Fact Checking Scott Alexander’s Review of Julian Jaynes’s Theory on “Slate Star Codex” – Part 2

Clarifying myths, misconceptions, and misunderstandings of Julian Jaynes's theory.
Post Reply
Site Admin
Posts: 408
Joined: Sat Feb 26, 2005 1:03 pm

Fact Checking Scott Alexander’s Review of Julian Jaynes’s Theory on “Slate Star Codex” – Part 2

Post by Moderator »

By Marcel Kuijsten

In June 2020, the psychiatrist and blogger Scott Alexander wrote a review of Julian Jaynes’s The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind for his popular “Slate Star Codex” blog. His discussion of Jaynes’s theory contains a number of misconceptions and errors, and I will attempt to clear those up here. While the first three sections of his review are more or less just a summary of Jaynes’s main arguments and some topics he feels are related or supportive, the issues I’d like to address can be found in the fourth and fifth sections of his post.

Misunderstanding Jaynes’s Definition of Consciousness

Alexander asks the question: “Did he [Jaynes] literally believe that the Sumerians, Homeric Greeks, etc. were p-zombies? … I cannot be completely sure.” P-consciousness is a “type of consciousness,” according to the philosopher Ned Block, the “P” standing for “phenomenal.” It roughly equates to what Jaynes would more accurately call “awareness” or “sensory perception” — the world you perceive when you open your eyes. Block contrasts this with A- or “access” consciousness, which is more closely related to Jaynes’s definition of an introspectable mind-space. To wonder whether or not Jaynes believed that the ancient Sumerians and other ancient cultures lack “p-consciousness” is simply a gross misunderstanding of the theory, and readers that are unclear on this point would do well to re-read the first two chapters of Jaynes’s book, as well as the Afterword. Surprisingly, this same error was also made by Ned Block in his 1977 review of Jaynes’s book. This misconception, along with other misconceptions by Ned Block, are exhaustively addressed by the philosophy professor Jan Sleutels in his article “Greek Zombies,” which appeared in Philosophical Psychology and was updated and revised for the book Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness. Professor Sleutels also clarifies these issues in his interview in Conversations on Consciousness and the Bicameral Mind.

To be clear, all animal life, including insects, has the experience of sensory perception, to widely varying degrees. This would of course include early, even pre-bicameral humans. Even microorganisms have fairly complex methods of navigating their environment, and habituate to stimuli in their surroundings (Lazova, 2011). But the experience of sensory perception — of sights, smells, sounds and colors — should not be confused with consciousness, because (among other reasons), much of what organisms (including humans) perceive and respond to happens nonconsciously, as Jaynes goes to great lengths to explain. We are consciously aware of only a small fraction of what we perceive (Kilhstrom, 1987; Nørretranders, 1991). Jaynes revisits this topic in the Afterword of his book (added to the 1990 and later editions): ...

Read the full post on the JJS blog:
https://www.julianjaynes.org/blog/fact- ... der-part2/
Post Reply

Return to “Myths, Misconceptions, and Fact Checks About Julian Jaynes's Theory”