I’ve been giving brain chemicals some thought recently. What is it that makes us think the way we do? Make us feel the way we do? Why do we sometimes feel anxious or fear or elation for no reason?
Obviously, the chemicals in the brain, like serotonin and dopamine causes these feelings. We are after all, (more than) the sum of our brains, comprising of individual neurones. You may have noticed the use of parenthesis for “more than”. This is because while I recognize that we appear to be more than the sum of our parts, we are actually just the sum of our parts.
Much fuss has been made over the mind-body dualism problem (and I do occasionally get into debates about this), but seeing that I’ve changed my position over the years (and without doubt, I would still fluctuate my position pending evidence), I think I do know the problem well enough – perhaps not well enough as professional philosophers* Ok, you’re a philosopher – where’s your sponge? – and I currently think that the mind-body dualism is bullshit. There is no mind-body separation. The mind is not without the body – specifically, the brain* As an addendum, I would like to add that I believe that one day mathematics will be able to prove this notion – that the neurones in the brain can lead to the appearance of consciousness .
But more to the point, my mulling over brain chemicals led to me thinking more about behavioral actions. If our actions are the sum of the brain’s neurones firing in specific order (that will most likely never be repeated, but given the vastness of the universe, the probability rapidly approaches 1), can one be blamed for action or reactions?
For example, can we blame a person for feeling disgusted over the sight of maggots? The feeling of disgust over squirmish things has clear evolutionary advantages* Wicker, Bruno, Christian Keysers, Jane Plailly, Jean-Pierre Royet, Vittorio Gallese, and Giacomo Rizzolatti. “Both of Us Disgusted in My Insula: The Common Neural Basis of Seeing and Feeling Disgust.” Neuron 40.3 (2003): 655-64. . But on the other hand, cultures around the world feast on the very things we find disgusting. However, one can argue that it is social conditioning that defines our disgust – i.e. we no longer have any need the feedback from our evolutionary past. I for one, love century eggs. But many Caucasians and those not exposed to Chinese culture find them disgusting (I was laughing my head off a few years back when century eggs were presented in Fear Factor)
While the feeling of disgust is one thing, the feeling for hatred is another. In my opinion, they’re not too dissimilar. In place of social conditioning is often personal experience or trauma. The difference is that the feeling of hatred has probably caused more murders than disgust.
So the question is this: if a person murders another out of hatred, is the he/she liable for his/her actions?
If you have been following my line of thought so far, you’d be inclined to say that the person should not be liable. But common law and common sense says otherwise. I would agree with common law and sense.
I think, to function in this world, abstractions are needed. It would be useful to abstract a human as a human, instead if thinking of a human as mere atoms, even though both are true. Likewise it is useful to abstract synaptic pathways as emotions and the actions that arises from said emotions.
Where does this leave us? I don’t know. I doubt anyone does. All I know, and from personal experience, is that understanding (or attempting to understand) the reason why people have certain emotions and feelings towards somethings has lead to well, more understanding and less judging.
I believe the brain can be hacked, that’s for sure. We can trick the brain to like things we don’t like. Remembered your first beer? It tasted foul. Nobody likes their first beer.
If we can condition our brains to like beer and vegetables, we can condition ourselves to other things. It’s all brain chemistry (and electricity).