The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

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Okay, so I’m cured of my bicameralism. But where am I now when I need me?

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What an exhilarating experience. This extraordinary book is improbable in a number of ways:

  • improbable that a book with such a leaden (but totally descriptive!) title would ever have appealed to the mass market;
  • improbable that such a “heavy” subject could be delivered in such light, graceful and playful prose;
  • improbable that, seeing as it asserts a novel and revolutionary scientific hypothesis, this book was distributed and published outside the usual academic channels;
  • improbable that a single individual, apparently working more or less alone, authored such an imaginative, dazzling and, to be frank, brilliant, multi-discipline synthesis (I counted anthropology, philosophy, psychology, psychiatry, neurology, and classics among the unrelated disciplines Jaynes writes insightfully on); and
  • improbable that, without the imprimatur of serious academic support (as I understand it, Jaynes never had tenure, though he was friends with W. V. O. Quine, which doubtless stands for something), this book was even taken seriously, let alone proved as resistant to serious academic challenge (philosopher Ned Block had a half-hearted go, and there was a well-publicised review by Daniel Dennett (Julian Jaynes’ Software Archaeology) but its critique was of emphasis rather than substance and was otherwise largely complimentary. Other than that, Richard Dawkins has spent a lazy couple of sides outlining the theory, only to feebly remark that the book “is either complete rubbish or a work of consummate genius ...” and while he suspects the former, can’t muster the intellectual energy to decide so is “hedging his bets”).

But there’s one way it isn’t improbable, and that’s the most remarkable of all: its credibility. The thesis at first blush seems outlandish, yet in Jaynes’ hands, it deftly explains a number of cultural artefacts of antiquity, including religion itself, that traditional anthropology has been unable to sensibly account for.

Our forebears, on their own account, spoke with burning bushes, followed fiery pillars, buried their dead with food, gold and even wives, worshipped idols and thought they had daily interaction with the gods. Traditional views tend to shrug shoulders and mark these phenomena down as “just some of the crazy stuff they used to do in the olden days” (Exhibit A, by none other than Dawkins: “all religious people are deluded”).

Instead, Jaynes takes these behavioural artefacts seriously. This seems only fair, seeing as the ancients obviously did: not for the hell of it do you build 500-foot pyramids. He proposes a theory why: Not just that they were (and are) deluded, but that their cognitive architecture was arranged so that they heard voices, more or less exactly as schizophrenics do today, not as a disease of the mind, but as an adaptive strategy. Disembodied voices as a means for the two hemispheres of the bicameral mind to communicate with each other.

On the stronger form of Jaynes’ bicameral theory, human beings were not conscious before about 500 A.D.

That is, to say the least, controversial.

Jaynes states this hypothesis upfront — at which point it seems quite outrageous — then patiently, elegantly and compellingly sets out his case. His exegesis is always a pleasure and is truly enlightening at times: his discussion of the difference between “consciousness” and “perception” is fascinating. Essentially, Jaynes points out that a lot less of our cognitive experience is genuinely “conscious” than we apprehend. When Bertrand Russell exemplified consciousness in the proposition “I see a table”, Jaynes suggests “Russell was not conscious of a table, but of the argument he was writing about” — namely that he saw a table.)

Jaynes sources his limited notion of consciousness in the origin of language, and in particular the metaphor. Again, a controversial view, but by no means inconsistent with the sort of outlook you might find in Ludwig Wittgenstein or Richard Rorty, for example.

So is Jaynes right? If you subscribe to the importance of metaphor, this is the wrong question to ask (of Jaynes’, or any theory). A better question is whether it is a useful way of looking at our world. I think it is: you can never have too many metaphorical tools in your toolbox.

Jaynes may or may not be right, but the questions he asks seem to be ones in need of an answer. The need for clear direction and certainty in an uncertain world, provided through actual dialogue with apprehended gods (rather than the decidedly feeble figurative religious experiences humans tend to experience these days) seems well answered by the hallucinatory model, and the explanation of consciousness's origin in the failure of the hallucinatory model to deal with the encroaching size and complexity of civilisation in the millennium before Christ seems oddly plausible. Consciousness, then, emerged like one of Stephen J Gould’s spandrels from an existing cognitive architecture which had developed contemplating something quite different. I dare say Dawkins wouldn’t like that idea too much, either.

And for the essentialists, it gets worse: hardcore reductionists will shudder at the thought wherein Jaynes turns his attention to vestiges of the bicameral world in the modern day. Religion, you’ll not be surprised to hear, is proposed as just such a vestige: the striving of humankind for certainty in the absence of compelling voices instructing how to act. But so is science.

Jaynes is typically eloquent as he closes his book:

"For what is the nature of this blessing of certainty that science so devoutly demands in its very Jacob-like wrestling with nature? Why should we demand that the universe make itself clear to us? Why should we care?
"... Science, then, for all its pomp and factness, is not unlike some of the more easily disparaged outbreaks of pseudo-religions. In this period of transition from its religious basis, science often shares with the celestial maps of astrology, or a hundred other irrationalisms, the same nostalgia for the Final Answer, the One Truth, the Single Cause."

As are almost all the other verbal constructions in this 450-page tome, that is beautifully put.

See also