The Story of Sinuhe, 1900 BC

Discussion of Julian Jaynes's third hypothesis - dating the development of consciousness to roughly 1500-1200 BCD in Egypt, Greece, and Mesopotamia (the transition occurred at different times in different places around the world). Includes analysis of ancient texts (such as the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Bible), linguistics, and archeological evidence from ancient civilizations as it pertains to the transition from the bicameral mind to consciousness.
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The Story of Sinuhe, 1900 BC

Post by MichaelPrescott »

Hello, everybody. Thank you for allowing me to participate in this forum. I've had a long-time interest in Julian Jaynes' fascinating book, but when I recently discussed the subject on my blog, one of my commenters brought up a number of ancient texts that predate the posited "origin of consciousness" and yet show few, if any, signs of bicamerality. One of the most interesting is The Story of Sinuhe, an Egyptian tale usually dated to 1900 BC (though the earliest extant papyrus dates to about 1800 BC). The text, in both English and hieroglyphics, is here:

There is some debate over whether the story is fiction or fact, but for our purposes, what matters is that the mindset of Sinuhe seems distinctly non-bicameral. Sinuhe never reports having been directed by the voice or vision of a god. He seems to view himself as an active agent shaping his own destiny (with one exception, to be considered in a moment). He is able to relate the events of his life in chronological order as a coherent whole, with appropriate dramatic twists and turns, adding up to a satisfying story with a beginning, middle, and end - a story that reflects a distinctive personality.

Sinuhe is an advisor to the pharaoh. The turning point in his life comes when the pharaoh dies unexpectedly. Fearing, for unstated reasons, that he will die if he returns to the official residence, Sinuhe flees to Canaan, befriends the king, and becomes a warlord in the hill country, suppressing local uprisings and, at one point, defending himself in single combat. As he ages, Sinuhe longs to return to Egypt and sends word to the reigning pharaoh, who responds with a warm invitation and says Sinuhe was never suspected of disloyalty. The story ends with Sinuhe safely back home Egypt, a lavish tomb having been prepared for him.

There are only two references to Sinuhe responding to the (voiceless) urgings of a god, and both involve his flight to Canaan. In his initial report of his episode, there is no mention of a god's influence. Upon hearing of the pharaoh's fall:

"My heart stopped, my arms crossed, trembling fell through my whole body. I slipped back in starts to seek out a hiding-place, to place myself between the bushes, to remove the way and its farer. I made my way south without thinking of approaching this Residence. I imagined there would be bloodshed, and I denied I could survive it."

Later, however, there is a brief mention of a god when Sinuhe recounts his story to the pharaoh:

"As for this flight made by this servant, it was not planned, it was not in my heart, I did not plot it. I do not know what separated me from my place, it was like a dream. It is as if a Delta-man saw himself in Abu, a marsh-man in the Land of Nubia. I did not fear, I was not persecuted, I heard no accusation. My name was not heard in the mouth of the reporter, and yet my limbs went cold, legs panicked, my heart took hold of me. The god who decreed this flight led me away."

Even here, we see clear signs of reflective (non-bicameral) consciousness: Sinuhe knows he could have plotted it, or made a plan "in his heart," even though he denies having done so. He sees his waking life as similar to a dream (apparently a "modern" type of dream, rather than the annunciatory dreams discussed by Jaynes). He compares himself as an exile to a marsh-man stranded in the desert - an act of empathy probably impossible for a bicameral mind. It seems as if he is saying that his desertion was prompted by panic, and since the panic did not originate in his conscious mind, it must have been foisted on him by some god. (In a similar way, the Greeks attributed hysteria to the influence of the god Pan - hence the word "panic.") He says explicitly that he does not know what separated him from his former place; clearly he did not hear the dictate of a god, even if now, in hindsight, he is reduced to speculating that some god must be responsible.

In short, Sinuhe presents himself as having been baffled by his own behavior, and finding no rational basis for it, he ascribes it to a god. Given that there was no concept of the subconscious in this era, his supposition is natural enough. While his mentality is somewhat different from the modern mind, it's not consistent with my reading of Jaynes' theory. For one thing, a bicameral man would not be able to distinguish between his own intentions and those of his god. For another, he would know in no uncertain terms what the god had told him to do; he wouldn't have to guess.

