Consciousness Began When the Gods Stopped Speaking
May 28, 2015 4:06 PM   Subscribe

How Julian Jaynes’ famous 1970s theory is faring in the neuroscience age.
The picture Jaynes paints is that consciousness is only a very thin rime of ice atop a sea of habit, instinct, or some other process that is capable of taking care of much more than we tend to give it credit for. “If our reasonings have been correct,” he writes, “it is perfectly possible that there could have existed a race of men who spoke, judged, reasoned, solved problems, indeed did most of the things that we do, but were not conscious at all.”
posted by modernserf (73 comments total) 81 users marked this as a favorite
 


Related: Blindsight and Echopraxia by Peter Watts.
posted by maudlin at 4:20 PM on May 28, 2015 [11 favorites]


Related, Melting Asphalt's 4-part exploration of Jaynes:
1. Mr. Jaynes' Wild Ride
2. Accepting Deviant Minds
3. Neurons Gone Wild
4. Hallucinated Gods
posted by CrystalDave at 4:33 PM on May 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


I remember reading that book in 1981. It was a ridiculous Just So Story then and it is even more ridiculous now. We are in touch with Stone Age tribes on all inhabited continents, and all of their members are self-aware. Unless one supposes that a magical switch was thrown about the time that the ancient Greeks became the classical Greeks, and human beings everywhere suddenly became self-aware, the theory reveals itself as a literary conceit unsupported by any scientific evidence.
posted by musofire at 4:38 PM on May 28, 2015 [18 favorites]


And yet, something like what Jaynes suggested "must have" happened sometime during human evolution, yes? Maybe not in the time of the ancient Greeks, but why not 20, 50, 100k years ago? (And yes, there's an aspect to this story that's reminiscent of Velikovsky -- the archaeology of an imaginary past, but it's still a cool idea.)
posted by sneebler at 4:51 PM on May 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


I don't see why it "must have" happened. Chimps show signs of being self-aware, as do elephants. Do gods tell them what to do?
posted by musofire at 4:56 PM on May 28, 2015 [13 favorites]


I haven't read Jayne's book but it sounds like fun. My biggest problem with the idea as related in the article is that, if true, we could reasonably expect pre-contact American or Australian people to possess this 'bicameral' consciousness and for some evidence of that to exist in the records of the settlers, merchants, and explorers from the West. I mean, is it possible to interact with another person and not realize that they aren't conscious? I doubt it. It's usually apparent when someone is in an even mild state of altered consciousness, and even granted the massive cultural differences something as profound as this kind of splitting should be noticeable and remarkable.

But okay, let's go there. Maybe the pre-contact people of America did have this bicameral mind. But in that case, either they still have it, or it went away. If it went away, how did nobody notice?

Also Blindsight is a great book but it sort of makes the case that consciousness isn't any kind of advantage.
posted by um at 4:56 PM on May 28, 2015


I'm not familiar with this field at all, but wouldn't an alternative to there being an on/off moment for our self-consciousness rather be that it was a gradual accruing of aptitudes that has lead us to be conscious? That self-consciousness was a slow special process, not an event.

Regardless, that was a great article. I like seeing people having late in life success.
posted by One Hand Slowclapping at 4:56 PM on May 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


Jayes is on my shelf right next to Graham Hancock, both of them being essentially cranks who, in the course of their work, nevertheless turn up a lot of interesting evidence. Bicameral Mind is worth reading just for all the detailed information on ancient Mesopotamian religion and Anatolian burial rites, for example.
posted by AdamCSnider at 4:58 PM on May 28, 2015 [6 favorites]


My biggest problem with the idea as related in the article is that, if true, we could reasonably expect pre-contact American or Australian people to possess this 'bicameral' consciousness and for some evidence of that to exist in the records of the settlers, merchants, and explorers from the West.

