The Ghost in the Machine by Arthur Koestler

The Ghost in the Machine – In The Sleepwalkers and The Act of Creation Arthur Koestler provided pioneering studies of scientific discovery and artistic inspiration, the twin pinnacles of human achievement. The Ghost in the Machine looks at the dark side of the coin: our terrible urge to self-destruction…

Book Review by Mamlukman

This is the 10th book by Arthur Koestler that I have read, so obviously I’m a fan. I don’t always agree, but he brings up new ideas and arguments.

I read “Ghost in the Machine” immediately after I read Rupert Sheldrake’s “Science Set Free: 10 Paths to New Discovery.” Sheldrake, if you are not aware of him, is a British biologist who has views very similar to Koestler’s. Sheldrake began writing about 25 years ago, and he has adopted some of Koestler’s terminology, such as “holon.” I won’t say much more about him, but check him out if you liked Koestler’s book. He also has quite a few lectures on youtube.

Basically Koestler (and Sheldrake) say the same thing: Yes, evolution explains a lot, but there are still problems. For one thing, evolution begs the question many times: How do monarch butterflies, for example, fly from Canada to Mexico to winter over? And to make it more interesting, it’s not the same butterfly that makes the trip. It takes 4-5 generations of butterflies to make the trip. So how is this programmed into them? Or is it? It’s hard to explain on a purely mechanistic basis. To simply say “It’s instinct” is to beg the question. Somethin is going on…but what? How?

The same goes for what you might call “psychic” phenomenon. Both Koestler and Sheldrake are intrigued. For example, some dogs seem to know when their owners are coming home–they go to the door, wag their tails, etc. In a videotaped experiment, they find that if the owners are called–randomly–at different times of the day and told to leave their offices and come home, the dogs (who are on tape) begin to get excited and somehow know their owners are coming home. How? Neither Koestler or Sheldrake are suggesting some supernatural mystical intervention, but clearly something is going on, and there’s probably a good natural explanation. But so far we don’t know what that is.

It’s also interesting that this 1967 book holds up 49 years later…and, as one reviewer pointed out, it’s probably more acceptable (the bits about altering brain chemistry, etc.) than it was in 1967.

I will say that I found–like other reviewers–the first ⅔ of the book more interesting than the last ⅓ where Koestler seems to be riding a 1960s hobbyhorse about man’s inhumanity to man, etc.

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About the Author

Born in Budapest in 1905, educated in Vienna, Arthur Koestler immersed himself in the major ideological and social conflicts of his time. A communist during the 1930s, and visitor for a time in the Soviet Union, he became disillusioned with the Party and left it in 1938. Later that year in Spain, he was captured by the Fascist forces under Franco, and sentenced to death.

Released through the last-minute intervention of the British government, he went to France where, the following year, he again was arrested for his political views. Released in 1940, he went to England, where he made his home. His novels, reportage, autobiographical works, and political and cultural writings established him as an important commentator on the dilemmas of the 20th century. He died in 1983.