Some Reflections On The 2013 Julian Jaynes Conference


I just returned from West Virginia where I was privileged to attend the 2013 Julian Jaynes Conference, which I am hoping will put Bicameral Studies on the map as a potential source for a new synthesis in psychology/psychiatry. What an eclectic group of people both in the audience and presenting. But how could it be any other way? The reason that the big problems, like “consciousness,” haven’t been solved is that they span a huge number of domains, yet our society only supports and promotes further specialization. Jaynes was a maverick, an iconoclast, and an unlikely prophet in this regard. He cared more about truth than career advancement or celebrity–a rare kind of man in modern America. So why has there been so much resistance? To be sure, he stepped on a lot of specialists toes, but there is much more to it. He suggested that “schizophrenia” isn’t entirely an organic disease as modern psychiatry has painted it, and certainly not simply the brain going “on the fritz.” He scared the bajeezus out of the religious and agnostic alike. The former had to grapple with the connection between modern mental illness, lapses of full agency, and religious experience. The latter had to grapple with the fact that you can neither write off religion nor mental illness as “the brain going on the fritz.” The honest non-believer furthermore had to ask what it meant that man went through a stage in the evolution of culture and ideas where huge and complex visions were related by men incapable of true, self-conscious deception. There is sincerity in religion–if not always in the religious organizations that followed–and I for one am interested in hearing what they had to say, for though they may have been sincerely wrong, they at least were incapable of intentional deception. These are all unsettling things to think about.

Ignoring modern man’s penchant for drugs and alcohol, ignoring his dependence on pharmacology, doesn’t it ever weird you out that he spends so much time in front of the television projecting himself into all manner of fantastic stories? Are these not condoned hallucinatory experiences? If not, why do you jump when the protagonist gets ambushed by a zombie? How many shows and movies involve a bicameral experience–something like the famous line, “follow the force Luke”? I’d venture close to half! The list is prohibitively long. In the 40’s and 50’s some 60% of people reported dreaming in black & white, which changed with the introduction of color television. What do we dream about but the most emotionally salient scenes we experience in the day? Instead of visitations from Aphrodite we dream of Angelina Jolie. Is this not a shocking vestige of bicamerality, this desperate longing to live in an enchanted world full of gods and goddesses? Can you look at the Stanford Prisoner Experiment and really tell yourself that the malleability of human motivation and the susceptibility to authority and context is not a similar vestige? Can you really watch zombie films without recognizing in them our natural fear of the mentally ill, the “consciousness-impaired,” or our own routine non-consciousness and failures of true agency? Anyway, interesting as this all is, there is quite another place I want to take this post.

During the two hour “orientation session” at the start of the conference one of the audience members asked organizer rabbi James Cohn, author of the fantastic book “Minds of the Bible,” what he thought about Jaynes’ atheism and then expressed how Jaynes had influenced his own atheism. Cohn fielded the question expertly, but it struck me that Jaynes had precisely the opposite effect on me. I used to be a rather militant atheist who chalked all religious experience up to mental illness, so how is it that Jaynes brought me closer to theism? Well, half way through college I realized that myth and religion are facts about this world–facts that required their own explanation. So too with mental illness! In the process of trying to understand and explain religion I found some value in it and am seeking to continue discovering its value, something that Jaynes has helped me with immensely. Here is my current view of man and religion:

As a summary, I’d say that Anselm’s Ontological Proof did in fact prove the existence of a god–namely the god Anselm! Anyone smart enough to concoct that piece of rhetoric doesn’t contain a divine spark so much as a divine thunderbolt. He produced what Oscar Wilde would call a “good lie:” one that provides its own evidence and is self-fulfilling. What else do we mean by ‘god’ if not “someone who has an unlimited amount of what Anselm has”?

