Exegesis Volume 07 Issue #025

In This Issue:

From: L:Smerillo
Subject: [e] Re: exegesis Digest V7 #24

Exegesis Digest Fri, 15 Feb 2002

Date: Fri, 15 Feb 2002 08:26:03 +0100
From: L:Smerillo
Subject: [e] Re: exegesis Digest V7 #24

Listar wrote: The
 > >>"thinking" activity of both man and animal (perhaps of rocks as well) seems
 > >>likely to be quite autonomic, hence the too common notion that God
 > >(whatever)
 > >>is busy doing all the "thinking" and choosing.
 > >
 > >Sounds suspiciously like the thesis advocated by Julian Jaynes, with which I
 > >find myself inclined to agree. ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

As David Hume noted, no one has ever seen a self, either.

"For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a percepton, and never can observe anything but the perception.... If anyone, upon serious and unprejudiced reflection, thinks he has a different notion of himself, I must confess I can reason no longer with him. All I can allow him is, that he may be in the right as well as I, and that we are essentially different in this particular. He may, perhaps, perceive something simple and continued, which he calls himself; though I am certain there is no such principle in me." (Treatise on Human Nature, I, IV, sec. 6.)


Jaynes dates the breakdown event of the bicameral mind between the Iliad and the Odyssey. he posits that supposed event somewhere in the period 3000 to 1200. But why not 750-600 BCE, a more likely date for the composion of the text of Homer? How that spread to other culutres is more of a mystery, biologically.

But before matching the master with Homer a small service offering with the timely reminder that homo "man" sapiens is a single, homogeneous species and that if there were an epoch when the great cerebral "rooms" of early hominids were not integrated to the functioning level we associate to ourselves today, then that epoch quite certainly concluded when homo sapiens made his biological evolutionary debut.

When was that? Well, the "Noah's-Ark" (or "Out-of-Africa") Theory contingent would tend to assert that it was probably not too long after 250,000 years ago but could possibly have been as recent as a little more than 100,000 years ago.

Their opposite number, the "Candelabrum" (or "Menorah") Theory advocates have been rather more vague on this subject, and with good reason. Picture this: a mass ex-migration from Africa of upright, tool-making hominids that began, say, a million and a half years ago, results in often wholly isolated populations being nonetheless established virtually across the entire geography of the Old World from Java to Beijing to Europe, all of whom (although living in differing environmental conditions) evolve at essentially the same time into an identical new species.

Wow! Now THAT'S an Axial Age notion worthy of its own "dot-com" and lucrative IPO! And if they had actually had some $60 billion of spare change coursing through the diaspora habilis economy, they might have survived. But even if they did survive and even it did not all take place at essentially the same time, the evolution of isolated populations into a single species at different times would still be unprecedented. After all, that is hardly what happened to the finches and other fauna on the Galapagos. So the "Candelabra" folk have been covering this exposed flank by vague mumblings and guarded inchings toward the "Noah's Ark" position on this particular point.

Where's the evidence? Well, we may never have the data to state precisely and to everyone's satisfaction the point at which early hominids first crossed the sapiens evolutionary frontier. But for the purposes of this exchange in re the bicameral mind and Jaynes, we do at least have a terminus ante quem that is definitive. Namely: Lascaux, Cosquer, Altamira, Le Portel, Chauvet and other examples of the breathtaking parietal art created from the Aurignacian through the Magdalenian periods by an incontestably homo sapiens population. Samples taken from Chauvet have been radiocarbon dated to more than 32,000 BP (before the present) - rather a long time before the EIA and the Archaic in Greece (see below for more).

The idea that the Neanderthals were ancestors of H. sapiens has been thoroughly put to rest. According to Chris Stringer (_In Search of the Neanderthals_, _African Exodus_), the Neanderthals were a descendant of H. erectus, as were the various other ancient populations of pre-humans in Asia, and were displaced by H. sapiens from Africa between 130K and 30K years ago. The software change seems to have occurred in Africa, among a fairly small tribe or group of proto-humans, about 130K years ago.

Since Jaynes did not engage Homer and the Bible in an informed way, he did not elicit response in Homeric and biblical scholarship (and I will not further lenghten this with his so-called biblical evidence); and since he was also eccentric within the much more polymorphous field of psychology he did not elicit response there either, his book remains, not so much a fossil as a glacial erratic. What, seriously, would one say about his thesis that schizophrenia is a throwback to bicameral mentality? In fact, what is now the status of the left brain/right brain division? On the absence of will in Homer: it's absent in Plato and Aristotle too, getting a start in the Epicureans, flowering in Augustine and Christian thought, and it morphs again in German thought after Kant-- to give but a potted consensus history.

