Film & TV

Blade Runner – Part 1: Memory and Identity

Blade Runner is a great example of the Aquarius archetype on film. Based on the Philip K Dick novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the story explores the nature of humanity and the way memories create identity. It flopped when it was first released in 1982, largely due to the unnecessary (and truly awful) voiceover and bizarre happy ending. But after being remastered and reissued, it’s become a classic that continues to provoke arguments over its central question.

Both the film and the novel ask: if you can’t tell the difference between a real human and a fake one, does it matter? The answer might not seem important, but the implications are enormous and cut right to the heart of the meaning of life. It also explores the loss of nature and the commodification of life, corporate control and surveillance, slavery and freedom, perception and self-deception, and existential questions of life and death.

**!!Expect SPOILERS!!**

Blade Runner is set in the dystopian future of Los Angeles in November 2019. Most of the action takes place at night in a cityscape that Ridley Scott describes as “future medieval” on his commentary. Flying cars glide by high-rise buildings lit up with advertising, while down in the slums, crowds of people teem like ants. It’s a high-tech but worn-out world, and the constant rain never washes away the filth.

The story is a sci-fi take on the old noir trope of a detective roaming the mean streets and falling for the femme fatale who gets him in trouble. The detective in question is Rick Deckard, a ‘blade runner’ who is brought back from retirement to do one last job. Blade runners track and kill replicants – bioengineered robots – and a group have just returned to earth illegally.

The replicants were made by the Tyrell corporation and are virtually identical to humans. They were made to be stronger and of equal intelligence, and then sent to work off-world as slaves under conditions no human could survive. Deckard meets the latest model, a Nexus 6 called Rachael, who doesn’t know she’s a replicant, and promptly falls in love with her.

This opens a whole can of existential worms that doesn’t stop Deckard killing the replicants on his hit list. But he meets his match in Roy Batty, who saves his life and demonstrates just how human a replicant can be. Deckard leaves with Rachael, having failed to kill her, and possibly questioning his own status as a human being…

The all-seeing eye

“If only you could see what I’ve seen with your eyes.”

Eye symbolism is central to the meaning of Blade Runner. The film begins with an eye looking out over the city but we never find out who it belongs to. It could be the eye of God, or the watchful eye of a surveillance state, as in Orwell’s Big Brother concept.

Or it could represent you, the viewer, watching the story unfold. The eye draws you in and says: pay attention – this story is about you.

The fire and lights of the city are reflected in the eye, suggesting the myth of Prometheus stealing the fire of the gods to give to humanity. Eyes are also seen as the windows of the soul and this tells us the story is about perception and consciousness.

Eyes are a key part of the plot too. Deckard uses a machine to test the replicants for an empathic response via their eyes. Roy Batty visits ‘Eye World’ to menace the genetic engineer who made his eyes and find out how long he has to live. The engineer tells him to see Tyrell for his answers, the man who designed his mind.

Tyrell himself has bad eyesight – symbolic of his limited vision and hubris – and wears huge glasses that make him look like an owl. Owls are often seen as symbols of wisdom, but their ancient meaning is much darker. To most ancient cultures, owls represented an omen of death and desolation. The owl in Tyrell’s office is artificial, as revealed by the red glow in its eyes. In other words, it’s not really alive – an imitation of life. The red glow is perhaps an indication of the emptiness within: the lack of a soul.

Rachael – the cold dead eyes of a machine, or…?

To test Rachael for signs of humanity, Deckard uses a Voight-Kampff machine that measures certain involuntary responses to a series of questions. The idea is to provoke an emotional response that reveals empathy with other living beings. She fails the test, but is unaware that she’s a replicant. As far as Rachael is concerned, she’s human.

There’s a couple of problems with this. Measuring empathy doesn’t tell you anything about humanity because other animals also experience empathy. What it does show is that the subject has an inner life. The answer to the question of humanity can be found in our ability to think symbolically – in other words, to find meaning in our experiences.

The next problem is whether it’s possible to measure subjective experience using a machine. The machine can only measure the external signs of an inner life. It can’t tell you anything about what the subject is actually feeling or what the experience means to them. It’s a measure of quantity rather than quality.

These problems stem from the materialist assumption that underpins the metaphysics of the modern worldview: that only matter is real and there’s no transcendent reality beyond the physical. This leads to the belief that consciousness is created by the brain and that a human being is just a meat robot.

Materialist science measures the external signs that indicate an inner life but can’t accept the reality of subjectivity. It reduces that inner life to biological signals – electrical or chemical. But that’s not where you find meaning. Humanity doesn’t exist at the level of neurons and neurotransmitters, so the reductionist believes that means humanity doesn’t exist at all.

This way of looking at life misses the point completely. Life and meaning can’t be measured – they can only be lived.

Never caught a mouse in its life…

Leaving aside the dodgy science, the question of whether the replicants are human, or not, comes down to the nature of memory. The story suggests that memory creates identity, but that it’s also unreliable, an idea that’s explored further in the sequel. Replicants have been given fake memories that provide context for their experiences. But Rachael believes her memories are real and gets very upset when she discovers they might not be.

