Sunday, August 09, 2015

consciousness began when the gods stopped speaking...,


nautil.us |  The book sets its sights high from the very first words.  “O, what a world of unseen visions and heard silences, this insubstantial country of the mind!” Jaynes begins. “A secret theater of speechless monologue and prevenient counsel, an invisible mansion of all moods, musings, and mysteries, an infinite resort of disappointments and discoveries.”

To explore the origins of this inner country, Jaynes first presents a masterful precis of what consciousness is not. It is not an innate property of matter. It is not merely the process of learning. It is not, strangely enough, required for a number of rather complex processes. Conscious focus is required to learn to put together puzzles or execute a tennis serve or even play the piano. But after a skill is mastered, it recedes below the horizon into the fuzzy world of the unconscious. Thinking about it makes it harder to do. As Jaynes saw it, a great deal of what is happening to you right now does not seem to be part of your consciousness until your attention is drawn to it. Could you feel the chair pressing against your back a moment ago? Or do you only feel it now, now that you have asked yourself that question?

Consciousness, Jaynes tells readers, in a passage that can be seen as a challenge to future students of philosophy and cognitive science, “is a much smaller part of our mental life than we are conscious of, because we cannot be conscious of what we are not conscious of.” His illustration of his point is quite wonderful. “It is like asking a flashlight in a dark room to search around for something that does not have any light shining upon it. The flashlight, since there is light in whatever direction it turns, would have to conclude that there is light everywhere. And so consciousness can seem to pervade all mentality when actually it does not.”

Perhaps most striking to Jaynes, though, is that knowledge and even creative epiphanies appear to us without our control. You can tell which water glass is the heavier of a pair without any conscious thought—you just know, once you pick them up. And in the case of problem-solving, creative or otherwise, we give our minds the information we need to work through, but we are helpless to force an answer. Instead it comes to us later, in the shower or on a walk. Jaynes told a neighbor that his theory finally gelled while he was watching ice moving on the St. John River. Something that we are not aware of does the work.

The picture Jaynes paints is that consciousness is only a very thin rime of ice atop a sea of habit, instinct, or some other process that is capable of taking care of much more than we tend to give it credit for. “If our reasonings have been correct,” he writes, “it is perfectly possible that there could have existed a race of men who spoke, judged, reasoned, solved problems, indeed did most of the things that we do, but were not conscious at all.”

Jaynes believes that language needed to exist before what he has defined as consciousness was possible. So he decides to read early texts, including The Iliad and The Odyssey, to look for signs of people who aren’t capable of introspection—people who are all sea, no rime. And he believes he sees that in The Iliad. He writes that the characters in The Iliad do not look inward, and they take no independent initiative. They only do what is suggested by the gods. When something needs to happen, a god appears and speaks. Without these voices, the heroes would stand frozen on the beaches of Troy, like puppets.

Speech was already known to be localized in the left hemisphere, instead of spread out over both hemispheres. Jaynes suggests that the right hemisphere’s lack of language capacity is because it used to be used for something else—specifically, it was the source of admonitory messages funneled to the speech centers on the left side of the brain. These manifested themselves as hallucinations that helped guide humans through situations that required complex responses—decisions of statecraft, for instance, or whether to go on a risky journey.

The combination of instinct and voices—that is, the bicameral mind—would have allowed humans to manage for quite some time, as long as their societies were rigidly hierarchical, Jaynes writes. But about 3,000 years ago, stress from overpopulation, natural disasters, and wars overwhelmed the voices’ rather limited capabilities. At that point, in the breakdown of the bicameral mind, bits and pieces of the conscious mind would have come to awareness, as the voices mostly died away. That led to a more flexible, though more existentially daunting, way of coping with the decisions of everyday life—one better suited to the chaos that ensued when the gods went silent. By The Odyssey, the characters are capable of something like interior thought, he says. The modern mind, with its internal narrative and longing for direction from a higher power, appear.