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The Ghost in the Machine part 2 – The Devil Made Me Do It

Following on from my first post, I thought I’d share one further idea, which Koestler did not really touch upon. His work in this area was mostly about collective behaviour rather than that of the individual.

Much of the creative output of the human race is in essence the result of a conflict between rationalisations of the modern brain and the instincts of the older structures inherited from reptiles or mud-skippers or fish with legs or lizards of one kind or another.


If you look at Christianity for example, the embodiment of the ‘evil’ influence over man is represented as the Serpent.

Adam was told not to eat the forbidden fruit – he knew there would be consequences if he did so, and that these consequences would be inflicted upon him by an all-powerful being of immeasurable power, and therefore surely any right-thinking rational being would choose not to eat the apple. Wouldn’t they?

Then along comes the “snake” of latent animal inside him and Adam tucks in, consequences be damned (pun intended)

(I never did understand as a child why the idiot ate the bastard apple, i think perhaps the reason is that he had to, because he was human).

People of a deterministic nature don’t like the idea that we aren’t masters of ourselves, but like it or not there are certainly aspects of our nature that we really can’t do anything about. Recognising this is an essential step in understanding the human condition. Freud based much of his work on the idea that by exposing and understanding our subconscious, we reduce it’s power and influence over us.

I also like the coincidence that both creationism and evolution might represent the raw, evil side of the conflicted human mind…. as a lizard


The ghost in the machine

One of my favourite thinkers of the 20th century was the Hungarian-born novelist and biographer Arthur Koestler. He was born in Budapest in 1905 and committed suicide 77 years later in London. What happened to him in between, and the works (both fiction and non-fiction) he produced along the way will probably be a recurring theme on this blog.

Arthur Koestler

For this first entry I want to talk about one particular concept which Koestler was a great proponent of – Gilbert Ryle’s “The Ghost in the Machine” … This is the theory that the origin and evolution of the human brain has led to certain in-built genetic predispositions, which ultimately ensure that we will destroy ourselves. Koestler’s take on this was a product of his time, and his conclusion in his 1967 book of the same name was that we would bring this about by means of nuclear war.


This idea of the human “flaw” itself is derived from a historical counter-argument to the concept of mind-body dualism, which can be found throughout western philosophy and religion (the notion that the mind is a separate entity which inhabits the body) from Descartes (“I think therefore I am”).

Koestler and a number of other 20th century philosphers didn’t get on with this, and Koestler invented the term “Holon”, which he uses to encapsulate the aggregate experiences of life, which he says result in our perception that mind and body are separate – but this is just a perception. He is essentially saying that our view of reality is limited by our ability to percieve reality, that it’s biased by the way in which we percieve it, and that this perception is a product of both our nature and our experience.

ie; our mind is a product of our existance, not the other way ’round: Descartes was wrong – it should be “I am therefore I think”

I’ve digressed slightly in trying to explain some of the background, but one of the interesting things about Koestler (and there are many) is that he dabbled heavily in the scientific (and even the science of the paranormal – think “men who stare at goats”… i might cover some of that stuff in a future blog post).


The neuroscience behind the ghost in the machine is based on a theory which was current in Koester’s time called the “triune brain”. This model splits the brain into 3 parts, each of which evolved separately;

– at the top of the spinal chord is what’s known as the “reptillian brain” (the name given to the basal ganglia), which can also be found in reptiles, birds, and so forth, and is responsible for instinctual behaviors involved in aggression, dominance, territoriality, and ritual displays
– the paleomammalian complex or limbic system which is responsible for feeding, reproductive behaviour, parental instincts etc
– the neomamalian complex which is uniqely found in mammals, and conferrs upon us language, communication, abstraction, and the ability to write blogs.

This specific theory is no longer generally favoured, but the evolution of the human brain is still something of a mystery, and Koestler’s idea doesn’t rely on the specific path of evolution, it only requires there to be some sort of conflict between one aspect of brain function and another, more specifically some animalistic instinct which we inherited from our evolution being suppressed by a conscious rationalisation from the neo-cortex.

Atavism is the term given to describe a tendancy to return to ancestral type, and human societies are full of evidence of atavistic constructs. Take for example tribalism – an ancestral trait which is shared with other primates such as Chimpanzees. Very few humans now live in a tribal society, but we see the tribal instinct reflected everywhere – in politics, in sport. The urge to be a part of a collection of other humans, and to then compete with other collections of humans is universal. It stems of course from the tribal hunter-gatherer societies of our ancestors, which can still be seen in wild Chimp “tribes” who compete with each other for food resources, have violent battles with neighbouring tribes and have even been seen kidnapping and murdering the young of other groups.


So Koestler is essentially saying that as our brains have evolved, they have built upon (and retained) earlier primitive structures which conflict with the higher functions. The ghost in the machine is the product of all those evolutionary traits which allowed our ancesters to survive, to compete for food, to compete for a mate, and so on…. but which now seem out of place in a world of religion, morality, justice and central banking…. and which (crucially to his suggestion that this will somehow cause our destruction) were never designed to wield more power than a big stick.


In the case of tribalism, the world’s history is full of evil deeds carried out in service of some country, religion, or ideology, but that instinct is also responsible for much of the good in the world – indeed the very existence of our complex civilisation.

I’ve always liked the theory that certain aspects of human behaviour can be explained by our evolution – perhaps that’s because it’s a convenient vehicle to explain away the myriad wrongness of the world without having to understand the concious motives of the individual? In any event i think it’s true that we are probably the only animal that has evolved on earth which is capable of abstract thought, and we are certainly the only animal to have developed such large and complex societal systems as the ones we see today…. but in the end we are still just animals.

The big question is – which atavistic tendancy is most likely to be the source of our downfall, and how will it be brought about? and is there anything we can do about it? (Could we alter ourselves genetically for example? Is that the next step in our evolution?)

Koestler thought giving two competing tribes of humans (chimps!?) the atomic bomb might be the end…… I’m thinking maybe it’ll hurt more than that. Maybe we put a scaly lizard in charge of the money supply?