There is also this reference:

"Whichever god ordained this flight, be at peace, give me back to the Residence. Have mercy on me and let me see the place where my heart resides ... I have appeased the god. May he act so as to bring right the end for one he afflicted. May his heart ail for the one he excluded to live on the hill-land. Today at last he is appeased."

Again, though, there is a clearcut distinction between Sinuhe himself and his god. Sinuhe wants one thing (to live in Egypt) while the god wants another (Sinuhe's exile). In the bicameral world, in which to hear was to obey, this kind of conflict could not exist. Moreover, Sinuhe has no idea which god prompted his flight; he can only hope that "whichever god" it is has been appeased. And note that these are the only two references to a god determining Sinuhe's actions; his successful career as a warlord is credited to no one but himself.

I don't think The Story of Sinuhe can be squared with Jaynes' theory, unless we set the date of the transition in consciousness much earlier - sometime in the 3rd millennium, perhaps. But if we keep pushing it back and back and back, it becomes progressively less credible, because the literary evidence becomes increasingly scanty and difficult to decipher.

As I said, there are other texts (some even older - e.g., The Autobiography of Weni, ca. 2300 BC) that also don't seem to fit Jaynes' conception of a bicameral mind. Of course, there are other aspects of his theory that are distinct from his historical claims. But at least in regard to the "change of mind" that purportedly took place ca. 1500-1000 BC, it looks to me as if a beautiful theory is in danger of being slain by some ugly facts.
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Re: The Story of Sinuhe, 1900 BC

Post by Moderator »

Thank you for the post Michael. This text and others mentioned in this section merit thorough investigation. Unfortunately, my current schedule won't allow time for this for the next two months. At that point I hope to offer a fuller response. But perhaps someone else will take up the task before then.

In the meantime, I can offer a general response to this category of objections:


Jaynes maintained that he was presenting the timeline for the transition based on the best available evidence, that much more research needed to be done, and that the dates were subject to modification. Jaynes revised the dates back slightly in later lectures. His dating seems to be accurate for Greece, but there are discrepancies with Mesopotamia and Egypt that require further research.

Consciousness as outlined by Jaynes is a package of features rather than an all-or-nothing proposition, and I would argue that these features likely developed at different times, rather than all at once. So not only did consciousness likely emerge at different times in different places, but different features or aspects likely were learned over time as well. Children learn consciousness in stages, so it makes sense that it would develop gradually in history as well.

Another issue is the accuracy of the dating of many of these texts, when specific rulers or other indicators are not present. When the dating is unclear, the tendency is to date them as old as possible.


Jaynes was very clear at the outset that his reading of many of these texts differs from popular translations. On page 177 he states:

"When the terms are concrete, as they usually are, for most of the cuneiform literature is receipts or inventories or offerings for gods, there is little doubt of the correctness of translations. But as the terms tend to the abstract, and particularly when a psychological interpretation is possible, then we find well-meaning translators imposing modern categories to make their translations comprehensible. The popular and even the scholarly literatures are full of such sugared emendations and palatablized glosses to make ancient men seem like us, or at least talk like the King James Bible. A translator often reads in more than he reads out. Many of those texts that seem to be about decision-making, or so-called proverbs, or epics, or teachings, should be reinterpreted with concrete behavioral precision if we are to trust them as data for the psycho-archaeology of man. And I am warning the reader that the effect of this chapter is not in accord with popular books on the subject."

I recommend re-reading this entire chapter for those who haven't done so recently.

No doubt some will agree with Jaynes on the importance of this issue, and others will not.

But even a cursory comparison of several of the translations of the Sinuhe text quickly demonstrate a range of interpretations. Where you've quoted "I did not plot it" another translation ( ... Sinuhe.pdf) says "I did not devise it." Perhaps both are incorrect. Other departures are much greater.

... And only looking at this briefly one can quickly see the prominent role of the gods... mentioned 26 times in the translation just cited, with phrases like:
".. he is a god without equal ... excellent of plans, effective of orders, coming and going are by his command." (p. 10)
"This humble servant seeks counsel from his god." (p. 35)
"This god addressed me kindly..." (p. 43)
"If I answer it, it is not because of me, but it is the act of a god." (p. 45) ... so these are clear signs of bicameralism.

I've looked at the translation issue in depth and have come to agree with Jaynes that this is a very important problem. The Fallacy of Presentism, as it is called (imposing a modern psychology or worldview on historical texts, cultures or individuals), is a major problem for even much more recent historical interpretation. For more on this subject I recommend Historians' Fallacies: Toward A Logic of Historical Thought by David Hackett Fischer.

