Were ancient people conscious?
[Spencer Alexander McDaniel]
Spencer Alexander McDaniel, B.A. Classical Studies & History, Indiana University Bloomington (2022)
In 1976, the American psychologist Julian Jaynes (lived 1920 – 1997) published a controversial book titled The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. In this book, Jaynes claimed that human beings were not conscious of their own thoughts until around 1000 BC and that stories about gods speaking to people originated from people hearing their own inner voices and mistaking them for the voices of external deities telling them what to do.
Jaynes’s claims were regarded as fringe, baseless, and bizarre even when he first proposed them back in the 1970s and today they are almost universally regarded by psychologists as the debunked relic of an earlier, less scientific stage in the development of modern psychology. Nonetheless, Jaynes’s hypothesis of the bicameral mind has garnered something of a cult following among non-scholars and has had considerable influence in popular culture, so I suppose it is worth writing a lengthy rebuttal to it.
First, let me summarize the basic gist of what Julian Jaynes argues in his book. In the book, Jaynes argues that the human mind was once divided into two separate parts: a part which seemed to be speaking and a part which listened and obeyed. He thought that people in ancient times mistook this inner voice for the voice of a divine figure commanding them to do things. Jaynes called this idea of the mind being divided into two parts “bicameralism.”
Jaynes argued that the bicameral mind broke down around 3,000 years ago around the same time of the end of the Bronze Age in the eastern Mediterranean. According Jaynes, with the breakdown of the bicameral mind came the beginnings of modern consciousness. He posits that the people we call “schizophrenics” are actually people who have retained vestiges of the original bicameral mind and that, if anyone from ancient times were alive today, we would probably call them “schizophrenic” as well. [cid:image002.jpg@01D5A0B9.0FFF9660]
ABOVE: Photograph of Julian Jaynes holding a model of a human brain—or maybe he is holding his own, actual brain and that is why he had so many crazy ideas about consciousness
Reception of Jaynes’s hypothesis
Reception of Jaynes’s hypothesis among psychologists in the 1970s was, to put it lightly, not overwhelmingly good. In a paper published in January 1979, a scholar named William Thomas Jones wrote an article titled “Mr. Jaynes and the Bicameral Mind: A Case Study in the Sociology of Belief,” examining the question of how on Earth any intelligent person could possibly believe Jaynes’s hypothesis. At the end of the very first paragraph, Jones writes:
“To think of the book as a case study in the sociology of belief, justifies our making a rather detailed analysis of it: only in this way can we see how implausible Mr. Jaynes conclusions are and so lay the basis for answering the question: Why, despite its implausibility, is the book taken seriously by thoughtful and intelligent people?”
Jones concludes that people only take Jaynes’s idea of the bicameral mind seriously because they have an aversion to the ideas of Darwinian evolution and natural selection, they have a longing for lost bicamerality, and they desire a simple, all-encompassing theory that explains everything about human nature.
Nowadays, you certainly will not find a single academic historian or anthropologist who subscribes to Jaynes’s hypothesis. You may find a psychologist or two out there, but they are rare. Very few philosophers of mind accept Jaynes’s hypothesis either. Daniel Dennett, a philosopher who thinks Jaynes’s hypothesis has some problems but that it should be taken seriously, writes the following in an essay titled “Julian Jaynes’s Software Archaeology”:
“After all, on the face of it, it [i.e. the hypothesis of the bicameral mind] is preposterous, and I have found that in talking with other philosophers my main task is to convince them to take it seriously when they are very reluctant to do this. I take it very seriously, so I am going to use my time to try to describe what I take the project to be.”
Nonetheless, despite widespread academic rejection, Jaynes’s hypothesis has managed to seep its way into popular culture. For instance, in 2006, an author named Terence Hawkins published a fictional novel titled The Rage of Achilles, which retells the story of the Iliad using Jaynes’s hypothesis as a naturalistic explanation for all the encounters with deities in the epic. In Hawkins’s novel, the Greek hero Odysseus and the Trojan prince Paris are portrayed as having non-bicameral minds, while the other characters are portrayed as having bicameral ones.
Meanwhile, more recently, Jaynes’s hypothesis was incorporated as a plot device into the HBO science fiction television series Westworld. Westworld differs from earlier portrayals of the bicameral mind in that it does not portray the bicameral mind as a stage in the development of human consciousness, but rather a stage in the development of robot consciousness, which I suppose is somewhat more plausible. The show also, mercifully, referred to the hypothesis as applied to humans as “debunked.” [cid:image003.png@01D5A0B9.0FFF9660]
ABOVE: Scene of the characters Robert Ford (played by Anthony Hopkins) and Bernard Lowe (played by Jeffrey Wright) discussing Julian Jaynes’s hypothesis of the bicameral mind from the HBO television series Westworld
The problem of the physical structure of the brain
One major problem with Jaynes’s hypothesis is the problem of the physical structure of the brain. It is almost universally recognized that the physical structure of the brain and the way we think are inextricably linked. Even most substance dualists, who believe that the mind and the brain are two distinct substances, admit that there is a clear connection between the mind and the brain.