Memories mean you have a past and that you exist through time. They allow you to construct a sense of self by giving you a feeling of continuity. However, your identity is built from all your experiences but you don’t remember most of them, especially the earliest ones. Some of your memories may even be for things that never happened, at least not how you remember them. And what happens if you lose your memory to Alzheimer’s or amnesia? Does that make you less human or less real as a person?

The replicants have photographs of their fake pasts that they use to prove their memories are real. This also makes them feel more real as people. But a photo isn’t a memory and it’s not whatever was photographed either. It’s just a representation of something.

A replicant is a representation of a human being. And a memory is a (possibly accurate) representation of an experience.

Memories are a sign of having an inner life, a characteristic of sentient life forms. But the inner life of a replicant is an implant, a memory from somebody else – a human. So the inner life is artificial. But if that artificial inner life is meaningful to the replicant, does that make a difference? It does to Rachael – it makes her believe she’s real.

Blade Runner asks: If you can’t tell the difference between a real memory and a fake one, does it matter?

Since you can’t tell the difference, perhaps the question should be: what do your memories mean to you? It’s not enough to just have a memory of something, like a spider in your garden, or piano lessons. It’s how the memory fits into your story and relates to everything else in your life that matters. It’s the pattern or context that creates the meaning – the experience that created the memory in the first place.

Deckard has a piano in his apartment, with music on the stand along with a collection of photographs. Rachael tells him she remembers piano lessons but isn’t sure if the memory is hers. She plays a little tune and Deckard says she plays beautifully.

Would it really be possible to learn a practical skill like piano playing from a memory implant? I had piano lessons as a child and can still bang out a tune. But I don’t remember every lesson I had. My ability to play comes from hours and hours of practice drilled into muscle memory embedded in my subconscious.

I can play the piano not because I remember learning, but because I spent years of my childhood actually playing the piano. And it’s the music that makes it meaningful.

Musical notation is a representation of the music itself. The music only comes to life when it’s played. The notation means nothing on its own. In a similar way, memories are strung together into patterns that create a context for your life and only become meaningful when they’re lived and experienced.

Remembering piano lessons means nothing unless you actually play the piano. You are what you do.

Clearly, a human being is more than their memories. You may use memory to construct a self, but who you are is bigger than that. I can’t get into that here, but for another take on this read: Evolution of Consciousness: Army of Me

In part 2 we’ll continue to explore the humanity of the replicants and answer the ultimate question: Is Deckard a replicant? Read Blade Runner – part 2: Awakening to Humanity and Freedom

Images: film stills

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14 thoughts on “Blade Runner – Part 1: Memory and Identity

  1. There’s a couple of problems with this. Measuring empathy doesn’t tell you anything about humanity because other animals also experience empathy. What it does show is that the subject has an inner life. The answer to the question of humanity can be found in our ability to think symbolically – in other words, to find meaning in our experiences.

    There’s a couple of problems with this para.

    We don’t know if animals experience empathy because they can’t tell us. The fact that, say, a monkey might seem to mirror the stress reactions of one that’s been injured doesn’t mean it’s experiencing the same internal states and especially doesn’t mean the first monkey thinks it’s feeling what the other one does – which is what empathy is. In fact there’s a strong argument to be made that empathy is a human delusion developed for social and evolutionary reasons and doesn’t really exist. At least it seems strong to aspies like me (the anthropomorphisation people practice on the supposed internal states of their pets or children on their dolls are good examples of how wonky empathy is).

    We also don’t know whether or not animals think symbolically but the evidence they do is stronger than the evidence they experience empathy. Many animals can be taught to associate stimuli with apparently unrelated things – such as when a dolphin presses a button with a particular shape on it to get a fish or when a cat knows it’s dinner time from the sound of a can opener. But it’s still a big jump to say responding in a certain way implies thinking in a certain way (or even having an internal life at all – see for example the concept of p zombies used by philosophers of the mind).

    I’ve got a bit of a bugbear on this subject as I’ve long lost count of the number of claims I’ve heard that particular internal states are what distinguish people from animals when there is no reliable way to measure such states in animals and often not even in humans. Not to mention the human rights implications for neuro-atypicals who don’t seem to experience such states.

    And of course there’s not just problems with measuring subjective states with a machine. There’s problems measuring them externally at all (whether quantitatively or qualitatively) – including with so-called ‘human’ empathy.

    I’ve been a Dick fan since my early teens and though Blade Runner bears little resemblance to the Dick story I still tended to read it in the same way I read Dick’s novels (e.g. assuming paranoia as a given). So to me the Voight-Kampff test was never about confirming replicant status but – like so much of our ‘science’ – it’s about depersonalising and externalising a value judgement so that we don’t have to take individual responsibility for it. Blade Runners can kill apparent humans without remorse (and society can accept they do so) because an impersonal ‘objective’ process has designated them non-human (as per Nazi style ‘race science’).

