Read The Ghost in the Machine by Arthur Koestler Free Online
Book Title: The Ghost in the Machine|
The author of the book: Arthur Koestler
Date of issue: May 1st 1970
The size of the: 6.62 MB
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Reader ratings: 6.7
ISBN 13: 9780330024761
Format files: PDF
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I have to start by pointing out a serious rift between why I was recommended this book and why I kept reading it: a philosophy major drunkenly trying to defend free will told me I might be impressed by the book's arguments, and I took it as a challenge. I'd love to see an intelligent response to determinism, a sharp knife to poke at the thick skin of my convictions.
To be frank, I did not find that in this book.
Koestler's arguments against determinism are, to my perspective, peripheral to the bulk of his thesis, which is that evolution has landed man in a blind alley by giving him an exponential growth of cortex that he hasn't yet figured out how to use in concert with the older and more slowly developed subcortical structures. Yet the determinism arguments are treated as foundational in light of the strongly behaviourist tendencies of the scientific era against which he was battling. The result is that he ends up debating a macro-level stimulus-response caricature of determinism that few determinists today hold as sufficient-- a straw man by current standards but, sure, admirable and fairly unique for psychological science circa 1960. It could even be that such relentless (and at the least witty and delightful to read) attacks on behaviourism helped to open bright minds to the cognitive revolution, so we won't hold that against him. But we will hold it against that philosophy major for bringing a knife to a gunfight, and encourage him to read some newer books....
Much of the remainder was a fascinating read, however. Koestler takes us through evolutionary theory and hierarchical systems theory, tying the two together to look at the larger whole of humanity in terms of some evolutionary phenomena.
One of his focuses is on the "blind alley" in evolution, in which a species becomes overspecialized for its environment and then can't adapt properly to new changes in that environment. In the history of evolution, this has happened a number of times, but nature has a way of getting out of it: paedomorphism, basically extending the growth phase of development and evolving off younger forms of the species. This is a process that Koestler calls reculer pour mieux sauter (roughly: taking a step back to jump better), and it's one of the more interesting of the ideas he applies to other levels of the human hierarchical system. For example, he cites this process as the means to creativity in both art and science. Breakthroughs are obtained by breaking down the existing state of thought and working from older ideas in combination with new knowledge (and thus is hit upon the very reason I read old and outdated books like this one).
In a later thread of his theoretical mixology, Koestler takes a closer look at the structure of hierarchical systems, in which each element is both a whole on its level and a part of the level above it-- a duality which he calls a holon and which term is probably this book's most enduring contribution. A holon in a hierarchical system embodies a fundamental tension between integrative (i.e., parts of a whole) and self-assertive (i.e., each part is a whole in itself) tendencies. He not only explains humour, art, and science as lying along a continuous spectrum on this dimension, but also proposes that most of human woe can be explained by the dichotomy. Specifically, that whereas overexpression of the self-assertive tendency can lead to small scale violence, overexpression of the integrative tendency moves the behaviour one step up in the hierarchy and leads to large-scale violence. So nationalism, religion, cults, etc., are a submission of the "wholeness" of the part to the benefit of the larger whole, and lead to destruction on a broader scale. I'm not generally one for such broad theorizing, but I love this idea.
After hitting that broad and impressive peak, he reels the magnifying glass back down to the level of the individual human and argues that we've evolved into a sick blind alley that makes us prone to the delusions inherent in closed systems. A closed system doesn't behave hierarchically, but locks its parts into the part role and leaves the larger closed system the only whole, rejects opinions from outside the system, and so on. Whether these delusions are expressed in terms of mental illness or social illnesses like nationalism/religion, the result is the same and it is not good. Also generally on board with this idea, and at this point I began to develop expectations about where he was going with it...
And then suddenly the message begins a glorious spiral of WTF so far off the mark of the natural extension I'd extrapolated from the book's brilliant middle portion that it took me and my incredulity an entire two weeks to read the last few chapters. Basically, Koestler sketches the need for a drug to "unlock the potentials of the underused cortex" by somehow allowing more distributed communication with subcortical structures, and thereby evading the closed system that amplifies the part/whole tension and leads to our madness as a species-- a madness defined by what he calls the absolute certainty of self-destruction by nuclear war. If the leaps in this synopsis are hard to follow, I'm sorry, but his elaboration doesn't do much better. The 1960's come through loud and clear in these pages, and it's such a pity that he ends on this note, to the tune of my repeating the word NOPE. Not to mention that in the same breath as he expounds on the virtues of such a drug, he deeply misunderstands Huxley's proposal for the virtues of hallucinogens. If there's an afterlife, I hope Mr. Huxley and Mr. Koestler have by now discussed, over magical heaven tea, that they completely agree about what drugs can and cannot do with the contents of a human brain, because wow what a misreading of Huxley. BUT I DIGRESS.
Take the last bit with a grain of salt and forgive Koestler the hubris of assigning a much-deplored relic of psychology's past as his arch-nemesis, and this is a profoundly interesting extrapolation of known scientific processes to new milieus, with at worst thought-provoking and at best insightful results. With the reality of those elements however, it's hard not to take the rest with at least a half-grain of the same salt. If one's foundational assumptions are outdated, it's difficult not to question the validity of anything built on them. Nevertheless, it was delicious and surprisingly far-ranging food for thought and I'm glad I got into a drunken debate with a philosophy major. Even though he's wrong.
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Read information about the authorArthur Koestler CBE [*Kösztler Artúr] was a prolific writer of essays, novels and autobiographies.
He was born into a Hungarian Jewish family in Budapest but, apart from his early school years, was educated in Austria. His early career was in journalism. In 1931 he joined the Communist Party of Germany but, disillusioned, he resigned from it in 1938 and in 1940 published a devastating anti-Communist novel, Darkness at Noon, which propelled him to instant international fame.
Over the next forty-three years he espoused many causes, wrote novels and biographies, and numerous essays. In 1968 he was awarded the prestigious and valuable Sonning Prize "For outstanding contribution to European culture", and in 1972 he was made a "Commander of the British Empire" (CBE).
In 1976 he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and three years later with leukaemia in its terminal stages. He committed suicide in 1983 in London.
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