The problem for Jaynes’s hypothesis is that, if his hypothesis that early humans were not conscious in the same way we are conscious were true, we would expect to find that the brains of humans up until around 3,000 years ago were structured significantly differently from our own brains. In reality, though, we find precisely the opposite; as far as we can tell from surviving brain cases and even, in some cases, preserved brains, the structure of the human brain has remained almost completely unchanged for at least the past roughly 10,000 years.
If you examine the skull of the a normal, healthy person who lived in ancient Sumer in the third millennium BC, you will find that the brain case is virtually identical in every way in terms of its structure to the brain case of a person who died yesterday. Likewise, if you examine the preserved brain from a well-preserved body, such as the body of someone who was accidentally mummified or frozen in ice, you will find it structurally identical to a modern brain.
So far at least, there is no physical evidence to suggest that the brains of humans before around 1000 BC were structured any different from the brains of human beings today. This poses a serious difficulty to Jaynes’s hypothesis. [cid:image004.png@01D5A0B9.0FFF9660]
ABOVE: Illustration of the underside of a human brain from the 1543 anatomy book De humani corporis fabrica by the Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius
The problem of human behavior
If humans prior to around 1000 BC really thought in a way that is drastically different from how we think today, we would expect to find a great deal of evidence that they also behaved very differently from how we behave today. Unfortunately for those who want to believe in the idea of the bicameral mind, what we instead find is a great deal of evidence that early humans were, in fact, remarkably like us in terms of their behavior. Though their cultures differed from ours in significant ways, judging from our available evidence, they still acted the way we would expect normal, conscious human beings to act.
For instance, a number of customer complaint letters have survived to us from ancient Mesopotamia that read almost exactly like what someone might write today. In particular, in the early twentieth century, the British archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley excavated a house in the city of Ur, which contained a large number of letters from angry customers inscribed on clay tablets addressed to a copper merchant by the name of Ea-Nasir. These letters all date to around the middle of the eighteenth century BC.
There are a whole bunch of these letters, but the longest and more irate of all of them is a letter written by a man named Nanni, which covers the entire front and back sides of the tablet he wrote it on. Here is the text of the letter, as translated from Akkadian by the American Assyriologist A. Leo Oppenheim:
“Tell Ea-nasir: Nanni sends the following message:”
“When you came, you said to me as follows : ‘I will give Gimil-Sin (when he comes) fine quality copper ingots.’ You left then but you did not do what you promised me. You put ingots which were not good before my messenger (Sit-Sin) and said: ‘If you want to take them, take them; if you do not want to take them, go away!’”
“What do you take me for, that you treat somebody like me with such contempt? I have sent as messengers gentlemen like ourselves to collect the bag with my money (deposited with you) but you have treated me with contempt by sending them back to me empty-handed several times, and that through enemy territory. Is there anyone among the merchants who trade with Telmun who has treated me in this way? You alone treat my messenger with contempt! On account of that one (trifling) mina of silver which I owe(?) you, you feel free to speak in such a way, while I have given to the palace on your behalf 1,080 pounds of copper, and Umi-abum has likewise given 1,080 pounds of copper, apart from what we both have had written on a sealed tablet to be kept in the temple of Shamash.”
“How have you treated me for that copper? You have withheld my money bag from me in enemy territory; it is now up to you to restore (my money) to me in full.”
“Take cognizance that (from now on) I will not accept here any copper from you that is not of fine quality. I shall (from now on) select and take the ingots individually in my own yard, and I shall exercise against you my right of rejection because you have treated me with contempt.”
This sounds very much the sort of thing someone today might write. It is certainly not the sort of thing that one reads and thinks, “Clearly, these people thought in a way completely and utterly different from the way people think today.”
I could give examples of ways in which ancient peoples behaved that are very similar to ways in which people today behave all day, but I will not do that because I reckon this one example is probably enough for an article of this length. [cid:image005.jpg@01D5A0B9.0FFF9660]
ABOVE: Photograph from Wikimedia Commons of Nanni’s complaint letter to Ea-Nasir, complaining about how Ea-Nasir has given him a lesser standard of copper than what he promised him
The vast majority of the evidence Jaynes tried to marshal to support his argument is evidence that, quite frankly, just can’t be logically construed to support it. Jaynes starts out with the assumption that people prior to around 1000 BC had bicameral minds and then simply reads his own assumptions onto the evidence.