The default (unconscious?) thinking among historians and classicists seems to be: "people in ancient civilizations look like us, therefore they must have thought like us" ... and then everything is interpreted through that lens. Perhaps we have a genetic disposition to form categories or group things together that look similar.

Part of the reason this problem is ongoing is that historians and classicists in general are not concerned with psychology, and psychologists in general are not interested in ancient history. Translators often seem to feel the need to make the text read like a modern story or modern poetry.

What is needed is a more objective, literal translation of these ancient texts by someone who not only understands the languages but is familiar with Jaynes's theory. Unfortunately this is unlikely to happen any time soon.

My guess is the outcome would likely be that Jaynes's dates may need further refinement for certain aspects or features of consciousness in Egypt and Mesopotamia (but not in Greece), but that in many cases it would be shown that previous translators had erroneously imposed modern psychological language or concepts onto the texts.


My experience has been that skeptics of Jaynes's theory tend to take a very narrow view of the evidence. So, the underlying theme of these textual objections goes something like this: "Jaynes made very specific claims about the dating of consciousness. If I can go and find texts older than say 1500 B.C. that show evidence of consciousness, Jaynes's theory will fall like a house of cards and we can all move on to other things."

Don't misunderstand me -- I think objections are valuable and will perhaps lead to necessary refinements in the theory. But I don't expect that we'll find one document that invalidates the entire theory.

Jaynes's theory, much like the theory of evolution, relies on a pattern of evidence. The theory of evolution relies on things like the fossil record, vestigial organs, homologous structures, geographical distribution, and DNA. Viewed in isolation, the individual pieces of evidence are not nearly as persuasive.

For Jaynes's theory, it's things like command hallucinations in modern patients, conscience-related imaginary companions in children, guiding auditory hallucinations in normal people under intense stress, the widespread auditory hallucinations documented in tribal groups, cross-cultural evidence for bicameralism in places like China, neurological evidence for a right/left temporal lobe interaction in auditory hallucinations, the widespread evidence for a view of gods as present and involved in the daily lives of ancient societies worldwide, etc.

If one takes a very narrow view, focusing on only one or two data points, Jaynes's theory is unconvincing. To me, this is similar to a creationist raising objections about the theory of evolution based on gaps in the fossil record, while totally ignoring the evidence from DNA. The objections are important, but need to be viewed within the larger context of the pattern of evidence.

Because in my view the pattern of evidence in so compelling, when I see ancient texts that show elements of consciousness, I'm more inclined to question the translation or look for areas of the theory that need modification, than to see them as a refutation of the entire theory.

It gets back to Jaynes's four hypotheses: 1. consciousness based on language, 2. dating the transition to consciousness, 3. bicameralism, and 4. the neurological model. The dating may need to be refined by location and for particular features of consciousness, but again I think more objective research is needed.

As a final note (meant as a general observation only and not as a direct response to the previous post), I've found that while some are persuaded by Jaynes's evidence and others are not, once people make up their minds, in my experience they generally don't change their position. This I think is in part due to the fact that the theory relies on historical evidence that ultimately is difficult to settle one way or the other, and partly due to deeply (and sometimes unconsciously) held false premises and beliefs that negatively influence the way people view Jaynes's theory from the outset. Some examples include: the belief that consciousness is biologically evolved, the aforementioned belief that the inhabitants of ancient civilizations were psychologically identical to modern people, and mysticism or mystical beliefs such as the belief that consciousness is a fundamental property of the universe, beliefs in an interventionist God, prophecy as actual divine revelation, etc. Sometimes it takes a bit of digging to unearth these false premises/beliefs but more often than not they're there and in most cases they prevent the individual from ever viewing Jaynes's evidence objectively.

So in the interest of time management, I restrict my role here to clarifying things for those interested in the theory, with no expectation of changing anyone's mind (esp. in brief forum posts). But I welcome others to continue the debate.

I look forward to taking a closer look at these and other ancient texts and offering more specific commentary, either here or in a future publication, as time permits.
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Re: The Story of Sinuhe, 1900 BC

Post by MichaelPrescott »

Thanks, Moderator, for your reply.

I agree that the whole pattern of evidence is what matters, but if enough ancient texts show evidence of a relatively modern mindset, Jaynes' theory (or at least its historical component) would be somewhat undermined.

