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Julian Jaynes - "Origin of Consciousness ..."

The human condition and empires

by Keith Purtell

A king who kneels before an empty throne. Cuneiform from the reign of King Marduk of Babylon, around 1230 B.C.
A king who kneels before an empty throne. Cuneiform from the reign of King Marduk of Babylon, around 1230 B.C.

It doesn’t matter whether or not the scientific community accepted the ideas in “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.” Constructing new dogma is not the goal of a good scientific treatise.

Presenting new models and theories about our world is. Presenting supporting rationale and evidence is even better.

Jaynes turned archaeological sociology on its head when he proposed a new explanation for the rise and fall of ancient cultures. Based on research in multiple disciplines, Jaynes’ concept was that ancient cultures were centered around religious practice that included actually hearing the voices of their gods, which Jaynes asserts originated in their own brains. The premise was grounded in brain research, but it startled many readers.

photo portrait of Julian Jaynes
Julian Jaynes

“The Origin of Consciousness ...” is a far-ranging journey through human history. Jaynes is a patient old guide whose careful, rational voice coaxes the student through every turn of the road. The search for understanding rolls across centuries, past landmarks both physical and intangible. Like any good investigator, Jaynes is obsessed with the trail of evidence.

It really takes the entire book for the theory to become clear, but his cogent monologue grows increasingly convincing with each page. By the end, Jaynes’ chugging logic has become a diesel locomotive. This must have been the farthest thing from catechism that Jaynes’ peers could have expected in 1976.

Even if the auditory hallucination theory is rejected, Jaynes’ general concept about the growth and collapse of ancient cultures still holds together. Students of history know chaos is usually closer than cultures realize, because civilization is based on a complex web of shared agreements about how we will behave toward each other. In an ancient society built entirely on religious agreement, a rupture of faith would be, as Jaynes pointed out, a calamity.

photo of Julian Jaynes seated, outside
Julian Jaynes

The following link goes to a summary of "Consciousness": Summary of "Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind" by Erik Weijer.

There were comparisons with Sigmund Freud when this book came out. However, Freud’s work had more impact when it was publicized.

Where scientific dogma was once brittle, it now carries the bureaucratic inertia of thousands of scientists interconnected in a complex network. Novel ideas are likely to be suffocated under a mass of entrenched attitudes.

That said, among the less intransigent, “The Origin of Consciousness” stirred excitement and continues to provoke and inspire.

Another author, Joseph Tainter has worked on similar ideas:
"His best-known work, The Collapse of Complex Societies (1988), examines the collapse of Maya and Chacoan civilizations, and of the Western Roman Empire, in terms of network theory, energy economics and complexity theory.

Tainter argues that sustainability or collapse of societies follow from the success or failure of problem-solving institutions and that societies collapse when their investments in social complexity and their energy subsidies reach a point of diminishing marginal returns. He recognizes collapse when a society involuntarily sheds a significant portion of its complexity."