Jeffrey A. Schaler, Ph.D.

The following article is reproduced here at by permission of Liberty. Copyright 2004, Liberty.

Cite as: Schaler, J.A. (2004). You, robot. Liberty, October, Volume 18, No. 10, p19-21.

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You, robot

By Jeffrey A. Schaler

Isaac Asimov’s message in his 1950 collection of short stories, “I, Robot”—loosely applied in the movie “i, ROBOT,” starring Will Smith—remains light years ahead of its time. Viewing oneself and others as machines is, to quote a recent New York Times editorial, “vastly easier and more thrilling than introspection.” Indeed, pretending one is a machine, that is, pretending one is not human, reduces existential fear. Machines don’t die. They’re not responsible for their actions. They’re not lonely. They don’t fear freedom, and when they’re creative, we say they’re broken.

Machines also require an operator.

Where does this escapist thinking come from? Today, the dominant explanatory paradigm for human behavior is based in mechanistic philosophy. Proponents posit that human beings are ultimately reducible to chemical and electrical interactions—man is considered a machine, an incredibly complex machine, but a machine nevertheless. This view is scientifically valid when it comes to understanding the human body and disease; however, it is unscientific when it comes to understanding mind and behavior. For example, brains become diseased, whereas, minds become diseased in a metaphorical sense only. Some people are invested in obscuring that difference.

Psychiatrists and psychologists are among the worst when it comes to peddling science fiction as fact, despite (or perhaps because of) their interest in “humanizing” people. They frequently argue that behavior is caused (machines don’t choose). This thinking underpins the insanity defense and involuntary commitment to prisons called mental hospitals. It’s an integral part of justifying drug prohibition (illegal drugs turn users into machine-like zombies) specifically, and the therapeutic state (anti-depressant prescription drugs help people to “become themselves”) generally. Clearly, illegal drugs are bad and dangerous. Prescription drugs are good and safe. The distinction is socially constructed, not the result of chemical analysis. Drugs are neither safe nor dangerous, good nor bad—it’s all a matter of how one uses them.

People who believe Martians are beaming messages to them via the fillings in their teeth are “diagnosed” as schizophrenic. Those who believe Jesus is entering their hearts are having a valued religious experience. Similarly, what we call human and non-human is a matter of social construction. A person is a person. We can’t differentiate between persons and non-persons by reading machines like PET scans, any more than we can differentiate between machines and persons by reading science fiction like “I, Robot.”

Desire, aversion, angst, love, despair, courage, selfishness and altruism—all the things that we consider uniquely human—are now construed by experts as mechanical secretions of the brain. And this dehumanizing view of human nature is heavily influencing clinical, legal, and public policy, as well as the structure of society. The brain “acts.” That represented by the pronoun “I” is simply a ghost in the machine. And who believes in ghosts, anyway?

The revenge of the robot makers is upon us.