We're biological robots

The brain is where decisions are made, everything that makes up you is contained within it. Alterations to the brain such as damage to cells or changing the amount of chemicals can alter how you make decisions.

This video shows some practical experiments that show that you can alter how someone judges the actions of another.

It’s a somewhat terrifying thought and it’s hard to “get your head around” because we are talking about our own existence, our malleable, temporary existence.

It’s as hard to cope with as the concept of there being no afterlife but it opens up just as many avenues for exploration into how we think about our lives.

For example, it opens up the idea of determinism in humans.

What if you took a brain and controlled all input (all 5 senses, oxygen etc.) and measured all output. Then you made a complete copy of that brain, not something we are capable of doing right now but we may be able to grow one in the future. Down to the cell, path, chemical these brains are the same. Now we change the inputs, we should expect the same output as long as our controls are working.

We could repeat this same experiment with a software replica and it should provide the same results. Meaning human behaviour could become entirely predictable providing we can also accurately predict inputs.

That’s a scary thought, I’m sure someone could make a sci-fi based on that idea where the world is controlled by someone who can predict how we will respond to things.

However there are other implications like how does this directly affect how we see free will? If we are predictable, deterministic creatures then are we responsible for our behaviour. Well just as we aren’t responsible for our environment, we’re not responsible for our brain itself.

However once you try to establish whether we are responsible for our own actions you run into a problem. We are our brains, we are not responsible for that. However the brain having been formed is then from that moment the cause of any decisions it makes, so we are the cause of our decisions. Responsibility only arrives at the point where we establish a society with others.

Society must be able to manage our actions even if we have a poor decision making ability, if it is not good at managing our actions it will fail. However this doesn’t necessitate justice.

Take the example of Michael Stewart whose story you can find here. He was a person with schizophrenia who killed his mother. The society that he is part of had to prevent him from hurting others but there was no benefit to punishing him. 

What about when we look at those who commit crime and are what we’ve decided to be mentally healthy. Well just as when Michael started taking his medication he became less violent the same thing can be applied to a whole community but instead of drugs, we change other factors. Economic inequality, education, population density, climate etc. can all affect crimes rates.

So what does that mean? Well it means that we need to think a lot more about human behaviour and in particular the concept of responsibility. We need to think about how we judge the behaviour of others and what responses are really appropriate for the benefit ourselves and our community.