I, Robot: Psychological Error

Psychology now, at the beginning of the 21st century, is a classic science fiction storyline in reverse. In the science fiction nightmare, androids — manufactured entities that simulate humans — become so “human” that they can’t be distinguished from them. In the pseudo-scientific nightmare of 21st century psychology, the human being is reduced to little more than a complicated biochemical robot.

In its earliest beginnings, psychology was more exploratory, but increasingly adopted a view of the human being as an empty shell, with both behavior and conscious experience being the result of forces over which individuals themselves are nearly irrelevant. The Freudian revolution of the early 20th century bears some of the responsibility for shifting our view of human nature from active creator of oneself to passive “container” of deep-seated forces in the unconscious. The onslaught of the behaviorist model was more concise and devastating: the human being was conceptualized as little more than a complex rat in a Skinner box, our actions as determined by reward and punishment as surely as a billiard ball struck by a cue stick; our conscious experience irrelevant; our unconscious desires “unscientific.”
Humanistic and existential psychologists of the mid-20th century fought against this dehumanizing tendency, bringing conscious experience and the search for meaning back into the forefront of psychological thinking, but it was largely marginalized by the “science” of behavioral analysis and the statistics based “experimental model.” Ideas from this school of thought continue to exist at the margins of popular thought, but in watered down loosely formulated ideals such as “being here, now” with limited substance.

Meanwhile, seeing human nature as essentially mechanical has greatly accelerated. Genetics, neurochemistry, and brain imaging technology along with their therapeutic counterpart, psychopharmacology, dominate. As psychology is most commonly taught in colleges and funneled into our culture through popular media, we humans are creatures of biological destiny, not personal choice. Our conscious awareness is no more than an epiphenomena, essentially an accident of nature that has little consequence to who we are or what we do. We are robots made of flesh and blood, but robots all the same. Freedom, choice, conscious meaning are illusory.

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