BLADE RUNNER, Ridley Scott, 1982

Blade Runner and the Problem of Consciousness

This cult-classic film centres on the main character Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) who makes his living as a bounty-hunter in a futuristic Los Angeles. His job is to hunt down and kill (retire) ‘replicants’. Replicants are essentially robots designed to look and act like humans. They are purpose built to work in dangerous conditions on off-world colonies. The film picks up with Deckard being given the assignment to pursue four replicants that have escaped their colony and have returned to earth, for reasons that are initially unknown.

The character Rick Deckard is loosely based on Raymond Chandler’s wisecracking, hard-drinking character Philip Marlowe. Philip Marlowe is your archetypal hard-boiled crime fiction novel character. He’s the guy in a darkly lit office that we gaze down at through a spinning fan. He stares through his blinds with a whisky in one hand and cigar in the other. Now this is pretty much Deckard, the character played by Harrison Ford. This is what led the producers of Blade Runner to think that it would be a huge success. Harrison Ford, fresh from Star Wars and Indiana Jones, essentially acting like a futuristic Humphrey Bogart. But it didn’t really pan out that way. The characters are not as black and white as their film noir counterparts. They are complex and unpredictable, almost unsatisfying. The villains are not necessarily bad; they have motives which we are naturally sympathetic towards. Deckard doesn’t really come across as good per se. The reason he tracks down the replicants is because he has no choice. Combine all this with an ending that asks more questions than it answers and your left with what was inevitably a financial flop. The producers did try to change this.

At the time of production Warner Bros had a legal right to cut whatever they chose out of a film if it ran over two hours. The original rough cut of Blade Runner had a running time of four hours. It was an unrefined piece of Ridley Scott’s vision of the script but it was a mess. It was a mess of a masterpiece. (1) Now unsurprisingly the powers that be took over in an attempt to simplify the film. They took out a vital dream sequence involving a unicorn and added a clunky voice-over to explain the processes going on in Deckard’s head. The ending was changed to a shot of Deckard and Rachael driving off into the horizon – which is actually stock footage from Stanley Kubrick’s film, The Shining. All the subtleties were taken out. Since its release in 1982 pressure for Ridley Scott’s original vision of Blade Runner to be made available grew until in 2006 The Director’s Cut was released. This is the version we will be focusing on in this paper.

It is possible to talk about anything and then relate it to some aspect of Blade Runner but there are undoubtedly some overwhelming themes that jump straight out. One of which is the issue of what makes us human. This is a question which has no definitive answer, however progress can be made if we address a more specific issue; the problem of consciousness.

Consciousness, as defined by David Chalmers is the “The subjective quality of experience” (Chalmers: 1996). It is not the experience itself, but the feeling of having that experience. To elaborate, If we were, to say, have an experience of pain it seems possible, at least theoretically, that we could remove all the physical goings on in the brain (the neurons firing, the behavioural responses etc.) and still be left with an unaccounted for remainder; the feeling of pain. To borrow a term from Nagel, the what it’s like-ness of the experience. It is this phenomenon, this first person subjective experience that defines who we are yet it remains a complete mystery. This is what makes it such an engaging problem. Where does it come from?

For Chalmers this is a question that cannot be answered by science in its current form. This is essentially because science is a third person discipline; it looks from the outside in. It can solve the so called ‘easy’ problems of consciousness. It can look at the brain and explain how we talk, how we walk and how we are sometimes awake and then asleep, and so on. But it can not explain where our first person subjective experience comes from. How can we recover consciousness, a first person phenomenon, from the third person perspective of science? Chalmers infamously labeled this, the hard problem. To bridge the gap between the 3rd person and the first, physics at its most fundamental level needs to adapt. Chalmers mysteriously says “physics need something extra” (Chalmers: 1996). It’s an odd idea but not unfounded. Total overhauls of fundamental theories of nature have happened. For example, to explain electro magnetic phenomena Maxwell had to go beyond the fundamental entities that were all ready accounted for – space, mass and time – and introduce the new fundamental property of electro charge and the new fundamental principles of electro magnetism. Maxwell didn’t so much add a new piece to the game but added a new part of the board itself. In this sense science is a language which we use to explain the universe. What Chalmers is saying is that we need to expand science’s vocabulary so that we can account for consciousness. Until this happens science is speechless when addressing the hard problem.

It is important to note that this is not to say that science could not build a conscious being. Rather if such a being were to be built it would not naturally follow that we would then understand consciousness. As Chalmers claims, correlation is not explanation. The problem lies in identifying consciousness. And this brings us right back to Blade Runner. Are the replicants conscious? It is clear that the replicants are designed to be physically identical to humans. They are certainly intelligent, in many ways they are more intelligent than the humans we encounter in the film. But does this make them conscious?

