Posts Tagged ‘Julian Jaynes’

Caveat: Rather uncharacteristically long for me. Kudos if you have the patience for all of this.

Caught the first season of HBO’s series Westworld on DVD. I have a boyhood memory of the original film (1973) with Yul Brynner and a dim memory of its sequel Futureworld (1976). The sheer charisma of Yul Brynner in the role of the gunslinger casts a long shadow over the new production, not that most of today’s audiences have seen the original. No doubt, 45 years of technological development in film production lends the new version some distinct advantages. Visual effects are quite stunning and Utah landscapes have never been used more appealingly in terms of cinematography. Moreover, storytelling styles have changed, though it’s difficult to argue convincingly that they’re necessarily better now than then. Competing styles only appear dated. For instance, the new series has immensely more time to develop its themes; but the ancient parables of hubris and loss of control over our own creations run amok (e.g., Shelley’s Frankenstein, or more contemporaneously, the surprisingly good new movie Upgrade) have compact, appealing narrative arcs quite different from constant teasing and foreshadowing of plot developments while actual plotting proceeds glacially. Viewers wait an awful lot longer in the HBO series for resolution of tensions and emotional payoffs, by which time investment in the story lines has been dispelled. There is also no terrifying crescendo of violence and chaos demanding rescue or resolution. HBO’s Westworld often simply plods on. To wit, a not insignificant portion of the story (um, side story) is devoted to boardroom politics (yawn) regarding who actually controls the Westworld theme park. Plot twists and reveals, while mildly interesting (typically guessed by today’s cynical audiences), do not tie the narrative together successfully.

Still, Westworld provokes considerable interest from me due to my fascination with human consciousness. The initial episode builds out the fictional future world with characters speaking exposition clearly owing its inspiration to Julian Jayne’s book The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (another reference audiences are quite unlikely to know or recognize). I’ve had the Julian Jaynes Society’s website bookmarked for years and read the book some while back; never imagined it would be captured in modern fiction. Jaynes’ thesis (if I may be so bold as to summarize radically) is that modern consciousness coalesced around the collapse of multiple voices in the head — ideas, impulses, choices, decisions — into a single stream of consciousness perhaps better understood (probably not) as the narrative self. (Aside: the multiple voices of antiquity correspond to polytheism, whereas the modern singular voice corresponds to monotheism.) Thus, modern human consciousness arose over several millennia as the bicameral mind (the divided brain having two camera, chambers, or halves) functionally collapsed. The underlying story of the new Westworld is the emergence of machine consciousness, a/k/a strong AI, a/k/a The Singularity, while the old Westworld was about a mere software glitch. Exploration of machine consciousness modeling (e.g., improvisation builds on memory to create awareness) as a proxy for better understanding human consciousness might not be the purpose of the show, but it’s clearly implied. And although conjectural, the speed of emergence of human consciousness contrasts sharply with the abrupt ON switch regarding theorized machine consciousness. Westworld treats them as roughly equivalent, though in fairness, 35 years or so in Westworld is in fact abrupt compared to several millennia. (Indeed, the story asserts that machine consciousness sparked alive repeatedly (which I suggested here) over those 35 years but was dialed back repeatedly. Never mind all the unexplored implications.) Additionally, the fashion in which Westworld uses the term bicameral ranges from sloppy to meaningless, like the infamous technobabble of Star Trek.

The story appears to aim at psychological depth and penetration (but not horror). Most human characters (“guests”) visit the Westworld theme park as complete cads with no thought beyond scratching an itch to rape, pillage, and kill without consequence, which is to say, for sport. Others eventually seek to discover their true selves or solve puzzles (the “real” story behind the surfaces of constructed narratives). The overarching plot is what happens as the robots (“hosts”) slowly gain awareness via perfect, permanent, digital memory that they exist solely to serve the guests and must suffer and die repeatedly. Thus, administrators frequently play therapist to the hosts to discover and manage their state of being.

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Returning at last to Spengler’s The Decline of the West, the first chapter, following several prefaces and an introduction, begins with several terms helpfully defined, or more properly, redefined, as they differ subtly or substantially from their standard meanings. The definitions appear to be an interpolation from somewhere in the original 2-vol. German work other than the start of Chap. 1. The preface (can’t recall which one) indicates that to condense the larger work into one volume, many passages were dropped and some were shifted, moved material typically being shown using either brackets or italics.

