A Scanner Darkly

I finished watching the movie A Scanner Darkly based on the novel by Philip K. Dick. I also have a book with collected philosophical and other essays by Dick checked out from the library, in connection with my ongoing research on religion and artificial intelligence. Although AI doesn’t really feature in A Scanner Darkly, religion certainly does, beginning with the title, which alludes to the Biblical image of seeing in a glass or mirror darkly (which of course made sense with respect to ancient mirrors, but is not a meaningful simile today). Several other Biblical allusions or quotes pepper the film, and one of the characters towards the end suggests that ‘bringing good out of evil’ is ‘God’s ammo.’

The film raises broader questions about human existence and our propensity for addiction. That large percentages of humanity might live in a medicated haze in the future was also famously explored by Huxley. The connection between drugs and religion has also been explored in numerous ways and in various fashions by William James, The Beatles, and more recently (somewhat indirectly) by research on the neurological basis of religious experience.

More than questions of whether religious experience is ‘all in the mind’ (somewhat less troubling, perhaps, in a world used to asking whether all of our perception is ‘all in the mind’) is the question of what traditional religions may do if pharmacology can offer stability, peace of mind and tranquility without addiction and harmful side effects. The dark world of addiction-induced psychoses explored in A Scanner Darkly is one thing, but the potential for Prozac and drugs like it to (as one article put it) “do the work of the Spirit” is a different sort of issue. If one could get from a pill, without side effects, the same experience one gets from going to church and singing worship songs (for example), how would that impact the religious traditions that have devoted so much effort into offering a feel-good experience.

If you watch A Scanner Darkly, you will also get a chance to watch cartoonized figures do things in an R-rated movie that they couldn’t have gotten away with doing on screen if they were simply human actors without the movie being classified differently. And so, in the end, this film that explores ethical questions about the sacrifice of the one for the many (without the individual’s consent) brings us back to technology and artificial persons. Sooner or later, the questions will need to be addressed of whether sexual intercourse (if it can be called that) with a perfect replica of a human being is in fact sexual intercourse (and, in cases, fornication or adultery), and whether on-screen intercourse between androids who perfectly replicate human anatomy and are “fully functional” (if not “superiorly functional”, as hinted at in the movie A.I.) will be classified as pornography. But it will be if and when other androids begin to tell us that they find watching such movies arousing that the biggest questions about artificial intelligence and sentience will really confront us.


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