For what its worth, Jaynes actually does make precisely this claim and gives evidence from Mesoamerican/Andean archaeology and the testimony of early European witnesses. I didn't find it convincing, but he does address the point.
posted by AdamCSnider at 5:00 PM on May 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


What evidence does Jaynes have that any humans, himself included, are conscious now?
posted by Faint of Butt at 5:03 PM on May 28, 2015 [23 favorites]


It's been many years since I read this, but I seem to remember thinking that it was almost a religious sort of argument, because our visibility into ancient human history keeps expanding and eventually you either have to admit that some sort of pre-conscious humans participated in civilization building or you need to move your goalposts, turning it into a sort of "god of the gaps" type of argument.

I remember enjoying this in the same way as Arthur C Clarke's Mysterious World or the "what if all of history is a lie" theory, but maybe that is not entirely fair.
posted by feloniousmonk at 5:11 PM on May 28, 2015


Maybe chimps and dogs have some limited self-awareness.

But you have a continuous string of ancestors that stretches back three billion years. At some point, they went from unconscious to conscious.
posted by Hatashran at 5:16 PM on May 28, 2015


I mean, is it possible to interact with another person and not realize that they aren't conscious?

Well, as mentioned in the pull quote, a big part of the idea is that consciousness is a very thin dressing on top of all of these other reasoning and remembering functions, and so a non-conscious person would be mostly indistinguishable from a conscious one.

But addressing the question: I am fully prepared to believe that a significant number of people have never achieved a level of introspection that would allow them to experience their own thought or fully realize that other people have thoughts. On top of that, there are plenty of modern people who claim to literally experience the voice of God in much the way Jaynes says they might.

Not that I buy any of this. Look at people's arguments in this thread. There's not so much as a collective agreement about what even constitutes consciousness.
posted by cmoj at 5:21 PM on May 28, 2015 [11 favorites]


But you have a continuous string of ancestors that stretches back three billion years. At some point, they went from unconscious to conscious.


My gut feeling is that this is likely true, but in a very similar way to how some creatures went from not having eyes to having eyes.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 5:26 PM on May 28, 2015 [6 favorites]


I find it a little troubling from a racial standpoint to suggest that the indigenous peoples of the Americas were not "conscious" at first contact. I mean, that's all kinds of fucked up.
posted by Frowner at 5:31 PM on May 28, 2015 [25 favorites]


Well the introspection illusion is a thing that is being studied. The short version is that nearly everyone has less insight into themselves than they think they do, at the same time as assuming they are more introspective than other people.

Frankly, with the number of cognitive biases built into the human brain it is remarkable we got as far as language, agriculture, and cities.
posted by um at 5:32 PM on May 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


As with all discussions on conscience, you have to breakdown what exactly you are talking about. One of Jayne's main points is that our internal dialog was originally more like hearing voices (like a god speaking). Some cultural and genetic changes made us hear this as our own voice.

It is a big leap to say that if you don't have an internal dialog, you aren't conscious. But obviously internal dialog is a very big part of our conscious state.
posted by bhnyc at 5:41 PM on May 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


Haha, what a crackpot that Jaynes was! If he was right, you'd see people with psychiatric problems walking around talking to themselves! People would be hearing voices as they drifted between consciousness and unconsciousness! Presidents would claim their God told them to "go to war" against another country, and the country would do it!! As if this was Sumeria or Babylonia or something!! Hahahah! People would do crazy things like travel halfway across the world on mission trips because "God told them to." People would uproot entire cities and rebuild them on top of swamps!!! Hahahahahah! Artists, writers, scientists, and computer programmers would get their best ideas while SHAVING instead of sitting at a desk! Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha!!!1!11!! Aye, me. What a crackpot!
posted by jabah at 5:42 PM on May 28, 2015 [35 favorites]


Reminded me of Snow Crash with Sumerian as the "machine language" of the brain and the various mes as "programs". I see in a bit of Googling that Bicameral Mind was one of Stephenson's main inspirations for the book. Cool.
posted by Rock Steady at 5:48 PM on May 28, 2015 [8 favorites]