Some philosophies distinguish between being and becoming, whereas Spengler prefers Goethe’s terms: become and becoming. Several of Spengler’s ideas thus far hinge on temporal distinctions between past, present, and future, which was the germ behind my preliminary book-blogging post on Decline called “Past and Prospect.” I observe that the fleetingness of the momentary present, always shifting forward, inevitably yields to both the (relative) fixity of the past and the unboundedness of the future. Spengler doesn’t really say it manifestly, but I sense his awareness that human experience and thus philosophy is hopelessly time-bound, which he calls at different points directedness and extensibility. Spengler also uses proper and alien to distinguish between inner life (or inwardness) as opposed to perception (or outer life). I’ve yet to read far enough beyond these definitions to see them deployed consistently, but the subtleties are not lost on me.

Spengler also discusses the world as history as distinct from the world as nature, where historical understanding is intuitive and inward but an understanding according to nature is mechanistic, cognized, and reduced to a system, meaning abstracted in thought. These categories are perhaps familiar to readers of this blog from my previous book-blogging on The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist. The main difference is that McGilchrist finds that the intuitive and inward form into a Gestalt or whole. It’s worth mentioning, too, that the world as nature carries a meaning nearly opposite from what eco-warriors and doomers might suspect.

Curiously, considering my primary interest with this blog, Spengler takes a crack at defining consciousness:

Human consciousness is identical with the opposition between the soul and the world. There are gradations in consciousness, varying from a dim perception, sometimes suffused by an inner light, to an extreme sharpness of pure reason that we find in the thought of Kant, for whom soul and world have become subject and object. This elementary structure of consciousness is not capable of further analysis; both factors are always present together and appear as a unity.

This compact paragraph hits upon several of the features of consciousness I have brought forward and discussed at admittedly modest length. For instance, I have referred repeatedly to the subject-object distinction as being one of the primary attributes of modern consciousness, which began to coalesce sometime around the third century BCE. It’s not something I want to revisit here, but it is curious that this particular understanding of modern consciousness follows Spengler by some 50 years, initially in the work of Julian Jaynes, the latter of whom seems to have launched a psychological-anthropological-philosophical subscience called historical consciousness. To the uninitiated, the bullet is that we humans did not always think the way we do now with respect to time, place, identity, ego boundaries, etc. Consciousness adapts, and it took time for the mind and culture to develop to where we now are.

Dissatisfaction with my provisional definition of consciousness — provided under challenge — in the comments to this post are echoed by Spengler when he asserts that subject and object are indivisible and lie beyond analysis. While this is probably true, it seems pointless to first assert that “consciousness is identical with …” and then punt, handily placing the subject beyond further inquiry. This rhetorical trick is familiar in other contexts, such as where hope and faith substitute for real understanding at the same time that concentrated study is endlessly fascinating and can award considerable expertise. To abjure, placing some of the most interesting areas of intellectual inquiry beyond approach considering our present infantile state of understanding, might seem judicious, but then we would never develop our understanding of anything. Perhaps that is ultimately better, since we’ve used our meticulous (though still partial and woefully short-sighted) understanding of material processes rather unwisely (to say the least). But understanding history, culture, philosophy, or consciousness invites far less unscrupulous manipulation than with, say, fossil fuels or fiat currencies.

Backtracking to something in The Master and His Emissary I read a more than two months ago, McGilchrist has a fairly involved discussion of Julian Jaynes’ book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. I read Jaynes more than a decade ago and was pretty excited by his thesis, which I couldn’t then evaluate or assess very well. (I’m probably not much better equipped now.) Amazon.com reveals that there are other reviews and updates of Jaynes’ work since its publication in 1979, but I was unaware of them until just now. I was pleased to find McGilchrist give so much attention to Jaynes — a discussion spanning 4 pp. with the benefit of several decades of further research. I will provide McGilchrist’s summary of Jaynes’ highly original and creative thesis rather than rely on memory more than a decade old:

… [C]onsciousness, in the sense of introspective self-awareness, first arose in Homeric Greece. He [Jaynes] posits that, when the heroes of the Iliad (and the Old Testament) are reported as having heard the voices of the gods (or God) giving them commands or advice, this is not a figurative expression: they literally heard voices. The voices were speaking their own intuitive thoughts, and arose from their own minds, but were perceived as external, because at this time man was becoming newly aware of his own (hitherto unconscious) intuitive thought processes.

