Consciousness and Time

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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minnespectrum
Posts: 18
Joined: Tue Jul 11, 2023 3:12 pm

Consciousness and Time

Post by minnespectrum »

Did Julian Jaynes ever relate his theory to the way different societies have perceived time (as either cyclical/closed or linear/open)?

It seems there are strong parallels, since the gradual change from a “closed” timeline to an “open” one overlaps with what Jaynes considered to be the bicameral era.

Biologically, humans (like most other animals) seem to be hardwired to view time as cyclical. We have circadian rhythms, daily and seasonal patterns of behavior, and the cross-generational cycle of birth, aging, procreation and death. The lives of the earliest humans would mainly have been governed by this “circle of life”, like in that Lion King song. In this world, there is no possibility of free will, social progress, or decline: everything has always happened, and will continue on, the same way. There is nothing new under the Sun.

The idea of a open (not necessarily cyclical) timeline could have been an adaptation to rapid social or environmental changes, which meant the world no longer seemed to follow predictable cycles anymore. Sound familiar? It seems like “open time” and Jaynesian consciousness go hand in hand.

Religious and secular meta-narratives could then be interpreted as an attempt to consciously “re-close” the timeline. This can be literal, as in the case of the Dharmic religions, which mostly hold that time is cyclical, just that the repeat interval is astronomically long so that it doesn’t seem that way to us. This view of time is usually pessimistic; the world is in a state of decay, but will be miraculously renewed and restored at the end of the current cycle (only for everything to start decaying once again). Friedrich Nietzsche advanced a similar view with his theory of eternal return.

Westerners have tended to prefer more metaphorical ways of “re-closing” the timeline: Christian eschatology, Whig historiography, Marxism, and transhumanism (aka the Singularity) all fall into this category. They all posit an “end” toward which history is inexorably being drawn. Typically, this “end” is portrayed optimistically, hence there is no need for another cycle to begin after the current one.

All of these meta-narratives fill a psychological void, in that they seem to be preferable to the idea of time and history being “aimless” and random, which is where one would arrive after taking the idea of the “open” timeline to its extreme.
benjamindavidsteele
Posts: 28
Joined: Thu Apr 19, 2018 7:07 am

Re: Consciousness and Time

Post by benjamindavidsteele »

The forum isn't all that active these days. I randomly stop in maybe a few times every year, at most. Every now and then, a JJS discussion thread comes up in web search results. But otherwise, I tend to forget about it. Stopping back in again, I decided to look around to see if anything new was posted. I'm glad to see your inquiry here. It's too bad no one else answered. Most of the activity happens at the Facebook group. I used to comment and post there a lot. But after changes were made, I stopped. So, I'm glad to see someone using the forum here, as it gives me an opportunity to engage. Anyway, I like what you bring up here. I hope you come back to discuss it some more.

This topic came up in a conversation I was having on a personal blog. My response there relates and so I'll post my thoughts again here. I didn't directly bring up the work of Julian Jaynes, but it's always there in the background. My focus was more on recent changes in modernity. Still, as always, most of what has become dominant in recent centuries began to take form in the ancient world, with many precursors arising in the Axial Age. The first known clock was built in the 3rd century BCE by Archimedes. Obviously, cyclical time would remain dominant for long after that, but that was the beginning point of time being measured separate from natural rhythms, as was the case with the sundial invented during the late Bronze Age. Even so, I bet the sundial had a major impact, as part of those changes heading toward the Bronze Age collapse.

In The Shallows, Nicholas Carr discusses many technological inventions such as the clock. If you’re looking for a fascinating read on that one aspect, I’d recommend John Demos’ Circles and Lines: The Shape of Life in Early America. The colonial era was far different than later modernity, in some ways closer to feudalism. As with literacy, linear time and clock-based culture only became widespread and dominant quite recently. It’s easy to forget what a young society we live in. American culture, in particular, barely has any roots on it. The United States is so young that, rather than being founded on the Enlightenment, it’s founded on the Counter-Enlightenment.

