Following Julian Jaynes: comeback of the Bicameral Mind?

Reading time: 14 minutes

Translation by AB – September 19, 2020


Conscience is the result of instinctual renunciation, or: Renunciation (externally imposed) gives rise to conscience, which then demands further renunciations.

Sigmund Freud – Civilization and Its Discontents

Sir John Templeton

We have already suggested the existence of a determinism specific to the “technological system”, in short: the phenomena of the mind, reducible to physico-chemical activities located in the brain (reductionism), can be simulated by computer (see for example Francisco Varela, the Heterodox). At the very least, they are likely to be explained, reduced to an axiomatization (a linguistic description), or even mathematized.

Sir John Templeton1, investor and pioneer of mutual funds, lifelong member of the Presbyterian Church, who became a billionaire (after renouncing his American citizenship to escape taxes…), created in 1972 the Templeton Prize « harnessing the power of the sciences to explore the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s place and purpose within it » and then, in 1987, the John Templeton Foundation2 (we have already made a brief mention of it in Being Stuart Russell – The comeback of Moral Philosophy). This foundation sustains scientific research concerning the « Big Questions » like the one of Consciousness that has been the subject of an ambitious project in 20193:

[…] there is little agreement on what anatomical structures and physiological functions produce consciousness. […] As a result, different theories of consciousness have become siloed.

Templeton World Charity Foundation’s Accelerating Research on Consciousness initiative (ARC) proposes a solution to these problems. Drawing on best practices in open science and adversarial collaboration, ARC promotes open and rigorous engagement among leaders of opposing theories. We do not expect to solve all the mysteries of consciousness, but we aim to foster progress by reducing the number of theories through rigorous scientific and conceptual investigation.

Premises and theories

This praiseworthy project is based on two questionable premises.

First, consciousness would be produced by “anatomical structures and physiological functions“. This is the classic reductionist / analytical postulate. But, as the American psychologist Julian Jaynes (1920-1997) reminds us, “we can only know in the nervous system what we have known in behavior first4. In other words, we must first know what “consciousness” stands for before plunging, in his own words, into the “connections of every tickling thread of every single axon and dendrite”. For example, could one derive a Chess theory from observing the billions of microscopic electronic signals in Deep Blue before knowing what Chess is all about?

Second, there would already be enough theories of consciousness that we can “reduce” their number. Our readers know at least one of them: the so-called “IIT” (“Integrated Information Theory“) by Giulio Tononi and Christof Koch (About Artificial Consciousness). Without going into details again, let us recall that IIT professes that any physical system (human, animal, artifact…) capable of performing certain types of experiments associated with “consciousness” must present particular properties. These properties are somehow condensed in a numerical value ϕ. As soon as ϕ>0, the system is more or less “conscious” (in the same way, the temperature T measures the thermal agitation of a more or less hot system). This theory of consciousness is certainly debatable, but a) it is certain that ϕ is measuring something and, above all, b) there seems to be a consensus that consciousness does indeed have the characteristics of a synthetic operation.

By the way, Julian Jaynes located this synthetic ability in the right hemisphere of the brain:

[…] the right hemisphere is more involved in synthetic and spatial-constructive tasks while the left hemisphere is more analytic and verbal.

Next to Tononi and Koch’s IIT, there is at least a second potentially “testable” theory of consciousness, that of cognitive and neuroscientist psychologist Stanislas Dehaene, called “Global Workspace Theory” (GWT). We will not go into details here but we are once again confronted with a “functionalist” theory of the brain where topology / anatomy determines the manifestations of the mind which, moreover, we call “consciousness”, “memory”, “Language” etc.

How to refute a theory of consciousness?

The Templeton Foundation puts 20 million dollars on the table to organize a competition between Dehaene / GWT and Tononi / IIT. There will have to be a loser, a theory that will be definitely buried5. The competition itself is of limited interest (unless one strongly believes in one or the other of these theories). On the other hand, the method is epistemologically instructive.

How can a scientific theory be validated in general? Following Karl Popper, a good scientist must first define the criteria for refutability of his theory, that is to say explicitly indicate under what (testable) conditions his theory could be invalidated (cognitivists and other philosophers of the mind are excellent and fascinating in Ted lectures but largely devoid of this Popperian ethos). The great thing about the Templeton Foundation’s money is that it makes these scientists outline (a little) their criteria for invalidation / refutation.

But how to refute a (reductionist) theory of consciousness? How to determine the experimental results that could invalidate it?

