Can consciousness breakdown in a society?

Discussion of Julian Jaynes's first hypothesis - that consciousness (as he carefully defines it) is based on language, and related topics.
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Can consciousness breakdown in a society?

Post by tiberall »

I am pondering whether we are losing or can potentially lose our consciousness as a society and revert back to a bicameral state. This is my basic question and I am posing it below in different ways. I am curious if it is possible in the extreme, not necessarily under normal conditions, but hypothetically:

Is it possible for us to collectively lose our consciousness because of addictions, authoritarians, educational practices, advertising control?

Is there a tipping point of lost cultural consciousness?

Can educational practices such as not teaching metaphorical language make people lose their consciousness?

Once you become conscious, can you become bicameral through training?

Are addicts (of drugs, TV, alcohol, food, -) conscious?

If a technology helped wake people up from bicameral state (eg, writing), can technology return us to bicameral state?

If we have evolved to be imprinted with ethical codes (p 117 in gods, voices book), can we be imprinted with an authoritarian code of obeying?
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Re: Can consciousness breakdown in a society?

Post by ZeroZero »

I am just finishing the Origin, but these are questions that I have asked throughout my life. Here are my answers.

1] Who says we are conscious now? Much of the time we act in ways that are detrimental to ourselves and to the planet - rampant consumerism in the West is an example. We are still only dimly aware of the consequence of our actions.

2] There are plenty of ways to regress to some form of literalism (the nearest phrase I can find is concrete thinking) which is more "bicameral". A lot of dogmantic doctrines still exist. In many parts of the third world and in some parts of the first world command led mentalities still exist today.

3] In psychiatry there are many that suffer from psychosis and hear command voices. Many religious minds 'believe' in the idea that one can have messages from God gods or various agents. Some of these people may become leaders -"visionaries", we see this in cults but also elswhere.

4] Religious thinking still grips the world. Over 20% of the world are Islamic. They believe that God commanded one man who then delivers instructions to others. The Bible Belt in America hold similar beliefs only the personell change. Each harbour many that would happily cut the throat of the oppossing religion. The situation is very serious as there is often no possibility of objectivity

5] Rarely, (thankfully) certain mental illnesses can be present in the same person (a man usually) I am thinking of a mixture of narcissism, hearing voices and grandiosity. Combine these with leadership qualities and the world can be in real trouble.

Without work and self observation one is gullible (hypnotisable) and easily led.
Last edited by ZeroZero on Tue Jan 30, 2018 7:20 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Can consciousness breakdown in a society?

Post by Moderator »

I think we have to be very careful about the language we use here, and distinguish between true bicameralism and merely hearing voices or some form of diminished consciousness. Hearing voices in an otherwise normal person is actually relatively easy, through solitary confinement, sensory deprivation, sleep deprivation, high stress, etc. However this is not a reversion to bicameralism, it is the vestige of the bicameral mind in a conscious person. To answer your questions:

1. I think while consciousness can be diminished (or enhanced) in individuals or entire cultures, it would be very difficult for a society to completely lose consciousness due to the factors you list. To entirely unlearn consciousness I think would require some type of total societal collapse, followed by lack of any educational system, and a subsequent loss of complex language. In other words, a return to preliterate hunter-gatherer type groups.

2. Perhaps consciousness could be reduced over many generations, but I think it's hard to envision a tipping point for an entire culture (without the type of collapse outlined above). What may happen (due to increasingly advanced technology or for other reasons) is a type of highly conscious vs. minimally conscious societal stratification.

3. Yes but I think one would have to be unexposed to metaphorical language entirely. However simply hearing voices today does not indicate bicameralism. I would equate that more to running two different operating systems in parallel.

4. While I suppose one could "learn" to hear auditory hallucinations (see above), I don't think a conscious person can learn to be bicameral. I do think we see consciousness dramatically diminished in certain conditions, such as Alzheimer's disease, which is often accompanied by auditory hallucinations. I would agree with the previous post that cults and religious indoctrination can reduce conscious thought, but I would not characterize these people as entirely bicameral. Rather, consciousness exists on a continuum.

5. Yes, addicts are conscious, however some behaviors or compulsions are outside of their conscious control. This is actually true for anyone that has any undesirable habit. We all exert will power or conscious control over our behavior to greater or lesser degrees and this varies within individuals as well based on things like hunger, fatigue, etc. We might say that addicts are not acting consciously when indulging in compulsive behavior.

6. Over many generations we may see a diminishment in consciousness in individuals or groups of individuals as technology performs more and more tasks that previously required conscious thought, similar to calculators reducing many people's ability to do complex math in their head, or writing lessening people's ability to memorize long texts (such as the Iliad).

