What could Rachael have been feeling?


(“Rachael”, the “replicant” from the movie Blade Runner. Not a real woman. But what was she?)

In the movie, Rachael lacks empathy, but she does not appear to lack emotions. She feels fear and sadness (she cries when she finds out that she is a “replicant” and not a real woman.)

In this post I want to consider whether Rachael could really feel emotions. And whether she could have a “soul”.

These are difficult questions.

I have argued previously that the existence of “qualia” (such as emotional states, the experience of pain, and so on) in both humans and animals is best explained by humans and animals having souls of some kind.

If Rachael was made by the “Tyrell Corporation”, as in the film, and is essentially an artificially intelligent humanoid robot, how could she be capable of feeling emotions? It is certainly desirable to feel emotions, since they have evolved and are presumably adaptive. A creature that can feel pain will stay off its broken leg so it can heal. If it only feels “pain” in some intellectual sense but with no real experience of pain, presumably it will not be properly motivated to stay off that leg.

Likewise, a “replicant” like Rachael will probably function best if she feels real emotions. But can a constructed, material being feel emotions? Perhaps, but not if only the material plane is considered. As I have argued here it is hard to imagine how matter itself could “feel” anything. For example, a laptop computer will not feel pain if you spill coffee on it. Certainly, one could design a laptop computer with a “pain circuit” which could register hot fluid on its surface and flash “ouch” on the screen, but that would not be really experiencing pain.

On the other hand, even rats seem to experience qualia (pain and emotions). And I have argued, as I said above, that this implies that rats have souls to experience these non-material sensations.

Note that I am not saying that animals have souls like humans, but that they have souls at least capable of experiencing non-material sensations. Nor am I saying that an inability to experience emotions or pain (as in the case of an early foetus or a man in a coma) implies the absence of a soul.

If you believe in God, and that He creates a soul for each individual, then presumably there is no reason why He could not create souls for each sentient creature (dolphin, rat, whatever).

But the objection might arise that Rachael cannot have any kind of soul because she was not conceived and born in the usual way. She was constructed in a laboratory. However I don’t see this as a total objection to her having a soul (of course a being as complex as Rachael might not be able to be constructed, ever, but such assumptions are always dangerous: there is no reason, in principle, why she could not be constructed.)

In any case, what of the objection that Rachael was made in a laboratory and is manmade? Well, arguably we are all mostly “made in laboratories” and are manmade – laboratories called beds. And what of in vitro babies? They get their start in “test tubes”, but I don’t think anyone would argue that they lack souls, assuming other babies have them.

So I don’t see that Rachael’s artificiality is an objection to her having a soul, and therefore the substrate to experience qualia. Her tears could therefore be genuine.

But could she have a soul capable of emotion, but not a fully human and eternal soul (in the usual religious sense)? I don’t know. Perhaps.

Another thought experiment runs like this. Supposing we were able to duplicate a person atom-for-atom in some kind of machine (a process not unlike the formation of identical twins, something which happens naturally in women’s wombs.) Would the copy of the original person have a soul? Would God gift that copy with a soul of some kind? Perhaps. It would seem against divine justice for Him not to.

37 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by pukeko60 on October 21, 2015 at 6:59 am

    The genome is not the entire answer: we have always had functional clones (they are called identical twins) and the interface between enviroment and the choices they make do lead to separation.

    On the speculation: A. God will sort them out. B. The issue is moral agency — or do the spiritual powers (Angels and Demons) have souls? and C. the resurrection to come will be bodily.

    And Deckard is the replicant. The Tyrell corporation SAY Rachael is a replicant, but I think she has more emotions than Deckard.


    • I don’t think there is any doubt that Rachael is a replicant. She fails the Voight-Kampff test and Tyrell admits she is. Deckard finds her files and discovers that she has Tyrell’s niece’s memories.

      I think Deckard IS a replicant but there is no consensus. See here:


      “So much of this movie is confused and contraverted, such as whether Deckard himself is a replicant. I tend to think that it makes more sense for him to be a replicant if he is going to have a relationship with Rachael. It makes it less bizarre. Otherwise, when you get right down to it, he is a man sleeping with a doll. In fact Rachael says to Deckard, in the last words in this driving scene, that she thinks they were “made for each other”. Perhaps she means that literally.”


  2. And what about the Jewish myth of the Golem, a kind of forerunner to the robot horror stories – a man of clay with a magic word on a piece of paper stuck in his mouth who then comes to life? The horror could of course be that he is just like man yet does not have a soul; but there’s an interesting drama that could arise over whether he does have a soul. Frankenstein’s Monster, of course, was deliberately cast by Shelley as the most humane character in her novel.


    • I have a wonderful book on the golem myth, by Moshe Idel, called Golem. I got it at the Theosophical Bookshop in Melbourne years ago. Very scholarly.

      I should check what kind of ensoulment, if any, he (or she) was supposed to have. I suspect it was meant to be ensouled because it had received life through the power of God (via that kabbalistic use of the alphabet, if I recall).

