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I have nothing much to say. Just wanted to put up a new post and see if it attracts an avalanche of comment spam like the last one.
TypePad says they've fixed the problem.
Anyone can read the posts, but you have to be a forum member to actively participate.
P.S. Because this post attracted an incredible amount of comment spam, I've closed the comments on this thread.
P.P.S. The moderator has posted an additional reply. While I appreciate his taking the time to have a dialogue, I have to say I see a fair amount of special pleading in his position. The attitude seems to be that we already know Jaynes' theory is correct, so any contradictory evidence must be the result of mistranslation or a sign of an earlier and more gradual transition from bicamerality to introspection. The flimsiest reeds are used to prop up the bicameral-mind idea, while very obvious departures from bicamerality are minimized or dismissed. Sinuhe's life story, which in no way fits Jaynes' depiction of a robotic, hypnotized, unconscious person incapable of dealing with novel situations, is somehow shoehorned into the theory because Sinuhe refers to his pharaoh as a god.
Color me unimpressed ...
Comments on this blog are moderated, meaning that it can take some time for them to be read and approved for posting. This unfortunately slows down the pace of conversations.
For those who want to participate in unmoderated, real-time discussions, there's an online forum loosely affiliated with this blog. You do have to request membership, but once you're approved, you can post whenever you like and even introduce new topics.
Right now there's a lengthy discussion of Stanislav Grof underway, and another thread about reincarnation.
The forum can be found here.
Having examined and now largely rejected Julian Jaynes' theory of the origin of consciousness, I'd like to take a look at where we're left.
I think it's safe to assume that ancient peoples had no clear notion of the subconscious. When they experienced feelings or reactions they could not explain, it would be natural for them to ascribe these strange sensations to the influence of an outside force – gods, or spirits, or demons.
We can see this clearly enough in the word panic, which stems from the Greek god Pan, the god of wild revelry and carnal indulgence. People "in a panic" were thought to be possessed by Pan. The same mentality crops up in the New Testament in the many stories of people who are possessed by demons, and who can be cured only by exorcism. The idea that the insane are possessed by some god, and that poets are essentially madmen, crops up in Plato, among other places. "Inspiration" originally meant breathing in or absorbing the spirit of a supernatural being.
In this light, we can take a new look at some of the examples that Jaynes cites in support of his theory. Take the scene in the Iliad when Achilles, almost overcome with rage, finds himself violently restrained by the hand of Athena, who swoops down from heaven to grab him by the hair and warn him off. This could very well reflect a primitive understanding of a seemingly causeless emotional upheaval and inner conflict. In the Iliad's battle scenes, the heroes are often spurred to violent acts by the urgings of gods, just as men in battle even today may find themselves fired up by adrenaline, crowd psychology, and long-suppressed emotions that they cannot readily understand. Later they may look back in amazement at their apparent fearlessness, even recklessness, and wonder how they were able to do it. In an age haunted by gods, the simplest answer would be that some god or other took over the person's body and used him for the god's own ends.
Jaynes also spends a good deal of time talking about the Greek oracles, notably the oracle at the Temple of Apollo. He sees these oracles as holdovers from the bicameral age. But another possibility suggests itself. If the primitive psychology of the era conflated hysterical behavior with possession by a god, then what would be more natural than to induce hysteria in some highly suggestible subject in the hope of bringing about this kind of spirit possession? This might explain why the prophetesses of the oracles were typically young, naïve, illiterate farm girls, precisely the sort of subjects who might be most easily whipped into a frenzy, given the proper training and the appropriate commands by authority figures (the temple priests). As Jaynes himself points out, these girls typically did exhibit wild, frantic twitches and gesticulations before issuing their oracular pronouncements.(It is an open question whether the pronouncements themselves derived from the girls' subconscious, the suggestions of the priests, or some spirit-world source. Quite possibly, the answer is: all of the above.)
But none of this necessarily indicates that people behaved this way all the time – that they felt themselves to be at the mercy of the dictates of gods even in their casual, everyday activities. Nor does it suggest that people of this era were automatons who had no sense of self, no ego, no distinct personality, and no ability to introspect.
