In Roger Ebert’s Walk of Fame remarks in 2005, he talks about film in a way that makes me think of Mercerism:
Movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts. When I go to a great movie I can live somebody else’s life for a while. I can walk in somebody else’s shoes. I can see what it feels like to be a member of a different gender, a different race, a different economic class, to live in a different time, to have a different belief.
This is a liberalizing influence on me. It gives me a broader mind. It helps me to join my family of men and women on this planet. It helps me to identify with them, so I’m not just stuck being myself, day after day.
This is the crux of the Mercerism divide between humans and androids.
Mercerism is an amalgam of religious signs. Notably, he has an element of Sisyphus. His struggle is to walk an uphill path while being pelted by stones. He is part Jesus, in the victim of rock-throwing and his sacrificial nature. He is part Buddha, emphasizing the falseness of the separation of people through the shared emotions when connected to the empathy box. The construction of Mercer becomes more obvious as the book goes on, and turns out to be very much the point.
The big reveal of Buster Friendly, his anticipated expose, proves that Mercer is just a third-tier actor on a stage. The androids celebrate at this deicide of the human’s god. Without this idol of empathy, the androids believe they’ve brought humans down to their level. Society constructed Mercer to cultivate particular human traits and tendencies to create a cohesive society after natural disaster and mass exodus. But society didn’t manufacture the spiritual hole that Mercer filled. That’s an inborn human trait according to PKD, and that need for a connection to a world or entity beyond the self is a quality the androids don’t have. The androids think they’ve won by using their android-buddy Buster Friendly to debunk the existence of god, but PKD shows that it does not matter. Mercer gets proved to be a movie, but as Ebert presents above, that movie delivers an empathetic experience.
In fact, the deconstruction of Mercer appears to strengthen his presence for Deckard. In the climax of the book, Deckard must overcome his emotional attachment to Rachel to retire her double, Pris. Mercer appears to him before the moment of action, telling him that though he is being asked to do a bad thing, it is a job he must do for the greater good. Mercer gives Deckard the moral permission he needs to overcome the empathy telling him not to kill the android. Paradoxically, Mercer, who appears alone against the elements and rock throwers, makes Deckard feel not alone through empathy. The fact that Mercer appears visually to Deckard suggests a supernatural aspect to be sure. He might have been depicted for the empathy box by a mere human actor, but Mercer now lives beyond those origins.
After Deckard retires the Baty gang, he drives into a wasted Oregon in his exhaustion. He becomes detached from his worldly responsibilities to the police force and bounty hunting, his wife, his physical self. He parks at the start of a sandy path and begins to walk. The setting morphs into the supernatural or fantastic. He starts to feel rocks hitting him. He is walking Mercer’s path. He is becoming Mercer. Or he is discovering the Mercer in him. No, Mercer is him. And to punctuate this realization, he finds a toad when he returns to his car. Like Isidore finding the spider, this is a miraculous moment. Deckard feels blessed by Mercer. And he feels at one with him.
Through the empathy box, the remaining humans on Earth have poured their emotions, shared their feelings through empathy. Together they have infused themselves into what they experience as Mercer. Mercer is them. Each of them. Deckard has now had an experiential epiphany of this fact.
But, again, PKD offers no easy answers. Though the epiphany feels authentic and changes Deckard at his core, when he returns to home and shares the toad with his wife, she discovers the toad is artificial. Deckard is disappointed but ultimately values knowing the truth of the toad’s nature. He goes to bed in exhaustion, and his wife makes a phone call to order supplies for keeping the toad as a pet.
So once again PKD gives us the paradox. The toad is a symbol of god, a symbol of the oneness the humans have with god through empathy, but the toad is manufactured, constructed, just as the androids have shown Mercer is. But the experience humans have with god through the empathy box is authentic. Empathy, PKD seems to say, is always authentic, even in response to manufactured things. The spiritual connection to god is an act of empathy, so even if the god is constructed, the experience of the god is authentic.
Consider the ramifications: Any human construction of god, if it engages the human trait of empathy, is an authentic, real god. Thus all gods are true, even if all gods are false. Human empathetic experiencing of a being that fills the spiritual hole makes that god real. Deckard voices this at the end of the novel: ““Everything is true…Everything anybody has ever thought…’I’ll be all right,’ he said, and thought, And I’m going to die. Both those are true, too.”
Bam. Hey, PKD, thanks for the philosophical shake-up.