In 1976, with considerable fanfare, Princeton psychologist Julian Jaynes put out a provocative and fascinating book that purported to explain human consciousness, religion, ancient history, and even some forms of mental illness. This all-encompassing theory was presented under the imposing title The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind
The crux of Jaynes's argument is an apparently outrageous claim – that modern consciousness, in the sense of self-awareness, is a historically recent development, dating back only to about 1000 BC, and that earlier civilizations, including those of the ancient Egyptians, Sumerians, and Babylonians, were founded and maintained by people who were essentially "unconscious." That is, they received marching orders from voices in their heads which they took to be the voices of the gods, but which were actually generated by the right hemisphere of the brain. (The division of the mind into two halves, godlike instructor and passive listener, is what Jaynes calls "bicameral.") In a trancelike state that lasted a lifetime, primitive people carried out these instructions, living, marrying, working, and dying in the thrall of the "gods" who ordered and organized every detail of their lives. Later, the left hemisphere became dominant and the gods died out, persisting (in a debased and altered form) only in certain cases of schizophrenia.
There is an air of triumphalism about the book – the annunciation of a staggering new truth, blinding in its simplicity and awesome in its implications. One reviewer enthused that Origin
"renders whole shelves of books obsolete." The book's lengthy title was clearly chosen to reflect Darwin's Origin of Species
, the longer title of which is On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection
. Jaynes felt that he had solved the problem of the origin of consciousness as decisively as Darwin had solved the problem of the origin of species.
Yet although Jaynes's theory received a great deal of press, it has found relatively few takers. Only a handful of academics have endorsed Jaynes's views, and his ideas today spark little interest. The official Web site
of the Julian Jaynes Society features a forum in which members can discuss the book and its implications. When I last looked, a total of only 31 messages had been posted there.
, March 18: A reader pointed out to me that the forum was newly created when I looked at it, so the small number of messages does not
indicate a lack of interest in Jaynes. I take the point and stand corrected. However, I would still maintain that the academic community has shown little willingess to embarce Jaynes's ideas. This could
be due to the inertia and closed-mindedness of the establishment, but below I argue that there are other explanations.)
There are several reasons for the widespread indifference to such challenging ideas. First, Jaynes's theory is inherently difficult to accept. An entire civilization comprised of people who are unconscious is simply too far removed from our normal way of understanding the world. To support such an idea, Jaynes has to regard consciousness as nonessential to human life – as a mere ability to "narratize" behavior we would have performed anyway. He goes to great lengths to convince us that consciousness is unnecessary for most human activities, pointing out, for instance, that we can drive a car without paying conscious attention to the task. But surely we need to be conscious when we learn
how to drive a car; only after this skill has been habituated can we afford to drive on "autopilot," and even then we need to be able to snap back into full alertness in an emergency. The idea that such vast engineering projects as the ziggurats and pyramids could be carried out unconsciously is anti-intuitive in the extreme.
Second, Jaynes has a disconcerting tendency to quote selectively from his sources. When mining ancient literature for hints of the bicameral mind, he culls examples that buttress his point while ignoring or explaining away countless other examples that work against his position. One example of his tendentiousness is his treatment of Hesiod's Works and Days
, a very early Greek poem that consists of instructions on how to manage a farm. Jaynes interprets the poem as having been dictated by the "god" side of the brain; in effect, he argues, Works and Days
is a written record of the kind of voice that our ancestors heard incessantly.
But the poem itself contains scattered verses indicating a very different origin. The narrator tells us that he and his brother Perses inherited their father's farm, that Perses is shiftless and incompetent, and that having taken Perses to court and lost, the narrator has put together this instruction manual for Perses in a last-ditch attempt to salvage the farm. None of this is consistent with the bicameral mind hypothesis.
Jaynes deals with this considerable impediment to his argument by brushing it aside; the sections of the poem containing these references, he says, must be later interpolations. "The protest lodged in the crucial lines 37-39 [was] added later," he writes, providing no evidence. This special pleading is repeated in his treatment of the Iliad, the Bible, and other ancient sources. Where a passage supports (or can be made to support) his theory, he assumes it to be old and authentic. Where a passage does not support his theory, he assumes it to be newer and "modern."
Finally, Jaynes falls into the trap that awaits any specialist who ventures outside his area of expertise. As a psychologist with no special training in ancient literature, he seems to misunderstand the ancient sources themselves. A good example of this misunderstanding, and its strange persistence even in the face of a cogent argument to the contrary, is found in a question and answer period in which Jaynes participated, posted here
as an Adobe Reader document.
An audience member trenchantly observes that Biblical references to idols, upon which Jaynes relies quite heavily, may be unreliable.