    Humanity doesn’t exist at the level of neurons and neurotransmitters, so the reductionist believes that means humanity doesn’t exist at all.

    For the archetypical example of that kind of thinking see Consciousness Explained by the new atheist Daniel Dennett. His less reductionist critics have called the book ‘Consciousness Explained Away’.

    And while narrative memory seems central to our sense of identity I think you’re letting the symbol (i.e. the word ‘memory’) blur the issue a lot when you start talking about muscle memory as if it’s the same sort of thing (much less whether it has anything to do with the subconscious).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lots of good points, thanks Cabrogal. I’m afraid I couldn’t get into it in great detail cos it would’ve ended up way too long, but I could’ve been clearer about the measuring problem. Obviously if you can’t measure empathy from the outside you can’t be sure whether animals experience it. They appear to, but as you say, that could be our interpretation of their behaviour.

      I don’t really know what a human being is. It’s all guess work. I think I was trying to get at the idea of ‘knowing we’re alive’. Of course, we only assume other animals don’t know they’re conscious, so who knows…?

      As an empath, I can tell you it’s absolutely possible to feel what somebody else is feeling. I’ve even been physically ill as a result of picking up other people’s crap that they’re not dealing with. Sometimes it’s like being punched in the gut. And no, I’m not imagining it. And yes, you only have my word for it. 😉

      Again, I wasn’t clear enough about the ‘muscle memory’ thing. I’m not sure how it works, I was just musing to myself about learning to play the piano. The film doesn’t explain exactly what the implants are so there’s not enough information to go on. All I have are questions…

      The depersonalising and ‘othering’ problem comes up in part 2…


      1. As an empath, I can tell you it’s absolutely possible to feel what somebody else is feeling.

        I just can’t see my way around the epistemological problem here. How can you know?

        Wouldn’t performance art seem incredibly inauthentic to you, as you’d ‘know’ the actors were feeling completely differently to how they’re projecting? (Unless they’re method actors I guess.) Surely it would be similar to the feeling many of us get from smarmy marketers and con-artists.

        And BTW, do you think you’d be impossible to con face-to-face because you’d know what the con-artist was really feeling? Do you think you could ’empath’ which one of several closed booths contained a real human with real emotions if the other booths were empty?

        As as an aspie and an Aborigine I can tell you that I’ve had a .lifetime of people telling me they know what I feel, think and want – and getting it dead wrong. These include a friend who is also convinced she’s an empath. I wonder if you’d be as confident in your empathy if you applied it to me and whether your insight would be just as faulty as all the others.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I don’t make any claims to accuracy. I’m not some kind of human lie detector – it doesn’t work like that anyway. Sometimes I’ve been able to verify what I’ve picked up. Mostly it means I get confused by all the mixed signals people send out – everybody lies to themselves to a certain extent and projects an ‘acceptable’ face to the world. People’s emotions are multi-layered and you can feel contradictory things at the same time. So usually people will repress the stuff they don’t like – you know all about that: it’s what they project onto you when they’re telling you what they think you feel.

          So it’s complicated.

          I feel surrounded by ‘bad actors’ and I’m one of them too.


      2. BTW, since this is a sci-fi themed post it’s probably appropriate to point out that the term ’empath’ (and dare I say the entire concept?) originated in an episode of Star Trek.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Call it what you like. Probably ‘clairsentience’ would be a better word – related to all the other ‘clairs’ and the so-called siddhi. Where do you think the writers of Star Trek got the idea?


        2. Where do you think the writers of Star Trek got the idea?

          Well, the origin of an idea is a slippery concept because you can almost always find a very similar idea preceding it, but it’s certainly possible to trace the genre origins of ’empaths’ back to the (in)famous editor John W Campbell and his constant pushing for ‘psi-ence’ in science fiction from his contributors (he was also an early enthusiast of dianetics and often said L Ron Hubbard should have got a Nobel Prize). I think I can say with some confidence that the popularised concept of ’empaths’ as we know it came to the New Age via science fiction.

          But yeah, humans have probably been fantasising about various kinds of mind-reading since the concept of other minds arose, so you can doubtless find empath-like ideas going back a very long way.

          Liked by 1 person

        3. “fantasising” ! You’re not going to let it go, are you?! 😉 Just cos you can’t do it, doesn’t mean it’s impossible. I can’t add up big numbers in my head (or even small numbers, come to think of it), but I know there are people who can…


        4. Doubtless you’ve seen evidence that people can do mental arithmetic. But if nearly every time you saw someone doing a sum in their head they got the wrong answer you’d probably be more skeptical.

          That’s the situation I’m in with empathy.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Hello Ms.Davidson,

    I recently subscribed to your astrological article notifications, and have enjoyed your writing very much. Your articles feel fresh, relevant, and not some redress of some older article l read before as I have felt in some astrological publications.

    With the accelerating ascension of A.I. in our “smart” world, the line will blur one day in our definition of life and consciousness. What kind of world will we see in 50 years? What would a person pulled out of 1969 think about today?

    Thank you and keep on going!

    Liked by 1 person


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