Ironically, on page 177, Jaynes himself offers a warning against reading our own assumptions onto evidence, except what he is really arguing when he says this is that translators should refrain from making logical assumptions and instead make the kinds of insane and illogical assumptions he himself is making:
“The popular and even scholarly literatures are full of such sugared emandations and palatablized glosses to make ancient men seem like us, or at least talk like the King James Bible. A translator often reads in more than he reads out. Many of those texts that seem to be about decision-making or so-called proverbs, or epics, or teachings, should be reinterpreted with concrete behavioral precision if we are to trust them as data for psycho-archaeology of man. And I am warning the reader that the effect of this chapter is not in accord with popular books on the subject.”
Let’s think about this a bit. If you find a clay tablet inscribed with what appears to be a set of proverbs, which of these assumptions makes sense: (a) that this is a set of proverbs written by a scribe, who wrote them the way a person today might write them, or (b) that this is a set of writings by the scribe, who was acting as a mindless drone obedient to the commands of the voice in the back of his head, which seemed to him like the voice of an all-powerful deity?
Most people, I think would say the former of these choices is more sensible. [cid:image006.jpg@01D5A0B9.0FFF9660]
ABOVE: Photograph of an Akkadian clay tablet dating to c. 2270 BC listing the victories of the Akkadian king Rimush
Misunderstanding stories about people hearing voices of deities
In support of his hypothesis of the bicameral mind, Julian Jaynes particularly relies on stories of human beings hearing voices of deities or receiving visions from deities. Based on his readings of religious texts and works of fiction such as the Iliad, Jaynes seems to have the impression that it was common for people in ancient times to think they were hearing the voices of deities. This is far from the case. There are indeed surviving texts that describe people receiving commands or visions from deities, but all of these texts present this as an extraordinary phenomenon that only happens on extremely rare, exciting occasions.
For instance, in around 2125 BC, King Gudea, the ruler of the Sumerian city-state of Lagash from c. 2144 until c. 2124 BC, had two large terra-cotta cylinders inscribed with a very lengthy and detailed description of how he experienced a dream in which he saw the god Ninĝirsu. These cylinders, which are known as the “Gudea Cylinders,” also record Gudea’s reaction to the dream. Here is an excerpt from the translation of the Gudea Cylinders available online through Oxford University’s Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature (ETCSL):
“On that day, in a nocturnal vision Gudea saw his master, Lord Ninĝirsu. Ninĝirsu spoke to him of his house, of its building. He showed him an E-ninnu with full grandeur. Outstanding though his mind was, the message remained to be understood for him.”
“’Well, I have to tell her about this! Well, I have to tell her about this! I will ask her to stand by me in this matter. Profound things (?) came suddenly to me, the shepherd, but the meaning of what the nocturnal vision brought to me I do not understand. So I will take my dream to my mother and I will ask my dream-interpreter, an expert on her own, my divine sister from Sirara, Nanše, to reveal its meaning to me.’”
“He stepped aboard his boat, directed it on the canal Id-Niĝin-dua towards her city Niĝin, and merrily cut through the waves of the river. After he had reached Bagara, the house extending as far as the river, he offered bread, poured cold water and went to the master of Bagara to pray to him.”
“’Warrior, rampant lion, who has no opponent! Ninĝirsu, important in the abzu, respected in Nibru! Warrior, I want to carry out faithfully what you have commanded me; Ninĝirsu, I want to build up your house for you, I want to make it perfect for you, so I will ask your sister, the child born of Eridug, an authority on her own, the lady, the dream-interpreter among the gods, my divine sister from Sirara, Nanše, to show me the way.’ His call was heard; his master, Lord Ninĝirsu, accepted from Gudea his prayer and supplication.”
“Gudea celebrated the ešeš festival in the house of Bagara. The ruler set up his bed near to Ĝatumdug. He offered bread and poured cold water and went to holy Ĝatumdug to pray to her: ‘My lady, child begotten by holy An, an authority on her own, proud goddess, living in the Land, …… of her city! Lady, mother, you who founded Lagaš, if you but look upon your people, it brings abundance; the worthy young man on whom you look will enjoy a long life.’”
Notice how Gudea presents his vision as an absolutely stunning occurrence, something completely out of the ordinary. He describes Ninĝirsu making a glorious appearance to him in a dream. He then describes himself travelling all the way to another city to consult the goddess Nanše (or, presumably, her oracle) to find out the meaning of his dream. The fact that Gudea feels the need to travel all the way to another city shows what a remarkable event this seemed to be for him. Even the fact that Gudea had all this written down shows that he considered this an extraordinary occurrence.