I think at this point in my life I'd really like to learn that I wasn't truly conscious, because then maybe I could relax.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 5:48 PM on May 28, 2015 [16 favorites]


i've read the book - and my thought has been that if there was something about the building and creation of ancient civilization that installed bicameral consciousness into people's minds - heavy religious/magickal brainwashing, say - then that would explain why aboriginal people seem to be conscious the way we are and not bicameral

in other words, the conscious mind was first broken down by bicameral culture and then returned when the bicameral culture broke down - that bicamerality was a dead end development that ended up not being able to sustain itself under pressure

it might also be that only the elites in a society, those who were literate and knowledgeable would receive the mental molding that turned them into bicameral tools of the gods, while the common people, who would have left us little record of themselves, remained conscious as we are

the other possibility is that the ancients weren't all that great at metaphors, expressed themselves clumsily and/or may have meant something very different than we would when talking about gods - and we are taking them too literally

but here's the big question - how would one be able to detect someone with a bicameral mind and would you be able to change a conscious mind - or a young child's mind, into one that was bicameral? is there a method in the world's esoteric literature that describes this? - or is it something that just doesn't exist?
posted by pyramid termite at 5:56 PM on May 28, 2015 [7 favorites]


Hey, I've read Being No One and I've got no problem with the idea that consciousness is an illusion and that what we possess is just a sense of self rather than an actual self. What I struggle with is the idea of a historical rupture where we had one kind of mind before and a different kind after.
posted by um at 5:58 PM on May 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


Oh, I just read this book recently! It was a grand time, and I say this as someone who lacks consciousness, but is remarkably good at simulating it in order to get things I like (cereal, bicycles, soft fabrics, etc)
posted by Greg Nog at 5:59 PM on May 28, 2015 [12 favorites]


Also, for the record:

We are in touch with Stone Age tribes on all inhabited continents

We are not in touch with any Stone Age tribes; we are in touch with 21st-century tribes whose ways of life are different from our own.
posted by Greg Nog at 6:06 PM on May 28, 2015 [40 favorites]


I lacked consciousness before it was cool. Nowadays I also lack free will.
posted by um at 6:15 PM on May 28, 2015 [8 favorites]


We are not in touch with any Stone Age tribes; we are in touch with 21st-century tribes whose ways of life are different from our own.

Speak for yourself, Biff. /gets in DeLorean
posted by monju_bosatsu at 6:16 PM on May 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


The 70s was a golden time for getting the kind of philosophical insights you have while baked published as bestselling books

Sorry Baal-Hadad thinks that was lazy snark
posted by prize bull octorok at 6:37 PM on May 28, 2015 [9 favorites]


Jaynes does read like an idea someone would have while high but he turned it into a really interesting collection of ancient historical data. As far as highdeas go, it's better than this one.

It's a very valuable book if only to make you start thinking about how extremely different ancient ways of thought were to our own. Obviously, he wasn't a neuroscientist at all and was purely speculating about neurological "evolution".
posted by shii at 7:14 PM on May 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


Jaynes' work, when I learned about it secondhand, always seemed 100% absurd on the face of it. I was never tempted to take a look at it firsthand because of that.

It still seems 100% absurd but this article finally gave me some idea why people found it so affecting. The vision of a humanity bereft of its gods, which had failed it, and doomed to a new world of self-won wisdom and responsibility, is incredibly poetic, and the man could clearly write like a poet.

And he was thinking about deep, hard-to-think-about things. That can sometimes take you to absurd places.

I almost want to read it now but I think it would drive me crazy.
posted by edheil at 7:28 PM on May 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


In any conversation about consciousness, I return to what I believe is an Hindu/Buddhist view of Consciousness as the lantern encasing the flame of Awareness. In this way, plants as Aristotle claims, can have consciousness of light and warmth akin to what we experience while napping in the sun. There seems to be many shades and shapes to consciousness but Awareness goes deep; possibly even atomic. The exercise of shaping one's consciousness to be open to the full potential expanse of awareness available to us is one of the great joys and perhaps the closest thing to a valid teleology of life and history ( both planetary and human). Travel through the vehicles of imagination has always been faster than light and books and ideas like these make the journey more fun. Thanks for the post!
posted by astrobiophysican at 7:28 PM on May 28, 2015 [6 favorites]