The concept of consciousness

It is necessary to start with the most difficult part: defining the manifestations of consciousness under the conditions of a refutation experience. For example, someone who talks, counts from 1 to 10, solves a puzzle … is he “conscious”? On the contrary, someone who falls asleep, has suffered a brain trauma, has ingested certain molecules … is he “non-conscious”? Let’s take it a step further and ask the question for ourselves. Do we feel we are conscious from the time we wake up until the time we fall asleep? And the moment we (consciously) experience this feeling, can we make it known unambiguously, to an experimenter for example? Could we prove to him that we are not a “zombie” (“Non-modern” zombies)?

No one today knows how to answer these questions or has the slightest theory to define a (refutable) manifestation of consciousness. Some neuroscientists are fairly lucid about this6:

Could it be that we are interpreting our data with outdated concepts? Most of the dominant concepts in present-day neuroscience, after all, were developed 50 to more than 100 years ago. […] What is consciousness, and what makes it different from the many unconscious processes in our brain? Why do computers presently lack consciousness, and when might they acquire it?

Situation

Consciousness is not defined scientifically as a phenomenon independent of its supposed causes and therefore simply observable (manifestations of gravity, such as the fall of bodies, are observed and measured long before the physical theories of Newton and Einstein). The theories presented by Tononi / Dehaene must therefore be self-referential: the manifestations of consciousness are only neuronal activities. Let us quote, for example, Dehaene et al.7:

We postulate that consciousness has specific characteristics that are based on the temporal dynamics of ongoing brain activity and its coordination over distant cortical regions.

Consciousness thus remains undefined: this kind of theory is impossible to refute and doubts naturally emerge about the approach proposed by the Templeton Foundation (emphasis added):

The cognitive scientist Anil Seth of the University of Sussex in the U.K. shares reservations about whether the Templeton project might prove premature. A “definitive refutation or validation” seems unlikely, he said, because the theories “make too many different assumptions, have different relations to testability and may even be trying to explain different things.

We’ll see! In the meantime, although newspapers may announce in the near future:

  1. We don’t know what “consciousness” is the concept of;
  2. We therefore do not have a refutable scientific theory of consciousness;
  3. On the other hand, we have scientific theories of neural activity, or more generally of the activity of information processing networks, but we do not yet really know what their purpose or field of application is.

Consciousness, a cultural phenomenon?

On these difficulties have always flourished pseudosciences of consciousness and mind. To ask the (right) question as to whether consciousness is a scientific phenomenon is potentially to lend itself to a lot of nonsense and as soon as we seriously consider the possibility of a conscious artefact arise quite disturbing ethical, legal and political questions. We therefore have an urgent need to say what consciousness is all about, something to which, for the moment, no neuroscientist nor cognitivist is able to respond. Should the subject be taken up by philosophy? ethnography? sociology?

To our knowledge, only the psychologist Julian Jaynes dared, in the 1970s, a kind of “grand theory” of consciousness, exposed in his major work “The origin of consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind“. We present a brief summary here. It is about claiming again, with Julian Jaynes, that consciousness is the name of a cultural phenomenon before it is neuronal, although it is clear that any cultural phenomenon is partly actualized in the brain. The consequences of this observation are innumerable. In particular, the digital culture that is unfolding could deeply change our “consciousnesses”. This leads to a somewhat literary hypothesis that we propose at the end: the return of a “digitized” bicameral form of mind.

Bicameral Mind

I’ve come to the realization that I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing half the time.

David Bowie

Let us start with an impression that it will be necessary to oversimplify here: our consciousness (in the most common sense, understood by all, of “consciousness of…”) comes and goes but always ebbs at the moment when we act. There is a time for consciousness and a time for action like speaking. Let us quote again Julian Jaynes (we could replace “say” below with “do”):

Consciousness functions in the decision as to what to say, how we are to say it, and when we say it, but then the orderly and accomplished succession of phonemes or of written letters is somehow done for us. […] we arrive at the position that the actual process of thinking, so usually thought to be the very life of consciousness, is not conscious at all and that only its preparation, its materials, and its end result are consciously perceived.

It is therefore conceivable that if something else intervenes to decide our actions, consciousness is not a necessary skill (nor requested in Mundus Numericus…). In any case, this is the theory of Julian Jaynes, who first evokes unconscious “natural reasoning” (an “expectation based on extrapolation“) as an ability common to “all the higher vertebrates“. So, as long as the environment in which we operate remains roughly stable, a society without consciousness can develop:

At this point, we can at least conclude that it is possible? possible I say? to conceive of human beings who are not conscious and yet can learn and solve problems.

