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The Self

How Old is the Self?

Frank S. Robinson takes issue with Julian Jaynes’ argument about the self.

Richard Dawkins called Julian Jaynes’s 1976 book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind “either complete rubbish or a work of consummate genius” (The God Delusion, 2006). I first encountered its theories discussed in an article in an ancient coin magazine in 2001, and found it so outrageous I had to write to the magazine. Since then I’ve seen the theory discsussed widely, cited widely, and taken seriously, so I finally decided to read the book itself.

Jaynes (1920-97) was a psychology professor who argued in his book that consciousness as we know it emerged only a mere 3,000 years ago. That’s right: the builders of the pyramids were not conscious in our sense: they didn’t understand that their thoughts were their own, but considered them voices of gods. Jaynes calls this a ‘bicameral’ mind, where the voices generated by the right brain hemisphere appear as detached hallucinations rather than as the inner narrative we now think of as ourselves thinking. By consciousness, Jaynes doesn’t mean mere sentience or perception, then, but rather a sense of self – a sense that there’s a me in here, running the show. That’s what he says people lacked until around 1000 BC. According to Jaynes, the change to modern consciousness around 1000 BC was occasioned by societal and geopolitical upheavals, making bicameralism no longer good enough for people to get by with.

Jaynes recognized that this theory is surprising; he even labeled it ‘preposterous’. But his book is so strongly argued that many have been persuaded by it, so it’s worth examining.

Egyptian book of the dead
Expression of self-consciousness through art?

A Sense Of Self

Jaynes starts by discussing what consciousness is and delimiting the concept in various ways, relegating vast realms of our mental activity to unconscious processes unavailable to introspection. For example, look at the series X O X O X O… What comes next? Did you think your way to answering, ‘X’? Jaynes says no; you simply ‘saw’ the answer, and if you try to explain how, you’re just making up a story for what you’re guessing must have happened.

This argument is aimed at making plausible the existence of human beings behaving much as we do, but without being conscious. But it’s hardly a revelation that a lot of our mental functioning is more or less unconscious. It has to be; you wouldn’t be able to walk if you had to think out each muscle movement. We can even perform complex tasks, like driving, in a zoned-out state without conscious attentiveness. Yet we do consciously think about some things. And importantly, we don’t only think about the physical world, we think about our thoughts. That’s what the self does; and this type of thinking differs from the unconscious functioning Jaynes discusses, and which a computer could do, without self-awareness.

Understanding our sense of self remains, of course, a deep problem. David Hume said that no amount of introspection could enable him to catch hold of his self. But the trouble was that he was using the self to look for the self. (Jaynes recognizes this difficulty; he makes the analogy of using a flashlight to look for darkness.) However, it is fairly certain that the self is not found in a localized brain module, but is rather an emergent property of the system as a whole. It doesn’t arise in computers because their complexity is still actually orders of magnitude below ours. Jaynes is nevertheless arguing that our level of complex mental functioning could exist without the emergent property of self; an argument that’s contradicted by our own example. You might say a single example is weak evidence. However, it’s actually seven billion examples. Complexity of mental functioning obviously varies greatly among humans; many don’t read philosophy magazines, but even those people have some sense of self – virtually every single one, and some of them as dumb as boards. This is powerful evidence that functioning complexity above a certain level must induce consciousness, and rebuts Jaynes’s thesis that earlier people could have had the former without the latter.

Ancient Voices

To justify his theory, Jaynes devotes much attention to The Iliad (c. 769-710 BC), composed during the supposed transition time. In this epic poem about the Trojan War, he says, characters are never portrayed with inner lives or deciding anything, but instead always manipulated by gods. The war, Jaynes declares, “was directed by hallucinations. And the soldiers who were so directed were not at all like us. They were noble automatons who knew not what they did.”

Whenever the ancients talk about gods speaking, as in The Iliad, Jaynes takes this to mean the hearers actually hallucinated voices. He uses the word ‘hallucinated’ repeatedly, invoking the hallucinated voices heard by schizophrenics and other mentally ill people as models. These phenomena he sees as a throwback to, or vestige of, the bicameral mind. Or in other words, people before 1000 BC were all schizophrenic, all the time, hearing voices continually. Jaynes similarly explains the bicameral mind as resembling the hypnotized mind, with our susceptibility to hypnosis being another alleged vestige of bicameralism.

A lot of what Jaynes marshals as evidence for a fundamental change in mental function is really just normal cultural evolution. In assessing his interpretations of all things ancient, we must remember (as he seemingly does not) that civilization was an invention, and that ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’: it took time to develop the panoply of behaviors, adaptations and practices we’re familiar with. But that doesn’t mean the early and necessarily primitive stages signified a fundamentally different consciousness. If civilization were stripped from you and you had to reinvent it from scratch, how fast would you get up to speed? Thus The Iliad was written the way it was because that was the convention of the time for how tales were told. Literature had to evolve a lot before arriving at Proust. The idea of portraying a character’s inner life is actually an advanced literary technique whose absence in the earliest works would be entirely expected.

