Reply to Peter Hankins on the Bicameral Theory

Let me start by saying that I have been an avid reader of Peter Hankins’ excellent blog Conscious Entities for many years, and I have a lot of respect for his opinions. So much so that I remember being dissuaded from reading Julian Jaynes book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind because in Hankins review, he dismissed it as outright implausible. Recently, I did myself a favor and gave Jaynes enough credit to critically examine the book on its own merit. I came away extremely captivated by what Jaynes was saying. His theory of consciousness placed religion and mental illness, the two elephants in the room for philosophy of mind, into one seamless explanatory framework. The human psychological framework was once split into an authoritative god-mind, capable of responding to novel or stressful situations, which then subsequently relayed the results of this unconscious processing through the condensed information modality of speech to the human-mind, which automatically obeyed. All volition was initially habit and conditioning, evolving in complexity as the authoritative god-mind allowed for more complicated behavioral responses to novel stimuli.

For Jaynes, it is only through the development of language that we gained the capacity to experience the frightently common phenomenon of  command hallucinations – auditory hallications in the form of a dismebodied voice that makes forceful behavioral commands, usually of an admonitory context. In religious contexts, this is often experienced as the voice of God or a powerul authority figure of divine origin. Think of Abraham, Socrates, Muhammed, Joan of Arc, Christian mystics, and a large percentage of classically schizophrenic people throughout the ages. Such experiences are widely reported throughout history. Furthermore, Modern neuroscientific imaging provides rough empirical support for Jaynes’s strong version of the hypothesis that auditory hallucinates originate in the right temporal cortex and end up in the left temporal cortex.

This brings me to another point of contention with Hankins review and something I have seen elsewhere in reviews of Jaynes’s book. Hankins talks has if Jaynes’s entire bicameral theory rests on the precise dating of the bicameral breakdown in the literate periods of human history. Despite Hankins praising Jaynes’s book for his clear, rational style, it seems that he has not read the whole book, for Jaynes states repeatedly that the whole theory does not rest on his original suggestion for the date of the origin and emergence of modern consciousness.

The dating is but one of four hypothesis proposed by Jaynes, each standing independent of the others, but strongly reenforced by their interlocking explanatory parsimony.

1. Consciousness — as he carefully defines it — is a learned process based on metaphorical language

2. That preceding the development of consciousness there was a different mentality based on verbal hallucinations called the bicameral (‘two-chambered’) mind.

3. Dating the development of consciousness to around the end of the 2nd millennium B.C. in Greece and Mesopotamia. The transition occurred at different times in other parts of the world.

4. That the bicameral mind is based on a double-brain neurological model

As you can see, the precise dating of the development of consciousness is not the linchpin of his argument. The Clarksian tradition of embodied/embebedded linguistic scaffolding has clearly established the plausibility of (1). The anthropological and archeological evidence gathered by Jaynes and his supporters has an overwhelming mountain of evidence supporting  hypothesis (2); that our ancestors had a different psychological makeup that modern humans is largely evident if you withhold the temptation to project our own psychology onto them. The rampant prevelance of idolatry in almost all ancient civilizations must be taken seriously and a narrow phenomenology of “superstitious beliefs and rituals” is explanatorily sterile. Much anthropological evidence supports the claim that our ancestors literally communicated with the spirit world through auditory hallucinations. Otherwise, we have no convincing explanation for the widespread practice of buyring food and material possessions with the dead, as if the dead chieftans were still capable of issuing forceful commands.

Were we all once so stupid? Or did we have a radically different psychological framework? Would it not be nice to explain in one fell swoop the ease for which hypnosis, religion, and mental illness breakdown the functionality of something supposedly so well entrenched into our neurobiology and evolutionary history?Does not the very origin and decline of religion map onto the bicameral theory perfectly?  We once experienced God, but ate from the tree of knowledge, painfully developed self-consciousness, and have since struggled to be close with the voice of God once again. We cry out with prayers and superstitious ritual, worship and follow readily those who seem still possessed with God’s admonitory wisdom, and blindly go so far as to murder our own children in the face of such powerful admonitory hallucinations (and to this very day!).Nine tenths of human history has been enveloped in religiosity, and yet Enlightenment thinkers are content to simply rationalize that fact into a primitive irrationality.

Hopefully, with the plausibility of (1) and (2) gratiously established, and the ready conceit that hypotheis (3) might need some revision, what of (4)? I already linked to the Julian Jaynes society, which has conveniently provided some discussion of myths and facts concerning Jaynes theory, as well as a nice summary of evidence with alternative hypotheses and numerous academic references.

Coming back to Hankins then, is this all really so ” impossible to believe”? Where is the competing theory for all these phenomena? Where is the implausibility? Where are the gaping flaws in logic?So why hasn’t the bicameral theory caught on you might ask? Well,

The weight of original thought in it is so great that it makes me uneasy for the author’s well-being: the human mind is not built to support such burdens. I would not be Julian Jaynes if they paid me a thousand dollars an hour.



Filed under Philosophy, Psychology, Theology

7 responses to “Reply to Peter Hankins on the Bicameral Theory

  1. Gary, I’m sorry if I discouraged you from reading Julian Jaynes – although I don’t believe in his theory, it’s an ingenious one which does hang together better than many I’ve read and his book is an interesting and thought-provoking read.

    It’s true that the theory could be correct even if the dating were different; but I think if you push the breakdown of the bicameral mind back before the literary texts mentioned by Jaynes, you lose rather a lot of the evidence for the theory.

  2. Gary Williams

    Peter, I think any revision of the dating hypothesis would require a “competing minds” framework rather than pushing back the date of breakdown. In other words, we would have an extended period of time in which modern consciousness would surface occasionally and struggle against the dominant bicameral mentality. In this form, the bicameral mind didn’t breakdown all at once, but rather, was slowly eroded as slimmers of modern consciousness worked their way into our lives. This would explain any inconsistency regarding signs of “modernity” in times that Jaynes said were completely bicameral. Jaynes in fact acknowledges this possibility, but says it makes the job of proving his theory much more difficult, and for that reason, he preferred the stronger version of the hypothesis.

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