Regarding this objection:

"And only looking at this briefly one can quickly see the prominent role of the gods... mentioned 26 times in the translation just cited"

... I'd point out that nearly all of those references are to the pharaoh. As far as I can tell, Sinuhe never hears the pharaoh address him except when he receives a written communiqué from the palace, and when he has an audience with the pharaoh. In other words, he does not report hearing the pharaoh's voice in a hallucinated way. It is true, though, that he refers to the pharaoh as a god throughout.

The last reference you cite is "If I answer it, it is not because of me, but it is the act of a god." In the translation I was using, this line reads: "That I might answer it - there is no slight to the god in this."

Not being able to read hieroglyphics, I don't know which version is correct. If it's the second one, then the "slight to the god" again refers to the pharaoh; Sinuhe is saying diplomatically (or fearfully) that he does not mean to offend the pharaoh by the answer he gives. In the translation you cite, the line is footnoted, indicating (I think) that the meaning is controversial.

Of course, all of this does point up the difficulty of translating these ancient writings.

You also noted, "Another issue is the accuracy of the dating of many of these texts, when specific rulers or other indicators are not present."

True, but in this case the pharaoh is identified as Senusret ("the good god Senusret," line 14) with the prenomen Kheperkara ("the dual king Kheperkara," line 173). In the other translation, the pharaoh's name is rendered Sesostris, a variant of Senusret. There was more than one Senusret/Sesostris, but the use of the prenomen fixes the pharaoh's identity as Senusret I, who reigned from 1971 to 1926 BC.

As far as making up one's mind is concerned, I have to say I've gone back and forth about Jaynes over the years. I do think his book is marvelously provocative and brilliantly written, and the plethora of idols with their large hypnotic eyes does hint at some kind of daily "communion" with the gods.

Thanks again for your feedback, and for providing this forum.
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Re: The Story of Sinuhe, 1900 BC

Post by Moderator »

Yes but keep in mind, the pharaoh was divine in ancient Egypt. Without the bicameral mind, there is no need for gods at all.

I've only just begun the process of looking into this text in more depth, but to me there's not that much in this text that is inconsistent with Jaynes's theory (vs. the Iliad, for example, although this text is older). There are a few areas where certain features of consciousness are present, but for the most part it is consistent with what I would expect. I think it's often the case that people mis-read Jaynes and then base their expectations for ancient texts on misinterpretation. If you read his interviews in particular, the main thing he was focused on was the presence of introspection, and looking at a broad range of texts cross-culturally shows a clear, linear pattern of growth in introspection-related language over the centuries between say 2000 and 500 B.C., along with a corresponding diminishment of god-directed behavior and insights, and the slow merging of many gods into one. But one has to take a broad, cross-cultural view.

For the areas that indicate more modern mental language, a more careful analysis and literal translations are needed. A good summary of the very real problems associated with the translations of ancient texts can be found on pages 167-172 of Letters to the King of Mari (viewable on I strongly encourage those interested in this subject to read the entire section.

I managed to get to the university library and read four different translations of this text side-by-side. They varied widely. In one translation, each instance of god was capitalized ("God"), almost as if referring to the Christian god. Of course it doesn't, but I thought that an odd choice of the translator. The more I read and saw the obvious moderizations, the less I feel this text presents any real problems for Jaynes's theory. There are no instances of any real introspection, there is the instance of being commanded by a voice, and the text is not all that different from say the Iliad. The reference to the dream is interesting, and it would be interesting to see if this was accurately translated and in the original papyrus or a later copy.

It is quite interesting that it came to be written down much earlier than the Iliad was in Greece. But if it was as simple as all of the ancient texts containing overwhelming examples of bicameralism, presumably other scholars would have come to Jaynes's conclusions on their own a long time ago. Some of the texts show clear evidence (the Iliad, Ludlul Bel Nemeqi, etc.), whereas others do not. It's the overall pattern of evidence that makes Jaynes's theory convincing.

In any case, what is really needed is an accurate translation of this and other ancient texts, viewed from the perspective of Jaynes's theory. If someone reading this is interested in funding such a project, I'm sure I could locate willing translators.

I think after reading Jaynes there is something of a tendency to think of ancient people as unthinking, robotic, and only responding to voices. I understand that in a few instances Jaynes's somewhat poetic language may have contributed to this misconception. But they were really quite similar to us, minus the ability to introspect and with the addition of responding to command hallucinations. Yet the difference is still quite significant and the pre-conscious bicameral mentality explains so much that is otherwise unexplainable.

