I have long enjoyed re-reading special books, mostly fiction but some philosophy and science. Two years ago I began reading some literary classics that I had not read in my youth and also to re-read some that I had. I find that I understand and appreciate these more now than 40 years ago, so I am even a bigger fan of re-reading. I also find how much I do and don’t remember very interesting. It has become a way of mining further precious material that can then be refined and shaped for deeper understanding.
I have come to a place in my journey to understand our biological roots where ancient times seem important. I reread Julian Jaynes 1976 book, The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, and have started Susanne Langer’s Mind v. 3 from1982 (a future post). As I mentioned in a previous post I disagreed with Jaynes back when I read it the first time and I still do, but I also understand better some of the issues he is trying to address. I still think his focus is way too narrow but appreciate the level of scholarship he shows in marshaling his argument. His errors serve to initiate my learning.
Jaynes’ argument is that around 1000 BC humans learned to be conscious (as humans are, mentalizing, free will as opposed to instinct, meta-aware) with the corresponding abilities to figure things out and cope with stress without the gods’ direct and hallucinated guidance. This constituted a change from a bicameral mind, two hemispheres operating differently and independently, with the right hemisphere supporting the hallucinated command voices of the gods, to a more modern hemispheric organization, the right god side silent and the left human side talking its way through life with its puzzles and stressors. He gathers his data both from ancient texts, in part because writing played a role in this transformation to true consciousness and in part because that is the data we have directly reflecting the minds of the day, and from some of the neurological science from his own time.
Where to start with the critique? Better, where to end? Before 1000 BC when we became conscious per his hypothesis, humans developed drawing, burials, astronomy, agriculture, cooking, fermenting (beer and wine for the previous 6-10,000 years), metallurgy, statues, cities and large scale construction. Even more importantly, family structure had survived through clan and tribe organization into cities and social organization through civic governance. We had sat around the hearth fire for tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of years cooking and eating together and gazing into the coals, yet Jaynes asserts we were not conscious, could not mentalize, nor deal with stress or novelty without some command hallucination of gods because our intentional processes were inadequate (except that the right hemisphere is figuring out all these things through its god function). Talk about a dull Occam’s razor.
Jaynes also asserts that if consciousness were due to evolution and not learned, several phenomena could not be understood, e.g., hypnosis. “If one has a very definite biological notion of consciousness and that its origin is back in the evolution of the mammalian nervous systems, I cannot see how the phenomenon of hypnosis can be understood at all, not one speck of it”. Here is the problem, and I do not think this particular error is very interesting, because it is the same error humans have made for centuries: Ours is a special mind without basis or precursors in other animals. Of course ours is a special mind totally based in our biological evolution and we can only understand mental phenomena, including hypnosis, through these roots. Not that biological science can or will explain everything, but it does underlay everything.
If Jaynes’ book came out today, it would be taken up in the debate between believers and non-believers. He does not address the reality of god directly, just that god(s) is our own hallucination. Still he tries to retain the notion of our non-biological specialness through distinguishing our culture and learning from our biology. A categorical mistake. He does, however, raise elsewhere in his explication the issue of how far evolution carries us through the development of some structures/functions (manifesting laterality, long fiber bundles like the arcuate fasciculus, mirror neurons, facial recognition, empathy, language, or von Economo cells) that then become functionally reorganized and entrained to perform new functions.
I have more to say about this and will do so in another blog because this one is getting rather long. Rather than belabor my disagreements with Jaynes, I will report on my re-reading of Langer and her very biologically grounded approach. I end with this thought I came across last week: Any intellectual endeavor of even some small integrity bears responsibility for making errors of an educational nature. To this I also aspire.