrell (his "father") are all demonstrative of his humanity. In the end, Batty displays perhaps what could be described as one of the most telling emotions of humans -- compassion, by helping Deckard. With the nail through the palm of his hand -- Batty becomes almost a Christ-like figure. Born not of this world but to this world, stronger, purer, but still retaining an essential humanity through which they relate to the world.

All this being said, what exactly is the difference between cyborgs and humans? If one believes that the physical and biological construction constitutes our humanity, then the cyborgs in question are very different creatures than ourselves. But if we insist that our souls transcend our bodies, perhaps we can grant that cyborgs have souls too -- and that their souls make them, at times, as much or even more human than members of our own species.

[To other discussions of this topic by members of English 111, Cyberspace and Critical Theory, Spring 1998.]

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