NOTES: Blade Runner, Descartes and Sartre


Jean-Paul Sartre   1905 -1980

Some philosophers, like Alan Turing, argue that there is no important difference between an android and a human because the human brain is a kind of computer that processes inputs (the things we sense) and generates outputs (our behavior).

Jean-Paul Sartre disagrees with Turing’s argument. According to Sartre, there’s an enormous difference between a human artefact, such as a computer, and a human being. In Existentialism and Human Emotions, he claims that “existence precedes essence” in human beings alone.3 In other words, we are first born, we first exist, and only later choose the nature or essence we will have. In choosing our essence, we differ from any manufactured thing, a thing in which essence precedes existence. Rather than use Sartre’s example of a paper cutter to explain this concept, let’s substitute an android. Suppose a genetic engineer decides to manufacture an android. This engineer knows what he is making; that is, he knows the essence of the android, and he knows how the android will be used before he begins creating it. In other words, the android’s essence exists in the genetic engineer’s mind before the android is actually manufactured. If by the essence of the android we mean the procedure by which it’s made and the purpose for which it will be produced, then the android’s essence precedes its existence. In Sartre’s view, the traditional notion of God leads us to confuse the human with a manufactured item. God is thought of, after all, as the maker of human beings. He knows exactly what He will create before He creates anyone. He knows what each human being will be before He creates him or her, before each one exists. So Sartre insists that the concept of the human in the mind of God is comparable to the concept of the android in the mind of the genetic engineer. Just as the genetic engineer creates each android for a certain purpose, God creates each human for a certain purpose. Neither the human nor the android is a free being; they are determined by their makers. [1]

Rene Descartes 1596-1650

In the opening section of the Les passions de l’âme, a treatise on the early modern version of what are now commonly called emotions.

Descartes [2] refused to accept the authority of previous philosophers. He frequently set his views apart from those of his predecessors. In the opening section of the Les passions de l’âme, a treatise on the early modern version of what are now commonly called emotions, Descartes goes so far as to assert that he will write on this topic “as if no one had written on these matters before”. His best known philosophical statement is “Cogito ergo sum” (French: Je pense, donc je suisI think, therefore I am), found in part IV of Discours de la méthode (1637; written in French but with inclusion of “Cogito ergo sum“) and §7 of part I of Principles of Philosophy (1644; written in Latin).


Descartes described the pineal gland as the “principal seat of the soul.” a mystical chakra point residing right in the middle of your eyebrows. It turns out these ideas aren’t too far off. The small, rice-sized, pinecone-shaped endocrine organ known as the pineal gland sits alone in the middle of the brain and at the same level as the eyes.

Descartes in his Passions of the Soul and The Description of the Human Body suggested that the body works like a machine, that it has material properties. The mind (or soul), on the other hand, was described as a nonmaterial and does not follow the laws of nature. Descartes argued that the mind interacts with the body at the pineal gland. This form of dualism or duality proposes that the mind controls the body, but that the body can also influence the otherwise rational mind, such as when people act out of passion. Most of the previous accounts of the relationship between mind and body had been uni-directional.




Descartes claimed that non-human animals could be explained reductively as automata — De homine, 1662.



Blade Runner



CHARACTERS: Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), Tyrell (owner of Tyrell Corporation), Sabastian (genetic engineer), Rachael (Sean Young, replicant), Leon (replicant), Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer, replicant), Pris (Daryl Hannah, replicant)

SYNOPSIS: Blade Runner is based on the science fiction novel by Phillip K. Dick Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, who also authored the story behind the film Total Recall (1990). Set in the future, around the year 2020, Deckard is a retired law enforcement officer who is coerced back into service for a special mission. A group of enslaved replicants (genetically engineered human-like creatures) revolted on another planet. As the replicants were designed to live for only a few years, they returned to Earth to find a way of extending their lifespan. Deckard must hunt them down and kill them. He visits the Tyrell Corporation, manufacturers of the replicants, and meets Rachael, a worker there who is unaware that she is a replicant herself. Deckard discovers this fact and informs her of it, which forces her to be on the run as well. Deckard tracks down and kills all the rebel replicants but one, and in the mean time shelters Rachael and becomes her lover. The remaining replicant learns from Tyrell (founder of the corporation) that his lifespan cannot be extended. He then expires while in combat with Deckard. Deckard and Rachael make their escape together. The film was nominated for two Academy Awards (art direction and visual effects).


1. A key puzzle raised by Blade Runner is whether we can definitively distinguish between real humans and artificially engineered replicants. Suppose that no test (either objective or subjectively introspective) could show this for sure. Would that mean that a given replicant was indeed fully human?

2. One of the more dramatic philosophical points made in the movie is that we can’t trust our memories: they may have been implanted in us regardless of how true they seem. What is the main reason that we trust our memories as more or less accurate accounts of our past events?

3. Rachael became convinced that she was a replicant when Deckard described some of her private childhood memories to her. What would it take for you to seriously question the truth of your memories and consider instead that they might implanted in you or the result of a drug or mental defect?

4. The director’s cut version of the movie made an alteration to the original theatrically-released story line: at the close of the movie it seems clear that Rachael has a short replicant life-span, rather than a full human life-span. Assuming that she and Deckard safely escape, does this make the ending that much less happy?

5. Another alteration in the director’s cut is that questions are raised about whether Deckard himself is a replicant. What is the main indication of this, and what sort of impact should this have on Deckard, particularly in view of his feelings about Rachael?

6. A moral message of the movie is that it was wrong to enslave the replicants and use them as forced labor since they were so human-like in both appearance and thought process. What would need to be different about replicants in order for us to feel that it was OK to use them for labor?



1. Judith Barad – Blade Runner and Sartre The Boundaries of Humanity

2. Wikipedia  – 

3.  Philosophical Films –