I think it's important to get away from this notion of people waking up one day fully conscious, and any departure from that in a prior text as massively contradictory. Although perhaps not as sensational, the entire transition must have been a much more gradual process over hundreds of years, taking place at different times in different civilizations. Three thousand years later, we still have a significant number of people responding to command hallucinations on a daily basis, a much larger number who experience occasional auditory hallucinations that guide their behavior, and a large percentage of children who have a "conscience-related" imaginary companion that comments on and directs their behavior.

There are things that deviate slightly from what Jaynes initially proposed that I think are quite interesting and require much more research. For example, divination and omens seem to be present much earlier in Mesopotamia and Egypt than in Greece. If this is the case and the Greeks made the transition to consciousness later, why do we see the sudden "cognitive explosion" of philosophy and science in Greece much more so than in other cultures? Why is it that visitation dreams seem to play a more prominent role in Mesopotamia than waking command hallucinations? All of these interesting cross cultural differences in the transition from bicamerality to consciousness between Greece, Mesopotamia, Egypt, South America, and the Far East require much more careful study and analysis.
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Re: The Story of Sinuhe, 1900 BC

Post by MichaelPrescott »

Thanks, Moderator, for looking into this a little further.

I do know that the pharaoh was considered a god, but nothing in the text indicates that Sinuhe heard the pharaoh's voice in anything other than the normal fashion. The divine status of the pharaoh is consistent with Jaynes' theory, but of course it is also consistent with other interpretations.

It seems to me that as evidence emerges that poses a challenge to the historical component of Jaynes' theory, the response is to push back the date of the transition ever further, stress how gradual it was, and suggest that bicameral man was not nearly the automaton that Jaynes seemed to describe. These modifications of Jaynes' theory may constitute improvements, but there is a danger that the theory, if amended with enough qualifications, will eventually become unfalsifiable.

After all, one could argue that the transition occurred before the dawn of literacy, in which case no written evidence could ever disprove it. But then no written evidence could prove it, either ...

As it is, there seems to be a rather selective reading of the texts. But perhaps it does come down to translation problems. Time will tell.

BTW, whenever I type the word s u g g e s t (without spaces), the forum's software converts it to a dash. Example: "I suggest we go to the movies." Weird, huh?
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Re: The Story of Sinuhe, 1900 BC

Post by Moderator »

I finally had an opportunity to take a look at this text in more detail, as well as read Micahel's blog, which definitely sheds some light on the difference of opinion with regards to Jaynes's theory in general and this text in particular. And while I don't think we can hope to persuade Michael, for those interested in some of the reasons that go into the acceptance or rejection of Jaynes's theory, some analysis may be instructive, as Michael's blog demonstrates nearly all of the common themes seen in critiques of Jaynes's theory.

False Premises and Beliefs

The first barrier to understanding Jaynes's theory that can be seen in Michael's blog comes in the form of a false premise. Michael proposes that perhaps the proper interpretation of the bicameral auditory hallucinations may in fact be actual spiritual/divine communication. He writes:
"But suppose there actually are paranormal or supernatural phenomena. Suppose there are spirits and what we might call gods - or God. Then the universality of such beliefs does not require complicated rationalistic explanations. If anything, it is the absence of such beliefs among the intelligentsia of the Western world today that raises questions. Rather than hunting for the gods in some forgotten corner of our nervous system, we might do better to seek out truths that "primitive" peoples knew - and which we have forgotten. ... What if the Muses did exist, and still do - and we have simply stopped listening?"
I call this a false premise based on mysticism. When we are exposed to a new idea, we inevitably look at it through the lens of our existing premises and beliefs, and if those premises are false (or likely false because they are unsupported by evidence), it interferes with our ability to properly evaluate new ideas that may in fact be valid.

We adopt many of our premises and beliefs at a young age, based not on evidence but on the authority of parents and teachers. This mixed bag of accurate and false beliefs becomes part of our worldview and we often fail to reevaluate these beliefs as adults. The only way to root out false beliefs is to methodically re-examine the evidence for all of our existing premises and beliefs. Beliefs not based on objective evidence must then be rejected.