The plethora of idols in the ancient world, which were found everywhere from massive ziggurats to small shrines in humble homes, certainly implies that some form of idol worship, or communion with idols, was central to daily life. The exact nature of this communion probably cannot be recovered now. Perhaps people did go into a sort of hypnotic trance while staring into the large eyes of these carved figures, in order to activate otherwise inaccessible parts of the brain. In Ezekiel 21:26, we read that the king of Babylon has "questioned the household gods," a casual reference suggesting that such consultations were far from rare. We know from ancient Mesopotamian documents (cited by Jaynes) that people took great stock in the "utterances" of the gods and prided themselves on their ability to "hear," sometimes appending the name "True of voice" to their given names. It is likely that the ritual of washing a statue's mouth was connected with the desire to coax the statue into communicating. We also know that later cultures deplored the vanishing of the gods and begged for them to return. Jaynes quotes many such statements, such as these lines from The Babylonian Theodicy (ca. 900 BC):
May the gods who have thrown me off give help,
May the goddess who has abandoned me show mercy.
The Psalms also are dense with appeals to Yahweh to show himself, make himself known, not abandon his people, etc. Everything points to "the disappearance of God," to borrow a title from Biblical scholar Richard Elliott Friedman. Sometime during the long process of building civilization, man's contact with the gods (or spirits) became tenuous and unstable.
I would suggest that Jaynes is right about this much: the progress of literacy and the growing complexity of civilization and trade encouraged left-brain dominance, which in turn tended to inhibit the activity of the right cerebral hemisphere, the doorway to spirit communications (and psi). As left-brain, linear thinking became standard, the more intuitive, psychically active, mediumistic functions of the right brain were less likely to develop; these talents tended to remain dormant or inaccessible. Hence the laments for the vanishing gods, the silenced voices, the lost visions. And later, after a left-brain orthodoxy had been established to supplant the voices and maintain social control in other ways, repeated efforts were made to suppress the last vestiges of channeling, sometimes by violence.
The question has been raised – and it's a good one – as to why ancient peoples would receive such angry, militaristic instructions from their spirit guides. Here are some possibilities that occur to me.
First, in many cases people may have been confusing their own subconscious impulses with spirit possession, as described above. The less-than-edifying messages may have been their own subconscious urges, misinterpreted as divine guidance. This kind of thing happens even today, in cases of psychopaths who claim that God told them to kill.
Second, the extent or degree of these violent messages may be exaggerated in some of our texts. There are many episodes in the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) in which Yahweh orders his people to commit massacres. But almost all scholars agree that these books were compiled and redacted a long time after the events they purport to describe. The most plausible scenario is that significant parts of the Torah, and possibly other books like Samuel and Kings, were put together during the reign of King Josiah in roughly 600 BC for purposes of reviving religious traditions; this material, trumpeted as having been miraculously rediscovered, was claimed to have been written by Moses ca. 1400 BC. The Exodus story was probably invented, or at least significantly embellished, during the period of the Babylonian Captivity which closely followed Josiah's reign; the story would have been a response to the humiliating enslavement of the Israelites (with Egypt standing for Babylon in these tales). In short, a great deal of the violent, wrathful, destructive personality attributed to Yahweh was invented by a priestly caste of storytellers working for propagandistic ends. These stories almost certainly do not reflect the actual communications received by ancient peoples.
Finally, in a rough and unsettled world, it may have been necessary to use violence in ways that disturb us today. If a certain population was more intellectually advanced than its competitors, there might well be a long-term value in the survival of that population that would justify extreme measures in its own defense. Perhaps the only way for humanity to make progress, at least in the early stages of civilization, was by weeding out the populations that were holding it back. A rather Darwinian notion, to be sure, but could history as we know it have ever gotten started if the first cities had been wiped out by the raiders from the hills? (Sam Barone's novel Dawn of Empire is an entertaining depiction of this conflict, though some of the historical details – notably, the use of coinage and cavalry – are wrong.)
Below is a carving (ca. 1250 BC) reproduced in Jaynes' book. It shows the god Sharruma embracing a Hittite king, Tudha-liys. Jaynes naturally interprets the god as the hallucinated voice/vision that guided the king throughout his life. Note that the god is on the king's right side, consistent with the idea that the hallucinations originated in the right brain. But an alternate interpretation is possible. Perhaps Tudha-liys actually was in contact with a spirit guide, via mediating structures in the right cerebral hemisphere. Later, such close contact between the physical world and the spirit world was largely lost; and for centuries afterward, poets and mystics longed for that golden age when men and gods spoke face to face and walked hand in hand.
Carving as reproduced in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.
Michael Tymn points me to this odd story about a heart transplant patient who married the donor's widow and later committed suicide with a gunshot wound to the head - exactly as the donor had killed himself years earlier. Mike asks, "Cellular memory or possession?"
