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10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Closed minds beware., May 6, 2009
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This review is from: The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (Paperback)
What an exhilarating experience. This extraordinary book is improbable in a number of ways:

* improbable that a book with such a leaden (but totally descriptive!) title would ever have appealed to the mass market;
* improbable that such a "heavy" subject could be delivered in such light, graceful and playful prose;
* improbable that, seeing as it asserts a novel and revolutionary scientific hypothesis, this book was distributed and published outside the usual academic channels;
* improbable that a single individual, apparently working more or less alone, authored such an imaginative, dazzling and, to be frank, brilliant, multi-discipline synthesis (I counted anthropology, philosophy, psychology, psychiatry, neurology, and classics among the unrelated disciplines Jaynes writes insightfully on); and
* improbable that, without the imprimatur of serious academic support (as I understand it Jaynes never had tenure, though he was friends with W. V. O. Quine, which doubtless stands for something), this book was even taken seriously, let alone proved as resistant to serious academic challenge (philosopher Ned Block had a half-hearted go, and there was a well publicised review by Daniel Dennett ("Julian Jaynes' Software Archaeology" - available online) but its critique was of emphasis rather than substance, and was otherwise largely complimentary. Other than that, Richard Dawkins (whose non-zoological opinions I have little time for) has spent a lazy couple of sides outlining the theory, only to feebly remark that the book "is either complete rubbish or a work of consummate genius ..." and while he suspects the former, can't muster the intellectual energy to decide so is "hedging his bets").

But there's one way it isn't improbable, and that's the most remarkable of all: its credibility. The thesis at first blush seems outlandish, yet in Jaynes capable hands it explains deftly and plausibly a number of cultural artefacts of antiquity, including religion itself, that traditional anthropology has been quite unable to sensibly account for, such as that our religious forebears, on their own account spoke with burning bushes, followed fiery pillars, buried their dead with food, gold and even wives, worshipped idols and thought they had daily interaction with gods. Traditional views tend to shrug shoulders and mark these phenomena down as "just some of the crazy stuff they used to do in the olden days" (exhibit a, by none other than Dick Dawkins: "all religious people are deluded") or worse, contrived some far less plausible explanations for them.

Jaynes takes these behavioural artefacts seriously, which seems only fair seeing as the ancients obviously did (not for the hell of it do you build 500 foot pyramids) and proposes a theory for why. Not just that they were (and are) deluded, but that their cognitive architecture was arranged that they heard voices, more or less exactly as schizophrenics do today. Not as a disease of the mind, but as an evolutionary strategy. On the stronger form of Jaynes' bicameral theory, human beings *were not conscious* before about 500A.D.

That is, to say the least, controversial. Jaynes states it upfront, at which point it seems nothing short of outrageous, then patiently, elegantly and compellingly sets out his case. His exegesis is always a pleasure to read, and truly enlightening at times (his discussion of the difference between "consciousness" and "perception" is fascinating - essentially it makes the point that a lot less of our cognitive experience is conscious than we generally apprehend (when Bertrand Russell exemplified consciousness in the the proposition "I see a table" Jaynes suggests "Russell was not conscious of a table, but of the argument he was writing about" - namely that he saw a table.) Jaynes routes consciousness, in the more prescriptive sense he uses it, in the origin of language, and in particular the metaphor. Again, a controversial view, but by no means inconsistent with the sort of outlook you might find in Wittgenstein, for example.

So is Jaynes right? In my view the wrong question to ask, of Jaynes, or any theory. A better question is whether it is helpful in describing our world, and I certainly think it is (you can never have too many tools in the toolbox).

Jaynes' particular elucidation of the bicameral mind may or may not be right, but dispositionally questions he ask seem to be ones in need of an answer, and the anthropological evidence for a need for clear direction and certainty in an uncertain world which was provided through a actual dialogue with apprehended gods (rather than the weak and decidedly figurative religious experiences humans tend to experience these days) seems well answered by the hallucinatory model, and the explanation of consciousness's origin in the failure of the hallucinatory model to deal with the encroaching size and complexity of civilisation in the millennium before Christ seems oddly plausible. Consciousness, then, emerged like one of Steve Gould's spandrels from an existing cognitive architecture which had developed contemplating something quite different. I dare say Dickie Dawkins wouldn't like that idea too much, either.

And for the essentialists, it gets worse: hard core reductionists will shudder at the thought wherein Jaynes turns his attention to vestiges of the bicameral world in the modern day. Religion, you'll not be surprised to hear, is proposed as just such a vestige - the striving of mankind for certainty in the absence of compelling voices instructing how to act - but so is science. Jaynes is typically eloquent as he closes his book:

"For what is the nature of this blessing of certainty that science so devoutly demands in its very Jacob-like wrestling with nature? Why should we demand that the universe make itself clear to us? Why should we care?

"... Science, then, for all its pomp and factness, is not unlike some of the more easily disparaged outbreaks of pseudoreligions. In this period of transition from its religious basis, science often shares with the celestial maps of astrology, or a hundred other irrationalisms, the same nostalgia for the Final Answer, the One Truth, the Single Cause."

As are almost all the verbal constructions in this 450 page tome, that is beautifully put.

Olly Buxton
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Showing 1-4 of 4 posts in this discussion
Initial post: May 24, 2009, 4:24:57 PM PDT
Nimitta says:
Olly, your review is also 'beautifully put', and manages to capture what is so compelling - thrilling, even - about Jaynes' theses: he takes ancient behavior seriously, asks the most important questions, and ties together some of our culture's loosest threads. By the way, interested readers will also get alot from "Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness: Julian Jaynes's Bicameral Mind Theory Revisited' by Marcel Kuijsten, which includes fascinating research findings since Jaynes' death that support the auditory hallucination hypothesis.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 15, 2009, 3:34:45 PM PDT
Olly Buxton says:
Thanks Chip - and I have just ordered that very book on Amazon.

Posted on Mar 3, 2010, 7:43:35 AM PST
This is perhaps the most brilliant review I've ever read. Thank you for taking such time and care.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 21, 2010, 2:40:05 PM PDT
Olly Buxton says:
Thanks very much for reading!
Olly
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