But even on its own terms, Jaynes’s take on The Iliad seems wrong. He stresses how Achilles vacillated over killing Agamemnon until the goddess Athena ordered him to. But what was this vacillation if not the working of his own mind? Or perhaps Achilles was vacillating because a god told him to vacillate? Jaynes says the vacillating is depicted physiologically – “gut churning” etc. – rather than mentally, but I think the Greeks understood such imagery as conveying something ultimately mental. I don’t see Achilles in The Iliad portrayed as lacking a self.

A perhaps better example: Jaynes makes much of how the early cuneiform messages of the Babyonians were written as though addressed to the clay tablet itself, asking it to pass the message along to the recipient. Only later (‘post-bicameral’) letters were addressed directly to recipients. But surely this was a mere change of cultural convention. Written language had only just been invented; letter writing too had to be invented, and the concept evolved. The early concept was perfectly logical, and understandable to us. My mother treats phone messages as equivalent to letters and thus signs off, “Love, Mom.” That’s not common practice, but it’s understandable, and it doesn’t show she lacks a self!

Normal States

As to schizophrenia and other delusional states, normal human consciousness is a phenomenon of such subtle complexity that it’s a wonder we can sustain it so stably through life, and it’s easy to envision it being disrupted or going on the fritz. It’s akin to a computer program getting corrupted; and that possibility doesn’t tell us that the program evolved from a state of primordial corruptedness. If human consciousness were a product of intelligent design, perhaps we could expect it to be more robust and impervious to the kinds of malfunctions at issue, but that’s not how evolution works. It develops new adaptations by modifying what already exists, and is often inelegant in its solutions – as with our eyes, which are actually quite suboptimal compared to what an intelligently designed visual system would be like. So too our consciousness, and hence it’s vulnerable to glitches like schizophrenia. But that hardly implies that we evolved from a race of schizophrenics.

While it’s true that normal minds can hold delusions (as in religious beliefs), mass pervasive hallucination simply is not part of human experience. Likewise, though many believe God directs their lives in some way, that’s a far cry from being the veritable puppets of gods that Jaynesian bicamerals would have considered themselves. And while some people can be hypnotized, outside of a zombie film it’s absurd to envisage entire populations going about in that manner.

Bizarrely, Jaynes speculates that schizophrenia itself is an evolutionary adaptation, conferring certain alleged advantages on sufferers. But from a survival and reproductive standpoint, surely it’s more advantageous to see the real world rather than a hallucinated one?

Moreover, Jaynes is wrong to talk in terms of ‘hallucinations’. His ancients ‘hearing voices’ were hearing their own thoughts, which were real; and that’s very different from hallucinating voices seeming to come from outside (although, obviously, the hallucinations also originate within the person’s mind). Possibly one could imagine a ‘voices of the gods’ notion concerning inner voices which arrive suddenly, out of the blue, after a lifetime of silence (as it is with the hallucinated voices of many schizophrenics). But in contrast, people become aware of their own thoughts in early childhood, as soon as they learn language. And, from such an early age, when we talk to ourselves, we know who is doing the talking and do not ascribe the interior chatter to ‘the gods’. Certainly humans were capable of such minimal mental sophistication long before 1000 BC. Jaynesian bicameralism would have had to start with a child’s earliest thinking, which would bespeak a rather severe form of mental disorder for which there is no present-day parallel.

Even if Jaynes were right about all the classical hallucinating he postulates, he fails to explain why that would have been inconsistent with these people also having consciousness as we know it. While he does put much weight on deficits in the sense of self that schizophrenics often report, they don’t lack that sense entirely; even auditory hallucinators are self-conscious and introspective to a considerable degree. Jaynes’s hypothesis, however, has hallucination substituting for a sense of self.

Notice that Jaynes’s bicameral model lacks a crucial interconnection between the god voices, supposedly directing action, and the muscles carrying the action out. That is, there’d have to be an intermediary between hearing the god’s voice and the brain transmitting the command heard to the muscles: the human being deciding to obey the voice. In other words, what’s really the difference between a god’s voice instantiating action through the nervous system via a decision to obey it, and a thought doing essentially the same thing? Either way, there’s a decision; and who is the decider? It still has to be a self, even if a self that’s heeding god’s voices. Jaynes thus fails to banish the self after all: in his model, you’d still have had a self that obeys the voice of the god, only you didn’t know you had one. That’s even more implausible than the idea of not having a sense of self at all. I think people would have been smart enough to figure this out pretty fast.

