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Christof Koch Dissing Jaynes in Scientific American Mind

Posted: Wed Apr 30, 2014 7:57 am
by andrewblase
In the recent May 2014 issue of Scientific American Mind, neuroscientist Christof Koch opens his article "Consciousness Might Emerge from a Data Broadcast" by referring to Jaynes' work as "flapdoodle". I wrote a response, but anyone else that might want to do the same would be a good thing: ... broadcast/

Re: Christof Koch Dissing Jaynes in Scientific American Mind

Posted: Wed Apr 30, 2014 12:54 pm
by Moderator
Thank you Andrew for posting your thoughtful response to the Koch article and for calling our attention to this. This is exactly the kind of thing I'd like to see more people doing. I encourage others to do the same when they see misunderstandings or these types of non-substantive criticisms of Jaynes's theory in article, blogs, forums, and reviews.

Re: Christof Koch Dissing Jaynes in Scientific American Mind

Posted: Wed May 07, 2014 7:55 am
by ASD
Koch says:
An even more far-fetched idea holds that consciousness emerged only a few thousand years ago, when humans realized that the voices in their head came not from the gods but from their own internal spoken narratives.
This seems like a misrepresentation of the Theory. If I understand correctly, bicameral humans had no internal spoken narratives. The voices in their head were auditory hallucinations. Internal spoken narratives only arose after the breakdown of the bicameral mind.

Moreover, humans did not suddenly realize that the voices in their head didn't come from gods. According to the Theory, they couldn't understand why the gods stopped speaking, and went to great lengths to coax them into speaking again.

Re: Christof Koch Dissing Jaynes in Scientific American Mind

Posted: Tue May 13, 2014 10:39 am
by newmedia

I'm sorry if this has been thoroughly hashed out (and I missed it) but, based on my discussions with Jaynes, it wasn't "gods" that most people heard but rather their dead ancestors -- particularly their mothers, who continued to tell them what to do from beyond the grave.

This analysis aligns with what happened in the 19th century, as seances proliferated in up-scale salons worldwide, in which people overwhelmingly wanted to talk to their ancestors, not to "God." It also aligns with the widespread behaviors sometimes referred to as "ancestor worship."

My guess is that Jaynes would not be happy to see his work overly tied to a presumed "causality" for religion-in-general. It has become popular, in our not-so-secular current-day world (or what Jurgen Habermas calls "post-secular"), to try to find "origins" for the religions which we, by-and-large, no longer understand.

For instance, the psychedelics (or as they have tried to rename it, "entheogens") crowd has built up quite a library claiming that MANNA was really a metaphor for hallucinogenic mushrooms etc. That is clearly bunkum.

Overlaying our modern notions on such remote history, or since few of these "ancients" even knew what "history" meant (since that required writing and literacy, which they hadn't yet accomplished) is simply not good scholarship.

I see this "hallucinating the voices of gods" theme throughout the Jaynes community commentary. As best I can tell, that wasn't the "Theory" proposed by Julian Jaynes (or at least the one that I knew) -- or have I missed something?

Mark Stahlman
Jersey City Heights

Re: Christof Koch Dissing Jaynes in Scientific American Mind

Posted: Wed May 14, 2014 12:40 pm
by Moderator
Yes I think we have to disagree on this one.

While spirits and dead ancestors are certainly a part of it, especially in early China for example (see Michael Carr's chapter in Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness), throughout the ancient world in such places as Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, and Greece, we see lots of references to personal gods, idols of personal gods, hearing voices that were interpreted as gods, anguish over the loss of hearing the voices of the gods, etc. Following this we have the transition from polytheism to monotheism which corresponds to the loss of bicamerality and the emergence of consciousness. Hundreds of years later in Rome we still see the genius, which was a type of household god. While we do see the rise of spiritualism in post Enlightenment England (perhaps as somewhat of a backlash, and most of which did not involve actual hallucinations), during the Middle Ages it was not uncommon for medieval ascetics to try to communicate with God. With preliterate societies we see a mixed bag of gods, ancestors, and spirits. (An exploration of the cultural transitions from hearing the voices of gods, then God, then Jesus, spirits, and various political figures, etc. in the Western world would make for an interesting essay.)

