The Origin of Consciousness, II

The previous posting on the book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind describes how author Julian Jaynes explains consciousness as the imaginary space we create within our minds to run various scenarios involving our own avatar that we can watch and evaluate.  Jaynes hypothesizes that this was an invention of early civilization that is learned by each of us about the age of three or four.

Before this invention, people thought, but were not aware of their thinking.  They had a will, but did not realize it as their own.  Both they attributed to God, or a deified king.  The decision arrived by their own thinking was heard as a command by a God in a voice as loud and clear as any real voice.

The brain is a flexible organ, and in ancient times was bicameral, meaning both hemispheres more equally controlled daily life than they do today.  In modern brains, Wernick’s area on the dominant side above the ear (usually the left side), is responsible for hearing.  Important functions of the brain are usually found in the same area on both hemispheres, but Wernick’s area is uniquely found only on the left.  The matching area on the right is curiously inert.  Jaynes postulates that this area was once the source of the voice of the Gods, the voice that was clearly heard by the left.

A primitive people, the Natufians, lived in Israel about 10,000 BC.  They were not conscious and had no imaginary avatars, yet they could perform long, complex tasks controlled by a single ruler.  It is quite possible the hallucinated commands of their ruler kept them at their tasks, and, since these commands were the result of their own thinking, obeying them was not in question.  A tomb was found dating from 9,000 BC, 16 feet in diameter with the skeleton of the king propped upright in the center, as if forever giving orders.

Haniwa figure from ancient Japan

Statues of deities from those early times often have open mouths and prominent eyes.  Eye contact is extremely important in all primates in establishing the social order, and a speaker, especially one in authority, looks us directly in the eye.

Ancient Sumerian cuneiform tablets describe elaborate rituals for “opening the mouth” of new statues before they were placed in the temple and often refer to the statues speaking.  Their speech was more than imaginary; they were the person’s own volition, but needed to be primed with props, much as statues of saints inspire today.

During this bicameral period, there was no private anything—no ambitions, frustrations, grudges—because the people had no internal space to be private and no avatar of themselves to be private with.

Eventually, the increasing complexity of society, especially in times of crisis, eroded this system of control.  Then, writing finished it completely.  When a God’s words were written on clay, they could be ignored as an internal voice could never be.  The commands came from without, rather than from within.

As the bicameral society ended, so did the comforting voices of the Gods, and the people felt increasingly abandoned.  They complain of the voices becoming indistinct and far away.  They wonder why their God has abandoned them.  An Assyrian tablet shows a beseeching king on his knees approaching the throne of a God , but the throne is empty.  Nothing like this had been seen before.  In the bicameral age, there had been no need for prayer, but afterward, prayer became the central act of worship.  The Mesopotamians developed the pattern of praising the God, then petitioning the God with a laundry list of requests, and ending with a brief, final praise, and this became the standard pattern ever since, as is seen in the Lord’s Prayer.

The breakdown of the bicameral mind can explain many puzzles of the Bible.  As the bicameral mind collapses throughout the Old Testament, Yahweh becomes more and more distant.  Early on, Yahweh is constantly seen.  He walks in the Garden, he is visible at the sacrifice by Cain and Able, he shuts the door of Noah’s Ark with his own hand.  But by the time of Moses, only once is he seen face-to-face.  Other times he is seen as a burning bush or a pillar of fire.  Finally he disappears altogether, telling Moses, “No one shall see me and live.”  Eventually, even his voice goes, and the message of the Old Testament is that the word of God is now written on tablets, unchanging, universally applicable to all and understandable by all.  The age of prophesy is over.

Then along comes the New Testament that posits the living, breathing person of Jesus as new approach to the now-vanished Yahweh.

The oldest book of the Old Testament is Amos from the eighth century, BC.  Amos was bicameral.  He uses no words for mind, think, or feel.  He never ponders anything in his heart and does not even think before he speaks.  He simply proclaims, “Thus speaks the Lord,” and raves on.  In comparison, the newest book, Ecclesiastes, written in the second century, BC, is strikingly different.  This is not the words of God.  It begins by stating it is “The words of the Preacher . . .,” which are clearly the products of a conscious mind.  It rarely mentions God at all.  The Preacher, supposedly Solomon, ponders his feelings and refers to time as we would today.

The Fall can be interpreted as a myth symbolizing the breakdown of the bicameral mind.  The serpent tells Adam and Eve that “You shall be like the Elohim themselves, knowing good and evil,” God-like qualities that can only be of a conscious mind.  They were never aware of their nakedness in the bicameral state, but suddenly they become aware and capable of feeling shame.  (“Elohim” takes a plural verb, indicating a chorus of heard voices.)

Another sign of the breakdown is confusion in the instructions. Yahweh was about to kill Moses, or perhaps his son, for no reason at all (Exodus 4:24).  Yahweh instructs Balaam not to go with the Moab princes, then tells him to go, and is furious when he does, sending an angel to kill him, but changing once again, telling him to go (Numbers 22).  Yahweh tries to starve a prophet by driving him from the city and forbidding him to eat or drink, then tells another prophet to bring him back.  (1 Kings 13)

All of the bicameral individuals who continued into the conscious age spoke in poetry.  Not only the Greek epics were poetry, but also the Vedas and the writings of Mesopotamia and Egypt.  The Old Testament prophets were often poets, although the scribes did not always preserve this.    The ancient poetry was much closer to song, as in the Song of Solomon, not read, but recited with changes of pitch.  Song is primarily of the right hemisphere and many stroke patients who cannot speak can still sing.  In ancient Greece, poetry was accompanied with musical instruments.  Later, it no longer was, suggesting it was no longer coming from the right hemisphere.

Finally, we find everywhere in our contemporary world substitutes of bicameral authorization—the possession religions of South America, the popularity of ego-based religions, the adoption of astrology and the I Ching, Scientology, belief in UFO’s, and adoption of the spirituality of American Indian culture.

God no longer speaks to us.  Sex almost becomes an obsession with consciousness and the new ability to fantasize.  Deviousness is so common in advertisements and in business dealings, we except it as the norm.  With consciousness, we are tortured by depression, jealousy, anxiety, shame, and regret.  Welcome to the new world.

About Roger Walck

My reasons for writing this blog are spelled out in the posting of 10/1/2012, Montaigne's Essays. They are probably not what you think.
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