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Fact Checking Scott Alexander’s Discussion of Julian Jaynes’s Theory on “Slate Star Codex” – Part 1


By Brian J. McVeigh

Scott Alexander begins his review of Jaynes’s The Origin of Consciousness with an odd opening. He describes it as “brilliant” and writes that it only has “two minor flaws”: It purports to explain the origin of consciousness and it “posits a breakdown of the bicameral mind.” Given that these two issues are the work’s major arguments, I’m not sure why Alexander characterizes them as “minor.”

In any case, after critiquing Jaynes’s theories, Alexander contends that Jaynes should have written a different book in which “consciousness” would be replaced by “theory of mind.” In other words, for Alexander the ancients were conscious, but like children, they simply lacked a theory of mind. However, it stretches credulity to believe that for centuries, in every place in which we have records, people could not figure out how to express themselves. Surely a better explanation is called for, and I think Jaynes provides it. In what follows I deal with other problems and misinterpretations in Alexander’s evaluation of The Origin of Consciousness.

Like other critics, Alexander’s reading of The Origin of Consciousness is truncated, i.e., he ignores Jaynes’s comprehensive account of mentality that theoretically threads together numerous psychological anomalous behaviors — hypnosis, spirit possession, hallucinations, glossolalia, imaginary playmates, and felt presence (the striking lack of psychological vocabularies in ancient texts before the first millennium BCE is but one item on the Jaynesian agenda). It’s as if only certain chapters of Jaynes’s book were read so that the work’s actual import is missed.

Also, like other critics, Alexander neglects to incorporate in his appraisal research bolstering a Jaynesian psychology. Such scholarship is accessible in about a dozen books as well as numerous articles (refer to the Julian Jaynes Society website).

Alexander claims that Jaynes “blamed trade” for the breakdown of bicameral mentality. But Jaynes’s theorizings are much more nuanced, and he provides a number of reasons why the collapse of god-governed civilizations birthed consciousness: The inherent instability of hallucinatory governance; the inability of the gods to deal with historical upheaval caused by social complexity, invasion, migration, and environmental stressors; how the invention of writing weakened auditory control; and a “modicum of natural selection” (here it needs to be stressed that, for Jaynes, the emergence of consciousness was “chiefly a cultural introduction … rather than any biological necessity,” p. 220).

Alexander believes that Jaynesian psychology is weakened by what might be called small-scale tribal societies or “any other human group presumably isolated from second-millennium-BC Assyrians” … “If consciousness is an invention, and it didn’t spread to these groups, did these groups have it?” Alexander’s musings demand a few responses.

First, it is not clear why consciousness could not have spread to different groups, and not just from “Assyria” (Alexander writes that, according to Jaynes, bicameral mentality emerged in the Middle East, but Jaynes argued that the bicamerality-to-consciousness transition also occurred China, the Americas, and South Asia). Consciousness, like many other cultural forms, could have diffused from developed civilizational cores to smaller, less centrally-organized, peripherally-located societies. Though lacking written language, tribal societies could have transmitted consciousness via a psychologized vocabulary to their descendants the same way they conveyed other knowledge (if and when they became isolated). Second, it is a mistake to assume that tribal societies have always existed in their present (and for some, isolated) form. There is no reason to think that small-scale societies are not the successors of once great civilizations or complex cultures. Due to social collapse, migration, invasion, or absorption by bigger groupings, many societies undoubtedly followed a trajectory that saw a drastic reduction in demographic size.

Third, researchers have yet to come across any society, whether small or large, that lacks vestiges of bicameral mentality (spirit possession, hypnosis, mythologies, religious traditions, etc.). Indeed, Alexander’s neglect of global patterns of residual bicameral mentality is additional evidence that he did not read Jaynes in toto.

Alexander cites one article that supposedly contradicts Jaynes’s hypothesis about hemispheric interactions. However, numerous other publications support Jaynes. And note that Jaynes did not argue that the two hemispheres of preconscious, hallucinating individuals were not as integrated as that of conscious people. He did argue that at one time culture wired the linguistic regions differently, so that the right hemisphere generated hallucinations (which were a side effect of language comprehension). And Jaynes certainly understood that “all tasks require some input from both” hemispheres. In other words, contrary to much of the popular hype about left-brain versus right-brain thinking styles, Jaynes himself was well aware that such differences are relative and contextual, not absolute and categorical.

Finally, Alexander is egregiously wrong when he writes that Jaynes claimed that the ancients “heard gods literally all the time, as a substitute for individual thought.” In fact, Jaynes argued that most of the time people were guided by consciousless habit and ritualized routine; they only heard divine voices when confronted with novel situations or during times of stress.

See also: Fact Checking Scott Alexander’s Review of Julian Jaynes’s Theory on “Slate Star Codex” – Part 2, by Marcel Kuijsten

Learn more about Julian Jaynes’s theory by joining the Julian Jaynes Society and reading our publications.

Brian J. McVeigh

Brian J. McVeigh has a MS in counseling and a PhD in Anthropology, Princeton University. He researches how humans adapt, both through history and therapeutically. The author of 17 books, his latest publication, "The Self-healing Mind: Harnessing the Active Ingredients of Psychotherapy" (2022), adopts a Jaynesian framework to explain how therapy works. He works as a licensed mental health counselor.

Brian McVeigh

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