There's a number of places where Jaynes talks about hearing the voices of gods, really too many to list. Just look in the index under gods, which is cross-referenced with hallucinations. To me this is actually one of the central themes of Jaynes's book:

"The central feature ... is that the amalgamating of admonitory experience was a right hemisphere function and it was excitation in what corresponds to Wernicke's area on the right hemisphere that occasioned the voices of the gods." - Origin, p. 106

Jaynes also clearly sees the bicameral mind as the best explanation for the origin of god beliefs and thus religion:

"... the nostalgic anguish for the lost bicamerality of a subjectively conscious people. This is what religion is." - Origin, p. 297

"Verbal hallucinations, we think, evolved along with the evolution of language during the late Pleistocene as the response part of the brain register of all admonitory information. Its survival value at first was simply to direct an individual in various long-term tasks, which cued their occurrence. By 9,000 BC, such voices were called what we call gods. This theory is thus one that explains the origin of gods and therefore religion." - Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness, p. 88 (and footnote 11 on p. 93)

Further evidence comes from modern studies of voice hearers, such as UNLV psychologist Russell Hurlburt's chapter "A Schizophrenic Woman Who Heard Voices of the Gods," which describes a Dutch woman who interprets her voices and visions as that of gods. In societies where god beliefs were widespread, it would follow that this interpretation would be pervasive.

Most authors that I have read discussing Jaynes also agree with this interpretation of the theory. See for example pages 392-393 of Richard Dawkins The God Delusion, just to give one example: "The gods were hallucinated voices, speaking inside people's heads."

Re: Christof Koch Dissing Jaynes in Scientific American Mind

Posted: Sun Jun 08, 2014 10:24 am
by newmedia
However, from my discussions with Jaynes that was NOT his primary interest or the principle thrust of his book (which he *substantially* amended later in life.)

Just think about it. To actually "speak with" (any) God could NOT have been widespread in the ancient world. Otherwise, why would you need the priests and, indeed, who would the priests have needed the "prophets"? And, why myths, if you could just "talk with" the Gods?

If bicamerality was once the "norm" and this was based on "hearing God," then this would be the basis of all the massive research on life "before" consciousness -- but it isn't. To tie Jaynes to this interpretation of "religion" is, again based on my discussions with him, a very BIG mistake!

Yes, it fits with the "anti-religious" biases of someone like Dan Dennett. But, that sort of aggressive *atheism* was never much in favor and, as best I can tell, is now in sharp decline.

Trying to "explain away" religion by pointing to *hallucinated* God-speak is a fools errand (i.e. completely ignorant of the actual history and social function of religions) and likely to only further marginalize the work of Jaynes!

Mark Stahlman
Jersey City Heights

Re: Christof Koch Dissing Jaynes in Scientific American Mind

Posted: Mon Jun 09, 2014 5:00 pm
by Moderator
You're covering a lot of different ground here:

Priests. My understanding is the priests in the bicameral period were part of the social hierarchy and they communicated with the "great gods," and conveyed those commands down the hierarchy. These communications were necessary for social order and are what dictated major decisions for the entire community, i.e., start a war, build a major temple, etc. We see clear evidence of this in Mesopotamia, for example. Priests in the conscious period set themselves up as interpreters of the past dictates of the gods, which is a very different role.

Individuals heard the voice of their personal god. On this subject see the references to "personal gods" in the index (specifically pages 183-184). Jaynes argues that this is the reason behind the small idols found in nearly all personal dwellings, decorative skulls, and other hallucinatory aids. Jaynes clearly makes the case in many places that prior to consciousness, everyone heard some type of guiding voice in certain stressful situations, and that these voices were often, but not always, interpreted as gods. This propensity is why voice hearing continues to be so widespread even today (see Intervoice and The Hearing Voices Network).