The entire notion of gods and the speaking dead as auditory hallucinations is powerful evidence for Jaynes's theory. If one removes that evidence, by proposing actual gods and spirits as an alternate explanation for the voices, of course that person is much less likely to be persuaded by Jaynes's theory. Instead of seeing Jaynes's theory as perhaps the best explanation for belief in the supernatural, they hold these pre-Enlightenment beliefs themselves, and would therefore likely feel hostility toward any theory that proposes a non-mystical explanation.

Put another way, one can't both objectively evaluate the evidence for bicameralism and fall prey to vestiges of bicameralism (in the form of mystical beliefs in gods and talking spirits) at the same time.

To underscore my point, Michael also states, "While I never embraced Jaynes' theory in its entirety, and in fact rejected a central part of it (the idea that the "voices of the gods" were hallucinations originating in the brain), I still found his idea about a shift in consciousness occurring in the second millennium BC to be compelling."

Like he says, this is a central part of the theory, and cannot be excised from it. For me, the evidence for bicameralism is overwhelming, and the evidence for talking spirits non-existent, but I won't expand on that here.

In some cases I have seen individuals with a belief in spirits persuaded by Jaynes, but they (unconsciously?) misread or misrepresent Jaynes's views in this area, stating things like "the bicameral era was a time when people experienced actual spiritual communication," etc. In this way some enthusiasts of the theory also contribute to the myths and misconceptions about the theory. Which leads us to ...

Myths and Misconceptions

Michael writes, "Sinuhe's life story, which in no way fits Jaynes' depiction of a robotic, hypnotized, unconscious person..."

This is a misconception about Jaynes's theory, which I already addressed in a previous post. It likely stems from Jaynes's unfortunate use of the word "automaton." An explanation of this misconception has been posted the on the Myths vs. Facts page for years, so I won't repeat it here.

The idea of bicameral people as "hypnotized zombies" is a science-fiction version of Jaynes's theory that won't be found in this or any other ancient text.

(Incidentally, I recently came into possession of an unpublished interview with Jaynes, and in it he also states that "... I exaggerate ... when I say that the Greeks ... were automatons. That gives a wrong impression. All the things we do without consciousness they did. If you could step back into the bicameral world, it would be a while before you saw the difference. And you would very quickly, in conversation, but if you just stood off and watched, you would see people going around their daily lives, and children playing in the street, and you would say, 'These people aren't different!' Until you talked to them. And then it would be immediately apparent. ... I didn't want to give the impression that as you said awhile ago that suddenly woom! in comes consciousness, and everybody is conscious!" The full interview will be made available in the near future. In the meantime, I recommend reading the interviews and discussion in The Julian Jaynes Collection.)

In addition to the false premise outlined above, the identification of this misconception goes a long way toward explaining the different viewpoints on the importance of this text with regard to Jaynes's theory.

Once we've dispelled the "hypnotized zombie" misconception, what we're left with in this text of interest are some elements of introspection and the sense of a life on a timeline, or a sense of biographical memory. Viewed in isolation, it's easy to make more of the psychological similarities of a single text while ignoring the wide range of evidence that suggests the major differences. Why are there gods at all? Why is the pharaoh considered a god? Why is this person at times commanded by gods? What is his ka if not a hallucinated voice? Moving to Mesopotamia, it is difficult to imagine a person psychologically similar to us living in a town where all of the leaders were gods, where the gods owned all the land, and the managers of the gods' estates relied on auditory hallucinations and visitation dreams to discern all of the major policy decisions. Where the ear rather than the brain was considered the seat of intelligence. ... This reflects a very different mentality.

It will only be through rigorous research (as outlined below), and not uninformed speculation, that we might elucidate and refine our understanding of when different features of consciousness emerge in this and other parts of the world.

With regards to Jaynes's dating of the development of a sense of history and biographical memory, my understanding is he based this primarily on the evidence from Greece. For this part of the world, I think the evidence holds up. For those interested I recommend Chester Starr's The Awakening of the Greek Historical Spirit.

(My thoughts here are also supported by comments in the newly discovered interview. Jaynes: "I was trying to piece things together. And at the beginning I was overemphasizing the Greek part of this story, which is the most accessible. Good reason to do that. By far the most accessible. ... But [the dating] could be much more complicated ... in many ways.")

