Julian Jaynes: Intelligence Without Consciousness (No Offense)

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Julian Jaynes, in his book, Origin Of Consciousness In The Breakdown Of The Bicameral Mind, contends that human beings did not become fully conscious until as recently as several thousand years ago.  By the way, for the sake of convenience, I’m assuming an average level of consciousness shared by all humans and calling this current level of human consciousness “full”—though in reality, we could only be operating on a fraction of a full-consciousness tank.

Here’s my thing with Jaynes’ thought-provoking book:  it’s fascinating, and I tend to agree with alot of it… yet let’s be clear:  he doesn’t actually prove anything.  He writes sometimes as if he is, indeed, proving his thesis to us, but really, the dude’s just conjecturing.  Amazing, brilliant conjecturing, but mere conjecturing none-the-less.  Jaynes shores up his beliefs with facts and interpretations of facts, but they’re not of the variety that make for airtight proofs or solid scientific theory.

Nevertheless, taken for what it is, the book is swimming with interesting ideas nipping at the surface of the pondering pond.

Jaynes chooses to bind consciousness to language.  There have long been discussions about just how conscious we could be without language.  Especially:  Could we entertain abstract thoughts, such as death or justice, without language to think about them with?

The subject of abstract thought and language came up not long ago [HERE] when I wrote about the Philosophy Of Reality contained within the book, Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance.  I maintained that we could think abstractly even without language by the use of metaphors.  It would be more cumbersome, but we could do it.

For instance, perhaps we are walking back from the forest with a bunch of bananas in our hands.  The local bully comes running up and steals our bananas from us.  However, he drops one, slips on it, and breaks his neck during the fall.  Without any language, we might save this mental image in our heads, where it could serve as the abstract concept of “Justice” or “Dude Just Got Served.”  Perhaps the next week, our wife eats the last of our stored berries… and we might, with guilty pleasure, picture her slipping on the berries on breaking her neck.  Ah, sweet Justice.

Jaynes, however, disagrees.  Although, he does go with me this far: he believes that metaphor is at the heart of language.  The entire basis of language is metaphor.

Language, says Jaynes, “climbed up from the concrete to the abstract on the steps of metaphors.”

Describing thinking, Jaynes says that “in trying to understand a thing, we are trying to find a metaphor for that thing,” and that when we finally figure out something and have that aha! moment it is because we have finally found a familiar past experience that will serve as a metaphor for understanding the new thing.  For Jaynes, this “feeling of understanding” is identical to the  “feeling of familiarity” we experience when the right metaphor clicks into place.  [Aside: I find it intriguing what a relief it is to finally solve a problem perplexing us.  Not being able to figure-out something stresses us out, and when the right metaphor from the past finally falls into place, it is definitely with a sighing feeling of, “Ahhh…”]

You won’t find many people who value the place of the metaphor in human thinking more than I do.  But Jaynes is up there.  However, Jaynes takes it both farther and less far:  he assumes that metaphorical thinking requires language, whereas I have just suggested it does not (memories of experiences will serve).

Jaynes declares that, just as language is based on metaphor, “consciousness is based on language.”  And once he has decided this, the origin of full consciousness (whatever that means) automatically leaps forward in time to a place very close the present.

Actually, for reason I hope to get into the next post, Jaynes believes that even the warriors fighting the legendary Trojan War, which occurred less than thirty-five hundred years ago, were not fully conscious (!).  That may sound incredible, but it is not actually impossible to believe.  Jaynes gives the example of how people can perform quite complicated tasks—such as driving a car—without being fully conscious of what they are doing.

Jaynes’ ideas are probably closer to the truth than human ego would like to admit.  In the past, I’ve superficially studied a phenomenon that has always greatly intrigued me:  the building of nests and other complicated structures by animals.  There are several ways to interpret what is going on with animals doing architecture.  One is to assume that animals must be more conscious than we give them credit for.

Another is to assume that –somehow, someway—animals are doing all this complex work without full consciousness.  And once you believe that it is possible for a little bird-brain to non-consciously construct an elaborate nest from found materials, or that a little ant-brain can non-consciously build a huge dirt mound complete with air-conditioning—then, it’s not such a stretch to entertain the notion that the big bad human-brain can line up for battle and throw a spear without a melon on his shoulders ripe with consciousness.

If a non-fully-conscious bird-brain can plan a nest, why couldn’t a non-fully-conscious human-brain plan a battle?  Anyone who has spent some time in nature (or watched a few nature documentaries) knows that at times it is hard to believe that the complex series of tasks being performed by beasts –as they build, or hunt, or rear offspring—are not being performed with full consciousness.

And Jaynes goes deeper—subcellular deeper—for another example:  he brings up White Blood Cells, which track’n’attack invading microbes with an elegant efficiency that surpasses any human-brained army– with Odysseus or without.

Another good example Jaynes gives of complex work being done without the aid of full consciousness is speech:  “When we speak, we are not really conscious either of the search for words, or of putting the words together into phrases, or of putting the phrases into sentences.”  And I can add, that, as I’m typing this, I’m certainly not conscious of sending my fingers to the correct keys (perhaps with my atrocious typing, I should be a little more conscious!)

Jaynes has no problem imagining “a race of men who spoke, judged, reasoned, solved problems, indeed did most of the things that we do, but who where not conscious at all.”  Though he can’t prove it, I don’t have a problem with believing it.  Most men I know today spend most of their lives living something less than a fully conscious life.

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One thought on “Julian Jaynes: Intelligence Without Consciousness (No Offense)

  1. I realize this is a few years old, but I just stumbled across it now. The problem I have with Jaynes’ thesis is this: if we weren’t conscious a mere few thousand years ago, why are we conscious now? Evolution doesn’t happen that quickly.

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