Ghost in the Machine – Meaning & Origin
| Candace Osmond
Candace Osmond studied Advanced Writing & Editing Essentials at MHC. She’s been an International and USA TODAY Bestselling Author for over a decade. And she’s worked as an Editor for several mid-sized publications. Candace has a keen eye for content editing and a high degree of expertise in Fiction.
The ghost in the machine is a bizarre phrase we use to refer to the mind-body dualism theory. Basically, it suggests that the human mind (or soul) is distinct and separate from the physical body. Cool, right? But how did a deep phrase like this come to be? I’ll tell you all about it! Stick with me as I dig deeper into this thought-provoking term’s meaning. Plus, I’ll show you how to use it in a sentence.
Ghost in the Machine Meaning Explained
This phrase, often used in philosophy and cognitive science discussions, is the perfect metaphorical way to describe the idea that the mind (the ghost ) exists independently of the body (the machine ). It reflects the debate around consciousness, mental states, and the physical body—whether they’re interlinked or separate entities.
It’s like “Ghost in the Shell,” one of my favorite anime creations. It’s a futuristic cyberpunk story. Just like the phrase in question, ghost represents the mind or consciousness, and shell represents the body (or cybernetic body, in this case).
With the rise of artificial intelligence and tons of other amazing advancements that continue to push humans and machines together, this phrase will definitely get more use in the coming years.
Origin and Etymology Behind the Ghost in the Machine
The evocative phrase ghost in the machine was coined by a philosopher named Gilbert Ryle in his book “ The Concept of Mind ,” which was published in 1949. Ryle used it as a criticism of René Descartes’ mind-body dualism theory. He viewed it as a misleading way of understanding human consciousness and behavior.
The Ghost in the Machine Synonyms
It might not seem like it, but there are a few alternative ways to say ghost in the machine . Here are some to consider:
- Mind-body dualism
- Cartesian dualism
- Descartes’ dualism
- Spirit in the machine
- Soul in the machine
The Ghost in the Machine Examples in Sentence
Here are a few ways showing exactly how you can use this oddball phrase in either conversation or writing.
- The deep concept of the ghost in the machine has intrigued cognitive scientists around the world.
- My professor’s philosophical perspective aligns more with the ghost-in-the-machine theory.
- This new AI technology is so terrifyingly advanced; it’s like there’s a ghost in the machine.
- The debate on consciousness always circles back to the ghost-in-the-machine idea.
- I’m writing a paper on the implications of the ghost in the machine in modern neuroscience.
- Descartes’ philosophy has been critiqued as promoting a ghost-in-the-machine viewpoint.
- The class discussion about consciousness inevitably brought up the notion of the ghost in the machine.
- Artificial intelligence often evokes discussions about the ghost in the machine.
- His theory suggests that there’s no ghost in the machine, only biochemical reactions, and it’s a comforting concept to entertain.
- Is it the ghost in the machine that makes us uniquely human or just the opposite?
The Ghost and the Machine: A Philosophical Encounter
That’s the philosophical concept of the ghost in the machine in a nutshell. Idioms are where language and ideas intersect and birth special sayings like this for all to use. The more idioms you understand, the broader your vocabulary will become! So, check out my other helpful guides right here on Grammarist!
Check out some others we covered:
- With egg on one’s face definition
- Word of mouth meaning
- Wolf in sheep’s clothing definition
- Worth one’s salt meaning
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A Ghost in the Machine – Meaning, Origin and Usage
Did your PC just glitch out? You could be dealing with a hacker or “ a ghost in the machine .” This post unpacks everything you need to know about the meaning and origin of this expression.
The expression “ a ghost in the machine ” refers to a conscious mind entering a physical entity, such as a computer or electronic device. The phrase was originally a scathing review by an author on a publication involving the discussion of “ Dualism ,” as outlined by René Descartes.
Descartes stated that dualism is the idea that the mind exists in a separate state from the brain. While the two systems occupy the same space, they act independently of each other. The central theme in the book discusses the fact that the human brain evolved over millennia, building new brain structures over the old “ primitive brain .”
The theory is that emotions can activate these old brain structures, causing us to act in ways that overpower our higher logic, resulting in destructive decisions and actions. The phrase went on to apply this to systems like computers, where “ a ghost in the machine ” refers to an electronic glitch where the device seems to act on its own accord.
