Ghost in the machine

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The "ghost in the machine" is British philosopher Gilbert Ryle's description of René Descartes' mind-body dualism. The phrase was introduced in Ryle's book The Concept of Mind (1949)[1] to highlight the perceived absurdity of dualist systems like Descartes' where mental activity carries on in parallel to physical action, but where their means of interaction are unknown or, at best, speculative.[2]

Gilbert Ryle[edit]

Gilbert Ryle (1900–76) was a philosopher who lectured at Oxford and who made important contributions to the philosophy of mind and to "ordinary language philosophy". His most important writings include Philosophical Arguments (1945), The Concept of Mind (1949), Dilemmas (1954), Plato's Progress (1966), and On Thinking (1979).

Ryle's The Concept of Mind (1949) is a critique of the notion that the mind is distinct from the body, and a rejection of the theory that mental states are separable from physical states. In this book Ryle refers to the idea of a fundamental distinction between mind and matter as "the ghost in the machine". According to Ryle, the classical theory of mind, or "Cartesian rationalism", makes a basic "category-mistake", because it attempts to analyze the relation between "mind" and "body" as if they were terms of the same logical category. This confusion of logical categories may be seen in other theories of the relation between mind and matter. For example, the idealist theory of mind makes a basic category-mistake by attempting to reduce physical reality to the same status as mental reality, while the materialist theory of mind makes a basic category-mistake by attempting to reduce mental reality to the same status as physical reality.[3][4]

The Concept of Mind[edit]

Official doctrine[edit]

Ryle states that (as of the time of his writing, in 1949) there was an "official doctrine," which he refers to as a dogma, of philosophers, the doctrine of body/mind dualism:

There is a doctrine about the nature and place of the mind which is prevalent among theorists, to which most philosophers, psychologists and religious teachers subscribe with minor reservations. Although they admit certain theoretical difficulties in it, they tend to assume that these can be overcome without serious modifications being made to the architecture of the theory.... [the doctrine states that] with the doubtful exceptions of the mentally-incompetent and infants-in-arms, every human being has both a body and a mind. ... The body and the mind are ordinarily harnessed together, but after the death of the body the mind may continue to exist and function.[5]

Ryle states that the central principles of the doctrine are unsound and conflict with the entire body of what we know about the mind. Of the doctrine, he says "According to the official doctrine each person has direct and unchangeable cognisance. In consciousness, self-consciousness and introspection, he is directly and authentically apprised of the present states of operation of the mind.[6]

Ryle's estimation of the official doctrine[edit]

Ryle's philosophical arguments in his essay "Descartes' Myth" lay out his notion of the mistaken foundations of mind-body dualism conceptions, comprising a suggestion that to speak of mind and body as a substance, as a dualist does, is to commit a Category-mistake. Ryle writes:[1]

Such in outline is the official theory. I shall often speak of it, with deliberate abusiveness, as "the dogma of the Ghost in the Machine." I hope to prove that it is entirely false, and false not in detail but in principle. It is not merely an assemblage of particular mistakes. It is one big mistake and a mistake of a special kind. It is, namely, a category mistake.

Ryle then attempts to show that the "official doctrine" of mind/body dualism is false by asserting that it confuses two logical-types, or categories, as being compatible. He states "it represents the facts of mental life as if they belonged to one logical type/category, when they actually belong to another. The dogma is therefore a philosopher's myth."


Arthur Koestler brought Ryle's concept to wider attention in his 1967 book The Ghost in the Machine, which takes Ryle's phrase as its title.[7] 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 this is 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.

Popular culture[edit]

The Police named their 1981 album Ghost in the Machine after this concept. Masamune Shirow borrowed the "ghost" concept that figures prominently in his 1989 Ghost in the Shell manga and later related works. "The Ghost in the Machine" is also mentioned in the 1985 film Brazil and referenced in the 2004 film I, Robot. Also the rapper B.o.B titled a song "Ghost in the Machine" on his debut album, The Adventures of Bobby Ray. Additionally, the Electronic group The M Machine also has a song titled "Ghosts in the Machine" in their second released album, Metropolis Part II. The electronic group Xerox & Illumination titled a song "Ghost in the machine" in the album XI, of 2005. Arthur C. Clarke's novel 2010: Odyssey Two contains a chapter named "Ghost in the Machine", referring to the virtual consciousness inside a computer. There is an episode of Futurama (entitled "Ghost in the Machines") and an episode of Superman: The Animated Series (entitled "Ghost in the Machine"). The X-Files-series also named an episode involving a rogue AI computer system "Ghost in the Machine".

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ a b Ryle, Gilbert, "Descartes' Myth," in The Concept of Mind, Hutchinson, London, 1949
  2. ^ Tanney, Julia "Gilbert Ryle", in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Dec 18, 2007; substantive revision Mon Nov 2, 2009 (accessed Oct. 30, 2012)
  3. ^ de Morais Ribeiro, Henrique, "On the Philosophy of Cognitive Science", Proceedings of the 20th World Congress of Philosophy, Boston MA, 10-15 August 1998 (accessed 29 October 2012)
  4. ^ Jones, Roger (2008)"Philosophy of Mind, Introduction to Philosophy since the Enlightenment", philosopher.org (accessed Oct. 30, 2012)
  5. ^ Ryle, Gilbert, The Concept of Mind (1949); The University of Chicago Press edition, Chicago, 2002, p 11
  6. ^ Cottingham, John, Western philosophy: an anthology Google Books Link
  7. ^ Koestler, Arthur, The Ghost in the Machine, (1967)

References[edit]