      I do recall references to whether a golem could help form a minyan.


  3. Did you read the first Brian Aldiss story that provided the inspiration for the Kubrick/Spielberg farrage AI? It’s got the somewhat unwieldy title Supertoys last all summer long, but it’s a lovely extremely short story – an android boy heartbreakingly tries to convince his mother that he loves her in a desperate attempt to connect with her emotionally. He’s a child but not a child, a robot but not a robot – and he tries to hash out his dilemma with a puzzled robot teddy, his only real friend. Another great example. Pity the movie was so shit.


    • No, I have seen the movie, but not read the original story.

      I am uncertain about the “Rachael” case. Would God (all this assumes a belief in God) provide her with a soul of some kind? If not, does that imply she would never have true emotional states (and would not be a very good replicant really).

      If He could, does this imply that this laptop I am typing on could have a soul, perhaps at the level of a simple organism like a worm?

      If God only gives souls to creatures made in the usual biological way (sperm and egg, say), does this mean that Rachael would miss out? If so, what about the case of the atom-for-atom replica of a human being? If someone could 3D-print a replica of an ordinary man, would he have a soul?

      A puzzling aspect of my “system” is that it would seem to imply that God’s granting animals souls to feel emotions will have had a role in evolution. It gives God a much more imminent and ongoing role in creation and evolution.


      • Do you have to have emotions for one to say you have a soul?

        I’m not sure whether the granting of souls – timeless, bodyless, indescribable, ineffable essences – counts as ongoing interference in creation. Is it only a choice between a bland Pantheism (‘everything is part of the universal soul’) and a shallow Deism (‘God manufactures and delivers souls on an as-needs basis’) that is allowed us?

      • No, I think you could not have emotions and still have a soul. As I said, in the case of a man in a coma or an unborn child at an early stage of development. (As I said, I am making certain Christian assumptions about souls).

        But I DO think one needs a soul or spirit to feel emotions. Materialists like to dodge the question of qualia, but it is a real problem for them. Intuitively, it is very hard to imagine matter “feeling” anything. Matter is simply not that kind of thing.

        I am worried about lapsing into pantheism or something like it, and giving everything a soul, like the Japanese who apparently believe all objects have souls. I think a being has to have some kind of complexity, typically biological, to merit a soul.

        On the other point, I don’t have a problem with God creating souls for each new human (or indeed animal) but if we need souls or spirits to feel emotions, and emotions have evolved and played a part in evolution, my suggestions have the odd effect of inserting souls into the centre of biological evolution.

      • I think the pop science notion this plays into is that of devices or organisms with sufficient complexity spontaneously developing, as if with a life of their own. Perhaps there is a philosophical expression of this; it seems like something Dan Dennett might discuss. It’s a materialist corollary to the notion of the soul which Aldiss seems to prefigure to a certain extent in his Supertoys story, though probably could do with a little examination/refuting.

      • I am not sure I understand your point, timt.

        Daniel Dennett seems to discount “qualia”. In fact, I was amused to see that he wrote approvingly in an introduction to a copy of Ryle’s The Concept of Mind I recently inquired that the book did not refer to qualia.

        But qualia ARE the problem for materialists like Dennett and Ryle.

        One cannot simply put them in the philosophical “too hard basket”.

      • I mean I see no problem with a supercomputer or AI being having great intelligence. Perhaps superhuman intelligence. But I don’t see a way to its having feelings and emotions, like pain and boredom and joy.

        For Rachael to cry out of genuine emotion, she would have to have some kind of spirit or soul. In reality, should she be made by the Tyrell Corporation, she would presumably have no true feelings, although she could be programmed to appear to have them.

        (If men ever get sex dolls of the quality of a Rachael, they could have such a feature. But there would be no true emotions involved.)

      • Um, I was just referring to what might be thought of as a materialist corollary to the non-materialist concept of ‘soul’ being endowed to an organism or device. I find it is – to a certain extent – a notion that I absorbed at an earlier point and to a certain extent I tend to instinctively think about these questions in this manner.

        A groovy vicar who subscribes to I Fucking Love Science or something like that, and uses these pop science concepts in his sermons, might have recourse to this concept of complexity leading to sentience or ‘soul’ – I suppose he could take it in interesting directions. ‘Objects have a soul waiting for them’, for instance. Or the pantheist explanation.

        I don’t necessarily agree with what I’m typing myself, just playing with the notion. Then again, I’m not sure if I agree with the theological concept of souls being parcelled out to computers or robots or organisms on an as-needs basis….

      • I was just now reading about something like that idea that all objects have some kind of consciousness here (David Chalmers):


        On the other point, I don’t see that complexity itself leads to consciousness or emotions or some kind of “soul”.

        One tin can clearly cannot feel emotion. But nor can one billion tin cans, no matter how much they are connected by conductive wires or whatever; at least I can’t see that happening. Matter is not a substrate that seems (intuitively to me, at least) to be able to “feel” emotions or pain or whatever.

