The Science and Philosophy of Psycho-Pass – Wisecrack Edition
Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on the Science and Philosophy of Psycho-Pass!
Written & Narrated by: Helen Floersh
Directed by: Michael Luxemburg
Edited by: Mark Potts
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Produced by: Emily Dunbar
Patron Executive Producer: Brent Krafft
The Science and Philosophy of Psycho-Pass – Wisecrack Edition
Hey, Wisecrack – it’s brainy-Jared here, Helen. And today we’re talking about the first season of one of the most cerebral animes out there, Psycho-Pass. “Justice is subject to dispute; might is easily recognized and not disputed. So we cannot give might to justice.” “Sorry, but I have long since learned as a measure of elementary hygiene to be on guard when anyone quotes Pascal.”
Yeah, they’re shit-talking each other by quoting philosophy, and it’s amazing. Set in a dystopian Japan where everything is controlled by a seemingly omniscient computer, the Sybil System, Psycho-Pass asks some pretty hefy questions. Namely, is it possible for a computer to determine everything about us, “The occupation apptitude test gurantees you a stable life, in which your talents are used to the fullest. Humans will live a more civilized life. The OAT has created a world where anyone can enjoy art, nature, and peace,” and more importantly, would we want to live in a society without free will? “Attaining a logical society in which carious contradictions and inequalities are resolved. That is indeed, the ultimate happiness sought by the rational human mind. By achieving an absolutely perfect system, Sybil has become an existence that embodies that ideal.”
Well, as it happens, this question isn’t just about philosophy, but also science. So sit down, shut up, and let disembodied Helen explain how the Sybil System just might suggest that free will is a neurological and societal illusion in this Wisecrack Edition on the Science and the Philosophy of Pyscho-Pass. And cue sirens… That’s what we do with spoilers, right? Also- covering ALL the sexy smart stuff in this series would be impossible to do in one video, so if you wanna hear Jared break it down some more, let us know in the comments.
First, a quick recap for the uninitiated. In the world of Psycho-Pass, the Sybil System determines everything about you, from your job to the likelihood that you’ll commit a crime, all by constantly scanning your brain and keeping you under surveillance. This handy-dandy, all-encompassing reading is called your Psycho-Pass, and it’s what the Sybil System uses to make all its decisions about you. ”In this era, the System determines everyone’s aptitudes and we all have no choice but to live by it and be satisfied with only a happiness forced upon us. We are unable to make our real dreams come true.”
Enter Akane Tsunemori, a newbie inspector at the Criminal Investigations Department, or CID. It’s kind of like being a cop, except instead of following the law, you’re following the System’s directions. “We still don’t know for sure if he ran away.” “The Sybil System will make that judgement.” And instead of police dogs, you get Enforcers – who are basically would-be criminals that the System has granted limited freedom to in exchange for, well… not a lot. Now, you might think that a legal system based off a computer scanning your brain is some Minority Report level bullshit. You have free will, so you shouldn’t be arrested before you actually commit a crime, right? Well let me stop you right there. As Psycho-Pass illustrates, it’s not quite that simple.
First, we have to understand what the brain – and the decision making process – really is. Most neuroscientists today think there are two systems in the brain. The first system is “us” – that little voice in our heads, those emotions we feel, all those thoughts we “think”. It’s the stuff we’re actually aware of. When we make a decision, this is the system where we like to think it happens, but that’s not entirely the case. Below this system is another system, a huge lattice work of neurons that controls everything from spatial processing to breathing. Importantly, this second system is a black box. No matter how much armchair philosophising we do, we can’t penetrate it. And this is where science of free will comes in.
See, in the 1980’s, Benjamin Libet conducted a pretty groundbreaking experiment. He asked subjects to look at a clock, then at a time of their own choosing, flick their wrist. Libet then recorded the electrical impulses from their brain – called the readiness potential – and compared it with the time the subjects believed they made the decision to flick their wrist. The results? Readiness potential proceeded the subjects’ awareness of making the decision by about half a second. In other words, the decision to flick their wrist happened somewhere in the ucconscious system about half a second before they THOUGHT they made the decision; kind of like thunder following lightning.
