If you’re reading this right now, then you’re conscious about this particular sentence you’re reading is correct. Right? Obviously, that’s it! Counterintuitively, there’s a lot of argument about the whole idea of consciousness. How do you even explain it?
It seems every sensory experience is somehow embedded in it, but finding words to describe this inevitable phenomenon is a tricky idea. Maybe it doesn’t even exist, or does it? According to Julian Jaynes, it was only invented within the last 3,000 years or so. Dear friends, this is the idea of the bicameral mind.
Related media: What Is The Bicameral Mind?
Are You Aware You’re Reading This?
First, take this thought experiment (please bear with us). Think about the meaning of “consciousness” for a while. We’ll wait. You’ll eventually realize that even thinking about it even makes you lose track of the fact that you’re thinking about consciousness itself.
However, according to psychologist Julian Jaynes, the question of consciousness was big enough to last a lifetime. Most philosophers promoted the concept of panpsychism, or the hard problem of consciousness — how consciousness plays out in the non-conscious metaphysical world was never a matter of concern to Jaynes. How weird!
This was his question: ‘What is consciousness, and how does human consciousness differ from that of other living things?’ His answer? ‘Consciousness is much smaller, much rarer, and much younger than we tend to think.’ You’re wondering if he thought raccoons were conscious? Don’t go there.
In his hypothesis, he theorized that even the Ancient Greeks failed to achieve — consciousness. (Not present-day Greece). You might be wondering: “How on Earth in the amazing tinkering world of philosophy would someone think as such about Ancient Greeks?”
Ancient Greeks: Welcome Modern Civilization
In fact, Ancient Greeks shaped much of modern civilization today — in terms of arts, literature, politics like democracy, and their amazing feat of philosophy. You’re right, pal! Jaynes would likely reply to you like this: “Of course! A conscious Greek mind wrote The Odyssey.”
Analyzing these two texts — either conscious or unconscious — inspired Jaynes’ foundation of his metaphysical belief in the bicameral mind. The bicameral mind — which may sound familiar to “Westworld” fans — essentially states that a conscious mind is split into two halves.
The first half is for execution: this is when the body has a sensory impulse that you react to; for instance, when you feel hungry, you want to eat, and when you’re being wronged, you want to seek vengeance. The other half sends out signals for your actions.
This is more relevant when you had no concept of introspection, these signals were like the “words of deities” in your brain. Where else do you think it could have been from? Us? No Way!
This Is Too Greek To Me (Jaynes)
This concept happens when the executive half asks a question and trying to find answers seem impossible. In other words, Jaynes says, “consciousness” became a thing when we seized acknowledging deities.
You’re wondering again, so what do ‘The Iliad’ and ‘The Odyssey’ play in this? Everything. The Iliad was written (actually told orally) long before the phenomenon of the bicameral mind, and The Odyssey was the story of the odds at sea (pun intended).
In The Iliad, Jaynes says, ‘the reader sees the protagonists defined by their inactivity — until a god comes in to tell them what to do.’ They really don’t take any action until an external force intervenes. On the contrary, the characters in The Odyssey made their own mind on their own reasoning.
The Iliad, The Odyssey: Unconscious Ancient Greeks?
For instance, nobody told Odysseus to listen to the sirens singing — he did that out of curiosity. Jaynes gave attention to the differences between the books that he meant — as a sort of word choice. Many vocabularies that we tend to associate with consciousness are used in different means within The Iliad.
For instance, the Greek word psyche, which translates as “soul” or “conscious mind,” represents concrete aspects of the human body: the respiration by the lungs, or the circulation of blood. And thumos, which translates as something like “emotions,” referred to the state of being in motion, and was only granted out by the god Apollo.
In other words, it seems like (ancient) people saw themselves just as mere vessels for the gods to instruct, and “true consciousness” came as a result of people taking advantage of their conscience in making choices.
The Two Sides Of The Story
Here’s the catch: as popular as bicameralism is, the whole concept seems flawed. But the thing is, most philosophers before and since Jaynes all accept the idea of consciousness having two forms: “focused” consciousness and “background” consciousness (one that takes action and the other that informs that action).
In Jaynes’ model, his concept of consciousness is seen as a cultural development rather than a biological one, and this doesn’t blend with modern beliefs like neuroscience and psychology. This has ever since setting up a hierarchy of consciousness among people — with those who believe that supernatural forces influence their lives with a lesser level of consciousness, and those who hold atheistic ideas with a higher level of consciousness.
And could even get much worst than it is, placing some societies into a much lesser realm of consciousness. It could even spur racial differences considering how it’s being used in modern societies today. But after all, we’re conscious of the fact that you (our readers), are conscious of what you’ve read today.
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Written by: Nana Kwadwo, Sat, Jun 08, 2019.