Can Machines have Ghosts?

This semester I have been enrolled in a class called Mind Brains and Computers. It is an undergraduate studies class with the goal of gaining insight on the question, “Can Machines Be Humans?”.


To even ponder this question we have to define what exactly a human or machine is. Their is a strong general consensus of what a machine is but to be explicit I will use a definition from Merriam Webster. A machine is “a piece of equipment with moving parts that does work when it is given power from electricity, gasoline, etc.” Now the question of what constitutes a human is a more difficult inquiry, and many have different views on the matter according to their beliefs or philosophy. Broadly speaking people regard humans in two parts. The body and the mind.

There are several views about the human body and mind about how they are connected, and what exactly they are. Two of the most popular views of philosophy of mind are Dualism and Physicalism. Dualism is the idea that the mind and body are separate entities, and that when our bodies die our soul or mind live on. This coincides with many of the major religions and is very intuitive to the way humans feel when we think and move.


Dualism was first developed by DesCartes, a mathematician who created Cartesian coordinates. DesCartes wanted to get to the truth, and believed that to get to the truth you must first doubt everything. After doubting everything from mathematics down to his very own senses, he reached the thought that he “Cannot doubt that he is doubting”. A simple profound phrase that seemingly cannot be disputed. With this he comes to the conclusion from which you have probably heard before, “I think Therefore I am”. After this conclusion came a more questionable chain of thought where he used the reasoning that since the mind and body are not exactly identical they are separate. This particular type of DesCartes Dualism has been dis-proven by scientific advances, but dualism where the mind is a conduit to the brain is still plausible.

Physicalism says that body and mind are both physical. There is no literal soul and nothing happens after the body is destroyed. This has been a rising idea, likely due to the recent scientific advances, but of course nothing is 100% certain yet. Though the idea that your mind is all just neurons (I think) moving around in your brain is slightly unsettling for some.


Both of these are plausible philosophies that have their own merits. Ghost in the Shell explores the former using the advanced technology of Cyber Brains and Cyborg bodies, stating that the mind and the body can be detached from each other and still exist.   Ghost in the shell even go as far as to say that humans have souls which are called “ghosts” in the show. On the other hand they also showed a part of Physicalism through the adapting artificial intelligence of war machines. These machines had human like qualities but their minds were made through machinery, and lacked Ghosts.

Now for some background on Ghost in the Shell for those who have not seen it. Ghost in the Shell is a Cyber Punk anime set in the near future, where a third and fourth World War has shifted the balance of power. There have been large advances in technology with the aforementioned Cyber Brains and Cyborg bodies. The main story revolves around Japan and an intelligence department Public Security Section 9, where we follow the operation leader and main character Major Kusanagi Motoko or Major for short. As a child she lost her body and her ghost had to be transferred to a fully cyborg body, but now as an adult we follow her as she helps lead section 9 to combat terrorism and cyber crime. Ghost in the Shell was created by Production I.G. whose others works include Genshiken , FLCL, Eyeshield 21 and more. Here is the link to the MyAnimeList site for it.


Some main themes of Machines being Human were found in the small war tank Artificial Intelligence, Tachikoma. Though often childlike with their lack of knowledge of the world they were able to adapt and learn, while being infinitely curious about the human aspects they were missing. Infatuated with human emotions and death, they contemplated philosophy and were often the initiative that caused me to ponder about my own questions.  The Tachikoma were able to identify the differences between them and their human counterparts and wanted to experience being “human” even though the only thing separating them from someone like the Major was a so called “Ghost”. Were they human?  Do they have a free will of their own? SPOILER (highlight to see) In both the ending of season 1 and season 2 Tachikoma disobeyed orders to save members of Section 9. SPOILER END.  Through these scenes they obviously had free will but does the lack of a human like body or Ghost limit them from being truly human? When making a binary consideration such as this on such a vague topic the lines seem to blur when they were so clear before.

Not only does Ghost in the Shell ask the question of whether machines can be human, but through the Major they question whether a human can truly be human without her body. Though very similar to the Tachikoma the primary difference is that the Major previously was a human, but her mind was just transferred over to a Cyborg with a cyber brain. Does being born a human always constitute having a soul or ghost? Often in history people born with deformities were said to be aberrations that lacked souls, though it is not the general consensus now I am fairly certain that many would conclude that the Major was not human because of her lack of physical body. Cyborg she may be, but does that denounce her memories as a child and emotions as false because she is a machine? It is hard for people to say either way, because we want to believe that emotions and relationships are unique and cannot be replicated by a machine yet the Major shares those features. Yet for the Major being a machine also means that you are able to erase all those memories and emotions in an instant.

The Major in the new series of GitS: Arise

The Major in the new series of GitS: Arise

Another thought about the Major, and Cyborg’s is that it not only blurs the line between human and machine, but between different sexes. Obviously Major Kusanagi Motoko is an over sexualized female lead and often granted gratuitous camera angles to accent the fact, but throughout the show the Major proves to be the opposite. From the beginning the Major is given a leadership position of a team primarily composed of males. Though with this in mind, what exactly separates the Major from the rest of Section 9? Being a full Cyborg she is just as strong physically as any of the other members, and it is showcased many times throughout the series that minds can merge together to create a single consciousness. If the differences between the genders are eliminated what exactly what gender are they then… Wait a second, I totally went off topic there, but it was an interesting topic so I thought I might bring it up. Maybe I will write another post just about this later. Back to the main topic.

In the end it all comes back to what we define as Human. If you believe that humans are defined by the characteristics of the mind and not the body then the Major is definitely human, and the Tachikoma are human as well. If you believe that humans are defined by our physical bodies, neither the Major or the Tachikoma are truly human. Lastly if you believe that humans are defined by Ghosts (souls) that we are born with unique to being human then the Major is human but the Tachikoma are not. I myself am still undecided, and am brooding over this question.


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