“I swear I saved my work before I left the office on Friday. I even remember backing everything up in the cloud. I got in this morning, and everything’s gone. It’s like there’s a ghost in the machine or something.”
“The electronic billboard keeps flashing a subliminal message every few minutes, and I can’t read it. There’s a ghost in the machine that wants to get out.”
“We all think there’s a ghost in the machine. The CRM system keeps popping up with errors for no reason.”
“Did you hear that story about Alexa saying creepy stuff or waking people up at night with evil laughter? It’s like there’s a ghost in the machine with that device.
The origin of the expression “ghost in the machine” comes from British philosopher Gilbert Ryle. Ryle’s 1949 publication of “The Concept of Mind” used the saying as a demeaning description of René Descartes’ concept of “mind-body dualism.”
The saying emphasized that mental activity and physical action occur in different systems, and no one can explain how they interact.
Arthur Koestler published a book, “The Ghost in the Machine,” in 1967, using Ryle’s phrase for the title. The book describes the lunacy of man’s innate nature to destroy itself, focusing on the arms race in the 60s as the thesis.
Phrases Similar to A Ghost in the Machine
- An unexplained event.
- The machine has a life of its own.
Phrases Opposite to A Ghost in the Machine
What is the correct saying.
- A ghost in the machine.
Ways People May Say A Ghost in the Machine Incorrectly
“Ghost in the machine” was the title of a 90s anime movie with a similar theme to the original saying. Some people may refer to the film, not the actual event in a network or device. The phrase does not mean that ghosts inhabit a computer.
The saying refers to strange, unexplained occurrences that usually have a reasonable explanation or may end up never being solved. Using the phrase to describe strange things occurring to mechanical devices would be the incorrect use of the saying.
Acceptable Ways to Phrase A Ghost in the Machine
You can use the phrase “ghost in the machine” when referring to glitches or unexplained outcomes in digital devices such as computers, smartphones, and tablets.
You can also use it to describe glitches in electronics and other electrically-powered devices. For instance, your computer could have a “ghost in the machine,” or your blender could have a “ghost in the machine.”
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“Ghost In The Machine” by SZA: The Meaning Behind the Song Broken Down
"Ghost In The Machine" is SZA's collaboration with Phoebe Bridgers on her "SOS" album. Let's break down the lyrics to get at the meaning behind the track.
Dec. 10 2022, Published 1:01 p.m. ET
Everyone is talking about SZA ’s album “SOS,” released on December 9, 2022 — and more specifically, her collaboration with Phoebe Bridgers , “Ghost In The Machine.” While the song is obviously open for interpretation by fans, many have already started breaking down the lyrics to understand what SZA and Phoebe are driving at in the haunting tune.
Let’s dive into the lyrics of “Ghost In The Machine” and explore what the artists are saying in the song that has the internet abuzz over the early Christmas present.
In “Ghost In The Machine” by SZA, meaning and sound collide.
SZA pumped fans up about her collaboration with Phoebe on the track “Ghost In The Machine” while talking with Hot 97 . She specifically referenced the very unique sound of the track, saying, “It’s gonna sound how people think it’s gonna sound. It’s super alternative and strange.” Also, per NME , she talked about working with the songwriter, enthusing, “I’m grateful Phoebe showed up for me [on this collaboration]. I didn’t think she’d come to the studio in person, which she did, which was crazy and we laughed and she’s hilarious.”
Predictably, fans instantly freaked out on social media about the duo creating the song, which according to The New York Times , utilizes mostly computerized tones.
Ghost In The Machine is SO DAMN GOOD! i can't stop listening it's my fave song fr.. stunning lyrics with such a beautiful concept for a song, they blent their genres perfectly and sza's verses and vocals sounding flawlessly on the beat.. it's SOTY y'all pic.twitter.com/LngjgswaYX — alvaro,, (@selsmanic) December 9, 2022
The sound is significant because it leans into the title of the track. The computerized feel of the song is the machine, but so too are the artists themselves, if you listen to the lyrics. For example, per AZ Lyrics , the refrain goes like this: “I need humanity / You're like humanity, drownin' in vanity / Cravin' humanity / You're like humanity, I need humanity.”
