Tag Archives: schizophrenia

The God That Is Our Brain: Bicameralism and Theology

One of the great unanswered questions of science is why belief in gods is so ubiquitous in human societies past and present. Why is our species naturally inclined towards believing in the reality of the spiritworld? And the experience of this spiritworld is not just an abstract theoretical “belief” based on some “intentional stance”, but rather, an essential component of many peoples’ fundamental reality-map i.e. how the cosmos is meaningfully parsed. Where do spirits and gods come from? What is the neurological substrate for these experiential realities? Many theorists would like to answer these questions without invoking any notion of altered states of consciousness.  But as archeologists David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce rightly point out in their book Inside the Neolithic Mind: Consciousness, Cosmos, and the Realm of the Gods, “Complex human consciousness is not an ‘optional’ extra that archeologists can ignore. The assumption that all human behavior can be accounted for on rational, ecological or adaptive grounds is unwarranted: extracting the means of daily material life from the environment is not always an entirely ‘rational’ matter’.”

Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I am a big fan of Julian Jaynes’ theory of bicameralism, especially when it comes to explaining religious phenomena. Accordingly, I was shocked to find that Lewis-Williams and Pearce failed to cite Jaynes despite their book being focused on how hallucinatory and altered states of consciousness played a large role in spurning the development of complex Neolithic civilization. This is, of course, a Jaynesian thesis. But I take this in stride. The fact that the impeccable research of  Lewis-Williams and Pearce independently comes to strikingly similar conclusions as Jaynes is strong evidence that bicameralism is more or less true, or at least highly corroborated.

For those who don’t know, bicameralism says that before the development of modern consciousness there was a preconscious mentality wherein voluntary will was underwritten by a totally different neural control mechanism. Instead of going “offline” and narratizing alternatives to behavior through conscious, articulate reasoning, the bicameral mind was unconsciously controlled by internal voices. As Jaynes puts it, “volition came as a voice that was in the nature of a neurological command, in which the command and the action were not separated, in which to hear was to obey.” We see evidence of this ancient control structure in modern schizophrenic command hallucinations wherein the person is assaulted by admonitory voices who issue condemnatory judgments and behavioral commands. The difference between an ancient voice-hearer and a modern one is that the modern person has developed a voluntary consciousness which can resist the hallucinated instructions and think more or less independently (until the power of the voices becomes overwhelming and they finally give in and obey). In ancient man, there was no option of disobedience. Our original relationship of gods was that of unremitting obedience. It wasn’t until we ate from the Tree of Knowledge that our original union with the gods was split.

Why were these gods so powerful? Why did they appear to humans as all-knowing and all-wise? Because the gods were housed in the vast network that constitutes the unconscious mind. The cognitive unconscious was completely in charge. Until recently, modern humans were under the delusion that consciousness constitutes the entire mental economy. Now we know however that consciousness is but the tip of the iceberg. Compared to the virtual serial machine that is our consciousness, the cognitive unconscious is automatic, fast, and emotional. It can synthetically process huge amounts of context-sensitive information without breaking a sweat. Accordingly, the gods were experienced as all-powerful precisely because in comparison with the pitiful resources available to the “human” complex, the god-complex was infinitely more wise. The gods within us were able to look at the totality of the situation and process action-oriented meaning in relation to a larger context. This generates the experiential component of omniscience when “experiencing God”.

Moreover, bicameral theory is poised to naturalize the mystical experience of  God and the feeling of oneness, unity, and the breakdown of subject/object thinking. In the metastable flux that is mystical union, the autobiographical self – our narrative mind – drops out and we are thrown into the other-referential networks of allocentric processing which more or less resonate to the “whatness” of reality. In neurological terms, we can speculate that the dorsal-parietal self-referential networks of body ownership phase out and the ventral-temporal networks of whatness amplify. This ventral stream is associated with other-referential processing and object-recognition. Moreover, the temporal lobe system is capable of parsing context out of messy variables, synthesizing oodles of information into a unified whole which can be then transferred to other areas of the brain in terms of action-commands.

What’s interesting about the temporal lobes is that the left temporal lobe is the seat of language whereas the corresponding areas in the right temporal lobe don’t seem to be as highly specialized.But Jaynes thought that the corresponding right temporal areas did have an important function, otherwise it would be devoted to making the critical skill of language bilaterally redundant (as with all other important brain functions). What then is the function of the right temporal cortex? Jaynes hypothesized that “The language of men was involved with only one hemisphere in order to leave the other free for the language of gods”. Indeed, this god-language is the source of the auditory hallucinations which once guided our ancestors in times of stress and crutch decision making and still guide/judge/order people today who suffer from florid schizophrenic symptoms.

It was these gods that commanded the kings and god-stewards to build great monuments. And the kings became gods themselves after death, with their subjects hallucinating their voices in terms of commands e.g. the command to build a magnificent burial tomb, to mummify, bathe, feed, and give gifts for sustenance in the after-life. Indeed, in the following relief we can see the god Shirruma guiding King Tudhaliya’s hand:
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Bicameralism understands this relief to depict a story of hallucinatory self-regulation. And look at this scene:

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The Egyptian god Khnum is forming the future king with his right hand along with his spirit-twin, the Ka, with his left hand. The Ka was a spiritual double that was born with every man and survived his death. For Jaynes, the Ka is representative of the bicameral, linguistically grounded god-function. The verbal function of the Ka is suggested by how it is pointing to its mouth in the above picture. The Ka essentially functioned as an ancient form of conscience. It guided the man through commands and suggestions experienced as auditory verbal hallucinations. Vestigial evidence of this function can be seen in the ubiquity of imaginary companions in children today and the surprisingly high prevalence of auditory verbal hallucination in both psychotics and nonpsychotics.

