ENGL 202: Science Fiction and Fantasy

English 202
December 1, 2012
Dr. Pennington

Gnostic Philosophy and Mercerism in Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? features several complex themes regarding humans, science, and artificial intelligence; perhaps the most perplexing one being mercerism or philosophy. The human beings are entirely reliant on Mercer, an entity that promises the individual a purpose in life and perseverance by throwing rocks at him or her as they ascend a slope. To access Mercer, one must rely on the empathy box and therefore the humans are completely dependent on the box for any hope that they have in the world. Androids do not have a need for mercerism, but Dick wants his readers to wonder if they, too, feel curiosity about their creator God. According to Freud, dreams of machines represent repressed desires and curiosities about one’s mother or creator (The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works). The title of the novel itself is a question of whether or not the Androids wonder about the existence of God. Dick wants his readers to wonder if faith and empathy are unique to human beings alone and in doing so, he reveals his own wariness with the Christian religion. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Dick’s fears of government-run religion are displayed in the humans’ practice of mercerism while his complex philosophical view is displayed in the androids’ attempted destruction of it and their apparent lack of empathy.

The Spiritual-Industrial Complex greatly resembles mercerism because it was the government’s attempt of reviving religious faith in the country in order to prevent distasteful beliefs in other entities. The Complex was run by the U.S. government and encouraged spiritual worship (mainly Christian denominations) in order to stimulate a “religious revival” and prevent the spread of communism and atheism (Herzog). By 1961, Christian denominations and faiths had roughly 116 million members. Philip K. Dick was baptized and became a member of the Church in 1963, just as the Spiritual-Industrial Complex had begun to slow down in America. Prior to his decision to join the Church, Philip had a startling vision that bears striking resemblance to Deckard’s experience at the end of the novel. When he “looked up into the sky and saw a face…robotic and horrible, it filled a quarter of the sky. And it was watching him…Phil instantly understood that this was what he was afraid of seeing his entire life” (Carrere 100). Horrified, Phil went to his doctor and insisted that the face was more than a hallucination and he told the doctor what John Collier (a British writer of fantastic fiction) had said:     

The universe is a pint of beer and the galaxies nothing but the rising bubbles. A few people living in one of the bubbles happen to see the guy pouring the beer, and for them nothing will ever be the same again. That, said Phil is what had happened to him. (Carrere 102)

In response, the doctor asked Philip if he had seen God. Curious, Dick spoke to a priest about his encounter with the face and was told that he had met Satan. Shortly after, he wished to be baptized and join the Church. In catechism, however, Philip’s doubts began to creep in. He believed that the New Testament sounded like a Science Fiction story, and couldn’t understand why they must eliminate all mysteries from the scripture, but he went ahead with the baptism anyway (Carrere). His spiritual views began to shift into the philosophy that we see demonstrated in the novel.

Struggling with Christian faith and what is “real,” Dick began to question God and finally came to the conclusion that his views closely resemble Gnosticism. Gnostics believe that the world was created by an “imperfect God” and therefore the universe is fatally flawed (Livingston). His Gnostic philosophy can be seen in the androids’ broadcast that revealed Mercer as being a fake:

I found that [Al Jarry] did in actuality make a series of short fifteen-minute video films, for an employer whom he had never met. And as we had theorized, the ‘rocks’ did consist of rubber-like plastic. The ‘blood’ shed was catsup, and the only suffering Mr. Jarry underwent was having to go an entire day without a shot of whisky. (Dick 208)

The androids reveal Mercer as a “swindle,” nothing more than a charade put on for the weak, monotonous human beings in order to keep their hope alive. “Mercer” is an exaggerated imperfect God, with his two-bit acting career and alcoholism. However, when the androids believe mercerism to be finished, the humans still believe it. The humans’ steadfast devotion is a representation of Dick’s struggle with what reality truly is.