As Billboard notes, SZA has talked about how working hard in the music industry makes her feel less human. “I could literally burst into tears and run through this wall at any moment. I am effectively falling apart,” she said, adding that working at such a “high level,” “isn’t meant for a person; it’s meant for a machine.”
As Elite Daily points out, SZA and her co-collaborator do indeed operate like machines in their careers, but the toll on their humanity is real. Consider the name of the album, too. It seems as though SZA is crying out for help, especially given her lyrics, “Everything disgustin',” and “Can you distract me from all the disaster?”
Moises Mendez of Time backs up that notion by saying that he “interpreted ‘SOS’ as SZA coming to the realization that she is scared of herself and sending out a distress signal to anyone who will listen.”
Phoebe is also adrift in the sea of despair too, seemingly, and on this track, sings about “Waiting to feel clean,” with her verse also suggesting she’s lonely and feels taken advantage of by friends and colleagues. Go ahead and take a listen to "Ghost In The Machine," and see what you think.
Meanwhile, Phoebe Bridgers is the artist of the moment to be sure.
Phoebe is beloved by critics and fans alike, according to Parade , and her fans have even named themselves "Pharbz." The four-time Grammy nominated singer and songwriter grew up in Los Angeles per the Los Angeles Times , and in a short span of time has mounted a triumphant music career that seemingly everyone is talking about.
She even includes Taylor Swift as a huge admirer. The mega-star explained to the Times in an email about Phoebe’s talent, “I think that the specificity of Phoebe’s lyrics, and the vulnerability she expresses in her voice when she delivers them is what makes her music so deeply impactful and moving for me as a fan.”
Meanwhile, the co-collaborator on “Ghost In The Machine” isn’t afraid to put herself out there personally as well, having been inspiringly outspoken about suffering abuse at the hands of her former boyfriend Ryan Adams, and having had an abortion.
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Gilbert Ryle (1900—1976) philosopher
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'ghost in the machine' can also refer to...
Ghost In The Machine (Police album)
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ghost in the machine
The term first used by the English philosopher Gilbert Ryle (1900–76) on page 17 of his book The Concept of Mind (1949) to describe the dogma of mind-body dualism, which he interpreted as a category mistake.
From: ghost in the machine in A Dictionary of Psychology »
Subjects: Science and technology — Psychology
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phrases, sayings, idioms and expressions at
"ghost in the machine"
Posted by Pamela on January 10, 2007
In Reply to: "Ghost in the machine" posted by Smokey Stover on January 09, 2007
: : what does the phrase: : : "ghost in the machine" : : mean?
: That's a tremendously interesting question, which will not be answered by me. It involves an ongoing philosophical conflict of attitudes. But it has an origin, as the article in the Wikipedia spells out:
: "The ghost in the machine is British philosopher Gilbert Ryle's derogatory description for René Descartes' mind-body dualism. The phrase was introduced in Ryle's book, The Concept of Mind, written in 1949. The phrase was meant by Ryle to emphasize that mental activity is of a different category from physical action, and that their means of interaction are unknown.
: Much of the following material is from Arthur Koestler's discussion in his 1967 book which uses Ryle's phrase, The Ghost in the Machine as its title. The book's main focus is mankind's movement towards self-destruction, particularly in the nuclear arms arena. It is particularly critical of B. F. Skinner's behaviourist theory. One of the book's central concepts is that as the human brain has grown, it has built upon earlier, more primitive brain structures, and that these are the "ghost in the machine" of the title. Koestler's theory is that at times these structures can overpower higher logical functions, and are responsible for hate, anger and other such destructive impulses."
: There is more, much more. The nature of the ghose and its relation to the machine (sc. the mind and the body) is a subject of intense research as we speak. The tools of this research were not available in the times of Ryle and Koestler, so their discussion can seem dated (as can that of Descartes).
: There is no easy and also accurate way to define the ghost in the machine. Some people use the short cut of thinking of mind/soul (ghost) vis-à-vis body (machine), or spiritual vs. corporeal. One discussant (v. Ebon Musings) identifies the ghost as the soul, and finds thereby a platform for his views. Some writers use it as a short way of pointing to the supposed mind or spirit animating the body.
: If Ryle was against the dualism of Descartes, then one supposes that he was a monist. But Ryle seems to have preferred dwelling on the shortcomings of other philosophies to establish his own.