7. I think the ethical codes the author refers to evolved over millions of years. Much of the ethics and morality written in religious texts is actually an expression of our genetically inherited ethical codes (behaviors such as reciprocity that are also seen in primates). Could these be purposefully changed? Perhaps. I think one's environment does play a major role, but the kinds of changes you refer to would likely require a highly controlled environment from birth. Something similar to what is portrayed in the 1998 movie Soldier starring Kurt Russell. Alternatively, we do see slow changes in our ethical codes over many generations. People could perhaps be primed for authoritarian obedience more slowly through accumulating political/societal/technological changes over many years.
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Re: Can consciousness breakdown in a society?

Post by ZeroZero »


1] I think we work with slightly different versions of the word consciousnes - which is OK. As you are aware, I am sure, there are many many ways to see consciousness, Jayne's definition is comparitively narrow. For me, on first reading, it seems to refer to a capacity to introspect - the "consciousness of consciousness". Even the word introspection can have many meanings. I need to read his opus again before coming to any conclusions or make any firm claims about this.

2] I accept that we could not regress back to a state of consciousness we visited a few thousand years ago - the 'bicameral' state, at least not rapidly. I just don't think we have travelled as far away from it as we commonly assume.

3] My point about consciousness is this - we commonly assume we are aware of our own behaviours (are conscious of our consciousness as Jaynes puts it) in a global way. We claim to have will and do things we intend to do consciously. We might assume that we 'know' what we have done from the moment we wake up, to the moment we go back to bed and fulfil our intentions. This is very far from the case. We are only aware of our actions in a very limited, euphemistic sense.
This simple exercise will demonstrate what I mean - make an intention to count the doors that one uses AS one goes through them, for 24 hrs. Doors that are counted before or after do not count. You will find the experiment revealing.

4] Further, I am saying that, very quickly, societies can have their will and intentions captured by dogmatic charasmatic leaders. We saw this in Germany before the Second World War. There are many other examples, some of which are cult leaders, others are not. This is happening today in the world and represents a great threat to humanity - so many lives are lost so much unneccesary suffering. Through this mechanism whole populations can be easily induced to unspeakable violence, including mass genocide. Are these actions conscious? One could argue either way - depending on one's defnition, but there is a form of literalism a command led dogmatism involved.

5] Most of the world today hold religious views, though thankfully most believers are not (often) induced to war.

From my studies and many conversations with religious minds, people often feel something "inside" themselves which they cannot describe and take this to confirm the existence of God. It's not William Paley, or the ontological argument that convinces them to believe - they are not converted by reason.
They 'paint' this internal, affectively driven phenomena, this murky 'something inside' onto the internal 'room' of consciousnss and fill their mind with the anthropomorphised images from their culture and childhood environment just like the Egyptians painted their Tombs. They then build their internal moral world around it but attribute it to a third party they call God. Questioning these ideas is then seen as an assualt on their moral framework - a cause for self justified indignation and counter attack - extending sometimes to torture or murder.

This internal religious 'wallpaper' is often re-confirmed by family and culture. They do not consider that if their great grandparents had (by perhaps a chance journey or political event) had different geographical locations or political environments, then their spiritual pantheon could be vastly different.

Many people have 'religous' psychological experiences of voices and visions- this is far more common than simply those that are mentally ill. However, a muslim does not have visions of Shiva, and A Christian does not see a Bodhisattva, no-one these days sees Marduke, or unless an Aborigine, Banaitja Yet many still believe these things to be real, a concrete reality, in a way similar to bicamerality (but not identical to the ancient mind). They experience being commanded by these figures and supplicate themselves to them. This is very 'bicameral'. I know many people that seemingly are 'normal' but internally have very florid psychological lives filled with thoughts of persecution, grandiousity, and communications with ephemereal entities. Unless this significantly interferes with their social functioning these people do not come to the notice of psychiatry or it's data.

6] In this sense I think our 'bicamerality' has not left us, it's closer than one might imagine. A muslim may believe himself 'commanded' to Mecca, A HIndu by Hanuman, or a Christian by a vision of Mary.
From my experience in psychiatry, today's command voices can have the 'wallpaper' of other, non religious, agencies. Modern patients may talk of the CIA controlling their thoughts, or the television, but the process is still the same - neurologically. Nothing has really changed except the dramtis personae.

7] Also the borderline between classical psychosis and 'normal' behaviours is often very vague. Further many of the beliefs we accept as true even in the West, are frankly delusional - the difference only being that they are culturally acceptable. I don't mean these beliefs are psychotic, but i do mean they are delusional.