But how, then, did they decide on their actions?

In very remote times, when organized human groups began to grow, permanent visual contact with the “leader” must have been lost (moreover these groups gradually migrated north, where the light intensity is lower, troglodyte life more or less necessary, etc.). This contact was essential, however, because it determined what to do. It then took a more “sonic” form and language gradually developed as a succession of task assignment signals. Consider with Julian Jaynes:

[…] a man commanded by himself or his chief to set up a fish weir far upstream from a campsite. If he is not conscious, and cannot therefore narratize the situation and so hold his analog ‘I’ in a spatialized time with its consequences fully imagined, how does he do it? It is only language, I think, that can keep him at this time-consuming all-afternoon work. A Middle Pleistocene man would forget what he was doing. But lingual man would have language to remind him, either repeated by himself, which would require a type of volition which I do not think he was then capable of, or, as seems more likely, by a repeated ‘internal’ verbal hallucination telling him what to do.

That was him, the “bicameral human“. He had linguistic skills (left brain – first “chamber”) but he was not conscious and planned or prolonged his most elaborate actions, those which would require what we call today decision making, by “hallucinatory” instructions (right brain – second “chamber”) culturally regulated: these instructions literally came from the “Gods”, a hypothesis that Jaynes explores at length through linguistic and ethnographic work8:

Strictly speaking, bicamerality is defined as a neural internalization of admonitory social control through a nonconscious process of auditory verbal hallucination [ hearing voices ] similar to schizophrenic command hallucinations.

The Breakdown Hypothesis

Here is now Julian Jaynes’ main hypothesis. As long as hallucinatory (divine) instructions work, there is no reason to ignore them and thus to develop (self) consciousness. But geological or climatic events may have disrupted the environment to such an extent that these voices have become unsuitable (Jaynes evokes, for example, the cataclysmic explosion in Thera / Santorini around 1600 B.C.). The bicameral spirit collapsed and the divine voices were gradually replaced by an “I” that speaks (emphasis added):

[…] the presence of voices which had to be obeyed were the absolute prerequisite to the conscious stage of mind in which it is the self that is responsible and can debate within itself, can order and direct, and that the creation of such a self is the product of culture. In a sense, we have become our own gods.

The “comeback of the Bicameral Mind” Hypothesis

Even though Julian Jaynes locates this cultural phenomenon in the brain (right / left hemispheres), we are far from Tononi / Dehaene theories which propose that consciousness is an operation of some kind of information network like any other. But these theories, like those related to “artificial intelligence”, are powerfully relayed with considerable financial resources, whether they are foundations or large private digital companies. Consciousness is the last shore to be conquered and, said a little cynically, it is better to have it under control of “artificializable” / reductionist theories.

But while waiting for the mechanical “self” (again “Non-modern” zombies), there could also be a more or less radical modification of human himself. Let us explain this curious hypothesis.

The bicameral man, guided in his actions by culturally-entertained auditory hallucinations, collapsed when the misfit divine voices ended up ceasing to be heard. The conscious man (of himself) appeared, not without fear, and found his climax in the 17th century in the Cartesian aphorism: cogito ergo sum (and thus “we have become our own gods“). But since the middle of the 20th century, the Technological System, for the first time in its history, processes and creates information: it “speaks” to us. He even speaks to us literally from our screens. Therefore, can’t “consciousness” (in Julian Jaynes’ meaning) turn back? And doesn’t this fading leave an even easier place for an artificial “pseudo-consciousness” (a place prepared by a “philosophy gone mad9)?

Two clues

Here are the first two clues to this transformation and some leads to follow.

First clue. When the Bicameral Mind fell apart, there was a long period of transition of two millennia before the emergence of an analog “I” in the sense that we still understand it today. The omens, in particular, acted as a means of transition between pure inner hallucination and free decision. The omen is an external instruction, no longer an inner voice, but remains of divine order. Julian Jaynes again:

They can be construed as a kind of first approach to narratization, doing by verbal formulae what consciousness does in a more complex way. Rarely are we able to see any logical dependency of prediction on portent, the connection often being as simple as word associations or connotation.

In Return to Babylon, we have already drawn a parallel between the exhausting Babylonian omens and the current algorithmic invasion. There is therefore at work, in our opinion, a form of abolition of consciousness which tells us “what to do” since, say, the ancient Greeks, and of replacement by an algorithmic and pre-hallucinatory “what to do”.