And while Libet’s experiment wasn’t without flaws – like how he relied on self-reporting – it’s important to note that other researchers have born out similar results in experiments that were better controlled. While we can’t say for sure that there’s a causal relationship here, we can say that on some level, it looks like the decision making process begins in this unconscious part of the brain. Which makes you wonder: Are we really completely in control of the choices we make? And if we’re not, how can we say they’re ours?
Libet’s experiment goes a long way in making sense of Psycho-Pass’s world. After all, why would anyone let a computer make preemptive judgements about them, ordering every facet of their lives? Because a very smart computer like the Sybil System can have a deep understanding of the brain’s black box, in a sense knowing us better than we know ourselves. Hell, the System knows the inner workings of the unconscious mind so well that it can even identify likely criminals as toddlers. “Nowadays, the Sibyl System reads your talent and tells you the way of living that will bring you the most happiness. And yet, you’re talking about your purpose in life? The reason you were born? I never even imagined there were people who stressed over things like that! I was flagged in a Psycho-Pass test when I was five. I’ve been a latent criminal ever since. No possibility for rehabilitation through treatment.”
In a sense, the relationship between the Sybil System and its citizens is parallel to the relationship between the two systems in our brain. The citizens mull about with all their feelings, thoughts, and seeming choices, while literally thousands of feet below their feet is a vast network of sensors, processors, and fiber optic cables all in charge of controlling them. But if our unconscious mind is affecting our conscious decisions, we have to wonder: what then is affecting our unconscious mind? If we hear subliminal messages saying “love Logan Paul”, are we going to actually like him? Unsurprisingly, the Sybil System takes the question of what can affect its citizens’ minds very seriously. The system is practically obsessed with keeping the mental states of its citizenry squeaky clean, so much so that it measures the stress levels of public spaces constantly.
Imagine walking around the mall peacefully minding your own business when, bam, your Psycho-Pass reading changes and this guy comes up to you. With this obsession of keeping its citizens “healthy”, it’s also not surprising that the System will also black out the press for the “public good”. “Thousands of passerby thought they were just looking at environment Holo. But the truth was that they were facing the dismembered body underneath it. When people found out, the area stress jumped four levels. It was so bad even a news ban was imposed.”
And it goes without saying that other forms of expression – like music and art – are also limited. This is pretty much an Orwellian nightmare of the first degree. But is the Sybil System wrong to control freedom of speech? “Back in the day, even if the art was designated harmful, someone would protect it in the net archives. Are there no longer any kids with guts like that?” “People like that would be behind bars with you, thanks to the Sybil system.” As frightening as it may sound, science, at least, might say no.
As it turns out, human beings are world-class imitators. We’re so good, in fact, that we do it innately without even realizing it. Research performed by Andrew Meltzoff has shown that infants imitate even the most ludicrous of actions. 14 month old’s, for example, will do dumb shit like use their foreheads instead of the fingers to turn on a touch sensor light simply by watching an adult do it. Now, there’s evidence to suggest that children are such good imitators because the parts of their brain that control inhibition aren’t fully developed. But just because we’re not wearing diapers doesn’t mean adults are any less likely to imitate their peers.
In fact, humans are so susceptible to imitation that just perceiving an action performed by another person will drastically increase the likelihood of them emulating it. This is called the Chameleon Effect, and it all has to do with a special set of brain cells called mirror neurons that fire when we watch others perform an action. This goes on during all of our interactions without us ever noticing it. And that’s the key takeaway: it happens automatically and subconsciously. It happens in that impenetrable system of our brain.
So why would the Sybil System need to crack down on crime before crime happens? Because behavior is contagious, and that means everything from laughing to violence. And when we’re exposed to the latter, even in the regular world, there are consequences. In fact, the impact of being exposed to violent media is thought to be so real that the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Family Physicians, and the American Psychiatric Association issued a joint statement saying that “over 1000 studies . . . point overwhelmingly to a causal connection between media violence and aggressive behavior”.
