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Introspection and the Old Testament

Posted: Mon Sep 10, 2007 12:00 am
by James Cohn
I'd appreciate any feedback on my article "The Minds of the Bible" on the Publications page.

The Minds of the Bible

Posted: Tue Oct 30, 2007 1:29 am
by Moderator
I enjoyed your well researched article that, among other things, expands on Jaynes's analysis of Biblical texts.

There are a lot of positive comments I could make about the entire article, but I guess the question that really jumps out at me is that if one agrees with the hypothesis that what the Biblical prophets heard was in fact auditory hallucination and not "divine revelation," wouldn't this naturally call into question the existence of God as well? At the end of your paper you eloquently state that it should not:
However fallible our ideas may be, we can (and in my view, we most certainly should) develop personal ideas of God and afterlife and ethics. This option does not disappear simply by coming to believe that the voices of God were misinterpretations of neural activities in a primitive bicameral mind. It does not disappear by coming to believe that authoritative texts that purport to present God’s word are brilliant attempts to overcome the multiplicity of individual hallucinations and the crisis of historical trauma (or to provide a substitute in writing for the lost auditory voices).
I find this position difficult to reconcile. (As a side note, our sense of ethics has nothing to do with god or religion and seems to be, at least to a certain extent, genetically programmed. See Dawkins 2006.)

Mohammed and Joseph Smith, like the Biblical prophets, also had well documented auditory hallucinations. If one comes to the conclusion that all religions are based on hallucination and not revelation, in essence man created god. The creation of religion is the "nostalic anguish" (Jaynes) for the lost voices of the gods.

In other words, the first gods were a psychological by-product of the bicameral command-and-control system, which evolved in order to hold large societies together. When the voices fell silent, the many gods eventually merged into the notion of one great god. But ultimately the notion of all gods (or in the Far East, the concept of ancestor worship) can be traced back to the auditory hallucinations of man.

Why continue to believe in any form of god in the face of such evidence?

Posted: Wed Oct 31, 2007 1:33 am
by James Cohn
Yes, I certainly agree that the creation of much of early religion was the result of "nostalgic anguish" for the lost revelations that were actually hallucinations. An example of such religion is Torah-based (later Talmud-based) Judaism.

But there is room among modern religions for non-revealed religions whose God does not exchange words with human beings. Spinoza believed that nothing but God exists, or even can exist. To him, "God" and "Nature" are synonyms that refer to the ground of all existence, the thrumming, humming creator, the creator and the creation, the process that creates the creation. It isn't the "business" of such a God to hold conversations with Moses or with me, or to issue words describing right behavior. It most certainly is God's business, though, to keep creation flowing (albeit without what we might call "quality control" from our perspective). The universe does not run according God's plan so much as according to God's nature.

Alvin Reines's work in the modern uses of the word "God" is instructive to us in two areas: bringing evidence systems to bear on theology; and examining the issue of revelation in (and out of) theology. A visit to the article below is relevant here:
So, too, is the rest of Reines's web-published work on theology and religion for the transition away from revelation-based religion:

The freedom covenant in Reines's idea of the religious community creates this necessary logical implication: my religious freedom ends precisely where yours begins. If "revelation" is actually the working of my own mind, it has only as much authority over you as you consensually give it.

Reines said that science and philosophy ask, "What is the truth, that I might know it with my mind?" Religion asks, "What is the truth, that I might respond to it with my being?" I can use just as rigorous a system of evidence for religion as for science -- but the two tasks are not identical.

Religion, like science, needs humility. Yet, even though they are both shot with fallibility through and through, even though no religion (and no science) may ever possess perfect truth, even though fallible science and fallible religion are, well, fallible, and neither has a right to extend authority over others, -- even in this modern context, the power of the "lost voice" is still highly resistant to change. Revealed religion is still abundantly alive and well.

That, perhaps, is why scholars of the Bible are less excited about the implication of Jaynes's work than scholars of the Mind. As for myself, I'm helped by being a little of each, and by loving the intersection.

