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.