I don't have an answer, although I suppose some variant of the morphic field theory could involve the transference of personality characteristics from donor to recipient. If we think in informational terms, we could speculate that parts of the body, being ultimately information, might be part of the same information matrix that includes memory and habit, and that the transfer of an organ could result in the transfer of some of these attendant data ...
I've enjoyed writing a series of posts about the theories of Julian Jaynes, as featured in his book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. It's given me a chance to revisit a book that I greatly enjoyed when I first read it more than 15 years ago, and a chance to talk about something a little different from the usual near-death experiences, reincarnation memories, and mediumship sessions. (The fact that those subjects are the usual thing around here just shows how weird this blog is!)
But I have to say that the objections lodged against Jaynes' theory by certain persistent commenters, especially Doubter, have changed my mind. While I never embraced Jaynes' theory in its entirety, and in fact rejected a central part of it (the idea that the "voices of the gods" were hallucinations originating in the brain), I still found his idea about a shift in consciousness occurring in the second millennium BC to be compelling.
What primarily changed my opinion was a text that Doubter directed me to – an ancient Egyptian saga called "The Story of Sinuhe." This text is dated to around 1900 BC, with the earliest extant manuscript dating to roughly 1800 BC, early enough that Jaynes' purported shift in consciousness should not yet have occurred. And yet, as Doubter correctly points out, there is no trace of Jaynes' "bicameral mind" in this story. People take actions of their own accord, and not because they have been directed by the voices of gods. Moreover, the narrator is able to relate the events of his life in chronological order as a coherent whole, with appropriate dramatic twists and turns, adding up to a distinctive personality expressed in a story.
The tale of Sinuhe is not very long, and it is well worth reading, since it gives a wonderful sense of what life was like in those ancient days. I'm afraid it delivers a fatal blow to Jaynes' enticing theory – which now appears to be one of those theories that are fascinating to think about, but ultimately quite wrong.
It's almost a classic case of a beautiful theory slain by an ugly fact … except that "The Story of Sinuhe" is not ugly in the least.
While I would still maintain that the psychology of ancient peoples was somewhat different from our modern psychology, and that the plethora of idols in ancient communities does point to some kind of everyday ritualistic practice that probably involved a trancelike state, I would no longer say that people of this era lacked a sense of self or personal identity. That just doesn't appear to be the case.
So ... goodbye to all that, or most of it, anyway. And thanks to Doubter, Douglas, No One, and the others who made consistently impressive arguments against Jaynes' position.
By the way, I Googled Sinuhe + Julian Jaynes to see if Jaynes' supporters have dealt with this text. As far as I could determine, they haven't, or if they have, their treatment isn't online. I did, however, find a blog post that deals critically with Jaynes in connection with the Sinuhe story.
After a long life and a marvelous career, Ray Harryhausen has passed on to whatever awaits us in the next phase of existence.
He was one of my heroes when I was growing up, and even in this CGI age, I still enjoy his hand-crafted special effects. The list of his creations is amazing: the savage Cyclops on the cloud-shrouded island of Colossa, the reptilian Ymir captured on Venus, an army of living skeletons, a six-armed goddess statue brought to life, a ship's figurehead that tears itself loose from the prow, a beast from 20,000 fathoms, a giant crab, the Selenites in their underground lunar colony, a young allosaurus that raids a prehistoric village, Gwangi the Great, Mighty Joe Young, the gorgon Medusa with her head of living snakes, Pegasus, the bronze giant Talos, the seven-headed Hydra, the pterodactyl that carries off a screaming Raquel Welch and nearly feeds her to its nestlings, a bevy of flying saucers that lay waste to our nation's capitol, and many others - all brought to the screen one frame at a time.
Here's a look at the Cyclops in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. In an era when the typical movie monsters were magnified lizards and men in rubber suits, Harryhausen gave us sights no one had seen before.
Some further indication that the mental processes of ancient peoples differed from ours may be found in an analysis of the earliest reported dreams. At least this is the gist of an argument made by Julian Jaynes in a lecture called "The Dream of Agamemnon," published in The Julian Jaynes Collection.
Jaynes surveys the early (and admittedly scanty) literary accounts of dreams, focusing on the ancient Greeks, Mesopotamians, and Hebrews. He finds that nearly all of these dreams can be categorized as "bicameral," in line with his theory of the bicameral mind.