The response section of Michael's blog also contains many myths and misconceptions. Examples include:

-- "Anthropologists have found no trace of bicameral mind in any recorded, studied hunter-gatherer society." This is completely wrong ... see Levy-Bruhl's Primitive Mentality, the specific references to Levy-Bruhl and others in the Introduction to The Julian Jaynes Collection, and the "The Mentality of Pre-Literate and Pre-Modern Peoples" section of this forum, for starters. Vestiges of bicameralism can be found in descriptions of nearly all pre-literate societies, but you have to look for it as obviously they have not been studied from the perspective of Jaynes's theory.

-- Bicameral man would have to be "without the capability of problem-solving intelligent responses to immediate situations. This would actually make him incapable of building the pyramids, creating sculpture and paintings, etc." This reflects a basic misunderstanding of Jaynes's definition of consciousness.

-- Another post points to a settlement in England dating to 3180 BCE - 2500 BCE called Skara Brae, but it's hard to see the point he's making with regard to Jaynes's theory, as Jaynes's discusses much older and much more sophisticated cultures in his book. I think this also reflects a basic misunderstanding of Jaynes's theory.

These misconceptions suggest to me that the commenters likely have not read Jaynes's book, read it a very long time ago and have not read any of the follow up books and articles, or read it but nevertheless misunderstood Jaynes's definition of consciousness/overall theory.

Michael refers to these and other comments as "impressive arguments." All I can suggest would be to read or re-read all of the available material.

Binary or "Either/Or" Thinking

Another post reflects what I call binary or "either/or" thinking: Jaynes's theory is either entirely correct or entirely incorrect. People often have a strong desire to have everything neatly settled one way or the other, and in the process they often rush to judgment and ignore complexities.

This is something often seen among skeptics of Jaynes's theory. They look for one piece of evidence that doesn't quite fit, or seems contradictory, and proclaim that based on this one piece of evidence, the entire theory must be wrong. As I mentioned in the previous post, they take a very narrow view and fail to see the pattern of the evidence.

In what I call comprehensive thinking, a theory can be entirely correct, partially correct, or entirely incorrect. Some of Jaynes's hypotheses could be correct while others could be incorrect, or require modification (Jaynes's neurological model for the bicameral mind, for example, has already been shown to be correct).

Using the subject of ancient texts as an example, a more appropriate response might be:

-- Is dating and the translation accurate, or just speculation accepted as factual?

-- How does this text fit into the pattern of evidence? For example, other texts from this culture, texts from different cultures from the same time period, as well as the larger pattern of evidence (see the Summary of Evidence page).

-- Does this evidence help refine the dates for the emergence of certain features of consciousness for this particular culture?


The Question of Translations

With regard to the very real problem of translations, Michael dismisses this out-of-hand, suggesting it is just a lame excuse used for any text that doesn't support Jaynes's theory. Here again he is ignoring the pattern of evidence -- if a pattern of evidence strongly suggests a hypothesis, then evidence against it should be properly vetted, rather than throwing out the entire theory (i.e. binary thinking). As mentioned previously, even a cursory examination of the text suggests very different interpretations.

If one chooses to ignore this well documented problem because it would take a lot of time and effort to properly understand, of course there's nothing that can be done about it. Even translations of current languages are often controversial and problematic, and the issue becomes compounded the further back one goes.

With regard to ancient Egyptian texts, Simpson notes, "The problems of translation are considerable. ... The exact meaning of many words is still unknown and may remain so. Frequently, a translation is little more than an informed guess. ... In journal articles or monographs it is not uncommon to find a sentence discussed at length, with an equal number of pages devoted to the same passage several years later by another scholar. The translator of a text of some length for the general reader cannot burden it with extensive notes and investigations" (emphasis mine).

This last point is important, as it gives readers a false sense of certainty in translations geared toward general audiences. Simpson continues "to opt consistently for smoother translation [as translators often do] results in a paraphrase and leads to an interpretive retelling. Yet to retain the artificiality of Egyptian phrasing in English makes for a clumsiness foreign to the Egyptian text itself." (As a side note, the translation of this text in Simpson's book is one of the more modernized/geared toward a general audience versions that I've read.)

These problems are only compounded when it comes to the translation of psychological words and themes. There is a strong bias toward the modernization of ancient texts, to impart modern psychology where none exists, and to view ancient cultures as psychologically identical to modern culture. Because of this bias, things that suggest a different mentality are ignored, minimized, or distorted (the presentist fallacy). This in part explains why other scholars didn't come to the ideas on bicameralism before Jaynes.

