The Auguries of Science

“The very notion of truth is a culturally given direction, a part of the pervasive nostalgia for an earlier certainty. The very idea of a universal stability, an eternal firmness of principle out there that can be sought for through the world as might an Arthurian knight for the Grail, is, in the morphology of history, a direct outgrowth of the search for lost gods in the first two millennia after the decline of the bicameral mind.”
Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind., Mariner Books, 1990, p. 446.

[Re-posted from The Old Site, original dd. 11-02-2010. Between this and Kyburg at least the author list is complete.]

There you have it in one quote: all of the beauty and most of the folly of one of the most original thinkers of the XXth century – a scientist that did some good philosophizing but presented it as a bad scientific hypothesis. A thinker lost in the Quine-Duhem-Davidson triangle of changing too much concepts at the same time to be taken seriously by anybody because – in the end – everybody has one concept that is so near and dear to her or his heart that it’s a little bit too holy to be touched.

The prime example being: a naïve concept of truth. The type of truth that settles things, once and for all. The kind of truth that discovers essentials, in what for some is otherwise just a depressingly absurd sequence of events.

Jaynes’ bold conjecture was this: consciousness evolved slowly and long after man genetically was already more or less the same homo sapiens it still is today. Before those conscious times humans that were genetically quasi-identical to us roamed around – in blissful ignorance of the fact they existed. First these people evolved language, & in that language they heard what they denoted as ‘the voice of God’ giving, literally, commands. Not merely more or less as a schizophrenic would hear voices giving her commands. No, exactly like a schizophrenic would hear voices giving him commands.

Jaynes held that for the majority of the history of our species our predecessors were roaming the world in a never-ending psychotic episode where it was their God who personally told them what to do. What they were hearing in fact were verbally coded and verbally transmitted traditions making up their culture and connecting the lessons learned by the forefathers with the survival strategies of the group to which they belonged.

This conjecture is of an originality & beauty that deserves better than the scorn it got (up to a point that the original friends, like Dennett, dare no longer speak “that” name again). Nevermind that scientifically he overreached, stumbling upon hilarious self-defeating ‘truths’. Nevermind that he failed to appreciate what philosophers had only appreciated in the 2nd half of the XXth century: the relativity of relativity and final destruction of the absolutes of even falsifiability.

Nevermind all that. Just think about it.

Think about how giving up certainties opens up possibilities – the possibility of all of us having developed consciousness up to the level of almost being all of the time in a state of collective neurosis. And the possibility of also overcoming this by evolving into a better state of collective consciousness. A state where we give up on mutual & mutually incompatible Holy Grails. A state where we just live life knowing the past is: as good as it could have been. And knowing that the future will be: better.

Even ridicule will not be able to destroy originality of thought.

[Whilst writing this I was listening to Bill Frisell, Disfarmer, Nonesuch.]

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