The idea that the such religious experiences as epiphany and oracular trance are related to the division of the brain into hemispheres is, I believe, central to Jaynes' argument; this argument betrays a terrible misunderstanding of the nature of religious experience. It also is dependent upon a model of neurological function that's hopelessly out of date. Let me put it this way: a person who has sufferred injury to the corpus callosum should manifest behavior symptomatic of the kind of changes in consciousness that Jaynes has suggested. As far as I have heard, they do not. I imagine that Oliver Sacks might have something on the subject.

Two things strike me as problematic: if human thoughts in Homer are merely "voice" communications from one lobe (camera) to the other, perceived or at any rate represented as gods, then what are the thoughts of the gods? Surely the gods are capable of reflection (e.g., Zeus weighing in his mind the implications of complying with Thetis's request at the end of Iliad 1), rather than automata following instructions from one camera (perceived or represented as ...?). Second, Jaynes has a naive sense of history. Homo sapiens sapiens has been around at least 100,000 years (this keeps being pushed back in reports carried in the NY Times every three months or so). On the scale, Homer is yesterday; are we to believe that the breakdown of the bicameral mind and the origin of "consciousness" in our sense of the word occurred only so very recently? Jaynes reports on some vivid inter-cameral voice experiences of his own, which made me curious about the quality of his own consciousness.

There is a certain type of person who simply cannot accept either 1) that anyone could believe in a multitude of gods and in miracles, despite some 2 billion living witnesses to the contrary, or 2) that anyone could speak of religious experiences that they did not believe to be literally true, but do believe to have some deeper meaning or truth. Mythological narrative works at several different levels, though. Let's take the famous scene in the *Iliad* in which Athena stops Achilles from killing Agamemnon; Homer describes her as grabbing him by his hair to hold him back. I suppose that Jayne would see this as the left hemisphere, the ego element in the bicameral mind (there's Freud in there, folks! Whether Jayne acknowledges it or not), overriding the id element's urge to kill Agamemnon. But there are much better ways of describing this scene:

1) to a child, you would might well say that Athena literally grabbed him by the hair to stop him; we'll call this the Santa Claus/ Tooth Fairy/Stork level of argumentation;

adults might understand this in one of three different ways:

2) as a *totem* in the Levi-Strauss sense; though I'd argue that any adult, *sauvage* or no, might be likely to accept totemic logic in a religious situation; -- Athena the Owl barred his way;

3) as an allegory; his Athena, his intelligence, held him back (as Euripides might have put it, "his mind became Athena");

4) as a metaphor; his intelligence held him back, with Athena as merely a kind of poetic circumlocution for intelligence, and the rest a Homeric simile disguised as an epiphany (which is the kind of reading I think actually lay behind Euripides' phrase in the Troades).

My own guess is that for Homer, the scene plays out in all four ways: he is aware of all four possible genera of signification (as Euripides is certainly aware of the last two genera in the line from the Troades I'm paraphrasing, "your mind became Aphrodite"), and to Homer, all four were equally "true," and therefore for us all four are well within the fair limits of interpretation. For others, the "logic" that they accepted was dependent upon the context in which they read the poem; those who read the *Iliad* in a religious context perhaps saw the scene literally or totemistically; those who read the *Iliad* as Plato's Ion did perhaps as an allegory; and those who read the poem as Euripides did, as a grand metaphor. One of my favorite books is G.E.R. Lloyd's _Demystifying Mentalities_, which strikes at the heart of the Levi-Bruhl school of anthropology that may lie behind what Jayne is writing: he argues that while there may be "primitive" modes of thought, there are no "primitive" peoples; rather, one's mode of thought varies with context, and a nuclear physicist could well read his horoscope to learn how to relate to his wife at the same time he is using his Feynman diagrams to interpret the events in his accelerator. In other words, if Homer had been frozen at the age of two or three and thawed out today, in a few months he'd have been a normal boy, living entirely in the context of our age and with behaviors determined by a consciousness indistinguishable from our own; because it is not that the consciousness changes, it is that the behaviour adapts to the context.

But certainly Jaynes' argument breaks down where he claims the greatest strength for it, in the Iliad. Jaynes asserts that, "The Trojan War was directed by hallucinations. And the soldiers who were so directed were not at all like us. They were noble automatons who knew not what they did" (Jaynes, p.75). And this just doesn't square with Homer's text. Both Achilles' decision to step out of the war and his decision to step back into it are motivated, in Homer's text, not by the behest of any god, but by events that impinge on Achilles' consciousness: he is enraged by the insults of Agamemnon; he is grieved over the death of Patroclus.

