Ghost in the machine

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The "ghost in the machine" is a term originally used to describe and critique the notion of the mind existing alongside the body. In more recent times, the term has several uses, including for the concept that the intellectual part of the human mind is influenced by emotions; and within fiction, for an emergent consciousness residing in a computer.

The term originates with British philosopher Gilbert Ryle's description of René Descartes' mind-body dualism. Ryle introduced the phrase in The Concept of Mind (1949)[1] to highlight the view of Descartes and others that mental and physical activity occur simultaneously but separately.[2]

Gilbert Ryle[edit]

Gilbert Ryle (1900–1976) was a philosopher who lectured at Oxford and 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 Concept of Mind (1949) critiques the notion that the mind is distinct from the body, and refers to the idea as "the ghost in the machine." According to Ryle, the classical theory of mind, or "Cartesian rationalism," makes a basic category mistake (a new logical fallacy Ryle himself invented), as 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]

Official doctrine[edit]

Ryle states that the doctrine of body/mind dualism was the "official doctrine," or dogma, of philosophers:[5]

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.

The central principles of the doctrine, according to Ryle, 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]

"Descartes' Myth"[edit]

In his essay "Descartes' Myth", Ryle's philosophical arguments lay out his notion of the mistaken foundations of mind-body dualism. He suggests that, to speak of mind and body as substances, as a dualist does, is to commit a category mistake:[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: "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[edit]

Arthur Koestler brought Ryle's concept to wider attention in his 1967 book The Ghost in the Machine.[7] The book's main focus is the movement of mankind towards self-destruction, particularly in the nuclear arms arena. It is particularly critical of the behaviourist theory of B. F. Skinner.

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 eponymous "ghost in the machine." 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.

In popular culture[edit]

  • Ghost in the Machine (1981) is the title of The Police's fourth studio album; much of the material on the album was inspired by Arthur Koestler's "The Ghost in the Machine".
  • 2010: Odyssey Two (1982), by Arthur C. Clarke, contains a chapter called "Ghost in the Machine", referring to the virtual consciousness inside a computer.
  • In season 3 of The Transformers (1986), an episode titled "Ghost In The Machine" focuses on the ghost of Starscream, who possesses Scourge, Astrotrain, and Trypticon in a scheme to get Unicron to recreate his body. In this case it is a literal ghost inside literal machines (robots).
  • Ghost in the Shell, a Japanese manga and anime series created by Masamune Shirow starting in 1989, takes place in a future wherein computer technology has evolved to be able to interface with the human brain, making artificial intelligence and cyber-brains indistinguishable from organic brains. The protagonist, Major Motoko Kusanagi, has a body that is completely cybernetic, with her brain being the only part of her that is still human. Shirow adapted the title from Arthur Koestler's 1967 book The Ghost in the Machine.
  • In The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands (1991), author Stephen King uses the concept of the ghost in the machine to refer to his character Blaine the Mono, the train with a split mind that runs the town of Lud.
  • In Johnny Mnemonic (1995), a central character uses the phrase "ghost in the machine" to refer to a virtual consciousness of a dead person that can still exist inside a computer and interact with the outside world.
  • In I, Robot (2004), Dr. Alfred Lanning, who is a central character, uses the phrase "ghosts in the machine" to refer to the process of artificial intelligence unexpectedly evolving past its original intended purpose.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b Ryle, Gilbert. 1949. "Descartes' Myth." In The Concept of Mind. London: Hutchinson.
  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. 10–15 August 1998. "On the Philosophy of Cognitive Science." Proceedings of the 20th World Congress of Philosophy, Boston, MA: World Congress of Philosophy. Accessed 29 October 2012.
  4. ^ Jones, Roger. 2008. "Philosophy of Mind, Introduction to Philosophy since the Enlightenment." accessed 30 October 2012.
  5. ^ Ryle, Gilbert. [1949] 2002. The Concept of Mind. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. p. 11.
  6. ^ Cottingham, John G. 1996. Western Philosophy: An Anthology, Blackwell Philosophy Anthologies 10. Wiley. ISBN 9780631186274. p. 189.
  7. ^ Koestler, Arthur. 1967. The Ghost in the Machine.

Primary sources[edit]