Julian Jaynes and the Origin of Religion

Posted: Mon Nov 05, 2007 12:14 am
by Moderator
This gets into the various definitions of "God" that Dawkins refers to. In reading your article on the minds of the Bible I may have assumed that in your final remarks you were keeping with a Biblical interpretation of God. The Spinoza (or Einstein) definition of God is so far removed from a Biblical, interventionist, popular conception of God that in my opinion the term "god" should not even be used. What they equate to "God" in my understanding might roughly be described as Nature or "the laws of the Universe."

When a definition is that watered down I think it does a disservice to the general discussion of the term, because in a debate on the existence of a Biblical, interventionist God, one might say for example, "Well, Einstein believed in God" (as if one person's opinion, even an intelligent person, lends any credibility to the concept), not explaining — or perhaps not being aware — that Einstein's interpretation of God had nothing to do with a Biblical interpretation of God.

The Spinoza definition of God as I understand it is so generalized that it is almost impossible for anyone to disagree with: the Universe exists so some force must have created it and set the laws of Nature into motion. This type of definition of God has no resemblance to the popular conception of an interventionist God.

In getting back to your article — if you are using a Spinoza-type definition of God and not a Biblical one — the confusion for me would then be how to have any form of "personal relationship" with what might instead be termed the "laws of Nature" or "the Universe." A sense of awe and wonderment, I can see, but not a personal relationship.

My initial argument, which I should have clarified, deals with an interventionist God and not with the laws of physics, the universe, or Nature.

I would break it down (for sake of simplicity of discussion) as follows:

1. Mankind evolved to the point of developing language.

2. According to Jaynes, as language developed, so did a mentality called the bicameral mind, which involved auditory hallucinations generated in the brain, which help to facilitate information exchange between the hemispheres and served as a form of control system to hold large societies together.

3. People experienced the hallucinations as being externally generated and misinterpreted them as the voices of leaders, gods, spirits, or dead ancestors.

4. Thus the misinterpretation of hallucinations lead to the first conception of gods (after a chief or king died but his voice continued). If we agree with Jaynes's theory, the early gods were the psychological invention of man.

5. When people no longer regularly hallucinated due to moving toward the conscious mental model, the concept of religion (and a host of other activities such as divination) were created by man as a means to regain contact with the gods.

6. No longer directly experiencing "gods" (auditory hallucinations) on a regular basis, the number of gods declined and monotheism was promoted by key historical figures.

7. Thus all modern conceptions of one "God" trace their direct heritage to the bicameral, psychologically-based, man-created gods.

8. We then come to either one of two conclusions: 1. Jaynes's theory was fundamentally wrong in some aspect and points 2-7 are irrelevant, or, 2. Jaynes was correct and all further theorizing on the existence or nature of God/gods is flawed or somewhat pointless in the sense that it doesn't take into account points 2-7: that god beliefs, indeed the very notion of the existence of a god, is rooted in the bicameral mind, i.e., is the psychological invention of man.

In other words, a modern non-revelation-based religious conception is still historically rooted in divine revelation, which gave us the notion of a god to begin with.

9. If we accept Jaynes's theory and reject the existence of an interventionist god (with gods being a psychological invention of man because all divine intervention was actually misinterpreted auditory hallucination), we are still left with the problem of lacking of an explanation of our existence and the creation of the universe.

This (along with certain euphoric emotional experiences, which I consider also to be brain-based) then causes some modern theorists to completely redefine God as a non-interventionist force of Nature or "Creator of the Universe," which to me is particularly non-helpful and non-explanatory, and is supported by no evidence (since divine revelation was the only previous form of "evidence") — other than the lack of alternate explanations for our existence or the creation of the universe. However not too long ago we speculated that gods moved the sun across the sky because of a paucity of alternate ideas on the subject.

My personal view is that god beliefs persist (even in those that generally have an acceptance of Jaynes's theory or something similar to it) because of what Jaynes calls the "collective cognitive imperative" — a mix of our upbringing and our cultural experience and expectations. In other words, our minds are just so conditioned to god belief — both utterly immersed in it culturally and wired for it neurologically (simply as a byproduct of the bicameral mind control system) — that thinking and reasoning can only go so far in overcoming it.