Also notice that Ninĝirsu appears to Gudea in a dream, which means there is no need to invoke the idea of the bicameral mind even if we are to accept the literal truth of this story. Gudea may very well have simply had a particularly vivid dream, which he interpreted as a message from the god Ninĝirsu. This does not prove that ancient peoples were not conscious or that they had bicameral minds; even people today can have vivid dreams. [cid:image007.jpg@01D5A0B9.0FFF9660]
ABOVE: Photograph from Wikimedia Commons of the Gudea cylinders on display in the Louvre Museum
Misunderstanding the Iliad
Jaynes devotes an entire chapter in his book to discussion of the Iliad. I would like to pay special attention to how he misunderstands and misinterprets the poem, because it is illustrative of how he generally misinterprets evidence. Jaynes starts out with the assumption that, because Troy was a real city and because there are a few accurate descriptions of, for instance, styles of armor and weapons from the Bronze Age scattered throughout the Iliad, the Iliad is therefore fundamentally a work of history. He writes on page 76:
“There is thus no question of its historical substrate. The Iliad is not imaginative creative literature and hence not a matter for literary discussion. It is history, webbed into the Mycenaean Aegean, to be examined by psychohistorical scientists.”
On the next page, Jaynes responds to the objection that the Iliad contains descriptions of impossible events by insisting that the poem must be historical at its core, but the aoidoi must have changed the poem at some point, adding in exaggerations and legendary elaborations. Nonetheless, he insists that the poem must be mostly historical, saying, “But all these alterations were probably kept in check both for the transcribers’ reverence for the poem at this time, as is indicated by all other Greek literature, and by the requirements of public performances.”
It is in his assumption that the Iliad must have been mostly intended as an accurate historical account that Jaynes commits his biggest error in this chapter. In reality, as I discuss in much greater detail in this article I wrote about the historicity of the Trojan War, there is no good reason to think that the Iliad has any more historical basis than, say, Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur.
The fact that Troy was a real city does not mean that the story about the Trojan War presented in the Iliad is historical. After all, fictional stories can be set in real places; the Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral is a real place, but very few people would try to argue that that somehow means the novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame by Victor Hugo is a historical account about real events. [cid:image008.jpg@01D5A0B9.0FFF9660]
ABOVE: Notre-Dame is a real cathedral, but that doesn’t mean Quasimodo was ever a real person.
Although there are a few scattered examples of accurate remembrances of the Bronze Age preserved in the Iliad, the vast majority of the poem is totally disconnected from what the historical Bronze Age was really like. Even the few things the Iliad gets right it does not get right consistently. For instance, sometimes the Homeric heroes fight with bronze weapons like the Mycenaeans; other times they fight with iron.
There is far more in the Iliad that makes us doubt its validity as a historical account than there is that makes us inclined to trust it. (I mean, in Book Twenty-One, Achilles literally fights a river, for goodness sakes! What is a historian supposed to make of that?)
Because Jaynes starts out from the beginning with the false assumption that the Iliad is mostly a historical account, this leads him to the false conclusion that the Iliad’s portrayal of interactions between humans and deities is an accurate reflection of what everyday life was like for people in the Mycenaean Period, which, of course, it isn’t.
Jaynes makes other errors in this chapter and elsewhere, of course. For instance, he dates the composition of the Iliad to the ninth century BC, when, in fact, most scholars in the 1970s thought it was composed in the eighth and most scholars today think it was composed in the early seventh. Jaynes also claims at one point that the word wanax was only applied after the Mycenaean Period to the gods, when, in fact, even in Modern Greek, the word ἄναξ is still sometimes applied to human kings. [cid:image009.jpg@01D5A0B9.0FFF9660]
ABOVE: The Rage of Achilles Protected by Mars, painted in 1815 by the Italian painter Antonio Galliano
All our available evidence seems to indicate that the brains of ancient peoples were structurally similar to ours and that ancient peoples acted in ways that are behaviorally similar to the ways people act today. I know that I am conscious and I consider it reasonable to assume that everyone else around me is conscious. The most parsimonious assumption, then, is that ancient peoples probably thought more-or-less the same way we think today and that they were every bit as conscious as we are.
Is this an assumption? Ultimately, yes, but it is an assumption that is supported by the evidence and that makes logical sense, unlike the hypothesis Jaynes tries to argue for, which has absolutely no solid or convincing scientific or historical evidence to support it and is full of all sorts of outrageous leaps of logic.
The Law of Parsimony is key here; we cannot know for certain that ancient peoples were conscious because, ultimately, the only people who know what was going on inside ancient people’s heads are ancient people themselves, who are—and this is true!—all dead. Nonetheless, we can come to the conclusion that requires the least number of ad hoc assumptions, which is that people who lived prior to around 1000 BC were indeed conscious.
(NOTE: I have also published a version of this article on my website titled “Were Ancient People Conscious?” Here is a link to the version of the article on my website.)
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