: Koestler was an immensely interesting figure, but his criticism of Skinner shows a narrowness of view which prevents him from transcending his somewhat emotionally based thinking about the subject.
: The present array of laboratories devoting endless time and money to studying subjects with names like "neural psychology" or "evolutionary psychology" may seem heartless and cold. Science is pretty much monist in its assumptions, although many individual scientists are not. So the viewpoint or scientific assumptions behind this research are basically with Ryle in their disregard of Descartes' (and Plato's) dualistic view of mind and body, although Ryle would probably be astonished with where their research has led. : SS
In psychology, dualism (with the machine being the body and the "mind" (including memory, cognition, reasoning and so on) being the ghost, is normally contrasted these days with the scientific evolutionary perspective (in which the "mind" - or the ghost, if you like, is a capacity that humans have evolved through the slow process of natural selection, and can be studied via the scientific measure without recourse to notions like "God" or "spirits" or "Descartes" . Facinating stuff, to me at least. But I should also mention that "the ghost in the machine" is the name of a techno/goth/electronic band. I'm guessing that the machine is the whole post-modern i ndustri alist capitalist global complex thingy and the ghosts are those of us who live in the machine, both haunting it and haunted by it. Pamela
- "Ghost in the machine" pamela 10/January/07
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SZA & Phoebe Bridgers Search For Connection On “Ghost in the Machine”
“I need humanity / You’re like humanity, drowning in vanity / Craving humanity.”
Move aside, CTRL . There’s a new SZA project dominating the airwaves. On Dec. 9, the R&B singer dropped her highly anticipated album, SOS. The record is an impressive release and sees SZA embracing those nostalgic, lo-fi synths that put her on the map in 2014. SOS brims with bops; however, it’s her track, “Ghost In The Machine,” featuring Phoebe Bridgers that truly stands out. It’s always the unexpected collaborations that hit the mark. Or, as SZA would say, hit different.
SZA and Bridgers sing about craving human connection. The subtly of their references allude to possible commentary on the music industry. In a November cover story for Billboard , SZA lamented how draining it is to be a high-performing musician. “I could literally burst into tears and run through this wall at any moment. I am effectively falling apart,” she said. “Life is f*cking hard. To be expected to do anything at a high level while life is life-ing is f*cking crazy. This isn’t meant for a person; it’s meant for a machine.”
It seems she’s elaborating on these emotions in “Ghost in the Machine,” reminding herself that she’s not a machine but a person. However, it’s the constant expectation to churn out content that can often make her feel more hollow than rooted in her body.
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Over synthetic harps, SZA coos about looking for her version of Eat Pray Love but struggling to find it. She’s yearning for a stimulating connection— a relationship that can organically grow into something memorable.
“Everything disgusting, conversation is so boring / Heard about what? / ‘I hate her, I don’t agree, I did it first’ / I give a f* ck / I just wanna f*ck, eat, sleep, love happy,” she sings.
In the infectious chorus, SZA hints that she found a temporary beau in her search for a connection.
“Can you distract me from all the disaster? / Can you touch on me and not call me after? / Can you hate on me and mask it with laughter? / Can you lead me to the ark? What’s the password?” she coos as those soft harps ripple into a symphonic beat.
By the second verse, SZA has switched to a pluckier tempo and references robots. She sings,
“Let’s talk about A.I., robot got more heart than I / Robot got future, I don’t, robot could sleep / But I don’t power down, I’m wide open, I’m awake / I’m on autopilot, I’m out of my mind and I’m wide open.”
SZA won’t be an Ashley O . She isn’t a robot of the music industry. She’s human in all its mess and glory. Bridgers then comes in with her breathy verse, showing that disillusionment with notoriety crosses genres. She laments a partner for noting how fame changed her friendships. Sure, she might have friends on her payroll. However, her partner didn’t need to call her out for it. She already feels the brunt of that reality in her body — something a robot likely wouldn’t.
With their hushed voices, SZA and Bridgers’ verses settle on the same message: Their careers might force them to operate likes machines, but there’s real damage this type of operation causes. Sounds like both artists need a recharge. They’ve certainly earned them.
Read the full lyrics to “Ghost In The Machine” via Genius .
