Saturday, December 26, 2009

50 blogs on disbelief - Julian Jaynes

50 Blogs on Disbelief
My thoughts on the book, 50 Voices of Disbelief, Why We Are Athiests, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. Written as I read them in no particular order. The page number of the essay is provided at the top of each entry.
p 274 Athena Andreadis “Evolutionary Noise, not Signal from Above”

Athena is another essayist who had an insatiable curiosity, read many religious texts, studied hard and became a scientist. She also noticed that a lot of people still followed these old religions. In her quest to understand this, she came across Julian Jayne’s theory of the bicameral mind.

I first heard of this theory in college, not too long after Julian Jayne’s first book that had come out around that time. Basically, it is known that our brain does have a left and right side, the left side for language and more logical thinking and the right for pattern recognition. The theory is that 5,000 or so years ago, the connection between these two hemispheres was not developed, so the messages from the right side occurred as commands from something external, in other words, a voice of god or gods. I don’t remember where I first heard this, but when I related it to some of my college friends, one of them said, “but some people still say they hear God speaking to them.” The theory goes on to say that in a short period, around that time 5,000 years ago, the two halves integrated. This is considered some sort of maturation process for the human race.

I more or less dismissed the idea then, but remembered it and expected that if it had legs, further research would reveal more. According to the Julian Jaynes website, the theory has had some staying power. Julian Jaynes died in 1997, but a society has continued his work. Their website speaks to many of the criticisms, so I won’t reproduce them here, other than my favorite, that he did not include anything from China.

Some of Athena’s analysis relies on her knowledge of neurobiology, so I can’t really argue with her, I can only say that I find it suspect. It is sometimes hard to tell when she is relying on Jayne’s theory, and when she is adding in her own analysis. In either case, I don’t find the discussions very convincing. She claims that once the bicameral brain matured into what it is now, religion became an obstacle to all that we could be become. She says that some people now choose to be bicameral, holding back those who don’t. At times I find it difficult to even tell what she is attempting to say. She says religion would have us go against our own accumulated knowledge and

“Instead, we are told that we are inherently polluted and ordered to obey external authority, with the promise that if we relinquish our independent judgment we will enjoy rewards still geared to sate the four Fs (feed, fight, fornicate and flee): virgins, harps, rivers of mead, rather than say, exploring the universe as a beam of conscious light. If, that is, the god we follow is the “true” one. Otherwise, we will suffer punishment that even the most dedicated torturers would hesitate to dispense.”

I’m not sure what a “beam of conscious light” is, but I think we are more likely to find insight into our brain chemistry through the work of evolutionary biologists such as those from an earlier essay, or perhaps Jill Bolte-Taylor, a brain scientist who had a stroke and gained firsthand knowledge of how her brain works.



  1. Have you read the new book on Jaynes's theory, "Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness" (edited by Marcel Kuijsten)? It contains a chapter on the origin of religion vis-a-vis Jaynes by the philospher David Stove that I think you'll enjoy. -Charles

  2. For the moment, I'm going to agree with the review on that this book is for "completist only", those who want to have a full collection of Jaynes material.

    As a skeptic, I have to chase a lot of rabbits down holes, so I can claim my opinion is valid. When I see comments comparing the author to Galileo, saying they are controversial and their ideas will accepted in some unknown future, red flags start to pop up.

    I will try to find the time. Hopefully I can get my hands on just the one chapter. I'm sure I would enjoy it.

  3. Sooo... you're attending a Church but you're an athiest? Not the first of course, many have had to before being a species that requires community. Indeed in North america you are quite religious, it must be a burden. I don't think I very often meet religious people here in England, they're a dying breed and tend to stick in their small packs whilst everyone else goes about their secular lifetyles. Interesting comments about Jaynes - indeed i only just came across his work '...Bicameral Mind' from '76 (it was referenced in TWO books that I was going through simultaneously - Jonathan Black's 'The Secret History of the World' and Dawkins' infamous polemic 'The God Delusion' - both of which are scholarly questionable but there's popular 'non-fiction' for you) and have been reading it with glee - indeed it contains some fascinating anecdotal neurophysiology, but is more of an introduction to anthropology than anything else! Being completely new to the study of consciousness (to supplement my philosophy diploma) I found Jaynes' work compelling - mainly due to my ignorance. Indeed there have been much advances in the science (read but the guy's concept has seen remarkable resilience. If only it were that easy to understand why we think the way we do, how it came about - and more significantly what is the significance and dependence on (whatever is antecedent to the folowing) language... then religion (indeed 'religion' or some kind of animal or environment worship probably came much earlier) mythology and all these stories that we invest so much import in... certainly as Jaynes' work is said to have inspired a renewed interest in and increase of investigation into 'consciousness', it has certainly started me on a lifelong investigation. Indeed I had never bothered to define 'consciousness' before reading some of his work - it's not definitive of course, the idea that senses themselves are a part of consciousness carries some weight.. I suppose it's really a matter of definition - and experience and expertise of the definer!