How to Explain Jaynes to Your Mother-in-Law

General discussion regarding Jaynes's theory of consciousness and the bicameral mind. Please only post your topic here only if it does not fit into a more specific category below.
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How to Explain Jaynes to Your Mother-in-Law

Post by erikweijers »

I think most of you familiar with The Origin know the feeling: a friend sees the book and asks: "What is it about?"

Ah, well... where shall I start?

After struggling for years with this feeling, I decided to write an article on the book. To make the topic clear to myself as well as to others. While writing, I decided to split the article in three parts:

- A summary of the main arguments
- Selected quotes
- A review

I will not claim that every mother-in-law will understand the topic after reading these articles. But I hope they at least awaken some interest in the topic.

Note: I did most of the writing before I started reading the new book Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness. I am currently reading this book with great interest. In due course, the new insights will probably help to improve the already published articles.
Last edited by erikweijers on Wed Mar 21, 2007 11:21 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: How to explain Jaynes to your mother-in-law

Post by Helmut »

erikweijers wrote:
Julian Jaynes's 1976 book views consciousness as an acquired set of language skills, rather than an innate quality of humankind.
I do not quite agree with the above quote.

My understanding of J.J.'s theory is that he viewed language and also written language as part of the preconditions (besides trade and certain catastrophic events) to help in the process of the breakdown of the bicameral mind. Only in this breakdown subjective human self-consciousness became possible.

Human language evolved prior to consciousness. But the use of language changed. Subjective feelings, doubts, emotions started to become expressed. Such expressions were not contained in the written language of human beings in the state of pre-consciousness (i.e., bicameral state). Then, prior to the breakdown of the bicameral mind, language had much more the sound of order and command.

I'm reading right now John Limber's essay (Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness, Chapter 6). This author seems to struggle with the same problem. On the one hand he says: "As I see it now, Jaynes is simply talking about a representational mind, where language plays a very significant yet limited role in the content and operations of mind processes."

On the other hand he says: "To paraphrase Jaynes, language evolved in social interactions and became transformed over time into subjective consciousness." Same trap of misunderstanding!

I think the best approach to understand what Jaynes means with consciousness is to take very serious what he says is NOT consciousness: actually, all the activities of the subconscious mind, which for instance the great physicist Maxwell calls the source of his revolutionary recognitions in natural sciences.
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Post by erikweijers »

Thanks Helmut, for commenting on my piece.

You quote a sentence from the brief summary/introduction to my three-piece article. A certain degree of crudeness here is inevitable. What I wanted to convey to the naive readers in this introduction, is that consciousness is an acquired feature of the human mind - it is not 'in our genes'.

I agree that according to Jaynes, language alone is not a sufficient condition for consciousness. Indeed, as you point out, it is the use of language that matters.

I will consider rephrasing my sentence to get rid of the ambiguity. But remember that I must introduce the reader to Jaynes's theory in only a few sentences..

Kind regards,
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Post by Moderator »

Hi Erik,

I enjoyed your summary.

An approach I've taken recently has been to explain Jaynes's theory in terms of his four main ideas:

1. Consciousness based on language
2. Dating consciousness to the end of the 2nd millenium B.C.
3. The idea of a prior mentality known as the bicameral mind
4. Jaynes's neurological model for the bicameral mind

This has helped me to focus my explanations a bit, otherwise it can be a bit overwhelming to someone hearing about it for the first time. I usually don't even get to 4., unless it's a long conversation or I'm talking to someone with a specific interest in neuroscience.
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Post by erikweijers »

Hi Moderator,

Nice to hear that you enjoyed my summary.

I find the four points you mention as an approach to explain the theory, very useful.

Point 1. consciousness based on language - has to be the first one indeed. As Jaynes does in his book, you just have to start with a definition of consciousness. Otherwise, your partner of discussion will reject your theory as preposterous. Only after taking these steps of avoiding misunderstanding, a lively illustration is needed. Which brings us to your

Point 2. the dating of the emergence of consciousness. Mentioning the Iliad and Odyssey will work here to enliven the point. Also, the Bible books Amos and Ecclesiastes are compelling. Jaynes only comes to the Bible in a later chapter. I guess he had to, because his audience was much more familiar (too familiar) with the Bible than current Dutch students, who have hardly read the book at all.