For those interested in understanding these issues further, I would suggest starting with James Cohn's Minds of the Bible as an entry point, in which he discusses the problem of translation of mind-related words in ancient Hebrew.

I also recommend articles such as "Author, Audience, and Literary Purpose in Translating Ancient Texts" by Yoana Sirakova and "Persistent Problems Confronting Bible Translations" by Bruce Metzger, and books such as And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible's Original Meaning by Joel Hoffman, Text and Translation: Theory and Methodology of Translation by C H. Gerzymisch-Arbogast, Text Analysis in Translation by Christiane Nord, Writings of Early Scholars in the Ancient Near East, Egypt, Rome,and Greece: Translating Ancient Scientific Texts edited by A. Imhausen and T. Pommerening and Translation studies by Susan Bassnett, in addition to the references cited in my previous post.

With regards to this text, what is needed is real scholarship rather than a quick, off-the-cuff kind of superficial analysis. This is something few people take the time for. There is a strong tendency to over simplify complex subjects, make snap judgments about things we don't fully understand, and then move on to the next thing.

Real scholarship with regards to this text might include, but not be limited to:

1. A re-translation of the text by someone who understands the value of making as literal a translation as possible, with no overlaying of modern psychological concepts. (James Cohn has been doing a similar exercise for the translations of the Old Testament, and demonstrating the widespread problems of translation of the ancient Hebrew.)

2. This text as translated is put together from many different sources (see ... exts2.html). These different sources need to be separated and translated and analyzed individually, rather than looking at synthesized translations intended for a general audience. Differences in the language of the different versions, dating from different times, could then be studied.

This type of thing takes a lot of work, but it's the kind of work that is ultimately necessary to determine how this text fits into the larger context of Jaynes's theory, and how it might contribute to our understanding of the timing of when different features of consciousness first appear in different cultures.

In summary:

1. False premises and beliefs often cloud an individual's ability to properly evaluate new ideas.

2. False premises and beliefs, such as the presentist fallacy and those stemming from mysticism, can often be identified in those skeptical of Jaynes's theory.

3. Critiques of Jaynes's theory often fall into three categories: 1. binary ("either/or") thinking, 2. a failure to view the pattern of evidence, and 3. myths and misconceptions based on misunderstandings of Jaynes's arguments.

4. The proper analysis of the psychological language of ancient texts is difficult and complex. Careful research of ancient texts, together with other lines of inquiry, will be necessary to further clarify of the transition from bicamerality and timing of the emergence of the different features of Jaynesian consciousness in different cultures.

With apologies in advance, I'm going to take a tip from Michael's blog and take the final word on this subject, at least for now. Michael and I will have to agree to disagree, others will come to their own conclusions, and hopefully some will benefit from this mini-tutorial on critical thinking about Jaynes's theory.

Just like evolution, the ideas are simply not going to resonate with everyone. Jaynes's theory relies on a very wide range of scholarship and for whatever reason connecting a large pattern of evidence is not always possible for everyone (e.g. why do so many people today hear voices? Why do many experience command hallucinations directing their behavior? Why do nearly half of children experience imaginary or hallucinated playmates? Why do auditory hallucinations as well as religious experience both involve the non-dominant temporal lobe? Etc., etc. Mainstream psychology as well as critics of Jaynes's theory have no answers).

Past experience has shown me that where major false premises exist that have no basis in empirical evidence (i.e. mysticism), people tend to dig in their heels, and the debate continues endlessly. Without any judgment on my part for those who feel otherwise, I personally can't engage in debate-for-debate's-sake, or endless-debate-as-a-form-of-social-interaction, at the expense of more important long term projects. Once mysticism/vestigial bicameralism enters into the conversation, for me it's a dead end.

At such time that real scholarship is done in this area, I look forward to continuing the discussion.
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Re: The Story of Sinuhe, 1900 BC

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I am happy to report that Boban Dedović, who has both a deep understanding of Julian Jaynes's theory as well as has learned to read ancient Egyptian at the University of Chicago, has taken a fresh look at this, and he will be doing his thesis on mental language in Sinhue under the supervision of a top Egyptologist. We will be sharing the results of his analysis soon. He will also be explaining his research on this topic as part of our new interview series (see "Events"). For those interested, we'll also be discussing the issues with the translation of "mind" related words in a number of other ancient texts, including the Iliad.
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