About Julian Jaynes and the Conference on Consciousness

This event was proudly sponsored by the Bertie Cohen "Rabbi's Invitational Series" of Temple Israel, and by the Julian Jaynes Society

Why is the Torah full of references to various gods, idols, and oracles?  How did oracles come to influence entire nations?  Why did Abraham go up that mountain so obediently to sacrifice his son? Would he do it today?  And more importantly, should  he do it today?

These are just some of the difficult questions that were addressed by Julian Jaynes's influential and controversial theory of the origin of subjective consciousness or the "modern mind."

This was the first U.S.-based conference entirely dedicated to Julian Jaynes's theory on consciousness and the bicameral mind in over two decades. The multidisciplinary program was open to the public.

Conference-Related Links

You can see the program and the list of speakers here.

You can watch the video of my conference presentation, "Consciousness in the Bible," here.

You can see pictures from the conference here, as well as on the JJS website (see below).

You can order Jaynes-related merch here.

You can find an interview with me about the conference in the Charleston (WV) Gazette here. (To download a PDF of the article, right-click here and choose "save.")

Click here to hear my 10-minute radio interview about the conference.  The interview was broadcast on March 10 on the "Voice of the Valley" radio program, with hosts Ric Cochran and Larry Groce. 

You can see a YouTube video about my book and about the conference here.

The Julian Jaynes Society is a rich source of information about the study of consciousness.  Visit www.julianjaynes.org

In 1976, Jaynes, a Princeton University psychologist, put forth a bold new theory of the origin of consciousness and a previous mentality known as the bicameral mind, in his controversial but critically acclaimed book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Since then, new developments in neuroimaging, psychology and linguistics, and theories of conditions like autism and schizophrenia, have made Jaynes’s model of introspective consciousness more relevant than ever.

Jaynes said that consciousness did not arise far back in human evolution but is a learned process based on metaphorical language. Prior to the development of consciousness, Jaynes argued, humans operated under a previous mentality he called the bicameral ('two-chambered') mind. In the place of an internal dialogue, bicameral people experienced auditory hallucinations directing their actions, similar to the command hallucinations described by people experiencing psychosis today. They interpreted these experiences as the voices of chiefs, rulers, or gods.

Among the documentary records that have a bearing on this idea are our Torah and the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures.  These writings form a remarkably complete and well-preserved (albeit complex) literary record that spans a thousand years of breathtakingly profound historical pressures. In a sense, as Daniel Dennett observed, reading the Torah texts is a sort of archaeology – “software archaeology.”

Jaynes himself was not skilled in Hebrew or cognate languages, and was forced to rely on translations and secondary sources. My eBook tests Jaynes’s assertions by examining the biblical text in Hebrew, as seen through the lens of modern critical historical scholarship.  Examination showed that the writers of the oldest texts had no words in their cultural lexicon to correspond to our words such as “mind” or “imagination” or “belief.”

If human beings did not always have the rich inner life we take for granted, and especially if our introspective mentality is only three to four thousand years old, then profound implications arise for human history as well as a variety of aspects of modern society: mental health, religious belief, susceptiblity to persuasion, psychological anomalies such as hypnosis and possession, and our ongoing conscious evolution.

And maybe a hint of why Abraham went up that mountain.

The Bertie Cohen "Rabbi’s Invitational Series" of Temple Israel was a proud co-sponsor of the conference.