Its not so much that an anthropomorphic god exists, but that people exist and are theomorphic. Accordingly, we are all demi-gods and some of us even gods. “God” was not a mistake that man perpetrated, but was the bridge from non-consciousness to his own self-awareness. Authentic religion has always been about hero-worship; worship not of the human-all-too-human, but of the human-that-could-be. The mistake is to think that god existed before the universe and created it, when in fact he didn’t really come into existence until around 2000BC or later– a magnificent artifact of culture. Humanity gave birth to god in his ideas of free will, logical deduction, algebra, and every other cool idea that has updated our operating system. The pressing question we face now is not “does god exist?” but how do we interpret the gods and demigods that have graced the pages of history? From what lofty heights do they hail from, calling us to join them? What does it mean that they exist at all? The question is no longer “do we have a soul,” but how do we build one worth having? I have discovered the divinity in man and wish to find ways to promote it and enhance it.

Perhaps man is the only part of nature that could give meaning to the whole and thereby give birth to the truly godlike. To be perfectly honest though, I also entertain another possibility.  Perhaps each human mind is like a neuron in the “brain” of god, each producing “good lies” that build on each other. Maybe we are the only part of nature that can answer the question that God is posing in dreaming this ambiguous universe into existence? -Jeff Tkachuk


If we use Tielhard de Chardin’s division of the geosphere, the biosphere, and the noosphere there is something curious that I noticed. In each “sphere,” if we imagine them as trees (ala the tree of biological evolution), the upper most “branches” aren’t necessarily the “best” or “optimal.” We might put humans at the top of the “tree of life” and reflective self-awareness at the top of the “tree of the noosphere,” but this is only half right. There is something special about both and we don’t want to lose the progress they embody, but I am interested in improving them, helping them grow even taller, for instance by “grafting” lower branches onto the tallest branches. Just as scientists are looking back into biological evolution and attempting to literally graft novel adaptations from other creatures onto man using bio-tech, I want to mine great ideas, metaphors, and rituals from ancient religions and find ways of incorporating them into our present worldview of scientific objectivity, hopefully enhancing both old and new cultural software alike.

I am hoping that we will see the day when bibliotherapy and Plato replace benzodiazepines and Prozac; when we teach our children how to hear their own voice–really to build their own voice–but avoid the fate of “hearing voices.” I implore you all to help this day come about; to help give birth to a post-cynical world where religion is seen for what it is and modern consciousness seen for what it is not.

This entry was posted in Consciousness, Education, Free Will and Responsibility, General Observations, Human Movitation, Religion. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Some Reflections On The 2013 Julian Jaynes Conference

  1. An interesting and informed take, Jeff. I’m still so struck by Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which I saw on returning from the Julian Jaynes Society Conference. It is about a “possession” state, brought on by personal trauma in the broader context of the horrific treatment of American slaves. At the end, a group of townswomen in free Ohio, gather to sing outside the haunted home, waving their Bibles and singing hymns, casting out the troubled spirit. On the spot, I said, I’m not religious, but I know why religion exists and is so powerful: it’s a deep energetic binding of individuals against the forces of darkness. It works. Unfortunately, oppression in other forms often accompanies the group’s power, including a deep-seated misogyny, perhaps reacting against an earlier age when “God” was a “Goddess.”

    • Hi Carole, thanks for the kind remarks. I’ll rent “Beloved” immediately! I’d love to write a paper on all the references to bicamerality in cinema–at first glance the project looks too well-founded to even be done! Personally, I was greatly influenced by “Fight Club” when I was a teenager–a film based on a screenplay by Bruce Lee called “The Silent Flute.” The theme of an “alter ego” that is one’s inner heroic potential (or evil potential!) is just all over the place. I’m now seeing this even in television series (namely “Perception” and “Wilfred”). It is as if people are secretly being drawn towards an unacknowledged part of themselves and their history. I wonder how far back the theme goes in literature? Seems like “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” along with “Faust” are only the most famous of such explorations. Do you know of anyone who has done this work already?

      Anyway, though you claim not to be “religious,” I must point out that you seem to live life with a certain religious intensity, a certain religious feeling. Perhaps you too are a “deeply religious nonbeliever,” as Einstein puts it?

  2. Ah, it appears that this work has already been done: “The Divided Self” (1960) by literary critic Masao Miyoshi; “The Discovery of the Unconscious” by Henri Ellenberger. I got this from “Medicine, Mind, and the Double Brain” by the stupendous Anne Harrington. Really, I should quote the whole few-page section in her book on this theme, but I’m sleepy, sorry.

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