Text and clocks do have one thing in common. They both encourage a linear experience of the world. And that leads to the notion of human society as a one-way path, a linear narrative with a singular beginning and a singular end. That underlies our apocalyptic mentality. After all, Christian eschatology is based on texts (e.g., Book of Revelation). I think it was from Demos book that I learned about how the meaning of a particular word changed. The American Revolution was originally called that because, in the cyclical worldview of astrology, the term ‘revolution’ refers to a cyclical return, such that patterns repeat. What the revolutionaries were initially seeking was a return to a nostalgic vision of the past, the idealized “Rights of Englishmen.”

That understanding, though, was already being shaped by the newly spreading literate mentality; the seed of new meaning already planted. Much of the ‘Patriot’ rhetoric came from the Country Party that took shape in the early 1600s (same era as William Shakespeare and the Inns of Court), in mixing Enlightenment thought with Renaissance humanism and neo-classical republicanism. This became a force in the soon following English Civil War, then being transmitted to American colonists by way of not only the Roundheads but also the Radical or Real Whigs and Isaac Watts’ hymns. It had a lot of radical Christian theology thrown in, much of it likely a carryover from the 14th century English Peasants’ Revolt, also incited by a sense of decline and a desire for a return.

That is the irony. Over the centuries of the commons being privatized, there understandably was a building sense of nostalgia about a fantasized and romanticized past, be it public memory of the feudal commons and the rights of commoners or an imagining of the Creation before the Fall. That nostalgia turned out to be revolutionary, even revolutionizing the very word ‘revolutionary’. That process, of course, corresponded with the spread of literacy. It was mostly limited to an educated elite, but that too was a change, considering most of the elite in the early Middle Ages were illiterate. By the time we get to the American Revolution, ever more working class blokes like Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, and Ethan Allen had become leading intellectuals and published writers.

On a bit of a tangent, there is a really weird angle about language. There seems to be a link between oral cultures and psychedelics. Precisely as literacy and education reforms were most strongly taking hold in the early 1800s, caffeinated tea was replacing the groot or gruit ales that often contained mildly psychedelic herbs; and related to this images of psychedelic mushrooms are found in some medieval and early modern churches, but later disappearing from religious iconography. Other stimulants and addictive substances (coffee, chocolate, cocaine, opium, etc) were becoming more common across this period. Even wheat, likewise only becoming common over the past two centuries, has an addictive quality.

One might note that everything, including language and time, is very much non-linear in psychedelic experience, basically a chemically-induced experience of the bundled mind. It’s not only that texts and clocks took over but that there possibly was some change in the psyche that caused humans to be drawn to choosing to embrace those technologies at that particular time and not earlier or later. Society changing it’s most widely used drugs theoretically could transform the psyche and culture, making the soil fertile for other changes. It’s an interesting coincidence that psychedelics have only made a come back in the Western world with the 20th century rise and takeover of mass non-text media, beginning with radio, film, and television; and further popularizing with the so-called new media. All of this more complex and multidimensional media experience could be interpreted as being less linear.

If there really is a meaningful correlation, what is causing what? How can we disentangle correlations and causation? It makes one wonder if either media and technological changes are sometimes getting blamed for other causal factors (drugs, beverages, diet, etc) or maybe there is a link between it all, the causal factors not being as distinctly separate as we think. So, what is represented by literacy and literary culture might be more complex than we give it credit for. If we misunderstand what caused or formed the conditions that made possible the creation of WEIRD mentality in the first place, we’ll likely misunderstand what is really changing right now, or else miss out on a large and central factor. Indeed, substance use has been shifting as well. What if we are falling into literacy-and-clock-based WEIRD bias by obsessing over these technologies in isolation?

So, I'm unsure what is cause, what is effect, and what is mere correlation. Too much has been changing all at once to easily make distinctions. There is no way to control for confounders in studying historical development, particularly across centuries and millennia. And it's not like the vast social experiment can be repeated and replicated. This makes it easy for us to cherry pick in get trapped by our own biases, in our case what Joseph Henrich and others call the WEIRD bias (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic). But in any case, at the very least, it seems more plausible than not that the changes in temporal perception and thought likely played a key role in changes in mentality, identity, and behavior. Specifically about time, the topic of 'nostalgia' is fascinating and resonates with Jayne's focus on the loss of voice-hearing. In case anyone is interested, below are the links to my own relevant writings. The last link is to post that might help sense how seasonality played out in the mindset of cyclical time, at least in earl Anglo-American society.