Second clue. The bicameral spirit is suitable only if the environment has sufficient stability (we can naively understand that if “nothing changes”, simple recipes and rhymes, these inner voices, allow us to live without consciousness). However, we have already pointed out and perhaps you have already observed the strange (meta) stability of the world in which we live (Adam Curtis and the strange world). In this hyper-controlled and normalized digital-economy society, the “inner voices” of apps and information systems may be enough. There probably only remains the demographic / climate hazard to possibly, within a few decades, desynchronize these digital voices.

Crossroad

We could thus witness an astonishing crossroad:

  • The failure of “Templeton-like” attempts (analytical/reductionist) to answer the “Big Question of Consciousness“;
  • As a result, despite this the “boarding” of the concept of Consciousness by the technological powers and its artificialization (for “intelligence”, it is more or less done);
  • At the same time, the “re-bicameralization” of the human of the 21st century who already hears the “voices” of the system. That is to say: the abolition / destruction of the analog “I”, already foreseen by Francisco Varela (The Mirrors of the “I”). At least, as long as our metastable world is preserved…

This last point must be emphasized: in a bicameral system, the gods take care of everything. Good and evil do not exist. It is therefore quite possible that classical “ethics” and “moral right” become, like “consciousness”, the name of obsolete concepts.

Concluding Remarks

First remark. We have never defined the idea of the analog “I”, thinking, perhaps mistakenly, that the expression would be self-sufficient. However, it seems useful to clarify things a little. As said above, in the absolutely immediate moment of action, consciousness is abolished. The “I” is the body itself and its unity identified by “what happens to it”. On the other hand, in the moment of the exercise of “free will”, the consciousness is the scene (“metaphorical” said Julian Jaynes) on which a pure narrative is played out and thus the perceived time unfolds. This narration alternates between the movie of the past and the reasoned anticipation of the future. The analog “I” plays the role of the body (the real “I”) on this scene.

Second remark. We invite philosophy to be less contemplative and descriptive, and to “stand up”, but it seems that the intellectual and cultural danger is already beginning to be perceived by other disciplines. For example, this forum of the French economist Pierre Dockès, which invites no more and no less than a “civic insurrection“, is a good example of this awareness10:

Human beings are threatened with a major expropriation of their “capabilities” (to use the words of Indian economist Amartya Sen, 1998 Nobel Prize winner in economics), their substantial freedoms.

Among these “substantial freedoms”, our hypothesis suggests that consciousness (the analog “I”) is part of it.

Or even11:

In a study that used neuroimaging to explore brain activity, the researchers found the frequent e-device use — such as texting on a smart phone or reading on a tablet — was negatively correlated with activity in brain areas that are critical for integrating multiple sources of information, the researchers said. Expository texts, such as articles in a science textbook, typically use inter-connected information, which means that material in one part of the text must be linked to information found in another part of the text, especially when reading for the purpose of understanding inter-connected concepts.

“In this case, if people use electronic devices excessively on a daily basis, that could possibly impair their ability to acquire hierarchical order — or structure — of scientific concepts,” […]

Let us recall that consciousness is, according to Jaynes, a capacity for synthesis in a narrative thread. Knowing how to “interconnect” concepts in linguistic activity is obviously key.


1. Wikipedia – John Templeton
2. Wikipedia – John Templeton Foundation
3. Templeton World Charity Foundation – Accelerating research on consciousness
4. Except stated otherwise, all quotes from Julian Jaynes come from: Julian Jaynes Society – The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind
5. Philip Ball / Quanta Magazine – March 6, 2019 – Neuroscience Readies for a Showdown Over Consciousness Ideas
6. Peter Stern / Science – October 27, 2017 – Neuroscience: In search of new concepts
7. A. Demertzi, E. Tagliazucchi, S. Dehaene, G. Deco, P. Barttfeld, F. Raimondo / Sciences Advances – February 6, 2019 – Human consciousness is supported by dynamic complex patterns of brain signal coordination
8. Gary Williams / ResearchGate – June 2011 – What is it like to be nonconscious? A defense of Julian Jaynes
9. Jean-François Braunstein / Grasset editor – 2018 – La philosophie devenue folle
10. Pierre Dockès / Le Monde – August 20, 2019 – « La capacité de penser de façon autonome, voire de penser tout court, est en péril »

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