What is a bicameral dream? First let's look at a modern, subjective dream. Typically we see ourselves engaged in some activity far removed from bedtime. We might be walking on a beach or playing the piano at Carnegie Hall. Jaynes says we dream this way because we have developed a reflective consciousness that can generate an interior mind-space and then move an analog 'I' through this space.
His bicameral men, on the other hand, had no such subjective consciousness, and therefore could not have had such dreams. And, he finds, they did not. Instead, their dreams took the form of Agamemnon's dream, as reported in the Iliad. (This is not to say that the historical Agamemnon actually had such a dream, only that the story presents a dream in a form that would have been familiar to its audience.)
In his dream, Agamemnon is asleep in his bed (just as he is in reality). A messenger from the gods comes to him, stands over his bed, and says,
Do you sleep, now, son of warlike Atreus, the horse-tamer? A man of counsel, charged with an army, on whom responsibility so rests, should not sleep! Listen closely now, I come as Zeus’ messenger, who cares for you, far off though he may be, and feels compassion. He would have you arm your long-haired Greeks speedily, for the broad-paved city of Troy lies open to you. The immortals that dwell on high Olympus are no longer at odds, since Hera has swayed all minds with her pleas, and the will of Zeus dooms the Trojans to sorrow. Hold fast to this, remember all, when honey-tongued sleep frees you.
Agamemnon is the passive recipient of divine instructions, and even in his dream he never leaves his bed.
Jaynes also mentions the famous dream of "Jacob's ladder" (or "stairway" -- possibly a tiered tower, i.e., a ziggurat). Traveling alone, the Biblical patriarch Jacob falls asleep outdoors while using a stone as a pillow.
And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! And behold, the Lord stood above it [or "beside him"] and said, "I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your descendants ..."
As Jaynes notes, "Jacob does nothing at all. He does not say anything – he is still asleep." But upon waking, he anoints the stone with oil and names the location Bethel (house or gate of God), apparently because he believes that the mystical ziggurat actually appeared on that very spot. ("And he was afraid, and said, 'This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.'")
As Jaynes says, Jacob's kind of dreaming is quite different from ours: "When Jacob wakes up, he is sure it happened right there where he was sleeping. When you wake up, you do not think the dream happened right there in your bed and look under the covers."
These and other early dreams, though they don't constitute proof, are at least consistent with the idea that ancient people did not narratize their experience in terms of an analog 'I' moving through a mental space, and that, lacking reflective consciousness, they heard voices and saw visions that told them what to do.
For the past few posts I've been musing on Julian Jaynes' famous book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. I know some readers are highly skeptical of Jaynes' theory that ancient peoples had a profoundly different mode of consciousness from those of us in the modern world. This skepticism is certainly understandable, given the initial implausibility of Jaynes's ideas and their wide-ranging implications. Still, I think Jaynes was on to something, even if he overstated his case and may have gotten parts of it wrong. In this post I'll attempt to sum up my feelings about Jaynes and his theory – with the caveat that, perhaps like consciousness itself, my opinion on these matters is still evolving.
First, I need to make clear once again that when Jaynes talks about consciousness, he does not mean awareness in the broad sense. In a book I just bought called The Julian Jaynes Collection, editor Marcel Kuijsten uses the term “reflective consciousness” to describe what Jaynes was getting at. Obviously the people who built the pyramids and the ziggurats were conscious in the broad sense, but did they exhibit the nature and scope of introspection, self-awareness, and self-analysis that we take for granted today? Or was their awareness, their consciousness, of a qualitatively different order - a non-reflective, non-subjective mode of awareness?
I’m inclined to agree with Jaynes that their mindset was quite different from our modern, subjective, introspective, or reflective consciousness (call it what you will). For one thing, this seems like the only way to explain the incredibly long period of relative stasis in prehistory, when cultural advancements proceeded at a glacial pace. Over thousands and thousands of years, people continued to live the lives of their ancestors, apparently with only the most minimal changes in their routine. Innovations are measured in centuries and consist of slight improvements in fashioning a spearhead, or subtle changes in the sculpting of goddess figurines. Yes, there were major breakthroughs like the development of agriculture and the transition from a nomadic lifestyle to permanent settlements, but for the most part, we are looking at a vast period of time in which there is human progress is virtually at a standstill. Why? Could it be that the people of this era had not yet evolved the questioning, restless, ever-active mentality of modern humans, and were content simply to repeat the ingrained habits of the past?