And this seems to be the case in the world of Psycho-Pass. When the city is flooded with low grade criminals wearing helmets that stop the Sybil System from reading their Psycho-Pass, we see violence spread to the normal citizens with an almost gleeful contagion. “The brutality is spreading like a contagion. The psycho-hazard has gotten this big?” “It’s more than that. At this point, it’s turned into a riot.” “The area stress level is rising like crazy, too. And it’s not just helmet people who are going on a rampage.”
So, whether it’s in your brain or on the streets, it’s clear that the Sybil System is bent on removing agency from its citizens. “As long as you’re a puppet of Sybil System, you can never experience that. The weight of decision and free will.” And this is where we get to the question at the heart of Psycho-Pass: what is the value of living in a society without free will? It’s exactly this question that drives Shogo Makshima, the first season’s antagonist. Makshima is driven to test the value of free will in a society where it’s been rendered meaningless. “By analyzing a bio-organism’s force field read by a cymatic scan, they figure out how a person’s mind works. The intelligence of science has finally uncovered the secret of souls, and this society changed drastically. However, people’s wills aren’t part of that assessment. I wonder what criteria you use to divide people into good and evil.” “What are you…” “I want to see the splendor of people’s souls. I want to check and see if it’s really precious. However, when humans base their lives around the Sybil Oracle without ever consulting their own wills, do they really hold any value?”
In positing the necessity of free will, Makshima borrows a page from Wisecrack favorite Immanuel Kant, who believed that you can only be moral by following moral laws out of your own free will. And Makshima, the sexy Moriarty he is, goes to insane lengths to see the worth of people’s will, enabling criminal after criminal who wants to test their will against the System. But Makshima is the baddie, so does that mean that Akane believes the opposite? Is she the Sybil System’s number one fan, going all in for the belief that free will must be squashed for the greater collective good? Well, not really. Throughout the series, Akane displays a unique sense of individualism. She was such a good student that the System determined she’d be a good fit in literally any industry. “To start with, it was indicated that you have an apptitude for jobs at the ministry of economy and the ministry of technology, and yet, you rejected them all and picked the public safety bureau, right?”
And after she joins the CID, Akane early on questions the merit of blindly following the Sybil System’s orders, “She’s just confused! You don’t have to use violence on her!” Culminating with her disobeying her boss’ order to kill her enforcer, Shinya Kogami. “For a target whose crime coefficient is under 300, Paralyzer moder should be used. Ginoza, that Dominator must be broken.” And even though she begrudgingly allows the System to remain by the end of the first season, she does so on her own terms. “We’re always aiming for a better society. One day, someone will come to this room to turn off the power. We will find a new path. You can count on it. There is no place for the Sibyl System in our future!”
In this sense, Akane represents a sort of middle ground. Sure, maybe the unconscious mind or the Sybil System influences her decisions, but ultimately they’re still hers to make. Despite reaffirming a System that strips her of some agency, Akane herself manages to preserve the semblance of free will. But in the end, Akane can’t actually stop Makshima. “I wish … you guys would stop insulting us … already.” That role falls to Kogami. Now we could say a lot about why Makshima values Kogami so much more than Akane, but I think it has to do with this: “Everyone is alone. Everyone is empty. People no longer have need of others. You can always find a spare for any talent. Any relationship can be replaced. I had gotten bored of a world like that.”
By letting the Sybil System dictate your life, Makshima believes you stop becoming an individual. Without free will, you’re not a human, but merely a cog in the machine. Maybe this is why Kogami – the man who’s willing to live as a fugitive from the System in order to stop Makshima is the only the one Makshima cares about. By the season’s end, Kogami is the only who acts freely, and in this sense, he’s the only one Makshima has a real relationship with in this world. “So, what do you think Kogami? After this, will you be able to find a replacement for me?” “I sure hope not.”
What makes the world of Psycho-Pass so frightening is that unlike other shows, this dystopian society isn’t the result of paranoia or crisis management, but of scientific progress. So what do you guys think? Is free-will all that great, or even real? Or would we all be better off letting a supercomputer call the shots?