They seem to have subjective experience. There is one scene in which the replicant Leon, played by Brion James, dips his hand into some extremely cold and scientific looking goo. He leaves it submerged in the sub zero liquid and then he slowly removes it. You could say that this is an act of intimidation – aimed at the human who is in the room with him. But if you look closely at this replicant’s expression as he stares at his goo covered arm, there seems to be a gaze there; a subjective spotlight. He seems to genuinely experience the feeling of what it is like to feel cold. (2) With this in mind we could claim that the replicant, at least at this stage, is conscious. But we cannot know – this is precisely the hard problem. How can we look at a face and say with a hundred percent certainty that the being behind it is conscious. If we define consciousness as Chalmers does, then we cannot.

Yet it is Deckard’s job to do this. He looks at faces and infers what is going on in the subjects’ minds. He does this with the aid of a device called the Voight-Kampf machine, which we are introduced to early on in the film. It is a device which closely monitors the reactions of the subject as they are asked seemingly irrelevant and surreal questions. It is defined in the original script as:

A very advanced form of lie detector that measures contractions of the iris muscle and the presence of invisible airborne particles emitted from the body. The bellows were designed for the latter function and give the machine the menacing air of a sinister insect. The VK is used primarily by Blade Runners to determine if a suspect is truly human by measuring the degree of his empathic response through carefully worded questions and statements. (Bukatman: 1997)

What is key here is that what distinguishes a replicant from a human is an emotional capacity. So it is this something else, this emotional capacity that cannot, or perhaps was chosen not to, be built into a replicant. This is an important distinction. If science, in the Blade Runner universe has the ability to create a fully conscious replicant then why have they not done so? We could guess that such a restriction would be maintained in order to keep the distinction between the replicant and the humans as clear cut as possible. However there is a lot of evidence in this film to suggest that this is not the case. At the start of the film we are introduced to a replicant called Rachael who has been made with false memories installed in her brain, so as to add substance to her sense of identity. The fascinating thing about Rachael is that she thinks she is human. I’ll cover this idea later but for now it is important to note that Rachael’s existence suggests that there is no curbing of scientific advancements in place. Rather it seems that man is slowly building increasingly advanced replicants until a tipping point is reached, a boundary is broken and a conscious being is created. It is my view that Blade Runner is set during this tipping point of humanity – a stage at which man has created a neural correlate of consciousness but is unable to explain it. The Voight-Kampf machine, during the timeline of the film, becomes outdated. In the beginning we are told that it takes twenty questions to identify a replicant and then later on we find it takes over a hundred to identify a newer model. How many questions would it take to recognize the next model of replicant? It is therefore not unfounded to claim that two generations on from the replicant Rachael that there would be no way of telling who is human and who is not. In such a circumstance the hard problem would still remain because as we have seen correlation does not mean explanation.

So we are left perhaps in a place where we no longer have to define what makes a replicant and instead have to focus on what makes a human. This is a question addressed throughout the film by Deckard. At the start the distinctions are clear; we are told, as Deckard is, that there are them and us. There are four of them and they all need to be killed because they are not us. The Voight-Kampf machine weans out the non-human by identifying a sub-human amount of emotion within the subject. There are us, them, and a machine to tell the difference. Yet the strict distinction between these identities is brought into question by the creeping doubt that Deckard is perhaps not human. We are not aware of this idea until Deckard meets Rachael; a replicant who thinks she is human. During this encounter the head of the Tyrell Corporation mockingly asks Deckard if he has used the Voight-Kampf machine on himself. From this point on we become increasingly aware of just how little we know about Deckard. We have no idea of where he comes from or what led him to become a Blade Runner. All we have to go on are his actions in the film and as we have seen this is not very much at all. Our supposed stable sample of what makes a human is no longer grounded. The attempt to decide whether Deckard is a human or not on the basis of his actions becomes an impossible task because it is clear that our criteria for what makes us human is no longer suitable. What we gather to be human acts are done by replicants and what we regard as non-human acts are carried out by humans.

For the philosopher Daniel Dennett this problem is a lot more clear cut then I have so far made out. We have pretty much spot on criteria for what makes a human because we are defined by our biology. We are the neurological activity of our brain, nothing more. The problem of consciousness for Dennett is a result of mistaking a “failure of imagination with an insight into necessity” (Dennett: 1995). It is the classic God of the gaps theory that Dawkins puts forward – anything which science has not yet explained is seen as proof of the existence of God, or in this case consciousness. And this, for Dennett, springs from a natural tendency to mystify that which we don’t understand. Such a tendency is apparent in our experience of watching a magic trick. We want there to be something more but in reality there is just a serious of movements some of which are concealed from view. This may not be a very satisfying answer but it is for better or worse, the answer. The same applies for consciousness – we may claim that there is this unique what it’s like-ness, the subjective experience which is only available to you, but in reality once science has accounted for a brain state we have no need for anything else.