I read all the way through Consciousness Explained a year or so ago, and was struck by (a) how antiquated were many of the computational gimmicks Dennett develops into problematizations of "the very idea" of consciousness, and (b) how little it actually matters to the stated project of reducing the "stickiness" of realist intuitions about consciousness (that is, it is effective even though people don't so much think the mind might be like von neuman architectures etc. anymore). So, underneath all the baggage of midcentury computationalism in that book, and kind of the smarmy wizarding around, it's really wittgensteinian fly-bottle-ism at heart. Or at least that reading is available. Similarly with Jaynes, I think, there can be just an intrinsically salutary anti-sedimenting effect that comes with imagining the deeply alien things that he does... which, maybe something to it being religious or mystical in some sense, but the "bongwater" type reviews are unfairly dismissive of that kind of exercise, and, moreover, that Jaynes doesn't give the correct answer seems like almost the most trivial possible thing you could say about the book.
posted by batfish at 7:45 PM on May 28, 2015 [7 favorites]


Ook.
posted by jenkinsEar at 8:09 PM on May 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind is in a special class of books, along with Goedel, Escher, and Bach, A Pattern Language, and possibly A New Kind of Science, though I haven't even begun reading that one. They must either change everything or change nothing. The authors aren't cranks, though they're often mistaken for one - their ideas are too well thought out for that. But the books seem to exist as a sort of parallel truth, one that's consistent within itself and with the evidence we have, but doesn't intersect with mainstream thought. The two threads contradict each other, but neither can refute the other.

I don't know of any other examples, but there have to be some...
posted by echo target at 8:11 PM on May 28, 2015 [9 favorites]


Man, though, did Gödel, Escher, Bach ruin my life for a little while back in high school and college. I've picked up Jaynes, and I've flipped through it, and though I can tell that Little Me would have cathected onto it as hard as Little Me cathected onto GEB (and, for that matter, PKD), I know that whatever part of my brain was so invested in getting so invested in system building has sort of withered away as I have passed into what passes for adulthood.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 8:19 PM on May 28, 2015 [6 favorites]


Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind is in a special class of books, along with Goedel, Escher, and Bach, A Pattern Language, and possibly A New Kind of Science, though I haven't even begun reading that one.

I think there is a lot to this comment. It's interesting to me that GEB is one of my favourite books, had an enormous impact on me etc., and OCBBM is really fascinating (quite apart from the consistency of its ideas with empirical evidence), while I found the bits of ANKS that I read kind of ridiculous (and its author kind of insufferable).

You Can't Tip A Buick: how did GEB ruin your life? That sounds (and please forgive me for voyeuristic, exploitative interest in the exact nature of other folks' temporary life-ruination) kind of fascinating.
posted by busted_crayons at 8:22 PM on May 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


I don't know of any other examples, but there have to be some...

Robert Pirsig's books seem vaguely in this category, although not quite.
posted by busted_crayons at 8:24 PM on May 28, 2015


Frankly I am not convinced that most modern day humans are truly sentient. When I look at the numbers who refuse to accept reality, who are unable to change their minds on a subject regardless of the facts presented, who operate on scripts ordained from childhood and are unable to change, who resort to primitive "us vs. them" modes of thought (whether this be politics or sports) then I can not believe that there is true conscious thought operating for a majority of the time.

I think many, if not most, people still hear the gods in their heads and operate accordingly but instead of calling them Zeus or Apollo they call them Conservatives or Liberals or Bishop or Manchester United for that matter.
posted by AGameOfMoans at 8:49 PM on May 28, 2015 [15 favorites]


my thought has been that if there was something about the building and creation of ancient civilization that installed bicameral consciousness into people's minds - heavy religious/magickal brainwashing, say - then that would explain why aboriginal people seem to be conscious the way we are and not bicameral

This is just what I would expect a pyramid-building termite to espouse....
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:52 PM on May 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


Robert Pirsig's books seem vaguely in this category, although not quite.

I was going to bring up Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I read that book at just the right time in my life for it to seem so much more important or big than it seems now. I think for some people Ayn Rand's books (blech) fall into this category as well.
posted by axiom at 9:14 PM on May 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


"Consciousness" is one of those words like "love" and "art" that's more useful for starting arguments than for referring to things. I use such words all the time; you can start an argument without getting in a fight, and the arguments people have over what constitutes good art have inspired a lot of it. But they make terrible starting points for scientific inquiry.
posted by LogicalDash at 9:36 PM on May 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


Sometimes I wonder if sentience as self-recognition is a poorly defined line.

