Scientific American—“Is Consciousness Part of the Fabric of the Universe?”

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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Scientific American—“Is Consciousness Part of the Fabric of the Universe?”

Post by minnespectrum »

Here’s another article that uses the word consciousness to mean something very different from what Jaynes meant by the term.

The sad thing is that they could have easily used another word (like “perception” or “awareness”); if they had done so, the ideas in the article would have been clearer, and might actually be worth considering.

One of the reasons why panpsychism and related philosophies have undergone a resurgence lately is that physical states, much the same as perceptions, can be described in informational terms (i.e., as the answers to yes/no questions about the external universe). Thus, it makes a certain amount of sense to suggest that the universe is “made of” awareness, of the non-conscious or pre-conscious sort that is characteristic of animals or very early humans. This isn’t necessarily inconsistent with Jaynes’ theory.

However, according to Jaynes, human consciousness is not solely about awareness of the world, but it also incorporates subjectivity or an internal sense of self, as well as metaphorical thinking and autobiographical memory, none of which is inherent to the laws of physics.

Incidentally, people who use psychedelics often report an “ego death” experience in which 1. the sense of self vanishes and 2. they suddenly feel as one with the universe. The idea that the fabric of the universe is a pure, non-subjective awareness (which Jaynesian consciousness actually obscures, to a significant extent) would seem to fit with this.

So, from a Jaynesian perspective, the answer to the question in the article’s title is no, yet it the people asking the question might be on to something; they are just looking in the wrong place.

I sometimes wonder why the “mainstream” science press keeps muddying the difference between consciousness and awareness. I actually think the reason may be that “New Atheists” and Steven Pinker types are disproportionately represented at publications like this, and a lot of them have a strong aversion to anything (like Jaynes’ theory, those of Jung or Freud, Romanticism, etc…) that implies humans are somehow exceptional or unique, or that they have a “mind” or “soul” of some kind. This is the same prejudice that earlier was a driving force behind behaviorism.

Any kind of human exceptionalism, to this crowd, is immediately suspect because it smacks of religious dogma, and may also be viewed as a betrayal of Darwin (despite not necessarily contradicting evolution at all). There is also a technocratic, neo-positivist attitude many of these people have, where objective, empirically observable “facts” are considered superior to subjective or anecdotal “feelings”. Muddling the distinction between “objective” awareness and “subjective” consciousness is a result. It makes sense that this group would see Jaynesianism as threatening because it focuses on the latter as the definition of what it is to be (a conscious) human.
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