Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Humans are Transitional Animals, Not the Climax of Consciousness...,


nautil.us  |  Meanwhile, over the last four decades, the winds have shifted, as often happens in science as researchers pursue the best questions to ask. Enormous projects, like those of the Allen Institute for Brain Science and the Brain-Mind Institute of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, seek to understand the structure and function of the brain in order to answer many questions, including what consciousness is in the brain and how it is generated, right down to the neurons. A whole field, behavioral economics, has sprung up to describe and use the ways in which we are unconscious of what we do—a major theme in Jaynes’ writing—and the insights netted its founders, Daniel Kahneman and Vernon L. Smith, the Nobel Prize.

Eric Schwitzgebel, a professor of philosophy at University of California, Riverside, has conducted experiments to investigate how aware we are of things we are not focused on, which echo Jaynes’ view that consciousness is essentially awareness. “It’s not unreasonable to have a view that the only things you’re conscious of are things you are attending to right now,” Schwitzgebel says. “But it’s also reasonable to say that there’s a lot going on in the background and periphery. Behind the focus, you’re having all this experience.” Schwitzgebel says the questions that drove Jaynes are indeed hot topics in psychology and neuroscience. But at the same time, Jaynes’ book remains on the scientific fringe. “It would still be pretty far outside of the mainstream to say that ancient Greeks didn’t have consciousness,” he says.

Dennett, who has called The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind a “marvelous, wacky book,” likes to give Jaynes the benefit of the doubt. “There were a lot of really good ideas lurking among the completely wild junk,” he says. Particularly, he thinks Jaynes’ insistence on a difference between what goes on in the minds of animals and the minds of humans, and the idea that the difference has its origins in language, is deeply compelling.

“[This] is a view I was on the edge of myself, and Julian kind of pushed me over the top,” Dennett says. “There is such a difference between the consciousness of a chimpanzee and human consciousness that it requires a special explanation, an explanation that heavily invokes the human distinction of natural language,” though that’s far from all of it, he notes. “It’s an eccentric position,” he admits wryly. “I have not managed to sway the mainstream over to this.”

It’s a credit to Jaynes’ wild ideas that, every now and then, they are mentioned by neuroscientists who study consciousness. In his 2010 book, Self Comes to Mind, Antonio Damasio, a professor of neuroscience, and the director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California, sympathizes with Jaynes’ idea that something happened in the human mind in the relatively recent past. “As knowledge accumulated about humans and about the universe, continued reflection could well have altered the structure of the autobiographical self and led to a closer stitching together of relatively disparate aspects of mind processing; coordination of brain activity, driven first by value and then by reason, was working to our advantage,” he writes. But that’s a relatively rare endorsement. A more common response is the one given by neurophilosopher Patricia S. Churchland, an emerita professor at the University of California, San Diego. “It is fanciful,” she says of Jaynes’ book. “I don’t think that it added anything of substance to our understanding of the nature of consciousness and how consciousness emerges from brain activity.”

Jaynes himself saw his theory as a scientific contribution, and was disappointed with the research community’s response. Although he enjoyed the public’s interest in his work, tilting at these particular windmills was frustrating even for an inveterate contrarian. Jaynes’ drinking grew heavier. A second book, which was to have taken the ideas further, was never completed.

And so, his legacy, odd as it is, lives on. Over the years, Dennett has sometimes mentioned in his talks that he thought Jaynes was on to something. Afterward—after the crowd had cleared out, after the public discussion was over—almost every time there would be someone hanging back. “I can come out of the closet now,” he or she would say. “I think Jaynes is wonderful too.”