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.c ... nostalgia/
https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.c ... -language/
https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.c ... e-fairies/
https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.c ... modernity/
https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.c ... ural-mind/
https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.c ... -the-mind/
https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.c ... -identity/
https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.c ... ay-spirit/
minnespectrum
Posts: 18
Joined: Tue Jul 11, 2023 3:12 pm

Re: Consciousness and Time

Post by minnespectrum »

I find the idea of a tension between psychedelics and addictive substances very interesting. I think that the parallel could be extended beyond just chemical substances as well (for instance, many popular activities such as gambling or social media use are known to be potentially addictive).

I live in Minnesota where we have a large Somali population, and this made me think of the drug they traditionally used: khat. It’s an herb that is chewed, and it produces a natural amphetamine. Khat is a stimulant; it sometimes is compared to coffee but is much stronger.

Khat use is ubiquitous in Somalia and also in Yemen, which are culturally quite similar. Its use goes back thousands of years. And yet Somalia is also one of the least economically developed countries. Indeed, one of the reasons for the historical ethnic tensions between Ethiopians and Somalis is that the former were settled agriculturalists and the latter were nomadic pastoralists (an older way of life).

So, the Somali way of thinking is probably very different from what Westerners are used to. And I’ve noticed a lot of cultural differences that seem to get lost in translation; I used to have a coworker who thought it was really wrong that I lived in an apartment with a roommate, because in her culture, a young man would stay with his parents (and help support them) until he gets married, and only then does he leave. She just could not understand that Americans do things differently, because in her mind, the Somali way was the “right” way. (She ended up quitting because she had similar disagreements and misunderstandings with the other employees, too). I felt bad for her, but she also made me feel bad about myself for a while, too: I was thinking maybe she’s right, and I really am a bad son.

I definitely think there needs to be more cross-cultural understanding to help address situations like this; maybe we wouldn’t see as much nativism and xenophobia if that were the case. I’m not sure if Jaynes’ theory could help in any way, but since it postulates consciousness as based on language (and the Somali language is very different from English), maybe it could.
benjamindavidsteele
Posts: 28
Joined: Thu Apr 19, 2018 7:07 am

Re: Consciousness and Time

Post by benjamindavidsteele »

You're my northern neighbor. I'm an Iowan. That gets to the ancient debate. Is it Iowa Nice or Minnesota Nice?

Anyway, The Somali example is interesting, but I'm not sure what to make of it. It would be useful to know when khat was first cultivated. According to the NIH, "Historical evidence suggests khat use has existed since the 13th century in Ethiopia and the southwestern Arabian regions even before the cultivation and use of coffee" (Khat Use: History and Heart Failure). So, that is fairly recent, presumably long after bicameral mentality had disappeared as an overarching social order.

That said, I agree with you that addiction isn't only about chemical substances. I've written some about this. As I see it, the deeper layer is an entire addictive personality structure, that of the rigidification of egoic consciousness. Many factors can contribute to this. If I were to guess, the addictive personality would strongly correlate to specific personality traits, although I'm not entirely sure which ones.

Technological Fears and Media Panics

Sleepwalking Through Our Dreams

"In The Secret Life of Puppets, Victoria Nelson makes some useful observations of reading addiction, specifically in terms of formulaic genres. She discusses Sigmund Freud’s repetition compulsion and Lenore Terr’s post-traumatic games. She sees genre reading as a ritual-like enactment that can’t lead to resolution, and so the addictive behavior becomes entrenched. This would apply to many other forms of entertainment and consumption. And it fits into Derrick Jensen’s discussion of abuse, trauma, and the victimization cycle.

"I would broaden her argument in another way. People have feared the written text ever since it was invented. In the 18th century, there took hold a moral panic about reading addiction in general and that was before any fiction genres had developed (Frank Furedi, The Media’s First Moral Panic; full text available at Wayback Machine). The written word is unchanging and so creates the conditions for repetition compulsion. Every time a text is read, it is the exact same text.

