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.