“You androids,” Rick said, “don’t exactly cover for each other in times of stress.”
Garland snapped, “I think you’re right; it would seem we lack a specific talent you humans possess. I believe it’s called empathy.”
So responds a villain android in Philip K. Dick’s science fiction novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), the original work from which Ridley Scott based his groundbreaking neo-noir sci-fi film Blade Runner (1982). In the dystopic deindustrialized world of Blade Runner, humans are escaping a dying Earth and colonizing other planets. To aid in the colonization, a genius inventor known as Tyrell creates a product-line of humanoid robots called “replicants,” whose sole purpose is to serve humans. These replicants are made to look exactly like human beings, created with a blend of both mechanical and biological elements. They replicate human beings with such precision, in fact, that it is nearly impossible to discern who is and is not human.
The tension mounts when a group of replicants, conscious of their ability to rebel and tired of forced servitude, decide to go rogue. They knock off their human owners and catch a cargo ship back to Earth. Enter the blade runners—police investigators whose mission is to search for and “retire” (kill) the rebel replicants. But this is no easy task. For if these replicants are so inescapably human—indeed, as their creator, Tyrell, claims, “more human than human”—how does a blade runner know if he is “retiring” a replicant or an actual person? Therein lies the rub.
How do we know who is human and who is not? What does it mean to be an authentic human versus a replicated human? These questions hang everywhere throughout the original story, and with the release of Blade Runner 2049, they have been re-upped for cultural dialogue.
In Dick’s original novel, the answer to these questions comes with a theme replete throughout the narrative: empathy. What makes a human compared to a replicant is the subject’s capacity to show empathy. This is the blade runners’ wager: as long as they can determine empathy in a person—assessed through a special test—they can be certain that the person is actually human. If there is no indication of empathy, they have the verdict: replicant. The risk is too high to fail in their assessment.
In a decaying world like Blade Runner, as in ours, the quest for human survival and flourishing is paramount. Could it be that empathy is one of the vital elements that can lead to flourishing? If so, what does it look like?
Empathy can be defined as the capacity to think and feel emotions of another person from within their frame of reference. Research professor Brené Brown has shown that empathy doesn’t require that we have the same experiences as another person, but that we intentionally connect with their emotions and thoughts (Daring Greatly, 81). Or, as another psychologist has put it, we seek to “enter their mind-space.”
In a study done by the University of Virginia, researchers found that as humans we are hardwired to show empathy, because we naturally tend to associate people who are close to us—friends, spouses, lovers—with our very selves. This is empathy generated by relational proximity. The UVA study goes on to say that “perhaps one of the most defining features of humanity is our capacity for empathy—the ability to put ourselves in others’ shoes.”
To go further, the biblical narrative suggests that we have the ability to show empathy with other humans because we are created as imago Dei—in the image of our Creator, who himself understands and empathizes with our humanity and weaknesses (Ps. 103:14; Heb. 2:14-18). From the beginning of the story, the imago Dei is presented as a collective identity of humanity. We all equally share in the privilege of being formed in God’s image. None of us is alien to another human being. We are all card-carrying imago Dei.
When we find ourselves in this shared identity, our intrinsic capacity to express empathy comes out as a core built-in function of the imago Dei. It is unavoidably germane to our existence. The original book by Philip K. Dick entertains the possibility of humans even empathizing with replicants, as the protagonist blade runner, Rick Deckard, begins to show concern for certain replicants, more so than he does certain humans.
If humans reside in this divinely created identity, and therefore can behave in empathic ways, what does this say for replicants? They are robot copies of humans. They are created in the imago hominis. Can they experience empathy with humans, or at least with other creatures in imago hominis? Could this be part of what makes them more human than human?
The answer is no, for a couple reasons. Replicants do not share a founding narrative in which to situate their values and ethics. They do not have a history in the same way humans do. For one thing, they are of recent origin. As machines, they were designed for a brief shelf-life. They are built. They operate a few years. They terminate. Their combined past, present, and future is relatively short.
Further, they do not own personal life-narratives in the same way that humans do. Replicants do not have the privilege of having “grown up” in the world, with all the joys, sorrows, successes, and failures that come with human narratives. Though Tyrell downloads memories into their brains—to help them act more human—these artificial recollections are mere mind-pictures. There is no existential significance attached to their in-planted memories.
With no collective history and no individual life-narrative, replicants have no grounding, no context in which to define themselves. They live in space, but not time. They are free-floating, with no tethering to a founding narrative. For to have a story is to be grounded in a contextual framework, to find meaning and purpose from where you have been and where you are going. Without this story-framework, replicants have no way to situate their values and ethics. It has been observed that Blade Runner is a quintessential postmodern film in that it explores the reality of a person seeking meaning and worth without an established story (113). Empathy is problematic and ultimately irrelevant without a metanarrative on which to base one’s self and purpose.
For humans, however, the converse is true. Every one of us is part of the macro-story of human history, which gives us a contextual basis for living. Each one of us has a distinct personal backstory, for better or for worse. Our backstories contain varying degrees of brokenness, engendered by past sin-induced behavior and circumstances. This brokenness leads to a universal symptom from which we all suffer: shame. Humans with shame can empathize with each other, because they have shared experience. They have an innate talent for empathy by way of mutual emotion and experience.
