The Ghost in the Machine

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.

Ecclesiastes 1:2

Who are we? Where did we come from, and where are we going?

We’ve been asking these fundamental questions ever since in human history. To answer them, people have provided so many articulations from religions to philosophies to even modern sciences and cosmologies

As long as we use our perceptions, languages, and symbols, however, all possible answers are always elusive. Why do we fall into such impossibility?

It is because the subject who asks these questions is our unique self-consciousness derived from our false self. Stones would never ask these questions. Dogs wouldn’t, either.

Our self-consciousness could take place only in the domain where one sees oneself in one’s reflection. It looks so real at a glance, and yet so elusive. Gilbert Ryle calls it the ghost in the machine and its dogma, pointing out the category error of mind/body dualism.

The dogma of the Ghost in the Machine … maintains that there exist both bodies and minds; that there occur physical processes and mental processes; that there are mechanical causes of corporeal movements and mental causes of corporeal movements.

Gilbert Ryle

Both body and mind could exist respectively. Both, however, could be treated neither independently nor dependently in the same category. Our mind is not a separate substantial entity as our body is, but a shadow of reflexivity. Both are qualitatively and categorically different each other. Mind, self-consciousness in particular, is a conceptual domain of self-reference. Put it bluntly, it is an illusion or mere phenomenon.

It is only our self-consciousness that keeps on asking those which we call fundamental questions. And there could be one overarching question:

What is life?

Here, what we call life is a conceptual domain where our self-consciousness keeps on asking these fundamental questions. That is to say; life is merely a domain of self-reference to locate oneself in one’s self-conscious spacetime. It is a myth of the ghost in the machine. It is an illusion or phenomenon.

Saying our life is an illusion or phenomenon sounds nihilistic. In it, it seems we have to totally deny those questions like who we are, where we came from, and where we are going.

Paradoxically, however, such self-denial is the way to transcend an illusion of life and its inescapability.

In Buddhism, the first path in the Noble Eightfold Paths is called the right view, which is to understand non-self or self-denial. Life of suffering is what our illusory self sees. Without such cessation of false self, therefore, one can never see the real face of the universe, the Eternity seen as the Emptiness.

Thich Nhat Hanh divides this right view into three Doors of the Liberation – Emptiness, Signlessness, and Aimlessness.

  • Whatever our false self tries to articulate to answer the fundamental questions of our life, the possible answers would inevitably end up as elusive tautology. It is entirely unsayable – Emptiness.
  • Being unsayable, we can never expect any signs we can see – Signlessness.
  • Even the concept of spacetime is an illusion. What we think of the past and future is merely our self-reference within the here and now – Aimlessness.

Only passing through these three Doors, we could see a glimpse of the Eternity, beyond our illusory self and temporary life.

It reminds me of how we see the Kingdom of God and Heaven.

And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

Matthew 3:2

And he said to them all, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.

Luke 9:23

But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 19:14

What is beyond our illusory life could be attainable only through self-denial and being like an innocent child. We could never see it as long as we seek a sign and conventional wisdom that our false self loves to seek.

For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness;

1 Corinthians 1:22-23

Christ is the Door, the Truth, the Way, the Light, and the (not illusory, but eternal) Life. We no longer have to answer those questions. We don’t need the sign for them and can be aimless. For, we are not of this world.

Image by Charles Nambasi

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