Friday, May 25, 2007
One Reality Out of Many
Following the recent spate of soulless PKD-articles to coincide with the Library of America release (there's a new one I haven't read in the June issue of Wired Magazine), I was pleasantly surprised when a student turned in a far more detailed and thoughtful examination of Dick's philosophy than anything I have seen in the media lately.
One Reality Out of Many
By Adrian Filice
"Everything is true… Everything anybody has ever thought" (Dick 201). This is an important realization for the main character, Rick Deckard, in Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. The novel appears to be a science fiction tale about dangerous androids that have escaped from another planet and must be stopped. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? follows Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter, through his day of tracking down and “retiring” these androids. As we get deeper into the novel, and into Deckard’s (and inevitably Philip K. Dick’s) thoughts and ideas, we see that this book is really not about that at all. Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is actually a profound philosophical reflection on the nature and existence of reality and human beings, loosely shrouded in cheap science fiction.
After reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the two questions I wrote down to discuss in my essay were, “What is reality?” and, “What makes human beings ‘real?’” Interestingly, when I picked up Philip K. Dicks 1978 essay How To Build A Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later, the two topics he lists that fascinate him are “What is reality?” and “What constitutes the authentic human being?” So one idea is that I’m just smart and perceptive and can easily pick up on underlying ideas, but I think Dick would have another explanation. One of the most fascinating ideas that he explores in his essay How To Build A Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later is the concept of time. Basically, he somehow managed to write a book (Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said) that, in many ways, channels the Book of Acts from the Bible. Philip K. Dick states that he had never read the Book of Acts, but many of the stories and situations were the same, even down to the names of the characters. Dick concluded that time must be an illusion, and after exploring various theories, decided that it was 50 A.D. and we’re all just stuck here, waiting for Christ to come back. The film Waking Life, by Rick Linklater (who is almost as obsessed with Philip K. Dick as Professor Gill), discusses Philip K. Dicks essay, and poses a slightly different theory. Linklater (who is actually playing the character who discusses this at the end of the film) agrees that Dick is right about time, that it’s all an illusion. However, he argues that it is not 50 A.D. It is no more 50 A.D. than it is 2007 or 1492. Linklater states that “there is only one instant, and it’s right now, and it’s eternity.”
Another idea that Dick doesn’t specifically address by name but definitely discusses is the theory of collective subconscious. This is the idea everything that anybody has ever thought is out there, in the universe, and everyone has the ability to tap into it at any time. If time is an illusion, and collective subconscious exists, at least for those who choose to accept it, then that would be explain why I wrote down almost verbatim the two questions that interest Philip K. Dick. It would also explain why when I asked my roommate to pick a year between 50 and 2007 A.D., he immediately said “1492,” seconds after I typed the same year. Or maybe we just spend too much time together.
If time is an illusion, how can we explain reality? Well, Webster’s dictionary defines reality as… no, seriously, Webster’s dictionary defines reality. How is that possible? Reality: the quality or state of being real. I thought you weren’t supposed to use the word or any part of it in the definition. Wikipedia seems to be a little better, stating that reality is “the state of things as they actually exist.” However, then you get into the definition of existence. Philip K. Dick, in How To Build A Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later, says of reality, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” Dick also says, just as many before him have said, that when you begin to talk about “what is ultimately real, you right away begin to talk nonsense.” In the discussion of Parmenides, who held that real things never change, and Heraclitus, who taught that everything changes, we find that, based on Aristotle’s system of logic, nothing is real.
One of Philip K. Dick’s most interesting and important ideas is that each person has their own reality. Reality is subjective and each person is experiencing the world in their own way, therefore developing over 6 billion realities, of which no two can be the same. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? he explores the concept of multiple realities in various ways. Many people would probably note the differences in the realities of the androids versus the realities of the humans. In actuality, this is an arbitrary distinction that need not be made. What is important to note is the difference in each character’s reality, whether the character is an android or a human. The androids have no sense or feeling that they are missing anything because they are not human. They feel human; they believe that they are equal to humans. If “everything is true… everything that anybody ever thought,” as stated by Deckard/Dick in the novel, then the androids that think they are human must be human. Another important commentary on the nature of reality is the use of the empathy box and the mood organ. The empathy box is used to connect with other people in order to experience the same reality, in the same instant. Clearly, everyone has a different perception of reality, or they wouldn’t need the empathy box to unify their realities. The mood organ is used to alter one’s reality, a theme that runs through all of Philip K. Dick’s writings.
A key idea that subtly permeates Dick’s work is that of mental illness, specifically schizophrenia. In How To Build A Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later, Dick mentions schizophrenia when discussing plural realities. He argues that the schizophrenic’s world is as real as “our” world, and that we can’t decide which of us is really in touch with “reality.” All we can say is that his reality is so different from ours that we can’t explain them to each other. He subtly implies that schizophrenia is not an illness when he states that breakdown of communication is the “real illness.” In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Rick Deckard and Harry Bryant have a discussion regarding the fact that a schizophrenic would fail the Voigt-Kampff test and appear to be an android due to their “flattening of affect” (Dick 33). Philip K. Dick’s interest in, and defense of, schizophrenia was partly due to the fact that it is a disorder that alters reality, but mostly because he was diagnosed with schizophrenia at a young age, though it is questioned whether he really suffered from it.
The mere fact that Philip K. Dick wrote Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? as a science fiction novel when it is not about science fiction at all mirrors his belief that reality is an illusion, and all things are not what they seem. It is incredible to me that not only is everyone living something that they can’t define, but a vast majority of people aren’t even trying or exploring their own realities. Philip K. Dick explored reality and existence in a way that allows every person who reads Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? to do so with him. He wrapped his philosophical ideas in the appearance of science fiction, so that those looking for a shallow book can have that, and those looking for deeper meaning can have that as well. He approaches philosophy in a way that is not intimidating, and allows common people to be philosophers just like him.