book-reviews

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

by Julian Jaynes

Rating: ★★

As an argument that Jaynes' thesis actually is true, severely disappointing. I can only assume that the people rating this as 5 stars are impressed by Jaynes' bold and outlandish theory, and not the actual argument that Jaynes sets out for it, which is quite clearly shoddy reasoning with the occasional lyrical flourish to smooth over the logical leaps. Some examples:

There is much more, and it was hard to keep track of the numerous dubious-sounding assertions that would be worthy of fact-checking (a couple: there is "nothing like" possession in the Iliad? Ancients had no concept of 'madness'?). So much of Jaynes' argument, though, is just naked speculation piled on top of more speculation, in a towering construction of connections that has essentially no foundation at all.

As for Jaynes' idea about bicamerality, it was certainly an intriguing thought, but... Look, let's talk about Stargate. The premise of Stargate is that the ancient human world was actually ruled by technologically-advanced aliens, who presented themselves as gods. It's cool because it connects ancient deities like Ra and Kronos to modern sci-fi hijinks. It's especially fun, if you're into that sort of thing, to read histories and translations of ancient materials and search out things that conform to the theory. There are lots of easy wins -- gods living in the heavens, flying magic chariots through the air, things that you could read as energy weapons, references to other worlds, et cetera. Of course, you have to smooth out or ignore various details in order to make it fit properly, but that's perfectly harmless as a bit of fun.

Jaynes is doing that for his bicamerality thesis, but: 1. it's not just for fun, he's serious; 2. he does it quite poorly. The readings are obviously tortured in some places, and honestly the Stargate thesis makes for much simpler and more compelling answers to the things he describes. Example: people in certain ancient cultures talk about a war in heaven and then lament the absence of gods. Is this a) because they have all simultaneously gone through a profound psychological change for no clear reason and no longer collectively hallucinate the presence of their gods [though will continue to have religions and talk about talking to gods for millennia] or b) because their gods had a big space-battle and some of them died? Okay, the alien gods theory has a lot of hidden explaining to do, but so does Jaynes and at least Stargate's brain-control snakes seem logistically possible.

I tried to treat the book as an extended conjecture about what if Jaynes' (quite possibly unfalsifiable) thesis were true, but it was not really possible -- he kept reminding me inadvertently of a leap he had made previously (often by building on a speculation's conclusion as if it were now established), so I was often somewhere between annoyed and rolling my eyes. However, the book is not all negative. Jaynes is a good writer, and he holds your attention well on the page, something helped by his choice of topics -- he brings in interesting snippets from psychological studies, archaeology, ancient history, philosophy and poetry. His argument may be terrible, but it has some fascinating examples bound up in it which centre around 'weird brain stuff', and he might be worth reading for his coverage of these alone.