If they did not have a strong sense of self - what Jaynes calls “the analog I” - then how did they function in the world? Jaynes proposes that voices and visions originating in the right cerebral hemisphere guided and directed them, and that these hallucinations were the first “gods.” He further theorizes that the ubiquitous idols of that era served as a means of cueing these hallucinations that provided the all-important authoritative instructions necessary to run these people’s lives. When Micah cries out that his idols have been stolen and he has nothing left, he’s not just being melodramatic; a man bereft of his voices was hopelessly at sea. So central were the voices and visions to ancient culture that ziggurats, the palaces of the gods, occupied the central place in every Mesopotamian city and towered over all other structures - a policy that persisted anachronistically well into the modern age, when towns were built around cathedrals.
Jaynes was thoroughly committed to the modern secularist worldview and probably could not seriously entertain the notion that there actually is a spirit would or that communication with spirits is a possibility. His few references to such things in Origin are dismissive. For those of us with a different point of view, an alternative to Jaynes' hypothesis presents itself. Instead of regarding the "voices of the gods" as hallucinations produced by the nervous system, we might interpret them as actual communications from the spirit world, not generated by the right cerebral hemisphere, but mediated by it. The voices, in other words, could be understood as signals, with the right side of the brain serving as a receiver (a variation on the so-called "transmission theory" of consciousness proposed by William James). These signals served to direct human activity at a time when conditions were not yet ripe for the emergence of reflective consciousness, which requires a certain level of cultural and linguistic complexity.
What we could be looking at is a chicken-and-egg situation. Reflective consciousness could not evolve until culture and language had developed sufficiently; but culture and language required a level of directed activity that habit and instinct could not make possible. Stalemate … unless there was an intervention by outside forces, spiritual guardians or guides, who served as a steppingstone to the development of reflective consciousness by prompting our distant ancestors to take the first steps down the path of literacy, technology, and large-scale social organization.
In this context, it’s interesting to consider the persistent and ever-popular speculative claims about the intervention of extraterrestrials in the earliest epoch of human history. Writers of "alternate history” books are forever telling us that we owe the ziggurats, pyramids, and other ancient marvels to the beneficent intervention of space travelers. I don’t buy this for a minute. But what if the persistence of these tall tales is rooted in an actual truth - that our earliest history was jumpstarted by the intervention of “visitors,” not from outer space, but from the noumenal realm?
It’s just possible that the impressive engineering and social achievements of humans in the age prior to reflective consciousness age were the result of spirit guidance and influence. But such influence could not last forever, nor was it intended to. As culture became more complex and as more people attained literacy, the left hemisphere of the brain became increasingly dominant, inhibiting the right hemisphere and largely shutting off spiritual communications. There followed a period of confusion, panic, and despair, when people longed for the effortless authorizations their forebears had known. They looked back on their ancestors as demigods who talked face-to-face with divine powers in a golden age, unspoiled children of nature who walked with their gods (elohim) in an edenic garden. They commemorated the loss of these divine instructions in the myth of the Tower of Babel and recorded their gods’ abandonment of the human race in flood stories featuring Noah and Utnapishtim. They instituted new and more elaborate rituals in an attempt to coax the silent gods into speaking again, sometimes with success, as in the case of the Greek oracles and Hebrew prophets. Yet at the same time the newly dominant left hemisphere, egocentric and intolerant of other loci of consciousness, was trying to wipe out the last vestiges of spiritistic communications by slaughtering the nabiim, burning witches, and (yes) rationalistically dismissing all evidence of psychic phenomena.
In today's world we see both the benefits and hazards of our left-brain-dominant mentality. The positives are obvious and are all around us, in our advanced technology, sweeping scientific discoveries, banishment of hurtful superstitions, and increasing tolerance for differing lifestyles and points of view. The negatives, however, are no less real: widespread neurosis and anomie addressed by prescription drugs and other mind-alterung substances, a pervasive sense of loss and longing too often filled by cults and craziness, and a susceptibility to authoritarian movements and leaders. When they gathered on street corners to hear Hitler's voice shouting through the radio, did the demoralized German populace hear a dim echo of their ancestral spirit-voices and experience, if only fleetingly, the frisson of unquestioned authorization that those voices once provided?
If any part of this speculation is true, then what may be needed now is a new synthesis - a more equilateral distribution of power between the left and right cerebral hemispheres, in which the advantages of linear left-brain thinking and self-awareness are balanced by the gift of everyday contact with higher spiritual intelligences. This is not a forecast Jaynes would have taken seriously, I’m sure; yet his work, when read in this context, becomes highly suggestive and helpful. That’s one reason why it continues to fascinate me, whatever its flaws.