Prophets. Jaynes argues that prophets and oracles came after the breakdown of the bicameral mind. First everyone heard the voices, then a select few, then only those set aside as mentally ill. David Stove also discusses this in his chapter in Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness. There was no need for prophets during the bicameral period.

Myths. Myths are generally believed to have been a way to convey cultural knowledge. Jaynes doesn't delve into this in any great detail. But I don't see any contradiction with widespread voice hearing and the existence of myths. Cultures could generate myths but still require voices in the place of introspection for daily decisions.

I'm not sure what you mean by this statement: "If bicamerality was once the "norm" and this was based on "hearing God," then this would be the basis of all the massive research on life "before" consciousness -- but it isn't." If you mean by mainstream historians, etc., there is quite a bit of evidence for and discussion of regular communication with the gods. Mainstream historians however, oddly just describe it without any additional analysis or theorizing. See for example, Kingship and the Gods, The Intellectual Adventures of Ancient Man, Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia, Everyday Life in Babylon and Assyria, to name a few.

In a number of places (quotes posted above from his book, subsequent lectures, interviews, as well as a previously unpublished interview by Brian McVeigh that he'll be making available soon), Jaynes makes it very clear that he believes the bicameral mind was the origin of gods and that religion in the modern sense was the longing for the lost direct contact with gods. (I'll post the direct quote here when I get a chance to review the recording as he addresses this issue directly.)

Whether or not what you call "aggressive atheism" is in sharp decline or not is not really relevant to Jaynes's view on the origin of religion. However, it should be noted that Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, which as I mentioned previously also describes Jaynes's ideas on the origin of gods (pages 392-393), has sold in excess of 2 million copies.

Religion is a complex subject and undoubtedly social and other functions became relevant as it progressed and was sustained (after the breakdown of the bicameral mind), as described by Bellah, Boyer, Dennett, and others. However Jaynes's theory of the bicameral mind remains perhaps the best explanation for the origin of god beliefs in ancient man, as suggested by Stove, and given mention by Dawkins. When discussing Jaynes's theory, people often conflate religion in the bicameral period and religion in the conscious period, but they are two very different things.

Jaynes's explanation also dovetails well with other neurological research, such as sudden religious conversions in temporal lobe epilepsy, the feeling of a sensed presence after stimulation of the temporal lobe, and command hallucinations of a religious nature (see also "A Schizophrenic Woman Who Heard Voices of the Gods"). Only Jaynes's theory explains why religiosity, auditory hallucinations, and feeling of sensed presence would all be associated with the non-dominant temporal lobe. Other ideas on the origin of religion don't account for this data.

So I don't think you're accurately describing Jaynes's position on the role of the bicameral mind in the origin of gods and therefore religion. You can disagree with Jaynes's view, but it's important for people to accurately understand what Jaynes's views are.

Incidentally I've just re-read the transcript of your interview with Jaynes, a copy of which was in his papers at the University of Prince Edward Island, and I don't see anything Jaynes says that contradicts what I've written. The closest the interview comes to the subject is the statement, "You describe all religions as vestiges of the bicameral mind..." In his answer, Jaynes does not say anything that contradicts this statement.

Re: Christof Koch Dissing Jaynes in Scientific American Mind

Posted: Sun Aug 12, 2018 5:20 am
by benjamindavidsteele
Here is one thing to keep in mind. Our way of defining 'god' and 'religion' didn't exist in bicameral societies. The notion of religion as a specific category of something separate from the rest of society didn't develop until well into the Axial Age. Bicameral people probably would have had a more nuanced view of voice-hearing and other types of what we'd call religious experiences. It's highly doubtful that they would have had an absolute demarcation between what is divine and what is human, as many gods once were living people (ancestors, kings, etc). It's unhelpful to project modern theology onto ancient people.