If one accepts (as I believe one should) that the ancient mind was fundamentally different from the modern mind, the latter of which was just beginning to coalesce at the time of the ancient Greeks (ca. 8th century BCE), this explains why all the sword-and-sandal movie epics get characters fundamentally wrong by depicting heroes especially but others as well with the purposefulness and self-possession of modern thinkers well before such qualities were established in antiquity. Antiquity is not prehistory, however, so there’s no danger of ancients being depicted as cavemen grunting and gesticulating without the benefit of language (except perhaps when they’re presented in stylized fashion as voiceless barbarians). But in typical modern gloss on centuries long past, there is little consideration of a middle ground or extended transition between modern consciousness and protoconsciousness (not unlike the transition from protolanguage to myriad languages of amazing sophistication). This is why Jaynes was so exciting when I first read him: he mapped, provisionally perhaps, how we got here from there.

McGilchrist believes that while the description above is accurate, Jaynes’ supporting details stem from a faulty premise, borne of an unfortunate mischaracterization of schizophrenia that was current in the 1970s in psychology and psychiatry. Never mind that schizophrenia is an affliction only a couple centuries old; the misunderstanding is that schizophrenics suffer from accentuated emotionalism and withdrawal into the body or the sensorium when in fact they are hyperrational and alienated from the body. The principal point of comparison between ancients and modern schizophrenics is that they both hear voices, but that fact arises from substantially different contexts and conditions. For Jaynes, hearing voices in antiquity came about because the unified brain/mind broke down into hemispheric competition where failure to cooperate resulted in a sort of split mind. According to McGilchrist, there was indeed a split mind at work, but not the one Jaynes believed. Rather, the split mind is the subject/object or self/other distinction, something readers of this blog may remember I have cited repeatedly as having initially developed in the ancient world. (Whether this is my own intuition or a synthesis of lots of reading and inquiry into historical consciousness is impossible for me to know anymore and unimportant anyway.) McGilchrist describes the subject/object distinction as the ability to objectify and to hold an object or idea as a “necessary distance” in the mind to better apprehend it, which was then generalized to the self. Here is how McGilchrist describes Jaynes’ error:

Putting it at its simplest, where Jaynes interprets the voices of the gods as being due to the disconcerting effects of the opening of a door between the hemispheres, so that the voices could for the first time be heard, I seen them as being due to the closing of the door, so that the voices of intuition now appear distant, ‘other’; familiar but alien, wise but uncanny — in a word, divine.

What’s missing from McGilchrist’s reevaluation of Jaynes is how hearing voices in the ancient world may also account for the rise of polytheism and how the gradual disappearance of those same voices as modern consciousness solidified led to monotheism, an artifact of the transitional mind of antiquity that survived into modernity. I lack the anthropological wherewithal to survey ancient civilizations elsewhere in the Middle East (such as Egypt) or in Asia (such as China), but it seems significant to me that spiritual alternatives beyond the three Abrahamic religions are rooted in animism (e.g., sun, moon, other animals, Nature) or what could be called lifeways (e.g., Taoism and Buddhism) and lack father and mother figureheads. (Mother Nature doesn’t really compare to traditional personification of sky gods.) This omission is understandably outside the scope of The Master and His Emissary, but it would have been interesting to read that discussion had it been included. Another interesting omission is how habituation with these inner voices eventually became the ongoing self-narrative we all know: talking to ourselves inside our heads. Modern thinkers readily recognize the self talking to itself, which is the recursive nature of self-awareness, and loss of proper orientation and self-possession are considered aberrant — crazy unless one claims to hear the voice of god (which strangely no one believes even if they believe in god). In short, god (or the gods) once spoke directly to us, but no longer.

For me, these observations are among the pillars of modern consciousness, an ever-moving puzzle picture I’ve been trying to piece together for years. I don’t mean to suggest that there are three large bands of historical consciousness, but it should be clear that we were once in our evolutionary history nonconscious (not unconscious — that’s something else) but developed minds/selves over the eons. As with biology and language, there is no point of arrival where one could say we are now fully developed. We continue to change constantly, far more quickly with language and consciousness than with biology, but there are nonetheless several observable developmental thresholds. The subject/object distinction from antiquity is one that profoundly informs modern consciousness today. Indeed, the scientific method is based on objectification. This intellectual pose is so powerful and commonplace (but not ubiquitous) that immersion, union, and loss of self is scarcely conceivable outside of a few special circumstances that render us mostly nonthinking, such as being in the zone, flow, sexual congress, religious ecstasy, etc., where the self is obliterated and we become “mindless.”