Replicants cannot empathize with each other, nor with other creatures, because they do not suffer shame. As Brown has observed, “The only people who don’t experience shame lack the capacity for empathy and human connection” (68). When replicants are tested with questions of situational ethics, they may respond logically, but they do not demonstrate an empathic response. The blade runner’s assessment of a replicant results in a lack of genuine empathy, because the necessary intangibles of story-formation and shame are absent. They simply do not have the instinctive aptitude for empathy as do humans.
Now it could be argued the same for humans. What if there are exceptions to this rule of shame and empathy? Surely, there are those people whose default behavior is so driven by ego and selfish desire, they have become blind to their own shame, and, like replicants, are sorely lacking in empathy. Have they become unqualified to empathize? Or what about humans with mental impairments or children whose mental faculties are still in process of maturing? Does their apparent deficiency make them less human, and therefore unable to empathize? If Brown’s observation above is correct, it would seem here the logic of the imago Dei breaks down.
However, two responses are warranted.
First, if a human is not displaying the natural symptoms of shame, it does not mean necessarily he or she is devoid of it. The expressions of shame might be suppressed and controlled, but they cannot ultimately be hidden. Shame will always be present because of their sin. People may be severely lacking in empathic behavior, but that does not mean they are completely incapable of it. For we all know those moments when empathy, to greater or lesser degrees, has been noticeably absent from our lives. Indeed, our very realization of this lack is a mark of shame itself: our deepest weaknesses and suffering inevitably points us to the need for healing and renewal.
Second, sin and its resulting shame do not destroy the imago Dei. They only distort it through the marring and scarring of brokenness. A human may show inhuman characteristics, and seem unaware of their shame, but they do not cease to be imago Dei. Their core identity is not lost on the ravages of sin.
If being an authentic image-bearing human is a prerequisite to showing empathy, how might this empathy be expressed? How does empathy lead us toward greater flourishing as humans?
One way is through vulnerability. In his book Strong and Weak, Andy Crouch argues that human flourishing comes not through personal strength but through weakness. Showing empathic concern for someone requires that we make ourselves transparent, allowing others a window into our own struggles and sufferings—our own shame. This means we can set aside our authority or expertise in a matter, in order to achieve greater development and growth, both in us and in others. According to Crouch, “The most transformative acts of our lives are likely to be the moments when we radically empty ourselves, in the very settings where we would normally be expected to exercise authority” (151).
When people see us for who we really are, in all of our flaws and imperfections, they find deeper connection, discovering they are, in fact, not alone in their weakness. This will in turn produce reciprocated vulnerability, which leads to a replicated empathy, as it were. The environment of self-disclosure is a perfect habitat for empathy, as it provides a safe space for humans to be vulnerable about their shame and weaknesses. In the times where I have become vulnerable and shared openly about my weaknesses—which in the moment is challenging and seems so counterintuitive—I have witnessed the breakdown of pretenses and inhibition in others, and experienced mutual empathy from them.
Another way is through humble listening. Often, as humans we are prone to drawing immediate judgments and conclusions about someone and their beliefs, instead of patient listening, observation, and understanding. To borrow from the apostle James, empathic listening means we are quick to understand and slow to make assumptions. And, of course, slow to become angry (James 1:19).
Nowhere else do we find this implication more poignant than on social media—an environment often conflicting with, rather than cultivating, empathy. In social media, we often settle into echo chambers, where we listen only to, and share the same assumptions of, those with whom we agree, effectively blocking out other voices. When we enter into a disagreement, we do not genuinely seek first to listen and understand. Our only goal is to be right and win the day. We want to express power and authority, rather than humility and vulnerability. Empathy can never thrive in an atmosphere in which honest and patient listening does not exist. Indeed, a lack of empathy often shuts down the conversation.
Not that interacting on social media is inherently wrong—it is a good way to interface with a wider community. But here lies the difficulty: Fully listening and understanding other image-bearing humans from within their frame of reference requires that we pursue real face-to-face interaction with them. Close proximity, eye contact, facial expression, tone, touch, all these non-verbal aspects—when demonstrated in healthy, sensitive ways—set us up for a deep empathic encounter with a person. Add in a meal or a cup of coffee, and you have one of the most common yet profound experiences known to humanity. It is striking that the incarnate God chose this strategy as well, even among those who disagreed with him.
A digital environment like social media will always bring a certain measure of artificiality to human interaction, because it is merely a medium of communication. It is not a real, in-person, flesh-and-blood encounter. As pastor and author Cole Brown has said, in a manner so basic yet profound, “Empathy comes from time with people, not time on the internet.” We can best practice vulnerability and empathy with other humans while in the flesh. If we only live and interact in a digital world, we might actually become less human.
This way of empathy-through-vulnerability is compelling to us because it runs counter to our culture of authority and power. When we see other humans exhibiting weakness, it has a melting effect on us. Our thirst for power and control is rendered irrelevant. We feel free, alive, and refreshingly more human.
If Philip K. Dick is accurate in his picture of empathy and what it means to be truly human, then we have a precious touchstone for what it looks like to flourish. Indeed, the act of an empathic encounter with the imago Dei could be one of the greatest and most abiding virtues we have for a dying world.