We can usually recognize ourselves in a mirror. We are less adept at recognizing the motivations behind our actions a lot of the time. Is consciousness less line and more Piaget scale, increasingly divorcing the actions of the mind from the motivations of the body?
posted by solarion at 9:39 PM on May 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


> I don't see why it "must have" happened. Chimps show signs of being self-aware, as do elephants. Do gods tell them what to do?

While I don't know if Jaynes is right, you certainly aren't interpreting the book correctly. It's about the origin of consciousness, not self-awareness, which are two quite different things, and Jaynes has a specific definition of consciousness not too dissimilar from Dennett's - one which absolutely requires fairly sophisticated language skills, and thus excludes monkeys, apes and elephants (and probably but not certainly cetaceans).

> I read all the way through Consciousness Explained a year or so ago, and was struck by (a) how antiquated were many of the computational gimmicks Dennett develops [...] it's really wittgensteinian fly-bottle-ism at heart.

Dennett's main thesis is that consciousness is a linear thread of speech that became internalized as a problem solving mechanism, and that this thread runs on a massively parallel computation architecture called "the brain". I don't see that developments in either neurology or computer science have "antiquated" his idea, nor the similarity to Wittgenstein other than the discussion of language (which is central to pretty well any modern theory of consciousness) and I really don't get why you think Consciousness Explained has the slightest relevance to Wittgenstein's fly bottle...?
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 9:43 PM on May 28, 2015 [7 favorites]


But you have a continuous string of ancestors that stretches back three billion years. At some point, they went from unconscious to conscious.


My gut feeling is that this is likely true, but in a very similar way to how some creatures went from not having eyes to having eyes.


I go through so many different states of consciousness in the course of a normal day, I have no trouble believing that the states of consciousness available to brains of all species have varied a lot, both in quantity and quality, over millions or billions of years of evolution.
posted by univac at 9:44 PM on May 28, 2015 [4 favorites]


> "Consciousness" is one of those words like "love" and "art" [...] But they make terrible starting points for scientific inquiry.

There is a large body of scientific work in this field, and simply denying that it's science at all without any other argument isn't really convincing.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 9:48 PM on May 28, 2015 [8 favorites]


Hatashran: "Maybe chimps and dogs have some limited self-awareness.

But you have a continuous string of ancestors that stretches back three billion years. At some point, they went from unconscious to conscious.
"

Depends on your philosophy.
posted by symbioid at 9:50 PM on May 28, 2015


I think bicameralism is a bit like memes; a striking metaphor which enlarges the way you think about consciousness - but if taken literally doesn't really stand up to examination.
posted by Segundus at 10:08 PM on May 28, 2015


how did GEB ruin your life? That sounds (and please forgive me for voyeuristic, exploitative interest in the exact nature of other folks' temporary life-ruination) kind of fascinating.

It gave me the first glimmer of the idea that I could try to get an advanced degree that would let me write about math and science from within the humanities, thereby completely destroying my lifelong earning potential.

curse you Douglas Hofstadter!!
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 10:25 PM on May 28, 2015 [14 favorites]


I read all of 'The Origin of Consciousness...' last year, after seeing it mentioned in a William S Burroughs article. I'm not sure whether or not it's 'true', and I'm interested in reading these articles. But its a mind-expanding bit of metaphor, and there are tons of stories in the book that are just really cool - all sorts of ideas about rituals and cults.

The ideas show up, oddly enough, in Tank Girl. And I'm reminded of Gene Wolfe's 'Soldier of the Mist', where you're not sure if Latro really is talking to the gods.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 12:27 AM on May 29, 2015 [3 favorites]



But addressing the question: I am fully prepared to believe that a significant number of people have never achieved a level of introspection that would allow them to experience their own thought or fully realize that other people have thoughts.