Four years after the novel was published, in 1972, Dick finally was able to put a definition of reality into words: “I thought about it and finally said, ‘reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.’ That’s all I could come up with” (Livingston 158). Even when the androids have basically destroyed mercerism and the pious entity of Mercer, the humans continue to believe, and therefore, that faith is reality. When Rick Deckard is at the empathy box, he speaks with Mercer, and the old man replies: “I am your friend, but you must go on as if I did not exist. Can you understand that?…How can I save you, if I can’t save myself? There is no salvation…I am here with you and always will be” (Dick 178). The empathy box also comes into question in the Gnostic philosophy. Dick himself always maintained that “empathy was a rare ability in nature and one that only a few entities could possess, and that perhaps the only being that perfectly manifests this capacity is God” (Sullins 199). Therefore, Dick wants us as readers to constantly question the entity of Mercer, the androids, and even the humans when regarding empathy. Do we truly know what empathy is? Dick does not allow the question to be answered in the text. Furthermore, Dick wants us to question our own identities compared to entities and realize that we, like our creators, are flawed. When Rick questions the purpose of living and doing wrong, Mercer says,

You will be required to do wrong no matter where you go. It is the basic condition of life, to be required to violate your own identity. At some time, every creature which lives must do so. It is the ultimate shadow, the defeat of creation; this is the curse at work, the curse that feeds on all life. Everywhere in the universe. (Dick 179)

What Mercer speaks of is the fact that man is fatally flawed because it was created by an imperfect God, and therefore he is basically re-stating Dick’s Gnostic philosophy. Furthermore, when J.R. Isidore speaks with Mercer, he questions Mercer’s sincerity and Mercer openly tells him:

It is true. They did a good job and from their standpoint Buster Friendly’s disclosure was convincing. They will have trouble understanding why nothing has changed. Because you are still here and I’m still here. I lifted you from the tomb world just now and I will continue to live you until you lose interest and want to quit. But you will have to stop searching for me because I will never stop searching for you. (Dick 215)

Nothing has changed between human beings and the entity Mercer. Even when the androids have completely discredited mercerism and humans undoubtedly question the existence and their belief in Mercer, he still exists. Mercer’s reassurance to Isidore is essential in the novel because it shows that though the theme of mercerism is complex and fraudulent, it still gives the human beings hope and comfort, just like the Church for Philip K. Dick.

As for the androids, they were also made by an imperfect creator: man. They, too, will eventually have empathy and be part of the “curse” that Mercer speaks of. Because humans create scientific beings that replicate our nature, and if empathy is “a rare ability in nature,” and therefore when we follow the logic that Dick establishes, androids will come to possess empathy. In Dick’s philosophy, “If empathy defines what it means to be human, then one day androids will be given this ability. If to be human means to have a sense of the sacred, then they will believe in God, will sense His presence in their souls, and with all their circuits firing will sing His praises (Carrere).” In other words, because humans are created by an imperfect God, we are flawed, but yet we have the slight chance of possessing the rare ability of empathy. In turn, we, as flawed creators, make androids. In a logical sense, the androids will eventually be able to possess the rare ability of empathizing as well. Of course, the theory that androids will eventually have empathy is linked directly to Gnostic philosophy and therefore ties in to Dick’s own suspicions of the Christian faith of an all-knowing, omnipresent, perfect God.

With mercerism stemming from the government-run Spiritual-Industrial Complex meant to stimulate religious revival, it clearly reveals Dick’s own suspicions regarding Christianity. He undoubtedly recognizes the reality of faith and the existence of the entities even when the belief ceases; therefore, religion is of great importance. His philosophy is the belief in an imperfect God who, in turn, created an imperfect universe. We as humans are flawed. Man is the flawed creator of androids. The androids are not human, but are the two almost indistinguishable. Therefore, do androids also have an inclination toward faith? Do androids dream of machines, and therefore wonder about their creator or God?If we apply Dick’s own spiritual theory on empathy and apply Mercer’s wisdom to not only the humans but the androids, then the answer is yes. 

Work Cited

Carrere, Emmanuel. I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey into the Mind of Philip K. Dick. Metropolitan Books: New York, 1993. Print.

Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Ballantine Books: New York, 1968. Print.

Herzog, Jonathan. “America’s Spiritual-Industrial Complex and the Policy of Revival in the Early Cold War.” Journal of Policy History 22.3 (2010). Cambridge University Press. 337-365.

Livingston, Paul M. Philip K. Dick and Philosophy: Do Androids Have Kindred Spirits? Ed. D.E. Wittkower. Carus Publishing Company: Chicago, 2011. Print.