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The Ghost in the Machine by Arthur Koestler
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The Ghost in the Machine (original 1967; edition 1976)

by Arthur Koestler

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327633,822 (3.65)6
paradoxosalpha's review
Arthur Koestler's The Ghost in the Machine is offered as a somewhat downbeat counterpart to his immediately previous book The Act of Creation, which I have not read. It is, however, startlingly similar to Gregory Bateson's Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity. Although Bateson is putatively the more scientifically highbrow of the two authors, Koestler covers almost all of the ground that Bateson does with respect to systems theory, morphogenesis, and evolution, but provides much additional reflection on psychology and politics. Also, Koestler's style is more accessible. Where Bateson offers a generalization of Russell's theory of logical types to discuss interrelationships among systems, Koestler uses the hoarier and more approachable nomenclature of hierarchy. Koestler is also considerate enough to provide a few paragraphs of review at the end of each chapter.

In this book, the author sets out to antagonize the mechanistic paradigm of science, and in particular its expression in psychology's behaviorist school and its progeny. He offers in contrast his theory of "Open Hierarchical Systems" (O.H.S.), which he also codifies in an appendix. He also discusses the importance of what he calls paedomorphosis (163 ff), which commends itself particularly to the attention of those who recognize the Aeon of the Crowned and Conquering Child. There is even a convenient iconic encoding of the O.H.S. concepts: "the tree, the candle and the helmsman,... the two faces of Janus ... and the mathematical symbol of the infinite" (220-1).

The final section of the book is certainly the most provocative. In some ways, it is rather dated, having been written in the throes of the Cold War. But the predicaments that Koestler tries to address -- the age-old patterns of human societies regressing into repressive ignorance and tribal conflicts superseding human identity, along with the anxieties of today's "air-conditioned nightmare" (327) and the approach of human populations and power to a vertical asymptote (the latterly-dubbed "singularity") -- have hardly been resolved. He suggests that these may be symptoms of defective neuroanatomy, and rather than allowing our species to be scrapped so that some other post-primate might develop a more coordinated brain and more enduring societies, he proposes that humans should develop and apply the psychopharmacopoeia needed to produce homo sapiens from homo maniacus (339).

In that conclusion, he ends up pitting himself against Aldous Huxley, but the conflict between their respective pharmacological futurisms is not nearly as clear-cut as Koestler seems to make it out to be. "The psycho-pharmacist cannot add to the faculties of the brain -- but he can, at best eliminate obstructions and blockages which impede their proper use," writes Koestler (335). I'm not sure that Huxley would disagree. Koestler dismisses "mystic insights" as being alien to the human psychic constitution, rather than the product of its proper exercise. I suppose Koestler would be disappointed to find that 21st-century psychiatry has indeed greatly developed psychopharmacology, but with an emphasis on individual pathologies still rooted in a mechanistic behaviorism in organicist drag.

In any case, I enjoyed this book at least as much on a second reading, even as it has become more dated. It made an excellent sequel to my re-read of the Bateson volume, and the next title in this eccentric curriculum will be a jump forward to Jeremy Narby's The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge.
3 vote paradoxosalpha | May 7, 2012 |
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Showing 6 of 6
Arthur Koestler's The Ghost in the Machine is offered as a somewhat downbeat counterpart to his immediately previous book The Act of Creation, which I have not read. It is, however, startlingly similar to Gregory Bateson's Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity. Although Bateson is putatively the more scientifically highbrow of the two authors, Koestler covers almost all of the ground that Bateson does with respect to systems theory, morphogenesis, and evolution, but provides much additional reflection on psychology and politics. Also, Koestler's style is more accessible. Where Bateson offers a generalization of Russell's theory of logical types to discuss interrelationships among systems, Koestler uses the hoarier and more approachable nomenclature of hierarchy. Koestler is also considerate enough to provide a few paragraphs of review at the end of each chapter.

In this book, the author sets out to antagonize the mechanistic paradigm of science, and in particular its expression in psychology's behaviorist school and its progeny. He offers in contrast his theory of "Open Hierarchical Systems" (O.H.S.), which he also codifies in an appendix. He also discusses the importance of what he calls paedomorphosis (163 ff), which commends itself particularly to the attention of those who recognize the Aeon of the Crowned and Conquering Child. There is even a convenient iconic encoding of the O.H.S. concepts: "the tree, the candle and the helmsman,... the two faces of Janus ... and the mathematical symbol of the infinite" (220-1).