Jaymes talks a lot about introspection; in my snobbier moments I wonder if others are cursed with my constant introspection.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 12:29 AM on May 29, 2015


To be honest, yeah, it is a bit annoying, but it always felt too awkward to bring up the fact that all your thoughts are audible to us.
posted by No-sword at 1:37 AM on May 29, 2015 [11 favorites]


Oh boy. Hey, how 'bout that polywater? Anyone wanna hear my groovy theories about pyramid power?
posted by happyroach at 1:49 AM on May 29, 2015


Read Jaynes in the mid 80's like a lot of other acid heads. I recall a lot more supporting evidence than only The Iliad. Gave me a whole new perspective on the religious. Hey, if only I had a god telling me what to do at each juncture. Sadly, no.
posted by telstar at 2:47 AM on May 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


The broader questions that Jaynes’ book raised are the same ones that continue to vex neuroscientists and lay people.

Why yes, it probably does get lots of people laid.
posted by XMLicious at 3:53 AM on May 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


simply denying that it's science at all

Not actually what I said. Not even in the part you quoted.
posted by LogicalDash at 5:40 AM on May 29, 2015


Maybe chimps and dogs have some limited self-awareness.

But you have a continuous string of ancestors that stretches back three billion years. At some point, they went from unconscious to conscious.


I'm not sure I understand this. Don't chimps or dogs have unbroken strings of ancestors reaching just as far into the past? I mean, if they didn't, they wouldn't be here.

Or do you mean we have an unbroken string of ancestors that connects us with the ancestors of the chimps and the dogs?
posted by Mister Moofoo at 5:43 AM on May 29, 2015


The article leaves unmentioned that Jaynes himself eventually knew he was wrong. The foreword to the copy that I read, at least 25 years ago, said basically (paraphrasing) "My ideas in this book have been proven wrong but they seemed like something at the time and thanks for buying my book." Given that, I thought it as a fairly interesting read anyway, taking it more as science fiction than science. I think it may have been the inspiration for one of the better Star Trek TNG episodes.
posted by lordrunningclam at 6:43 AM on May 29, 2015 [3 favorites]


> > simply denying that it's science at all

> Not actually what I said. Not even in the part you quoted.

Well, I guess I simply don't understand what you mean at all then. When you say that ""Consciousness" is one of those words like "love" and "art" [...] that make terrible starting points for scientific inquiry," what do you mean if not "The inquiry into consciousness is terrible science"?
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 6:50 AM on May 29, 2015


I mean that it is good science starting from the wrong place and we might expect to get a lot more, better science by (say) starting from neurobiology and working up to higher levels of abstraction. I'm certain there are lots of people doing that too.
posted by LogicalDash at 6:53 AM on May 29, 2015


In an analogous way, behaviorist psychology is good science, but turns out not to be a very useful starting point for psychology in general because a lot of people want psychology to improve the theories of mind that we use, and it's impractical to get there from the position that consciousness isn't worth studying.

I don't think it will work to assume "consciousness" has a physical referent, and then go looking for it.
posted by LogicalDash at 6:58 AM on May 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


> We are not in touch with any Stone Age tribes; we are in touch with 21st-century tribes whose
> ways of life are different from our own.

Why must the Stone Age last the same length of time everywhere?
posted by jfuller at 7:30 AM on May 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


Dennett's main thesis is that consciousness is a linear thread of speech that became internalized as a problem solving mechanism, and that this thread runs on a massively parallel computation architecture called "the brain". I don't see that developments in either neurology or computer science have "antiquated" his idea, nor the similarity to Wittgenstein other than the discussion of language (which is central to pretty well any modern theory of consciousness) and I really don't get why you think Consciousness Explained has the slightest relevance to Wittgenstein's fly bottle...?

Dennett's strategy is to show how to get apparently sui generis or mysteriously emergent looking things from hierarchies of successively dumber under-laborers. And he's doing it in the idiom of classic computational cognitive science... There are a number of generations of thinking of the mind/brain as "computing" between CE and now, (hell, the book is from before connectionism even got trendy!). So the details of dennett's conception of cognition as computation are old, it's just a fact. But my point was that it hardly matters. Moreover, he pretty explicitly considers himself as operating in a wittgensteinian deflationary/behavioristic tradition. It's, like, throughout the book and many of his other writings and commentaries...?
posted by batfish at 8:29 AM on May 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


The authors aren't cranks, though they're often mistaken for one - their ideas are too well thought out for that.

