Ghost in the Machine

fritz kahn

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) 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.

Arthur Koestler’s wrote ‘The Ghost in the Machine,’ in 1967, focusing on mankind’s movement towards self-destruction, particularly in the nuclear arms arena. The book is particularly critical of B. F. Skinner’s behaviorist theory. One of Koestler’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.

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. Ryle believes that the central principles of the doctrine are unsound and conflict with the entire body of what we know about the mind. ‘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.’ According to the official doctrine each person has direct and unchangeable cognizance. In consciousness, self-consciousness and introspection, he is directly and authentically apprised of the present states of operation of the mind.

Bodily processes and states can be inspected by external observations. Thus a person’s bodily life is as much a public affair as are the lives of animals. But minds do not exist in space, nor are their operation subject to mechanical laws. The workings of the mind are not witnessable by other observers; its career is private. A person therefore lives through two collateral histories: one consisting of what happens to and with the body (public); the other consisting of what happens to and in the mind (private). However, the problem with this theory is that in order for this to happen there would have to be a division in reality where the mind is not governed by mechanical laws. This creates a dichotomy as reality can not be divided and nothing can exist outside of reality.

Ryle’s philosophical arguments in his essay largely consist of the suggestion that to speak of mind and body as a substance, as a dualist does, is to commit a Category-mistake. Ryle attempts to prove that the official doctrine is entirely false, not in detail but in principle, by asserting that it arises out of incorrectly confusing 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.

Category mistakes such as the ones Ryle makes note of are made by people who do not know how to properly wield the concepts with which they are working. Their puzzles arise from the inability to use certain items in human language. The theoretically interesting category mistakes are those made by people who are perfectly competent to apply concepts, at least in the situations with which they are familiar, but are still liable in their abstract thinking to relocate those concepts to logical types to which they do not belong.

An archetypal category mistake is that of a foreign student visiting a university. As the student is shown the various campuses, buildings, libraries, fields, et cetera, the student asks, ‘But where is the university?’ This is to equate the level of existence of the university with that of buildings, libraries, and campuses. However, the being of the university exists above such a level, as an encompassing whole or essence of such things, extending beyond mere plants and buildings (to include staff, students, curricula, etc.), and not among them (i.e., on the same categorical level).

According to Ryle, mental processes are merely intelligent acts. There are no mental processes that are distinct from intelligent acts. The operations of the mind are not merely represented by intelligent acts, they are the same as those intelligent acts. Thus, acts of learning, remembering, imagining, knowing, or willing are not merely clues to hidden mental processes or to complex sequences of intellectual operations, they are the way in which those mental processes or intellectual operations are defined. Logical propositions are not merely clues to modes of reasoning, they are those modes of reasoning.

The rationalist theory that the will is a faculty within the mind and that volitions are mental processes which the human body transforms into physical acts is therefore a misconception. This theory mistakenly assumes that mental acts are distinct from physical acts and that there is a mental world which is distinct from the physical world. This theory of the separability of mind and body is described by Ryle as the dogma and the myth of the ghost in the machine.

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