Ghost in the Machine

I happen to be fond of ghosts. Not the sort that show up at seances, but more the kind you find in texts like Turn of the Screw. That is, not “ghost” as in white sheets and hauntings, but “ghost” as in the unexplained element–the “ghost” in the machine.

What exactly does that mean? Well, it may surprise you (as it did me) that the phrase  originates in philosophy, in a discussion about René Descartes’ duality of mind. Descartes maintained that there was a separation between mind and body, something which women educators found useful in the latter part of the seventeenth century. Women like Mary Astell, for instance, used Cartesian Dualism to prove that womens’ “weaker” bodies did not equate weaker minds (not perhaps the most flattering portrayal of women, but hey, when you are given lemons, make lemonade).This dualism was challenged by more mechanistic philosophy, that saw the body and mind as equally part of L’homme Machine.

This “man machine” is to be contrasted with Bête machine or animal machine–Descartes saw humans as essentially different from the “baser” animals, while mechanistic philosophy saw them as essentially the same. You can see, I think, how this becomes a religious question–mechanistic views tended to challenge concepts of the soul, and many theorists were accused of spreading heresy. However, though this argument begins in the seventeenth century, it certainly doesn’t end there. The phrase that I began with, the ghost in the machine,  shows up first in the text Concept of Mind, circa 1949. The author, Ryle, continues the debate and claims there is no distinction between body and mind, no hidden entity as separate from the workings of mechanical life. The mind is not the seat of mysterious consciousness, but a part of the general workings and volitions of life. It is a behavioral model of understanding–the machine of the body is without the secret component known as spirit or soul. There is nothing under, behind or beneath the mechanics of the body. The phrase is coined not to describe a mysterious SOMETHING behind our experience, but to enjoin that there never was such a thing.

How fascinating, then, that in our modern use of the phrase, we turn Ryle somewhat on his head! “Ghost in the machine” is mostly used now for explaining the unexplainable–and it even makes its way to Hollywood, in the movie I-Robot, wherein it preceded the comment: “When does a perceptual schematic become consciousness? When does a difference engine become the search for truth? When does a personality simulation become the bitter mote… of a soul?”

Ghost…spirit…soul… That which we leave undefined because undefinable, that which we cannot see or trace or examine. Beyond science, it has been joined sometimes to science fiction (as in the movies), but the uncanny, the unexplained, the “ghost” stirs us because we cannot contain it.

And as I say, I happen to be fond of ghosts. Myself a female educationalist, I am inclined to agree with Astell–and with Descartes. Haunt that machine, I say.

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