phrases, sayings, idioms and expressions at

"ghost in the machine"

Posted by Pamela on January 10, 2007

In Reply to: "Ghost in the machine" posted by Smokey Stover on January 09, 2007

: : what does the phrase:
: : "ghost in the machine"
: : mean?

: That's a tremendously interesting question, which will not be answered by me. It involves an ongoing philosophical conflict of attitudes. But it has an origin, as the article in the Wikipedia spells out:

: "The ghost in the machine is British philosopher Gilbert Ryle's derogatory description for René Descartes' mind-body dualism. The phrase was introduced in Ryle's book, The Concept of Mind, written in 1949. The phrase was meant by Ryle to emphasize that mental activity is of a different category from physical action, and that their means of interaction are unknown.

: Much of the following material is from Arthur Koestler's discussion in his 1967 book which uses Ryle's phrase, The Ghost in the Machine as its title. The book's main focus is mankind's movement towards self-destruction, particularly in the nuclear arms arena. It is particularly critical of B. F. Skinner's behaviourist theory. One of the book's central concepts is that as the human brain has grown, it has built upon earlier, more primitive brain structures, and that these are the "ghost in the machine" of the title. Koestler's theory is that at times these structures can overpower higher logical functions, and are responsible for hate, anger and other such destructive impulses."

: There is more, much more. The nature of the ghose and its relation to the machine (sc. the mind and the body) is a subject of intense research as we speak. The tools of this research were not available in the times of Ryle and Koestler, so their discussion can seem dated (as can that of Descartes).

: There is no easy and also accurate way to define the ghost in the machine. Some people use the short cut of thinking of mind/soul (ghost) vis-à-vis body (machine), or spiritual vs. corporeal. One discussant (v. Ebon Musings) identifies the ghost as the soul, and finds thereby a platform for his views. Some writers use it as a short way of pointing to the supposed mind or spirit animating the body.

: If Ryle was against the dualism of Descartes, then one supposes that he was a monist. But Ryle seems to have preferred dwelling on the shortcomings of other philosophies to establish his own.

: Koestler was an immensely interesting figure, but his criticism of Skinner shows a narrowness of view which prevents him from transcending his somewhat emotionally based thinking about the subject.

: The present array of laboratories devoting endless time and money to studying subjects with names like "neural psychology" or "evolutionary psychology" may seem heartless and cold. Science is pretty much monist in its assumptions, although many individual scientists are not. So the viewpoint or scientific assumptions behind this research are basically with Ryle in their disregard of Descartes' (and Plato's) dualistic view of mind and body, although Ryle would probably be astonished with where their research has led.
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In psychology, dualism (with the machine being the body and the "mind" (including memory, cognition, reasoning and so on) being the ghost, is normally contrasted these days with the scientific evolutionary perspective (in which the "mind" - or the ghost, if you like, is a capacity that humans have evolved through the slow process of natural selection, and can be studied via the scientific measure without recourse to notions like "God" or "spirits" or "Descartes" . Facinating stuff, to me at least. But I should also mention that "the ghost in the machine" is the name of a techno/goth/electronic band. (Their web page: " I'm guessing that the machine is the whole post-modern i ndustri alist capitalist global complex thingy and the ghosts are those of us who live in the machine, both haunting it and haunted by it. Pamela