The best explanation I have come across for the persistence of certain beliefs in the face of conflicting evidence (or lack of evidence) was put forth by the neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran. He theorizes that the reason some ideas are completely fixed in our brain and no longer open to persuasion or reasoning is that there was a survival value to animals forming a fixed world view that, after an early age, that would no longer be amenable to change (i.e. things fall downward, etc.). In other words, if an animal had to constantly reevaluate its basic worldview in the face of each novel situation it would not survive. So somehow our early ideas become fixed in our brains to a certain extent, and if they change at all, change only very slowly and over a long period of time. Not just in religious ideas but also in science, the saying being that "science progresses one funeral at a time."

Obviously I don't expect we'll agree but it's always interesting to me to hear the different opinions on this topic of those who for the most part accept Jaynes's theory.

Posted: Tue Nov 06, 2007 12:20 am
by James Cohn
OK, one might ask, "Why insist on using the word God if you don't believe in a supernatural, interventionist deity?"

My reply is, Well, who gave THEM the right to define “God?”

There was once a little word, "atom,' referring to a hypothetical unseen object. Richard Feyman said it was the one word, the one concept, that he hoped would survive any human catastrophe. Today's atom is not that of the classical Greeks, nor of Rutherford, nor even of the man who patented the "chain reaction" (Fermi). Imagine for a moment how this one idea has changed so much while the word has remained the same.

I reserve my right to use the word God, referring as it does to ultimate reality and the ground of all existence, in a way that is consistent with all else I know about the universe, even if my manner of recognizing God is resignation to my small part in an impressive, ultimately incomprehensible process.

I realize that this might confuse those who can only think of the word God in terms 2500 years old. I don't think of the atom in an ancient way, and I don't think of God in an ancient way, and I use the same evidence system (today) to explain both to myself.

I prefer a propositional statement in any case. The expression “believe in God” is a messy statement with unclear meaning, and I find it easier to argue for or against propositions, such as “God comprises the totality of all existents.” The reality of that God is confirmed for me in every moment of awareness.

More about theopanism, via Reines: not only does theopanism deny the existence of a miracle-working deity; but since the universe is considered part of God, theopanism brings into the Godhead itself all the evil and defects of humans and the world. Spinoza, consequently, was attacked by the Orthodox Jewish community, and was excommunicated. As a theopanist, Spinoza did not believe in miracles, and consequently rejected supernatural redemption. Yet it is important to recognize that he was a religious thinker nonetheless, and theopanism is a religious belief, providing humans with a way, although not supernatural, to attain salvation (a state of intrinsically meaningful existence). For Spinoza, that “salvation” was the contemplation of deity, understanding the divine determinism or necessity behind all events, and resigning oneself to their inevitability. There is very little in a scientific mind-set that would conflict with such a world-view, especially if one were a child of a Unitarian minister who met an early death.

It is remarkable to read the end of Olaf Stapledon 1930’s novel “Last and First Men,” as the last human being contemplates annihilation as the sun is about to go nova, the earth and our solar system expectant upon annihilation:
Great are the stars, and man is of no account to them. But man is a
fair spirit, whom a star conceived and a star kills. He is greater
than those bright blind companies. For though in them there is
incalculable potentiality, in him there is achievement, small, but
actual. Too soon, seemingly, he comes to his end. But when he is done
he will not be nothing, not as though he had never been; for he is
eternally a beauty in the eternal form of things.

Man was winged hopefully. He had in him to go further than this short
flight, now ending. He proposed even that he should become the Flower
of All Things, and that he should learn to be the All-Knowing, the
All-Admiring. Instead, he is to be destroyed. He is only a fledgling
caught in a bush-fire. He is very small, very simple, very little
capable of insight. His knowledge of the great orb of things is but a
fledgling's knowledge. His admiration is a nestling's admiration for
the things kindly to his own small nature. He delights only in food
and the food-announcing call. The music of the spheres passes over
him, through him, and is not heard.

Yet it has used him. And now it uses his destruction. Great, and
terrible, and very beautiful is the Whole; and for man the best is
that the Whole should use him.

