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How Frankenstein's Monster Works

Ghost in the Machine
Beyond the scars and stitches, Frankenstein's creation is a philosophically frightening monster.
Beyond the scars and stitches, Frankenstein's creation is a philosophically frightening monster.
Benjamin Shearn/Workbook Stock/Getty Images

Seventeenth century French philosopher René Descartes viewed nature as primarily mechanical. He avoided the messier, existential complications of this view by defining the human soul as an independent force -- the "ghost in the machine," as philosopher and Descartes critic Gilbert Ryle would later describe it.

But is there a ghost at all? According to psychologist Paul Bloom, the human notion of a soul or an external mind stems from the fact that the human brain has no awareness of its own functioning. In other words, the conscious mind exists in its own blind spot, generating the illusion of its separateness.

It's a potentially volatile idea for a culture consumed by ego and religious cosmology. In 1748, Julien Offray de La Mettrie found this out firsthand when he published "L'Homme plus que Machine" or "Man More Than Machine," in which the French philosopher argued that the soul was but the product of the biochemical machine we call a body. The resulting public outrage forced de La Mettrie to flee his native Netherlands.

Victor Frankenstein withholds the details of exactly how he breathes life into his monster, but the being that rises from the operating table is fully human in mind if not in body. At first benevolent, the creature is driven to murder and rage by the cruel realities of the world.

As the novel's alternate title states, Victor Frankenstein is "the modern Prometheus." The Greek mythological figure stole the secret of fire from the gods and gave it to man. Frankenstein takes the human condition out of the hands of divinity and places it within the grasp of science.

Nearly two centuries later, this transition still resonates throughout human culture -- and Frankenstein's monster looms tall as its avatar.