‘The ghost in the machine’ is a phrase coined by British philosopher Gilbert Ryle to highlight the absurdity of the Cartesian theory that mind and body are composed of two distinct ‘substances’, namely mental and physical substances.

Ryle argues that this theory, known as mind-body dualism, cannot hold weight due to the impossibility of finding an adequate explanation for the seemingly parallel nature of the inter-dependent activity that consistently appears to take place between mind and body: If one separates the two, as the dualist suggests we should, accounting for this kind of interaction becomes problematic to the point of absurdity, not least on account of the fact that we are left with two allegedly ‘distinct’ co-lateral histories - of our mental and physical lives - each that we must bizarrely explain without reference to the other.

According to Ryle, the Cartesian claim that mind and body are composed of distinct types of substances makes a basic ‘category mistake’ in that it is based on the false assumption that mind and body are two concepts capable of being analysed as if they were members of the same logical category. For Ryle this kind of inherent confusion clearly accentuates the underlying absurdity of the idea that mental and physical activity can occur simultaneously yet separately within us: Attempting to draw conclusions based on the so-called substantive nature of something that cannot be classified as a substance - namely the ‘non-physical (mental) substance’ of the ‘mind’ - is bound to lead us away, rather than towards, the truth of the matter (if there is such a thing as truth) (or matter).

In the artwork, Ryle’s rejection of the dualist claim that ‘mental substances’ exist distinctly within our physical bodies is represented by the empty, non-substantive hands which, despite being composed only of negative space, are supposedly able to control and direct the physical environment that houses them. Because of the undeniably relative nature of negative space, the hands of mentality cannot possibly be said to ‘exist’ in the same way as we speak of substances existing.

The labyrinth of the ‘mind’ shares this ghostly quality, bringing into question the very existence of mental life itself. If all that exists is the physical, can the vivid worlds of thought (that, we would hesitate to deny, do consistently exist inside our heads, continually shaping our physical lives with the weight of their implications) really be reduced to mere emotionlessly mechanical processes?

In a broader sense, the co-dependent relationship between positive and negative space is used as a questioning metaphor for the inseparable nature of mind and body. We cannot analyse one in terms of the other without leading to some confusion: Labels like ‘space’ and ‘non-space’ become meaningless as soon as we try to define the two in any other terms than the ones arising from their interrelatedness. Yet more problems arise when we attempt to describe this causal relationship as a mutual one. In the same way, it is argued that to frame the unfathomably complex phenomenon of mental activity as ‘non-physical substance’ and analyse it in terms of something it shares no properties with, can only lead us to absurdity.

Amy Hiley Art
‘The Ghost in the Machine’ Linocut Print by Amy Hiley Art

‘The Ghost in the Machine’ Linocut Print by Amy Hiley Art