The phrase “The Ghost in the Machine” has many different meanings (both implicit and explicit), and has been utilised in many differing contexts over the last 70 years, but has become an especially prevalent concept in our collective consciousness lately as the advance of the modern technological age continues relentlessly and, in the eyes of many, remorselessly.
To some of us at least, this metaphor of a ghost in the machine resonates because it reflects the perception that our human “spirit” is trapped within the “machinery” of the very technology that we have ourselves devised and nurtured, which then ironically serves to prevent the fullest expression of our true and basic humanity. This is the central theme of many a classic science fiction novel or film (“2001: A Space Odyssey” for example), as well as in Japanese ‘Anime’ cartoons and art work, while it is the inspiration to two of the most seminal rock music albums of the modern era: Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” and Radiohead’s “OK Computer”. As a result, this definition of a “Ghost in the Machine” has gained significant primacy almost by osmosis with the younger pre-millennial and millennial generations, in Western culture in particular.
Although rough equivalents to this phrase have been known since Ancient Greece, it is in the twentieth century that it was most prominently put forth on the path to its present day meaning through the works of Oxford philosopher Gilbert Ryle, particularly in his 1949 book, The Concept of Mind. In his book, Ryle critiques the dogmatic adherence of modern philosophers to the mind/body theories of Rene Descartes, with a general consensus that viewed the mind as completely separate and distinct from the physical body, a philosophical dogma that has come to be known as “Cartesian dualism”. Ryle was determined to prove this idea as false on a first principles basis, and in derisive fashion he referred to the human “spirit” as depicted under this doctrine as a “ghost in the machine” of our physical bodies.
It is, however, the next iteration of this phrase that I wish to primarily examine and critique, that being the work of Hungarian born philosopher and author Arthur Koestler nearly 20 years later that built upon and somewhat modified Ryle’s original idea and writings. Koestler brought Ryle’s concept to much wider popular attention in his 1967 book The Ghost in the Machine, which takes his phrase as its title and then endeavours to take his concept to a new and more specific meaning. When Koestler alluded to the “Ghost in the Machine”, he instead referred to a supposedly fatal flaw found within the human psyche that led to our innate propensity to fear, anger, aggression and often violence, a flaw that he contended acted as a barrier to the fullest expression of our higher order thinking, to logic and to maximising our analytical capability. This fundamental design limitation, in his estimation, derived largely from the evolutionary processes that shaped the formation of the human brain, and which had retained and built upon earlier, more primitive brain structures.
While Koestler’s hypothesis undoubtedly has much of merit to recommend it, I would contend that it fatally underestimates the fundamental necessity of these basic primitive emotions and the functions that these particular “ghosts” actually perform within “the machine” of our human psyche as a matter of necessity, without which we as individuals (and collectively as a species) would be unable to survive, let alone thrive. Koestler’s proposition suggests by extension that these primitive brain centres could ideally be dispensed with in order to maximise our logical and analytical thought, but that presupposes a world without any significant threat or danger, and therefore one without any need for any aggression or anger or violence under circumstances in which one or all of these actions or responses would not only be appropriate, but necessary for survival or the protection of either our selves or those others who would depend upon us.
Our instinct of “fear”, for example, serves an even greater function than merely protecting us from physical or emotional threats. This heightened emotional state with its attendant physiological changes enables increased vigilance through increased blood flow to the brain to improve attention and focus (thereby allowing rapid assessment of any threat), but also serves equally to perfuse our skeletal muscles to facilitate any fight or flight response to that danger, especially when often there may be little or no time to respond logically or in a considered fashion to such a perceived threat. I would also argue that without fear, many of our most precious and meaningful experiences would seem inordinately bland and passionless precisely because of the absence of that fear, whether it be a fear of failure, a fear of rejection, a fear of abandonment or of being humiliated before our peers or loved ones. Part of the emotional depth or resonance of any experience, it seems to me, comes in the context of avoiding that which we most dread. Victory, for example, is sweeter overcoming fear of failure, whilst love is all the more fulfilling knowing that one could so easily have been rejected or abandoned.
It is clear and obvious that wholly irrational fears are entirely unhelpful and potentially self-destructive to the individual, but then the opposite should also be true for any rationally held fears, since this helps to ensure that the threat and its response are proportionate to one another, and therefore fear in these circumstances is a legitimate and indispensable tool for survival. Thus it is not the instinct of fear itself that is to be dispensed with, but rather it requires an overlay of logical processing to give that specific fear its context and proportionality, and then to help mediate the appropriateness of our responses to that fear. Unfortunately, most sensate creatures are unable to process such higher responses in a timely enough fashion to respond effectively in many circumstances, leading to the necessity for an automatic response based upon instinctive reaction. It is also worth noting that it is by no means invariable that the logical or considered response is always a better response than an immediate one, as many a rueful regret could have possibly been averted if we followed our instincts, at least in certain situations, and where a failure to trust that instinct has eventually proven costly as our hypervigilant state picked up cues that our logical brain functions managed to miss.
