Critiques of Jaynes’s Theory: A General Pattern

Over the years, I’ve found that most of the critiques of Jaynes’s theory fall in a general pattern. I hope that understanding this pattern will be helpful to others. This general pattern started with some of the earliest critiques of Jaynes’s book and has held true for most of the critiques since.

1. They don’t take the time to develop a deep understanding of Jaynes’s narrow definition of consciousness, or why defining consciousness very narrowly is so important.

This is by far the most common reason for failure to understand Jaynes’s arguments. For this reason, I often encourage people to read the first two chapters of Jaynes’s book, as well as the Afterword (1990 edition and later) several times.

Often the person already has (whether they realize it or not) strong, preconceived ideas about what “consciousness” is or how it is defined. Whether they realize it or not, they usually define consciousness in a very broad, vague way that includes sense perception and believe it is something that evolved biologically over the course of millions of years. In other words, they are not entirely new to the subject matter, and, even if they have not thought about it deeply, they are now relatively close-minded to entertaining new ideas on the subject. (There seems to be a genetic basis for close-mindedness in general, but that’s another subject.) Because they think they already have a good idea of how consciousness is defined, they either skim this section of Jaynes’s book or for other reasons fail to fully comprehend his arguments.

Conversely, people that come to appreciate Jaynes’s theory often either have not yet developed deeply entrenched views regarding the nature of consciousness or are predisposed (probably genetically) to have a greater openness to new and/or controversial ideas, and thus are more interested in taking the considerable time necessary to fully understand Jaynes’s arguments regarding how consciousness is defined — what consciousness is and is not, etc.

If one fails to fully comprehend Jaynes’s arguments on consciousness, the other three primary hypotheses of Jaynes’s theory will be difficult if not impossible to grasp.

2. Upon first reading a summary of Jaynes’s theory, they have a knee-jerk, emotional response.

Upon first reading something about Jaynes’s theory, some individuals immediately bristle, because, in their view, it should be obvious to everyone that it is “impossible” that humans as recently as 3,000 years ago could lack consciousness. However, they haven’t taken the time to understand Jaynes’s arguments or his narrow definition of consciousness. They instead assume/jump to conclusions that Jaynes is using their own broad/vague definition of the term, and reject Jaynes’s theory based on this incorrect definition, which generally includes things like sense perception.

New ideas always face an uphill battle, but because of our lack of precise terminology surrounding the topic of “consciousness” (and other mental processes), and the widespread internalization of erroneous views on the subject, there is an additional “shock value” to Jaynes’s theory that inevitably causes some to reject it before fully understanding it.

3. Having already made up their mind, their goal is to prove Jaynes was wrong, rather than offer a thoughtful, objective discussion.

Eager to “set the record straight” and show how “wrong” they think Jaynes’s theory is, their commentary often relies on baseless assertions, ad hominems, misrepresentations of the theory, and a great deal of cherry picking items that support their view, while ignoring evidence that contradicts it.

Not realizing their own ignorance of the subject matter, they often seem to think that they are the brilliant genius that is finally going to set everyone straight on the subject. They also seem to believe that those that find merit in Jaynes’s theory are naïve, gullible individuals. If they read Jaynes’s book at all, they don’t take the considerable time necessary to deeply understand why consciousness is much more narrow than they previously believed, because they have rejected Jaynes’s ideas out of hand, in a knee-jerk fashion.

4. They fail to do a literature review — one of the most basic principles of scientific writing.

Critics of of Jaynes’s theory rarely read any of the follow up books or articles on Jaynes’s theory, so they are entirely unfamiliar with the new evidence for the theory that has emerged since his book was published, the many scholars that have written on the theory, etc. They often seem completely unaware that anything has been published on Jaynes’s theory since Jaynes’s The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. They also seem to not have reviewed our Myths vs. Facts and Critiques & Responses sections. As a result, they often make embarrassing statements that reflect this lack of knowledge, for example repeating common myths and misconceptions that have been thoroughly addressed years ago. If you haven’t already, please take a look at our Top Books on Julian Jaynes’s Theory and Publications pages.

5. They fail to offer convincing, alternative explanations for many of the phenomena that Jaynes’s theory explains.

For example, the continued widespread occurrence of hearing voices and command hallucinations, the ubiquity of gods/idols/ancestor worship in the ancient world, the emergence of divination, the reliance on oracles, the right/left language area (“bicameral”) interaction seen during auditory hallucinations, etc. They simply ignore the things that Jaynes’s theory attempts to explain, and for which no convincing alternate explanations exist. See our Summary of Evidence for Jaynes’s Theory.

6. Because they lack an in-depth understanding of Jaynes’s theory, their arguments are generally weak and easily refuted.

We’ve offered rebuttals and explanations to many of the most common objections to Jaynes’s theory here in the Critiques & Responses section, in the Myths vs. Facts section of our blog, and in each of our Publications, but especially in our latest book, Conversations on Consciousness and the Bicameral Mind. We encourage skeptics of Jaynes’s theory to first familiarize themselves with the available material before attempting to write a critique of Jaynes’s theory.

As with anything, there are some exceptions — people who have taken the time to thoroughly understand Jaynes’s theory and offer thoughtful, carefully considered objections. These are welcome and, as with any theory, help the theory to evolve. Jaynes never claimed to have all the answers. Rather, he provided a foundation for others to build upon.