8] I have had the opportunity of seeing psychosis's develop (and reduce) in many people (as much as 5000 I estimate), at close hand. First there are common or garden 'opinions' (often, but not always, paranoid or grandious) that are attributed, quasi rationally, to third parties - perhaps a relative, a celebrity, an agency - such as the police, government. You will find such opinions in any bar. Sometimes these opinions are attributed to others justly but sometimes without good cause.
At a second stage these ideas become internally confirmed (where the illness progresses) the ideas become fixed so as the person's behaviour begins to act on these ideas (looking out the window to see if there are police cars watching, for example). A person may be disuadded from the ideas, but they return. In a third stage of severity, the conscious mind becomes consumed by these ideas - just as a zealous religious devotee might have a mind consumed with God, or a follower of some political dogma have a mind filled with speeches of a leader, or a young pop fan be unable to remove the thoughts of their idol from their mind. At this stage it is impossible to remove the fixed opinions by dialogue, one needs medication. If a third person tries to do so they are perceived as being hostile and 'not understanding' that the delusions are of course correct. Being in this state can be dangerous for the person and sometimes for others too.

9] In evolutionary terms 3000 years - since bicamerality, is but a parsec. The psycholgical literalism underpinning the worlds of gods, spooks, angels and demons, was for many the only way to populate the dramatis personae of the psyche. In ancient historical times the mind could only be populated by the images it found in nature (and hybrids of). There was no other currency.
Only perhaps by the age of the enlightenment, (with some notable, but not, common exceptions - such as ancient Athenians of a certain class and persuasion) was there the possibility to think using other (non-deific) terms. Almost all minds were religious in mode. 24% of the world attest to the idea that God wrote his plan in one book, a further 31% think that God decided to let his 'son' be crucified to save us all from 'original sin'. Even today this mode of thinking has not left us. 13 countries punish atheism by death and in many more secular thinking is met with hostility and ostrasization by family and society. Today secular/rational thinking is still in the minority and it is loosing ground in significant areas (like the American bible belt).

9] Reasoning - a component of honest self introspection, is to a significant degree a taught skill. I mean that though most people can innately conduct basic syllogistic logic, they do this very poorly and too easily fall into fallacy and either have not the opportunity, or take not the effort, to re-analyse their basic assumptions/ ontologies.
Without trained reasoning (and effort to seek truth) we have no objectivity, only the demons of our mind's biases - can we then be considered conscious in the sense of being able to self reflect? Most of every act of cognition is non conscious. Across most of the third world reasoning is not taught. Even in the West, Logic is not generally taught as part of the essential curriculum.

Even the objectivity we have collectively achieved (through science and reasoning) is partial. Often the fruits of science are used in ways that are severely detrimental to ourselves and other creatures.

Our gross bias has been dramatically revealed by cognitive experiments over the last 40 years. We are only now, over the past 20 years, beginning to realise our cognitive biases are legion. We really have no choice but to view the world anthropomorphically. Wiki lists a few hundred ' congitivie biases' but there are probably many more.

10] By other definitions of consciousness, or at least the processes involved in it, are ancient. A modern cognitive scientist would talk of exteroception, interoception and affective processes. Exteroception (the ability to detect the enviroment) in organisms is very ancient indeed and under some definitions is even present in bacteria 3.5 g.a.
Though there is no central 'brain' in bacteria and central nervous systems do not evolve until perhaps bilatera like amphioxus. Our mental life is in part a product of somatic processes outside of our brain (which is usually considered the seat of our mental life).Endocrynal systems would be an example. Interoception is only a little younger (perhaps).

11] I think Jaynes might agree that many of the processes involved in generating 'consciousness' as he defines it, are developed over Aeons. How far it is helpful to call the precameral mind pre-conscious? This does not mean his hypothesis of a radical change in consciousness (to self reflection) is wrong, in some ways this is a semantic/linguistic difference.
In a curious way I still support Jaynes ideas about our mind conforming to new norms with the arrival of human language and capability to widely categorise and retain knowledge - using symbols. However, even this is problematic (though probably true IMO). Distinguishing language from other forms of communication such as possessed by primates, monkeys, (who use word forms for snakes and hawks) birds or even distal relatives such as cuttle fish (who, in part, use skin colour changes), is difficult.
Then there is the question of human non verbal communication - how much content can it hold? One could demonstrate how to make bread without words, for example. How much knowledge can be transmitted this way by alinguistic thought?

Archeologists (some of them at least) claim that speech is related to the descent of the hyoid bone, (which made modern vocal utterences possible) but surely the human species made vocal tract noises before then and these noises had some meaningful content? Symbol generation; transference; storage and reference seem to be involved. We know from the way that we recognise nuances in facial expression that great content can be attributed to micro changes in expression, the same could have been the case to pre-hyoid-drop sounds. Grunts can be subtle.

These points are what I mean by our not being conscious, even today. I think that in this sense we are closer to bicamerality that we may imagine.

Jaynes makes some excellent points and seems far ahead of his time. i shall definitely read all his works and reread the Origin. Theyy are sitting in my reading pile now.
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