Clearly, it is difficult to argue that much of what is wrong with our society throughout its history can be traced, in part at least, to our propensity to unreasoning anger and aggression, and to our tendencies to violent responses, but the very opposite of this (the total absence of anger, aggression and violence) suggests a society marked by complete conformity and passivity in the vein of H.G.Wells mythical “Eloi” in his seminal fictional novella, “The Time Machine”. The lives of the Eloi, as depicted by Wells, are utterly banal and colourless having regressed to a life of such intellectual stagnation and passive compliance that they are unable to defend themselves from their competitors: the “Morlocks”, who prey upon the Eloi and feed on their flesh in order to survive. The regressive Eloi live in a completely co-dependent, communal society and dwell either in the blissful ignorance of hedonistic pleasure, or are paralysed by an immense fear of the unknown, being completely devoid of either self-sufficient survival skills or any trace of individuality.
Whilst a preponderance to unreasoning violence is clearly counter-productive to overall social cohesiveness and even could potentially compromise species survival as we evolve technologically, the behaviour of “aggression” is in many ways a necessary feature of the human condition, defending vulnerable loved ones and offspring from potential threats to their safety, as well as establishing social hierarchy and mating prioritisation based on the fitness to survive in a hostile environment. It is linked to territoriality and competitiveness, and is hard-wired into the genome of most if not all higher order species, mankind included. “Violence”, on the other hand, is an extension of this necessary survival characteristic, but it is more often than not misapplied to promote sadistic pleasure in the suffering or deprivation of others, or to the greed of coveting the possessions or wealth of others, or to promote the pursuit of power over individuals, groups, or (in the extreme case) of nations. Such acts of violence can be random and sociopathic, or targeted and purposeful (such as an assassination) for one or other personal or sociopolitical purposes.
While Koestler might argue that this is merely a regression to our primal state, I would argue instead that it more reflects a socio-culturally triggered distortion of our innate survival instinct of aggression, an instinct that would otherwise be self-protective, rather than innately destructive or irrational. As evidence of this, I would cite the example of the aestheticization of violence in the media, in art and in cinema, where imagery is often presented by essentially non-violent people that deliberately presents concepts of violence symbolically or otherwise as desirable, or alternatively as a form of expression that is in some ways seen to be aesthetically pleasing. This suggests that such tendencies can actually arise out of our complex higher order thinking rather than in spite of it, transforming an otherwise healthy instinct into something that would provoke senseless or random violence for its own sake. In fact, the arts has a long history of corrupting the minds of the vulnerable and the uninitiated by constructing attractive narratives around immoral or reprehensible behaviours of all kinds, representing a kind of socially constructed and wholly artificial form of propagated psychopathology that can enlighten on the one hand, yet promote the basest of emotions on the other.
Finally, in the case of “anger”, it is clear that unreasonable anger can not only provoke fear in others within a social group causing unnecessary distress (particularly to those most vulnerable), but in many instances it can have negative social or physical consequences on the person involved as a consequence of acting out on this anger. However, there is no doubt that anger directed appropriately at provocation, hurt or threat by another can contribute to better maintenance of boundaries of appropriate behaviour in others, and it can prepare us for physical confrontation when threatened by energising and physically empowering us. It can also communicate (in a crude if unmistakeable way) a sense of injustice, and can act as a motivating force for change in the face of problems or barriers to our personal or social advancement. It acts as a social signal that a conflict has occurred, and that a situation is in urgent need of peaceful resolution. Finally, in a more cynical sense, it can also act as a strategic manoeuvre to intimidate others to achieve personally desired outcomes. Thus anger is neither primitive nor wholly instinctive, but can be informed by higher order processing that modifies the instinctive and the emotive to induce a response, sometimes controlled and calculating, while at other times it may be entirely unconstrained and counterproductive.
Many of these behaviours described above are heavily imprinted by social modelling from observation of similar behaviours amongst parents and peers, which belies any suggestion of this being a purely instinctive regression to our primeval “reptilian” brain functions, as suggested by Koestler’s description. Instead, they can be seen to be a complex interaction of not only instinctive responses, but of hormonal and neurochemical reactions, with learned responses in their socio-cultural context, and a filter of rational “higher order thinking” overlying these basic emotional substrates to deliver a set of behaviours that run the gamut of responses from the self-destructive to the self-promoting, from the passive to the aggressive, and from the ingenuous to the manipulative.