To say that you have a ‘theory of mind’ often refers to your inferring that because Joe behaves somewhat like you, he must be experiencing something like your sense of self. But Jaynes holds that this actually has it backwards as regards the origin of consciousness: when people first began to be conscious, you’d look at Joe and infer that if he’s got it, then you must have it too. You didn’t know you had a self till you saw it in others. But who’s in there to make such a deduction, if not your self?

Without The Gods

Jaynes seems to say that bicameral minds, with their hallucinations of god-talk, actually emerged at the beginnings of civilization around 10,000 years ago, as a form of social control when communities became larger than tribal bands, with the god-voices evolving from the actual voices of kings, and then of dead kings, who became gods. This begs the question of what sort of mental life preceded bicameralism, and on this Jaynes is remarkably silent. If people had selves before bicameralism, is it reasonable to suppose they’d give up those selves and their understanding that their inner voices were their own? And if so, then obviously Jaynes can’t claim a later origin for introspective consciousness. One is left to infer that before the beginning of civilization, people were not even bicameral, with consciousness even more impoverished than that. Yet archaeological evidence shows that pre-civilization and even pre-agricultural humans led quite sophisticated lives, with plenty of technology, art, and artisanship. Language also goes back tens of thousands of years, and it’s hard to imagine that the people who developed and used it didn’t know when they were talking to themselves. We’ve also found jewelry 80,000 years old, and it’s hard to understand such adornment if wearers had no sense of self.

The absurdity becomes further evident when Jaynes discusses the breakdown of the bicameral mind – when the voices of gods went away. He describes people as then searching about for alternative sources of godly instruction – divination, oracles, casting lots, horoscopes, etc. In fact, he thinks this search for our lost god voices remains a key to the human psyche to the present day. But who were these people undergoing the breakdown of the divine link inside their own heads? Robots denied instructions don’t agonize about what to do. Conversely, if people did agonise, they couldn’t have been without self-consciousness. Wondering what to do is something a self does.

Apart from a throw-away speculation that the Spaniards so easily conquered the Incas because the latter were still non-conscious bicamerals, Jaynes is also conspicuously silent about human communities outside the Near East and Mediterranean areas. As for how the Chinese, Africans, and many other peoples became conscious, Jaynes has no answer. Certainly his arguments invoking social upheavals 3000 years ago would not necessarily be applicable to regions with very different histories. Even his discussion of historical upheavals in his own region of concern is cursory. He does cite some particulars, like the volcanic explosion of Thera (Santorini) around 1600 BC. Yes, that must have been devastating; likewise wars and invasions; but life in ancient times was pervasively tumultuous, difficult, and much more violent than we are accustomed to. Jaynes fails to make a case that there was something so uniquely unsettling about the times around 1000 BC that it wrenched human minds into a whole new functionality.

Jaynes further asserts that introspective consciousness is something we learned at that juncture; thus it was not even biologically evolved. He’s probably forced into this position because it’s implausible that biological evolution could have happened so fast, even with a punctuated equilibrium scenario. But it makes far more sense to see our consciousness as a biological adaptation occurring far earlier and over a much longer period of time. Intelligence and consciousness are useful adaptations, evolved in many creatures to some degree at least, and Homo sapiens is simply the most extreme example of these adaptations. A sense of self helps too, because it makes the animal care what happens to it, and act accordingly. So it seems likely that we evolved our especially big brains to facilitate the complex social cooperation that was so important for survival for our early forebears. In other words, we obtained our minds in order to cope with a terribly hostile, danger-filled, stressful environment – long, long before 1000 BC. It’s ludicrous to think that life was a breeze till then.

Perhaps most insufferable of all is Jaynes’s suggestion that a human sense of morality could not have predated the first millennium BC, with “the true beginning of personal responsibility.” He’s off by a factor of hundreds. There is ample evidence that instincts for morality, justice, and even altruism are deeply wired into us by evolution, as an adaptive response to the environment faced by our earliest ancestors, where such traits would have been advantageous for group survival. Indeed, rudimentary moral sense is found even in non-human animals.

Anyone who studies deeply the earliest civilizations must come to realize that far more unites us with them than differentiates us. These ancestors of ours, only a few hundred generations past, who first figured out how to plant and harvest crops, domesticate animals, build villages and then cities, create writing and literature and music and art, invent government and law, launch great architecture, exploration, trade and conquest, and lay the foundations of science and mathematics, could not possibly have done all this with minds that functioned in the primitive manner Jaynes postulates. His theory belittles those people and their stupendous achievements. All our subsequent accomplishments build upon theirs; they themselves did not have the benefit of following trailblazers – they had to build from scratch. It’s inconceivable that “they knew not what they did.” One might even say preposterous.

© Frank S. Robinson 2013

Frank S. Robinson is the author of five books, including The Case for Rational Optimism. He blogs at rationaloptimist.wordpress.com.

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