Dennett makes this explicit in his paper, What Robo Mary Knows, in which he picks apart a thought experiment made famous by Jackson. To briefly summarize: a woman called Mary is kept in a black and white room and taught everything there is to know about the science of colour without actually experiencing it. Mary is then released into the world full of colour. Our intuition tells us that when Mary looks at, for example, her first red tomato that she has learned something new, something which she could not have learnt without experiencing the phenomenon first hand. Dennett’s claim is that in this case, as in most cases, our intuition is just plain wrong. Mary knows everything she needs to know in order to fully understand what it is like to see the red tomato. She knows what red is going to look like before she has seen it. So for Dennett there is no privileging of the first person subjective aspect, it cannot grasp things which are ungraspable by science.

This leaves us with a concept of consciousness stripped down to its bear minimum. In our brain at one time we have multiple drafts of sensory experience whirling round. There is no Cartesian theatre which this sensory data arrives at to be viewed; rather there are numerous unconscious parts of the brain which process these electro impulses. Some of the events that happen in the brain become “famous”. Fame, for Dennett, is a phenomenon in which various events in the nervous system compete for influence. When an event becomes influential they do not acquire any weight or particular significance, they simply hold more sway. As Dennett states, “the stream of consciousness is the succession of differentially influential or famous contents in a particular brain” (Dennett: 1991). In this way there is no necessary unity to the self. We are, by our nature, fragmented. We see the world through our stream of consciousness. Now this stream of consciousness is not innate but rather it is a product of our culture. We have to be taught how to see the world in this way. Human consciousness does not depend on a particular organ within the brain, a so called conscious organ. Rather our brains are adjusted by social interactions as children to the point where a system, made up of micro habits of thoughts, is formed. These ways of reflecting on things, which build upon the original framework of the brain, are likened to software which has been installed on the hardware that is our brain. This software, which Dennett labels the Joycean machine, takes the capabilities of our brain into a specific direction from out of which we view the world as a stream of consciousness.

So to bring us back to Blade Runner. For Dennett it is possible to make a sophisticated replicant and know with a hundred percent certainty that it sees the world in the same way that a human does. We could even know that it feels an experience the same way as we do, providing their sensory organs were wired up the same way as ours. This is possible because unlike Chalmers, Dennett claims to know what makes a human and so it naturally follows that we know how to make one. However in order to make a replicant which is human in every way, a cultural element would have to be introduced. The stream of consciousness cannot be wired into the brain – it must be learned. So while the replicants may have the same hardware as humans they do not have the same software. They were not eased into the world by other humans and taught gradually over an organic life span how to deal with it. They arrived fully made; they really were thrown into existence fully formed yet deficient. They see the world with the same sensory organs as a human would but interpret what they see in a different way. Perhaps with their increasing interactions with humans their way of experiencing the world alters and the Joycean machine starts to take hold of their outlook. But their four year life span is not enough to grant a full transition. The replicants have all the capabilities for being human but they don’t have the time. Perhaps with Rachel and the introduction of memories within the Replicant, the learning process is given a head start. These human memories would be necessarily structured by the human stream of consciousness. Perhaps a memory in a replicant is the seed that is needed to create human consciousness. So it is possible to make the claim, from a Dennettian point of view, that Rachael is human.

My conclusion to this introduction is very brief because there is so much going on within this subject that any concrete conclusions I make will inevitably fall short. What I will say is that I think knowledge of the philosophy of consciousness does enrich the experience of watching this film.  With Chalmers, we could claim that Blade Runner is the story of the hard problem. How any attempt to understand the mind of other people, be they human or replicant, will eventually run itself into the ground. While with Dennett’s we could claim that Blade Runner is the story of how human-identical replicants can be made providing they are taught how to see the world the way we do; through a stream of consciousness. The four renegade replicants seem to therefore fall short of this goal because of the ‘throwness’ of their existence. Although the replicant Batty in the final scene does put forward a strong case to suggest that he is conscious in the way that we are. (3) Rachael, and perhaps Deckard (depending on whether he is a replicant or not) seem to match the bill as conscious beings. The first two conscious beings made by man. If this is how we choose to see the film then extra weight is added to the relationship that forms between the two; a relationship which has all the hallmarks of love.

These are obviously just two interpretations which I have possibly, for some of you, crow-barred into this film. But I think there is some substance in the idea that the problem of consciousness is an integral part of the story of Blade Runner.

Tim Pullham

(1) It was a “messterpiece”.

(2) Or perhaps an awareness of the lack of such a feeling.

(3)The last line in particular suggests this


Chalmers D, (1996) The Conscious Mind. London, Oxford University Press

Bukatman S, (1997) Blade Runner. Michigan, British Film Institute

Dennett D C, (1995) Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. London, Penguin Books

Dennet D C, (1991) Consciousness Explained. London, Little, Brown & Company.