But does it really use him? Is the beauty of the Whole really enhanced
by our agony? And is the Whole really beautiful? And what is beauty?
Throughout all his existence man has been striving to hear the music
of the spheres, and has seemed to himself once and again to catch some
phrase of it, or even a hint of the whole form of it. Yet he can never
be sure that he has truly heard it, nor even that there is any such
perfect music at all to be heard. Inevitably so, for if it exists, it
is not for him in his littleness.

But one thing is certain. Man himself, at the very least, is music, a
brave theme that makes music also of its vast accompaniment, its
matrix of storms and stars. Man himself in his degree is eternally a
beauty in the eternal form of things. It is very good to have been
man. And so we may go forward together with laughter in our hearts,
and peace, thankful for the past, and for our own courage. For we
shall make after all a fair conclusion to this brief music that is
(end Stapledon quote)

Now… honestly, because I need to know – it the reference in my paper simply too much of a disconnection from the thrust of the rest of the text?

The Minds of the Bible

Posted: Sat Nov 17, 2007 3:03 pm
by Moderator
Your comment does make more sense in light of your non-traditional definition of the term. Certainly people are free to define terms like "god" and "salvation" (and "consciousness") in wildly different ways.

My point is just that when one uses a definition that deviates from the popular, common conception of a term without making the alternate definition explicit, we lose clarity and risk misunderstanding.

In the context of your article it is not that important, as the definition of "a personal relationship with god" is not central to your argument and the comment I was referring to is just something of an afterthought in the conclusion.

Of course the problem of varied definitions of terms is not restricted to the term "god." As you mention in your article, definitions of the term "consciousness" also vary widely. Large differences in the definition of the term "consciousness" is I think a large part of the reason people are resistant to Jaynes's theory before they are familiar with it: they assume their personal definition of the term "consciousness" matches Jaynes's. While Jaynes takes great pains over the course of two chapters to outline his very precise definition of the term, unfortunately people often make up their mind about an idea before they take the time to properly understand it.

At consciousness conferences even today, speakers often don't seem to recognize the problem of the wide range of definitions of the term "consciousness." As a result, the lectures given all use the term consciousness but all describe very different things, with few taking the time at the outset to define what they are talking about. This in turn leads to a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding as people then try to ask questions or debate the issue as if they all agree on the definition of the term, which clearly they don't.

So my point is simply that, when terms such as "consciousness" and "god" are used it's important to clarify what the term means to us. Without doing so, the reader/listener is likely to assume the most common or popular definition of the term, regardless of how we might personally feel about that definition.

Ultimately in the case of the term "consciousness," a more precise set of widely agreed-upon terminology will need to be formulated to avoid ongoing mass confusion, clearly separating out things like perception, reactivity, cognition, etc. Unfortunately I don't see that happening any time soon. In the meantime, I think the only option (which should be a requirement at conferences) is for each person to at least briefly define their operational definition of the term at the outset of their discussion.

Posted: Sun Nov 18, 2007 5:51 am
by James Cohn
Quite right. The dilemma of definition is one that haunts us in consciousness-talk and in God-talk. That's why I ultimately substitute (unhappily) "introspection" as a second-best. It is not a synonym for Jaynes's use of consciousness. However, it helps overcome impediments to conversations with people who doggedly (sic) assert that their cat is "conscious" but will admit that it is not "introspective" ("I hope they don't go to California again next week").

The same is true in talking about the word "God," and again I recommend Reines's article:

Follow the course of this thought-process:

I'm reading Smith's Muses, Madmen, and Prophets. He quotes Christopher Frith: "For every mental state... there is an associated neural state." (Not a new idea, but put nicely pithily there.) Jaynes would certainly have agreed. But so would Spinoza, in his God-talk. Spinoza held that God has two attributes under which we can conceive of God: extension, and thought. They are parallel and point-for-point correlated.

I hang with Spinoza because he would believe nothing for which he didn't have the best kind of evidence. When accused of having a theology that wasn't very good (that is, it didn't promise salvation, its God wasn't personally responsive to personal prayer), he replied that he had never said his philosophy was good -- merely that it was true. And so it is with Jaynes.