Like others in the thread, my first exposure to Jaynes was through Stephenson - Snow Crash and The Big U - and it reminded me even at the time of Heinlein's obsession with general semantics.

I've had a copy on my shelf for a while now, and while I've never made it through, it's pretty fascinating to dip into from time to time. Was Jaynes a crank? Well, yes, probably, and so was Korzybski, but sometimes I think maybe modern readers have a less-generous theory of crankery than we ought. There's something really worthwhile in the intellectual experience of some of those rabbitholes, as long as you eventually make it back out.

(Then again, if I never have to encounter the outcome of an enthusiastic reading of Holy Blood, Holy Grail again, that will be just wonderful, so maybe I don't know what the hell I'm talking about.)
posted by brennen at 8:59 AM on May 29, 2015 [5 favorites]


I'd kind of be surprised if most members of any community that might get referred to as a "Stone Age tribe" weren't actually better-equipped with skills useful in making metal tools than 99.9% of residents of developed countries are.
posted by XMLicious at 9:49 AM on May 29, 2015


I'm a fan of Jaynes. It's pretty obvious soon into his book that he's not hammering out concrete facts, instead he's making speculations loosely interpreting some wide ideas. So I guess you're gonna hate it if you just go in expecting to get hard nuts & bolts out of the deal. But that's not really the point.

Like a lot of theoretical great thinkers, Jaynes was wrong about a lot of his interpretations on a technical level, but the important thing that he got right was to open up new ways of looking at things. The Veronica Greenwood essay at the top does a nice view of looking at his weaknesses and his strengths.
posted by ovvl at 10:04 AM on May 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


There is a time in our late teens or early twenties, when the outer layer of the cerebral cortex is forming, that we suddenly question the nature of reality and thought.

Hallucinogenic drugs contribute to Bill & Ted Excellent Revelations.

Also helpful to read those "coming of age" books like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Siddhartha, Goedel, Escher & Bach.

Later, our minds have habituated to the constructed reality that we inhabit, and we don't find it quite so charming to turn Life inside out and upside down.
posted by ohshenandoah at 11:09 AM on May 29, 2015


I feel like sort of a tool saying this, but maybe our difficulty in figuring out what to do with Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind stands as evidence that our relatively rigid conceptual split between fiction and nonfiction sometimes forecloses lines of inquiry that aren't necessarily true but that are nonetheless useful and interesting. Maybe like Freud's stuff, or Plato's metaphysics in the Timaeus, we should understand Jaynes's output as being not so much true or false but instead as a (potentially) interesting and useful "likely story."
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 11:59 AM on May 29, 2015 [16 favorites]


MetaFilter: an intrinsically salutary anti-sedimenting effect
posted by pointless_incessant_barking at 12:28 PM on May 29, 2015 [4 favorites]


Dennett's main thesis is that consciousness is a linear thread of speech that became internalized as a problem solving mechanism, and that this thread runs on a massively parallel computation architecture called "the brain". I don't see that developments in either neurology or computer science have "antiquated" his idea, nor the similarity to Wittgenstein other than the discussion of language (which is central to pretty well any modern theory of consciousness) and I really don't get why you think Consciousness Explained has the slightest relevance to Wittgenstein's fly bottle...?

Dennett's strategy is to show how to get apparently sui generis or mysteriously emergent looking things from hierarchies of successively dumber under-laborers. And he's doing it in the idiom of classic computational cognitive science... There are a number of generations of thinking of the mind/brain as "computing" between CE and now, (hell, the book is from before connectionism even got trendy!). So the details of dennett's conception of cognition as computation are old, it's just a fact. But my point was that it hardly matters. Moreover, he pretty explicitly considers himself as operating in a wittgensteinian deflationary/behavioristic tradition. It's, like, throughout the book and many of his other writings and commentaries...?
This does provide support, however, for the shockingly "verificationist" or "positivistic" view that the very idea of inverted qualia is nonsense -- and hence that the very idea of qualia is nonsense. As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein put it, using his famous "beetle in the box" analogy,

The thing in the box has no place in the language-game at all; not even as a something; for the box might even be empty. -- No, one can "divide through" by the thing in the box; it cancels out, whatever it is.

