The Ghost in My Machine


Phillip E. Johnson

David Lodge has been one of my favorite authors since I read his brilliant satires of academic life, Changing Places and Small World. His new novel, Thinks ... , retains the bawdy humor and satiric range of these earlier works. Professor Ralph Messenger, a paradigmatic scientific reductionist and lifelong philanderer, has a romance with a lady novelist, carried on—or expressed—mainly in the parallel journals that they keep.

Messenger insists that the only reality is one that can be captured in the objective, third-person manner of scientific explanation. Helen, the novelist, exists in the world of first-person narrative. After all, she is a novelist, as is David Lodge. The result is a hilarious juxtaposition of opposing worldviews, linked by the reality of sexual desire and the constant experience of betrayal and deception.

I read the book with enjoyment, but just after I finished it, I had an experience that made me feel more like a character in the book than a reader. I had a mysterious, seemingly causeless right-brain stroke, which left me feeling that I was the "ghost in the machine" that Messenger insisted did not exist. Well, this ghost certainly did exist, with the powerful sense that the suddenly defective machine I inhabited was not "me." My sense of being a soul in communication with other souls was only enhanced by the knowledge that I could no longer trust the machine, especially the brain, to do what it had always done.

Like David Lodge, I have always been on the side of the poet against the reductionist. Ralph Messenger may have doubted that qualia (subjective experience) really existed. But with him as with me, it was the ghost in the machine that made him ultimately real as a person, rather than a mere object to be studied. Now it is that personal experience that gives me hope and faith to repair the machine, so that I can learn to use and trust it again—as I always have.

Through the partial loss of the machine, I have found my true self existing in the love of others who—in waiting on and encouraging me—have illuminated who I really am and how I find that reality in the love of Christ as reflected in the love shared in the body of Christ. I feel sorry for anyone who has not yet found that reality, which far exceeds anything that can be described by the dispassionate, uninvolved outsider. My reality is my experience of the Word. In the beginning was the Word. 

Contributing Editor Phillip Johnson suffered a mild stroke in July 2001 and underwent rehabilitation until mid-August, during which time he wrote this article. He is recovering very well.