        Something else seems necessary. In that Wikipedia article, it is tacitly accepted that there is a real problem with “qualia”:

        “Some philosophers, including David Chalmers and Alfred North Whitehead, argue that conscious experience is a fundamental constituent of the universe, a form of panpsychism sometimes referred to as panexperientialism. Chalmers argues that a “rich inner life” is not logically reducible to the functional properties of physical processes. He states that consciousness must be described using nonphysical means. This description involves a fundamental ingredient capable of clarifying phenomena that has not been explained using physical means. Use of this fundamental property, Chalmers argues, is necessary to explain certain functions of the world, much like other fundamental features, such as mass and time, and to explain significant principles in nature.”

        Well, maybe. But if one is going down that kind of route, it is remarkable how well the spiritual concept of a soul or spirit would also suffice. A problem with that might seem to be that animals clearly feel emotions and pain too. Does that mean that such capacities are not related to ensoulment? No, I would say that the likely solution is that animals also have souls.

      • I am not saying that if Dr Eldon Tyrell did actually build a robot as complex as Rachael, she would necessarily be endowed by the Supreme Being with a soul. Very likely she would not.

        But I think the question of what would happen if humans ever created a duplicate human using some very sophisticated combination of MRI and 3D printing – namely, would God give it a soul? – is a more challenging case.

      • (And why am I even having this conversation? I feel lucky to have escaped from that Kierkegaard book with my life) :p

      • Which Kierkegaard book?

        I like him because, with the possible exception of Nietzsche, he has the best range of cool-sounding things to quote.

      • That one about anxiety (Aren’t they all)? “The concept of anxiety – a simple psychologically oriented deliberation of the concept of hereditary sin” blah blah blah. Oh for the love of…. even his *titles* are impossible to understand. I like him though. He’s deliberately obtuse, partly for laughs.

      • I think he is a hoot. Here is a cartoon about him:


      • Would you recommend any Kierkegaard books? I’ve also read ‘Acts of Love’ (can’t remember a single thing about it) and ‘Fear and Trembling’ – quite well written and an unflinching examination of the Abraham and Isaac story – and its implications. I’d very much like to read ‘Prefaces’ – a set of prefaces he wrote to books that didn’t exist!

      • I haven’t read much of him. In fact I was just thinking this morning that I should check for some of his stuff at a second-hand bookshop I frequent.

        I have the Alexander Dru edition of his journal. I have Either/Or which I have only glanced at. (I read the famous passage on the role of boredom in the world.) I have his Edifying Discourses – like the journal excerpts, published by Fontana Books.

        I should find his Concluding Unscientific Postscript, which is supposed to be central to his thought, and besides it has a cool title.

        I also have a few books that refer to Kierkegaard.

        I find it hard to take him seriously as a moralist and a thinker, because any man who could make such a cad and ass of himself over Regine Olsen makes me despair of him.

        Slightly flattering portrait of Regine:


      • Well maybe it was only through his mistakes that he was able to gain some of his insights?

        (BTW, I enjoy these rambling discussions we tend to have, thanks!)

      • To be honest, I am venal enough to have imagined Regine as some hottie in a crinoline, but that painting does rather flatter her. There are photographs too.

        As for mistakes, I suppose he was that one posturing ninny in a thousand who was actually as clever as he purported to be.

        Yes, it is good to chat. I get a lot of readers here, but not too many commenters.

      • Here she is:


      • The relationship with Regine Olsen is very mysterious and none of the explanations I’ve read of it seem very satisfying. Maybe Kierkegaard felt that his mistake was in starting the relationship, or maybe once he felt that he should not be engaged to Olsen there was no easy and ethical way to break it off. He certainly became his own ethical test subject in a rather unpleasant way. Wikipedia’s account is very factual; the best account I read of it, oddly enough, was in an ‘Idiot’s guide to Kierkegaard’.

      • Thanks for the reference. It is obviously a romance that deserves proper consideration.

        A few of the first people to jump on the Kierkegaard bandwagon (Muggeridge, Colin Wilson) seemed to muddy the waters on the man and his thought.

        He went through a fashionable phase, which has cooled a bit of late. Or at least, that is my impression.

      • The only part of Europe I have visited as an adult was Aarhus, on Jutland. I feel some affinity with the Danes. I found them pretty friendly on the whole. I saw the old Theatre in Aarhus, and I always imagine Regine and Soren exchanging meaningful glances there (not quite the right part of Denmark, but it gives me some kind of idea.)


    • Science fiction story: guy on an urgent mission jumps in a transblooper machine to transbloop his way halfway across the universe so he can fulfill his task before it’s all too late. He’s blooped alright – but arrives without his soul. Now he’s just a kinda…. zombie. Doesn’t want to do anything? What happens to his soul? Does it get lost in transit? Did it inadvertently reincarnate into, say, a nearby table or chair? (Another 20,000 words aaaaaaaaaand we’re done). (Robert Sheckley novels and stories are often based around versions of this concept).


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