...

My debt to Wittgenstein is large and longstanding. When I was an undergraduate, he was my hero, so I went to Oxford, where he seemed to be everybody's hero. When I saw how most of my fellow graduate students were (by my lights) missing the point, I gave up trying to "be" a Wittgensteinian, and just took what I thought I had learned from the Investigations and tried to put it to work.
CE, 390, 463.
posted by grobstein at 2:16 PM on May 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


Dennett liked Jaynes, although I'm not sure what his current thinking on him is. He admires writers, like Jaynes and Hofstadter, who are able to weave together deep thought and introspection to produce interesting speculations. After GEB, Dennett and Hofstadter collaborated many times.

One of the many strands of Consciousness Explained is that consciousness may be socially constructed to a large extent. It is not some special substance in the brain; rather, it grows up with our whole environment, especially the social environment and especially language. If consciousness is socially constructed, then it may be socially constructed differently in different societies -- this is what Jaynes is writing about I think. Consider also that, before color TV, people claimed to dream in black and white; now they claim to dream in color. Consider how pervasive televisual and cinematic metaphors are in discussing our consciousness; if our experience is like TV now, it perhaps wasn't back when there were no TVs.

A number of striking observations can be made here. For example, consider the differing etiologies of schizophrenia in different societies. The etiology of schizophrenia is very different in different societies. In some "primitive" societies, the voices are apparently viewed as good messages from ghosts and spirits. As a result, schizophrenics suffer much less. I see this as a part of the social construction of consciousness, very much Jaynes-like: in these societies, the voices are experienced differently. (Dennett has a new book on language coming out. I don't know much about it but I expect it will wander over this territory a bit.)

I am reasonably well versed in the contemporary science of consciousness, and I don't think we know enough to rule out this sort of thing. Koch says, “Jaynes disavows consciousness as a biological phenomenon,” and I think this is both exactly right and not immediately dismissible.

In a way, it goes back to Consciousness Explained again. Even 20 years later, many researchers would like to find the "Cartesian theater" in the brain, the biological organ that magically transmutes information into experience. They want consciousness to be a "biological" phenomenon that we can draw neat lines around, rather than a rich and changeable set of behaviors and capabilities that might be culturally specific. But no one has really found that specific biological system. What we have instead is a variety of experimental models that operationalize consciousness in different ways, usually by measuring when certain stimuli become available for verbal report. There are a lot of cool experiments out there. But its definitely not the case that neuroscience and psychology have advanced far enough to rule out the sort of thing Jaynes was talking about (even if many or all of his specific claims are wrong).
posted by grobstein at 2:42 PM on May 29, 2015 [8 favorites]


I don't agree that humans weren't conscious back in the day, but I do think it's interesting how he thought so hard about how to explain "that voice in your head," and I don't mean the sort that's perhaps schizophrenic and wanting murder to happen, but the one that's actually trying to help you or says "Don't do that" or "If you go to Burger King instead of Carl's Jr. today you'll meet the love of your life."

I've read this book and I've done a lot of interesting research on the concept of the daimon, and... well, this is an interesting theory as to how it comes about. It doesn't seem quite right to me, but I'd be interested to figure out where the heck that inner urge/knowledge that goes beyond our known consciousness comes from.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:39 PM on May 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


ΚΕΦΑΛΗ Η

STEEPED HORSEHAIR

Mind is a disease of semen.
All that a man is or may be is hidden therein.
Bodily functions are parts of the machine; silent, unless in dis-ease.
This I persisteth not, posteth not through generations, changeth momently, finally is dead.
Therefore is man only himself when lost to himself in The Charioting.
posted by FatherDagon at 8:00 PM on May 29, 2015


If nothing else this thread has taught me a great new word: cathect. Going to file that one away, very useful, thanks YCTAB!
posted by Wretch729 at 12:37 PM on June 1, 2015


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