Correcting Misinterpretations of Julian Jaynes’ Theory – Bernard Baars edition

In one of only three posts at his seemingly defunct blog Your Conscious Brain, neuroscientist Bernard Baars writes:

A few decades ago the Princeton psychologist Julian Jaynes speculated that consciousness is a recent phenomenon – just a few thousand years old. Jaynes thought so based on a difference between the language of Homer’s Illiad and the Odyssey. In the Odyssey, he claimed, the voices of the gods are perceived to come from the outside world. In the Illiad, on the other hand, the gods are thought to speak inside of the heroes’ heads.

But fully formed language is now believed to date back some 50,000 to 100,000 years, and as for consciousness, at least sensory consciousness seems to be much, much more ancient. Hemispheric lateralization such as we find in language can be observed in guinea pigs and song birds. The hoped-for “language gene” of FOXP2 is known to exist in alligators. Human cognitive faculties are spun off from much more ancient adaptations

There are several misleading things going on here.

First, Baars engages in the classic bait-and-switch move by attacking Jaynes for a view he never held. Jaynes would totally agree that “sensory consciousness” is an ancient phenomenon shared with animals – that’s why he was so careful to distinguish perception and cognition generally from what he thought of as “consciousness” – a short-hand term for what philosophers would call “reflective self-consciousness”.

Later Baars admits “That is not to say that tree shrews have ‘higher level consciousness’ (Edelman, 1989), which is heavily dependent on language, executive and social functions, the brain bases of human culture.” But that type of “higher level consciousness” is exactly what Jaynes claimed to be a recent development based on language! So why would Baars start off saying Jaynes thought “consciousness” is a recent development when in the context of Baar’s own vocabulary he should have said “Jaynes speculated that higher-order consciousness is a recent phenomenon”? Even a cursory inspection of Jaynes’ book would show that it’s no refutation of his theory to point out that sensory awareness is ancient and shared with animals – this falls under the general umbrella of what Jaynes’ called “perceptual reactivity”.

Why do people bring up Jaynes only in brief, stereotyped snippets only to immediately dismiss the theory as preposterous? I don’t know. I suspect it’s because people never bothered to read the 1990 edition that has an “afterword” where Jaynes complains about the obstacles he’s had in getting academics to give him a fair reading. Or I suspect they never read the book at all – or read it so long ago that they only remember a distorted version like a bad translation at the end of the children’s game “telephone”.

Second, Baars implies that Jaynes’ only line of evidence for his view is the differences between the Iliad and the Odyssey. This is misleading. The transition in writing style from the Iliad to the Odyssey represents a shift in cognitive ability that is typical in different ancient literature as well, including the Old Testament (compare the oldest book, Amos, to the latest books, like Song of Solomon). Also, Jaynes’ evidence base included reports in cultural anthropology.

Baars also writes that  “fully formed language is now believed to date back some 50,000 to 100,000 years” as if this is supposed to be a crucial blow to Jaynes’ view. As Jaynes writes in his 1990 afterword,

A weak form of the theory would state that, yes, consciousness is based on language, but instead of its being so recent, it began back at the beginning of language, perhaps even before civilization…

The exact dates don’t matter – Jaynes was always flexible on this point, knowing that new archeological finds could overturn the precise dates he hypothesized. But the general point is that if you’re a social constructivist about higher-order consciousness, then it doesn’t matter if the type of language necessary to support it is 12k years old or 50k years old. The point is that it’s not millions of years old and shared by non-linguistic animals. That’s what is interesting about Jaynes’ theory.

I’ll end with another remark from Jaynes’ 1990 afterword that was prescient indeed:

A favorite practice of some professional intellectuals when at first faced with a theory as large as the one I have presented is to search for that loose thread which, when pulled, will unravel all the rest. And rightly so. It is a part of the discipline of scientific thinking. In any work covering so much of the terrain of human nature and history, hustling into territories jealously guarded by myriad aggressive specialists, there are bound to be such errances, sometimes of fact but I fear more often of tone. But that the knitting of this book is such that a tug on such a bad stitch will unravel all the rest is more of a hope on the part of the orthodox than a fact in the scientific pursuit of truth. The book is not a single hypothesis.

EDIT: Apparently this is the 500th post on this blog. Cool.

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Filed under Consciousness, Philosophy, Psychology

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