The final section of the book is certainly the most provocative. In some ways, it is rather dated, having been written in the throes of the Cold War. But the predicaments that Koestler tries to address -- the age-old patterns of human societies regressing into repressive ignorance and tribal conflicts superseding human identity, along with the anxieties of today's "air-conditioned nightmare" (327) and the approach of human populations and power to a vertical asymptote (the latterly-dubbed "singularity") -- have hardly been resolved. He suggests that these may be symptoms of defective neuroanatomy, and rather than allowing our species to be scrapped so that some other post-primate might develop a more coordinated brain and more enduring societies, he proposes that humans should develop and apply the psychopharmacopoeia needed to produce homo sapiens from homo maniacus (339).

In that conclusion, he ends up pitting himself against Aldous Huxley, but the conflict between their respective pharmacological futurisms is not nearly as clear-cut as Koestler seems to make it out to be. "The psycho-pharmacist cannot add to the faculties of the brain -- but he can, at best eliminate obstructions and blockages which impede their proper use," writes Koestler (335). I'm not sure that Huxley would disagree. Koestler dismisses "mystic insights" as being alien to the human psychic constitution, rather than the product of its proper exercise. I suppose Koestler would be disappointed to find that 21st-century psychiatry has indeed greatly developed psychopharmacology, but with an emphasis on individual pathologies still rooted in a mechanistic behaviorism in organicist drag.

In any case, I enjoyed this book at least as much on a second reading, even as it has become more dated. It made an excellent sequel to my re-read of the Bateson volume, and the next title in this eccentric curriculum will be a jump forward to Jeremy Narby's The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge.
3 vote paradoxosalpha | May 7, 2012 |
Koestler begins by disparaging the idiocy of Behaviorist psychology, which views humans as nothing more than large rats or pigeons, condemned to mechanically responding to stimuli unthinkingly. He then looks at evolution in general, and then at the evolution of the brain. Through it all he utilizes a new theory of his devising centered on "holons," which are simultaneously parts and wholes. ( )
1 vote br77rino | Mar 26, 2011 |
Koestler attempts here an amateur evaluation of the human tendency to self-destructiveness as the flip side (how that phrase dates me!) of creativity. This is rather dated, given the development of evolutionary psychology since the 1960s, but very well written. It isn't something that a gifted amateur like Koestler would, I think, be likely to attempt in this age, and that's a great pity.
  Fledgist | Jun 22, 2010 |
This book is a joy to read. Indeed it is rare to be entertained by the views of a genuine free thinker. Most writers, without realizing it, describe the (mindset/zeitgeist) views of a group to which they associate. Actually, Koestler suggests all such groups are paranoid. They become emotionally attached to oversimplified ideas which they must defend. Indeed he is more concerned about this delusional streak than our tendency to violence. He suggests that mankind (H. manicus) is under stress, with pharmaceuticals as the only clear remedy.

Of course many of his intriguing views are dated. For instance, there are few behaviourists left to slaughter. Now, he treats the universe as both a whole and a system of parts. In turn, the parts can be wholes with their own parts. In this way, he sees the structure of everything as a complex hierarchy. Life and mentality fit into this hierarchy.

Furthermore, in his view, exploration is a necessary ingredient of natural evolution. Thus the exploratory instinct is common across all animals. Initiative drives all forms of progress. He cautions that major scientific breakthroughs often come from abandoning overspecialization, which blinds us to possibilities for advancement. ( )
2 vote Jewsbury | Feb 16, 2010 |
Could the human species be a gigantic evolutionary mistake? To answer that startling question Koestler examines how experts on evolution and psychology all too often write about people with an "antiquated slot-machine model based on the naively mechanistic world-view of the nineteenth century". His brillinat polemic helped to instigate a major revolution in the life sciences, yet its "glimpses of an alternate world-view" form only the background to an even more challenging analysis of the human predicament. Perhaps, he suggests, we are a species in which ancient and recent brain structures -- or reason and emotion -- are not fully coordinated. Such inbuilt deficiencies may explain the paranoia, violence and insanity that are central strands of human history. And however disturbing we find such issues, Koestler contends, it is only when we face our limitations head-on that we can hope to find a remedy.
2 vote rajendran | Jan 20, 2008 |
Koestler examines the notion that the parts of the human brain-structure which account for reason and emotion are not fully coordinated. This kind of deficiency may explain the paranoia, violence, and insanity that are central parts of human history, according to Koestler's analysis of the human predicament.
1 vote antimuzak | Jun 2, 2006 |
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