Point 3. The bicameral mind. Being primed by the indeed very strange Old Greek and Bible texts, the fellow discussant is now ready for the biggest leap of imagination. That is, to 'subtract' all kinds of mental routines from our current psychological world and to try to imagine what would remain. At the high point of confusion, I find it useful to take a break, make some coffee, and then approach the BM from a different historical direction. That is, to start imagining a group of primates with only an external language. How would you, as an engineer so to speak, try to solve the social control problem for these beings? The BM starts to seem less and less preposterous.

Point 4. The neurological model. Indeed I often do not even get to this point...

At the end, If my fellow discussant is pretty exhausted and does not quite know what to make of all this, I use a quote to wrap it up. For example one of Dennett, with his general qualification of Jaynes as 'Brilliant, but quirky and unreliable' is the latest (from: Breaking the Spell). This is a nice quote, because it is clearly reserved (an attitude which is no doubt shared by the listener) and yet gives credibility to it by a respected philosopher...
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Post by Uncle Bob »

As a first time poster here, First I'd like to thank you for this forum and secondly, I'm glad I read Dawkins' The God Delusion, because he mentions Jaynes in the last chapters which reminded me about the book. I had heard about Jaynes, way back when I was in college, but never read it. and I'm currently halfway through the book ... so may I add ... that from what I've been reading, I'm understanding him to be saying that as the bicameral civilizations grew, there were more and more voices which required more and more hierarchy. By the second millennium B.C. with writing coming along, this slowly eroded the auditory authority of the bicameral mind (this is where I'm at now - pg. 208).
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Post by erikweijers »

It is a sign of the status that Jaynes's work has acquired that Dawkins mentions him. Apparently he feels he cannot ignore it, despite disagreeing pretty much.

As an admirer of Dawkins, I found The God Delusion very disappointing.

I think Dawkins is not unfair in his summary of Jaynes, but he rejects Jaynes' logic without providing an argument:

"It might be better not to treat gods as ancestral to binkers [his word for imaginary friends in childhood], or vice versa, but rather to see both as by-products of the same psychological predisposition." (p.351)

"It might be better..." This is not really an argument, is it? It shows that Dawkins does not quite know what to make of Jaynes. He also remarks:

"It is one of those books that is either complete rubbish or a work of consummate genius, nothing in between!" (p.350)

I think this is not fair, because I think some of Jaynes's arguments are brilliant, no matter if future evidence will falsify some of his claims.

As it happens, I just wrote a review of The God Delusion too:
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Post by Uncle Bob »

I fully concur... The main reason I went back to Jaynes book is because Dawkins put it down... not to mention Scott Atran's, In Gods We Trust, simply because Dawkins and Harris disagreed with him during the Beyond Belief Conference last November. Just imagine Jaynes' ideas at this conference.. :P It's nice to know all sides of the story.
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RE: How to Explain Jaynes to Your Mother-in-Law

Post by Fisherman »

First, make her read Blink! by Malcolm Gladwell. It is short, easy to read and understand, and it will lay the foundation for what is to come. Simple premise is that there are 2 parallel methods of thinking, one we are aware of, and one that we have limited access to. Once you reach that point, it will be easier to segway into Jaynes' full theory. Anyway, that is going to be my tactic with my family and friends. Good luck!

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Re: How to Explain Jaynes to Your Mother-in-Law

Post by John R. Schedel »

Based on my experiences with a couple (long story!) of admittedly bright ex-mothers-in-law, would it not be more productive if you just gave the lady a copy of the book? (Not as a "gift", however; very bad form!) If nothing else, this practice might help to confirm her perception that you are her "bright son-in-law". It might also lead to some very interesting conversations, since I have found that very few people "take away" exactly the same things from their readings of Jaynes.
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