Questioner: ... the biblical Hebrews’ notion that the “idol worshippers’ actually believed that their statues in fact spoke to them seems to have been based on a misconception of what it was these statues did (what purpose they served) in the surrounding cultures. Kaufmann (1960) in commenting on the ancient religion of Israel claims, in fact, that ancient Jews were so far removed from idolatry that they no longer understood what it was that the idol-makers believed in. Kaufmann says of the Jews that their view of idolatry was laughably simplistic. The ancient Jews thought erroneously that idolaters, in fact, believed that their icons would speak to them, something which I think you, Dr. Jaynes, believe as well. Kaufmann, however, asserts that in idolatrous societies, the icons behaved more in the way that ... a picture of the Pope or an icon of Jesus behaves to a believing Catholic. These icons were simply icons that represented a deity, not real gods themselves that anyone in those idolatrous societies actually spoke to....
Jaynes: If I could first reply to that. Indeed, such statues are definitely called gods in the Hebrew bible.
Questioner: That’s right, but erroneously!
Jaynes: I am not making judgments.
Here, Jaynes simply fails to understand the point of the question. It is not an issue of "making judgments," but of grasping the context in which the Biblical passages were written. Jaynes makes much of Biblical writings that depict pagans worshipping their idols as literal gods, but if these writings themselves are inaccurate, and if pagan idolatry was in fact much more sophisticated, then Jaynes's arguments are fundamentally flawed. Jaynes continues:
Jaynes: I am just looking at the whole series. Nor am I just looking at the Jews. The evidence for idols, a truer term than icons, during the time period of the Hebrew Testament is considerable. Else why would so many of the prophets inveigh against them?
Again, Jaynes is failing to grasp the point. No one disputes that Hebrew prophets inveighed against idols. The question is whether the prophets correctly understood the nature of pagan idolatry
Jaynes: Idols are particularly evident in the early books, from the elohim or gods that Laban accuses Jacob of stealing (Genesis 31:30) to centuries later when the Philistines after defeating Saul run and tell their atsabim, their idols, before they tell their people (I Samuel 31:9; I Chronicles 10:9).
To repeat the point: no one disputes the fact that idols make frequent appearances in the Hebrew Bible. But whether the cultures of idol-worshipping nations were properly understood by the writers of the Bible is a separate issue. Moreover, the parallel passages from I Samuel and I Chronicles don't necessarily support Jaynes' point. I Samuel 31:9 reads, "[they] sent [the weapons of their defeated enemy Saul] throughout the land of the Philistines to carry the good news to the house of their idols and to the people." (NASB) There is nothing here to indicate that they "run and tell their ... idols, before
they tell their people." Since the house of their idols, i.e., their temple, was obviously a center of their community, taking the weapons there would be a way of proclaiming the victory to the populace. Indeed, the very next verse reads, "They put his weapons in the temple of Ashtaroth ..."
Jaynes: To call such god-idols merely icons like pictures of the Pope is a serious misreading of the texts and contradicted in many passages (see, for example, I Chronicles l6:26).
Here, wrapping up his answer, Jaynes merely asserts that any view of idols that is different from his own is a "misreading." He offers no evidence of this claim other than yet another Biblical reference. The cited passage reads in part, "For all the gods of the peoples are idols" – which reiterates the common view among Hebrews of this period that pagans worshipped their idols as gods. But the accuracy of the Hebrews' understanding of pagan customs is the very point in contention
. (An alternate translation, mentioned in the NASB's notes, is "For all the gods of the peoples are nonexistent things," which omits any reference to idols.)
Jaynes's inability or unwillingness to properly address the question, or even to understand it, suggests to me that he suffered from a condition sometimes described as "theory blindness." Having constructed a comprehensive theory by which to view the world, he was simply unable to think his way out of that mental box.
Though Jaynes continued to promote his theory for the rest of his life, his promised sequel to The Origin of Consciousness
never materialized. He died in 1997, leaving it to other academics to continue his work. Few have taken up the challenge. Today discussions of Jaynes's book are found mainly on New Age Web sites, mixed in with references to the pseudoscientific writings of Velikovsky and Von Daniken.
For myself, I have come to think that The Origin of Consciousness
gets history exactly backward. In Jaynes's materialist worldview (in which consciousness is a mere epiphenomenon of matter), there can be no such things as gods and spirits or any other paranormal phenomena. Thus the universal acceptance of such things in ancient (and modern) cultures is a puzzle requiring some explanation. The bicameral mind is his answer to the problem; the gods and spirits are simply a more primitive part of the brain.
But suppose there actually are
paranormal or supernatural phenomena. Suppose there are
spirits and what we might call gods - or God. Then the universality of such beliefs does not require complicated rationalistic explanations. If anything, it is the absence
of such beliefs among the intelligentsia of the Western world today that raises questions. Rather than hunting for the gods in some forgotten corner of our nervous system, we might do better to seek out truths that "primitive" peoples knew – and which we have forgotten.
Near the end of his book, Jaynes laments misguided modern efforts to recapture the gods through mysticism, religion, poetry, and even science – "attempts to return to what is no longer there, like poets to their inexistent Muses ..."
But what if the Muses did exist, and still do - and we have simply stopped listening?Note
: This post was slightly revised and expanded on March 11, '05.