I am quite annoyed by his treatment of evidence from the Iliad. According to Jaynes, Achilles does not display volition, but does what various gods tell him to (e.g. the scene where Athena yanks him by the hair as he's preparing to slit Agamemnon's gizzard-- a remarkably sensible act which would have saved everyone a lot of trouble, in my view). This utterly misrepresents the plot of the Iliad, where Achilles calls the shots at crucial points, even influencing actions of the gods (his mother, and, through her, Zeus and Hephaistos). Jaynes' argument could only be accepted if he could demonstrate that the evidence he likes from the Iliad represents an older layer of culture than the evidence which runs counter to his thesis. Instead, he simply does not represent evidence unfavorable to his argument-- which, given the vast amount of it, strikes me as disingenuous. In the manner of J.G. Frazer, Jaynes draws evidence from a wide range of different cultures, but I found I could never trust his assertions based on classical evidence, which made me suspicious about all his cultural evidence.

A smaller example: Agamemnon's reaction to the lying dream sent by Zeus in Book 2 is not that of an automaton; neither is that of the chieftains to whom he reports it; neither is that of the ordinary troops to whom a falsified version is given. These people debate alternative courses; they discuss; they bully and brag; they carp; they make mistakes for reasons that seemed good at the time. They are fully conscious, in a way that Jaynes' never once acknowledges in his book.

Did the Greeks believe in their myths? Many of the Greeks did indeed believe in their myths, just as some people believe that the Virgin appears to shepherds or that angels appear in the doorways of children's bedrooms or that statues of Gautama can be seen at times to smile; many others believed in the myths as totems, or as allegories, or as literary metaphors, describing the nature they saw around them with analogies barely less suspect than our attempt to describe the singularity at the extreme of the three spatial and one temporal axes of space-time as "the Big Bang" (funny thing is, Hoyle meant the term to be dismissive). One need not create the entity of a "bicameral mind" to explain the behavior of the ancients; one need only understand as much of their culture as possible, their behaviors and habits of thought will slowly start to fall into place. Probably no one will ever really understand enough about their culture to truly understand them; but then, do any of us understand the behaviour of our neighbours next door?

Perhaps Jaynes would consider the cave-paintings as products of a "bicameral" culture, i.e. before the emergence of conscious volition. Jaynes posits that before consciousness developed human beings acted in response to godlike utterances passing from one zone of the brain to another. Since the "god" was just a part of their own brain, they would achieve results analogous to fully conscious beings (art, laws, etc.) but they wouldn't understand the process in the same way. In a very real sense, they wouldn't understand it at all.

So what is Jaynes talking about?

The culture that produced the cave-paintings in western Europe, I would suggest, is to be "read" in the paintings as the product of people who knew full well what they were doing.

We may ask if the notion of "late prehistory" embraces Cosquer, Altamira, Lascaux, the Dordogne, and Chauvet, inter alia?

If not, the proposal by Jaynes is obviously, absolutely and unequivocally false, regardless of any and all considerations, sophistic (in the modern sense) speculations, or other picayune nibblings at the edges by Jaynes or anyone else.

The notion that the peoples of Chauvet, Altamira, Lascaux, Le Portel et alia, were anything other than fully formed homo sapiens sapiens no different in any way from ourselves in terms of intelligence, artistic creativity and capacity for consciousness has been long since dispelled. As Stephen Jay Gould so concisely put it (_Natural History_ July 1996): "We have recognized the cave artists, and they are us."

We are therefore speaking of an equivalent capacity for conciousness "as we enjoy it" that can reliably be dated, with standard deviations of well less than a thousand years, to embrace a significant span of time from as far back as before 32,000 years ago (Chauvet) to over 11,000 years ago (Le Portel), all long before the advent of any "written records".

The notion that "consciousness as we enjoy it" was something which "evolved in late prehistory" and the evolution of which can be seen in the "earliest written records" is accordingly thoroughly unsustainable in the biological context which "evolution" imputes. It is hence reduced to little more than the commonplace observation that the "medieval mind" was different from the "early modern mind", that the latter was distinct from the "modern mind" and that these all in turn were different from the collective weltanschauung of whatever peoples and societies in another historical time and place one may wish to select. It is indeed essentially no different than saying that the "consciousness" of Italians in the 1960's was not identical to that of Italians in the 1860's or that the "consciousness" of American women in the 1990's is rather different from that which Ms. Friedan reported in her famed work of the early 1960's. The quotidian observation that such differences as these exist is so mundane and obvious as to hardly warrant mention, least of all their proposition as some grand theory.

But the suggestion that the literal human capacity for consciousness varied among these various peoples and that such capacity was inherently superior in some as compared to others is unsupported by the evidence. And if this is not what Jaynes is suggesting, then what is left for him to say is completely trivial at the level of intellectual generalization.

Jaynes' idea, therefore, may be comfortably abandoned. Application of the abandoned to astrology may do more damage to the subject than the Vienese quacks have done.


Lorenzo Smerillo


End of exegesis Digest V7 #25

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