Is it time to give up on consciousness as ‘the ghost in the machine’?
Hon Professor of Neuropsychology, Cardiff University
Emeritus Professor of Psychology, UCL
The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
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As individuals, we feel that we know what consciousness is because we experience it daily. It’s that intimate sense of personal awareness we carry around with us, and the accompanying feeling of ownership and control over our thoughts, emotions and memories.
But science has not yet reached a consensus on the nature of consciousness – which has important implications for our belief in free will and our approach to the study of the human mind .
Beliefs about consciousness can be roughly divided into two camps . There are those who believe consciousness is like a ghost in the machinery of our brains , meriting special attention and study in its own right. And there are those, like us, who challenge this, pointing out that what we call consciousness is just another output generated backstage by our efficient neural machinery.
Over the past 30 years, neuroscientific research has been gradually moving away from the first camp. Using research from cognitive neuropsychology and hypnosis, our recent paper argues in favour of the latter position, even though this seems to undermine the compelling sense of authorship we have over our consciousness.
And we argue this isn’t simply a topic of mere academic interest. Giving up on the ghost of consciousness to focus scientific endeavour on the machinery of our brains could be an essential step we need to take to better understand the human mind.
Is consciousness special?
Our experience of consciousness places us firmly in the driver’s seat, with a sense that we’re in control of our psychological world. But seen from an objective perspective, it’s not at all clear that this is how consciousness functions, and there’s still much debate about the fundamental nature of consciousness itself.
One reason for this is that many of us, including scientists, have adopted a dualist position on the nature of consciousness. Dualism is a philosophical view that draws a distinction between the mind and the body. Even though consciousness is generated by the brain – a part of the body – dualism claims that the mind is distinct from our physical features, and that consciousness cannot be understood through the study of the physical brain alone.
It’s easy to see why we believe this to be the case. While every other process in the human body ticks and pulses away without our oversight, there is something uniquely transcendental about our experience of consciousness. It’s no surprise that we’ve treated consciousness as something special, distinct from the automatic systems that keep us breathing and digesting.
But a growing body of evidence from the field of cognitive neuroscience – which studies the biological processes underpinning cognition – challenges this view. Such studies draw attention to the fact that many psychological functions are generated and carried out entirely outside of our subjective awareness , by a range of fast, efficient non-conscious brain systems.
Read more: What if consciousness is just a product of our non-conscious brain?
Consider, for example, how effortlessly we regain consciousness each morning after losing it the night before, or how, with no deliberate effort, we instantly recognise and understand shapes, colours, patterns and faces we encounter.
Consider that we don’t actually experience how our perceptions are created, how our thoughts and sentences are produced, how we recall our memories or how we control our muscles to walk and our tongues to talk. Simply put, we don’t generate or control our thoughts, feelings or actions – we just seem to become aware of them.
The way we simply become aware of thoughts, feelings and the world around us suggests that our consciousness is generated and controlled backstage , by brain systems that we remain unaware of.
Our recent paper argues that consciousness involves no separate independent psychological process distinct from the brain itself, just as there’s no additional function to digestion that exists separately from the physical workings of the gut.
While it’s clear that both the experience and content of consciousness are real, we argue that, from a science explanation, they are epiphenomenal: secondary phenomena based on the machinations of the physical brain itself. In other words, our subjective experience of consciousness is real, but the functions of control and ownership we attribute to that experience are not.
Future study of the brain
Our position is neither obvious nor intuitive. But we contend that continuing to place consciousness in the driver’s seat, above and beyond the physical workings of the brain, and attributing cognitive functions to it, risks confusion and delaying a better understanding of human psychology and behaviour.
To better align psychology with the rest of the natural sciences, and to be consistent with how we understand and study processes like digestion and respiration, we favour a perspective change. We should redirect our efforts to studying the non-conscious brain, and not the functions previously attributed to consciousness.
This doesn’t of course exclude psychological investigation into the nature, origins and distribution of the belief in consciousness. But it does mean refocusing academic efforts on what happens beneath our awareness – where we argue the real neuro-psychological processes take place.
Our proposal feels personally and emotionally unsatisfying, but we believe it provides a future framework for the investigation of the human mind – one that looks at the brain’s physical machinery rather than the ghost that we’ve traditionally called consciousness.
- Cognitive neuroscience