Moreover, when the neural power of the bicameral voices began to fade as bureaucracy and written language took over as the dominant method of social-control (e.g. Hammurabi’s code), the gods were no longer able to provide immediate guidance. New means of contacting the subliminal gods was needed. The flight of the gods necessitated the development of prayer, shamanic trance rituals, idol worship, divination, sortilege (casting lots), oracles, and the list goes on. Almost all modern religious phenomena can be explained within the context of bicameral theory. I am aware of no other theory can provides a comprehensive explanatory framework for understanding both the origin and development of religion and the vestigial traits of our theocratic ancestry in the form of schizophrenic verbal hallucinations and modern religious phenomena.

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A Sketch of Madness

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What is it to be mad? To be torn asunder into a hellish kaleidoscope of self. To wish earnestly for the death of personality and the resurrection of something in its stead. To be immersed in the gory fetishism that makes up the foundation of animal consciousness. To laugh at death when he offers something you could only wish for! To be glad in such death and welcome the relief of non-being. But how things change in madness! To be mad is to commit atrocities and be glad to suffer eternally for them! To take up the cross of humanity upon your shoulders and wish for mortification! To buckle under the guilt of destroying yourself and the world around you. But to learn the joys of suffering and guilt! To be mad is to be caught up in the rapturous joys known only to the immortals! To be elevated in spirit to new dimensions of joy and knowledge. To replay an instant for all eternity; wrapping your self around an imagined salvation. To be caught up in a joyous cosmology! To laugh at your self!To walk down an infinite corridor within your mind with no knowledge of where it leads, destined to wander forever. To be locked into battle over your self, not knowing who will win or who is fighting. To see an infinite reflection of your being, each with its own peculiarity, guilt, and salvation.  To kill and to be killed. To die only to be reborn into someone else. To be mad is to play at being an immortal.

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Inspiration and Hallucination

Following the Jaynesian streak I have been engaging in on this blog, allow me to quote a fascinating anecdote about poetic inspiration from Daniel B. Smith’s excellent book Muses, Madmen, and Prophets. The book goes into detail analyzing various aspects of “voice-hearing”, or in more psychiatric parlance: auditory hallucination; I highly recommend it. To put the quote into context, Smith is analyzing poetic inspiration in terms of hallucination.

Theodore Roethke once revealed in a lecture how his poem “The Dance” came about. It was 1952, and he was living alone in a large house in Edmonds, Washington. He was forty-four years old and teaching poetry at the University of Washington, in Seattle. For weeks Roethke had been teaching his students the five-beat line and reading exemplars of that form: Walter Raleigh and John Davies. For months, however, he had been unable to write anything of worth himself, and he had come to consider himself a fraud. Then, one evening, Roethke was sitting at home when “The Dance” suddenly came to him. It came quickly and with great strength, and in less than an hour he was done:

I felt, I knew, that I had hit it. I walked around, and I wept; and I knelt down — I always do after I’ve written what I know is a good piece. But at the same time I had, as God is my witness, the actual sense of a Presence–as if Yeats himself were in that room. The experience was in a way terrifying, for it lasted at least half an hour. That house, I repeat, was charged with a psychic presence: the very walls seemed to shimmer. I wept for joy…He, they – the poets dead – were with me.

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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.

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What does it mean to be human?

What does it mean to be a human? What is being? What is the difference between the being of humans and the being of non-humans?

These are all important and difficult to answer questions. Martin Heidegger was one philosopher who took it upon himself to attempt to answer some of these questions. His aim was to work out the general meaning of being and to do so concretely. Did he succeed? Some would say yes, others no. In this post, I’d like to sketch out a part of his answer, focusing on the the last question: the difference between the being of humans and the being of non-human animals i.e. the ontological difference.

The distinction between being and beings is there, latent in [humans] and [their] existence, even if not in explicit awareness. The distinction is there; that is to say, it has the mode of being of [humans]: it belongs to existence. Existence means, as it were, “to be in the performance of this distinction.” Only a soul that can make this distinction has the aptitude, going beyond the animal’s soul, to become the soul of a human being…we call the distinction between being and beings, when it is carried out explicitly, the ontological difference.

I’d like to concentrate on the part I made bold. This is crucial to his definition of what it means to be a human being[Dasein]. Essentially, humans comport themselves toward their own being. Another way of putting this awkward phrase is that humans take a stand on their own being. This is what “being in the performance of [the ontological difference]” means. Through the particular ways in which humans act within the world, we make this ontological difference a part of our existential mode of being. This means we always perceive/conceive and act in the world in terms of the difference between being and beings, between the the ontological being of ourselves and the entities which make up the physical world. There is something-it-is-like to be us, and that something has to do with how we already pre-ontologically make a distinction between being and beings.

Whether or not you think of all this is useless metaphysical mumbo-jumbo or an historical attempt to answer one of the most important questions in philosophy is up to you, but hopefully I made it clear that Heidegger was at least an original thinker.

edit: I have updated the original post to fix the inconsistencies pointed out by Roman.

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