"That is far different from oral societies. And it is quite telling that oral societies have a much more fluid sense of self. The Piraha, for example, don’t cling to their sense of self nor that of others. When a Piraha individual is possessed by a spirit or meets a spirit who gives them a new name, the self that was there is no longer there. When asked where is that person, the Piraha will say that he or she isn’t there, even if the same body of the individual is standing right there in front of them. They also don’t have a storytelling tradition or concern for the past.

"Another thing that the Piraha apparently lack is mental illness, specifically depression along with suicidal tendencies. According to Barbara Ehrenreich from Dancing in the Streets, there wasn’t much written about depression even in the Western world until the suppression of religious and public festivities, such as Carnival. One of the most important aspects of Carnival and similar festivities was the masking, shifting, and reversal of social identities. Along with this, there was the losing of individuality within the group. And during the Middle Ages, an amazing number of days in the year were dedicated to communal celebrations. The ending of this era coincided with numerous societal changes, including the increase of literacy with the spread of the movable type printing press."
minnespectrum
Posts: 18
Joined: Tue Jul 11, 2023 3:12 pm

Re: Consciousness and Time

Post by minnespectrum »

I thought of something else along similar lines: the difference between eternalism (also known as four-dimensionalism) and presentism as a philosophy of time. This is partially orthogonal to the “open vs. closed” view of time; one could potentially be an open presentist, a closed eternalist, or an open eternalist (I am not sure about closed presentism, this one might not make sense).

Presentists believe there is a privileged moment of time (the present) which is ontologically more “real” than the past or future. Eternalists would see the flow of time (and especially the present) as an illusion, with all moments of time being on equal footing.

It’s safe to say that at least in modern times, we are all presentists (at least on an unconscious level). That is why eternalism seems so counterintuitive, and why people who affirm this view are necessarily engaging in a kind of “suspension of disbelief”. Jaynesian consciousness seems to carry a kind of implied “open presentism”.

People who were eternalists by “default” (rather than by choice) would show certain differences. For starters, conscious humans can clearly remember the past but have no knowledge of the future; this establishes a clear “present moment”, the division between the two.

Our “hard-wired eternalists” would not exhibit this asymmetry, so they would need to either 1. lack a clear autobiographical memory, or 2. be able to “remember” the future somehow. Jaynes’ theory asserts the former, and offers a possible mechanism for the latter (“memories of the future” = bicameral prophecies).

There are multiple examples in science fiction of alien civilizations with an eternalist view of time: the Heptapods from Arrival and the Trafalmadorians from Slaughterhouse-Five both come to mind. Both civilizations, as a consequence of their eternalism, lack any concept of free will (and both works feature humans coming under their influence and eventually adopting a similar mentality).

Eternalists also wouldn’t feel any anxiety about their own mortality, because in a sense, they are immortal. If time is not an irreversible arrow, but something more akin to an additional dimension of space, then nothing can come into or pass out of existence, and therefore death (as we conscious folk imagine it) is not real. A person would no more have reason to dread their eventual death, than to dread the fact that their physical body ends at the soles of their feet and doesn’t continue any farther down.

Indeed, there is one famous passage in the Bible in which time is depicted in exactly this way; political history in this chapter is compared to the human body with the head being chronologically first and the feet representing later times! This is a textbook example of a “bicameral” Bible passage, too, being presented as a prophetic dream.

The fact that the Fall of Man (which Jaynes considered an allegory for the origin of consciousness) is said to have introduced death (and fear of death) into the world as well, would seem to argue in favor of the idea that pre-conscious humans were eternalists in some fashion. Belief in an afterlife could have been appealing because it helped to restore the sense of immortality that was lost by the transition to presentist consciousness.

Regarding the “open vs. closed” difference, I suspect that larger and more complex/hierarchical societies would have had a view closer to open eternalism, while smaller and more egalitarian societies would have tended toward closed eternalism (since they would generally have lived simpler lives with fewer variations in events). The open/closed distinction is a relative one, as shown above by the examples of Hinduism and other traditions where history does repeat but only on astronomically long timescales.
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