For myself, I define God as the "ground of existence," "ultimate reality," or more casually, "what's really going on." (Reality, without having to go through our senses for analysis -- so we can never "know" God.) I realize that most people, if they define God at all, are thinking of a personal God who answers prayer. They may be right, but I see no evidence for such a system. Jaynes, too, went with the evidence, which is why he was so committed to an idea so strikingly contrary to habituated thinking. Spinoza was excommunicated. Freud was, too, but without the paperwork. Jaynes -- well, that depends upon us, doesn't it?

Posted: Sun Nov 18, 2007 5:56 am
by James Cohn
For all who have ever attended any meeting, conference, etc.-- This delightful tenth definition of "god" at
interjection (used to express disappointment, disbelief, weariness, frustration, annoyance, or the like): God, do we have to listen to this nonsense?

Jaynes on the meaning of life

Posted: Mon Nov 19, 2007 3:14 pm
by Moderator
I thought you might enjoy this related quote from Jaynes....

In 1988, Life asked Jaynes to contribute a comment on the meaning of life. Sandwiched between the homilies of Armand Hammer and Norman Vincent Peale ("Approach Life the Joy Way!") is Jaynes's Fortean answer:

"This question has no answer except in the history of how it came to be asked. There is no answer because words have meaning, not life or persons or the universe itself. Our search for certainty rests in our attempts at understanding the history of all individual selves and all civilizations. Beyond that, there is only awe."

Posted: Mon Nov 19, 2007 4:33 pm
by James Cohn
This is a fine quote -- for all sciences, including biblical science.
"This question has no answer except in the history of how it came to be asked. There is no answer because words have meaning, not life or persons or the universe itself. Our search for certainty rests in our attempts at understanding the history of all individual selves and all civilizations. Beyond that, there is only awe."
Only words have meaning -- and this is uniquely human, among all creatures and all creation. As someone once observed, we humans alone are the conservators of value in this world. That is a weighty and scary responsibility, self-chosen and, once chosen, inescapable. Beyond that, there is indeed (and only) awe.

Posted: Sun Dec 16, 2007 4:55 am
by James Cohn
I was re-reading and reflecting on these words from an earlier posting by the Moderator:
At consciousness conferences even today, speakers often don't seem to recognize the problem of the wide range of definitions of the term "consciousness."
I had a teacher who would innovate words to avoid this problem in his academic discipline, which was not consciousness, but theology. These neologisms of his were a nice effort, but only further confused the issue. Yet take a moment to think about how many possible interpretations there are of the following question, framing how a person responds:

"Does God hear prayer?"

The only word in that question whose meaning might have some reasonably widely-held and shared assumptions is the word "does."

So it is with "consciousness." Jaynes meant a specific internal dialogue (not a monologue!) based on language, e.g. "I'm so mad at myself!" Most people believe their cat is conscious in the sense that it knows that it's going to the vet when the cat-carrier is brought out of the closet. But most people probably do not believe that their cat is conscious in the sense that it spends the previous week in a state of panic about the upcoming visit to the vet: "I can't believe I have to go back there again next Tuesday! Why does this stuff always happen to me?"

In conversation, the moment one partner invokes the word "consciousness," the other person's mind takes off on a gallop into a host of assumptions. Certainly Jaynes would agree that the cat knows that the appearance of the cat-carrier equals a trip to the vet. In this sense the cat is intelligent in its degree, and can signal its knowledge by hissing. (Believe me, I know this to be so.) That is not consciousness in Jaynes's sense. but I suspect most people would say it is some level of something they call consciousness.

Does God hear prayer? You can ask a group of 100 people for their answers, and have a simple statistical breakdown. Collect the answers, then tell them "57 of you said yes, and 43 of you said no," and they will feel enlightened and believe that information has been exchanged. The problem is, when they say "yes" or "no," they are not all answering the same question. I can imagine that they are probably answering at least four very different questions, or even (not to put too fine an edge on it, but if sufficiently finely tuned) 100 different questions.

Ask 100 people, "Is your cat conscious?" and you will have the same problem as in the question "Does God hear prayer?" We have to start by defining our terms.

To begin with, what do you mean by "does?"