Marlowe's Shade

Friday, May 12, 2006

Intimations of Spirit

In the first essay in this spontaneous series, I discussed how materialism informs and (mis)guides the Culture of Death. Now I'd like to question some of its fundamental assumptions in regard to a tradition of acceptance of the spiritual as part of the human experience.

In a recent news story a group of girls in Laos began acting strangely and were deem to be possessed by evil spirits. Buddhist monks were called in to bless them and drive the demons out. This was reported in the Western press as a humorous curiosity piece. It is possible, even likely that there is a natural explanation for this incident. There are similarities to the infamous events in Salem MA, which now appear to have been caused by ergot poisoning. But the story illustrates the kind of magical thinking that persists in much of the world. Like our ancestors, their world is very different from the bleak Cartesian one in which we post-moderns dwell.

Here in the West the same types of supernatural beings recur in our folklore with remarkable consistency. Ghosts, witches, fairies and vampires haunt our myths and sagas from the past. Taking as a hypothesis that this cultural testimony was describing some objective reality, it would seem that our ancestors had a familiarity and perhaps a faculty of perception of a non-material dimension. I discussed in my last essay how materialism acts as a filter on our apprehension of reality. I'm not proposing that this ancient worldview was clearer or more complete than the current one. In fact I think it can easily be demonstrated that it lent itself to superstition and suggestibility. But I do think it is unlikely that so much time, effort and attention would be spent on imaginary subjects by those whose daily survival depended on rigorous practicality.

It is strange to see our modern worldview based on such an obvious absurdity as pure materialism. It is especially curious considering we arrived at that conclusion by such great immaterial effort. Clearly our most vivid experience of life comes not from our perception of the physical world, but through the non-physical agency of though and emotion. And because we do not experience the material world directly, even it's perception, coming through light and sound primarily, have a quality that seems to be in-between the material and non-material. This abstraction from reality has been described in detail in Plato's analogy of the cave, and the Apostle Paul refers to it when he states, "...we see through a glass, darkly..". Our interior life or consciousness can't be described as bound by any laws of the material world, but only those imposed on it by thought itself.

My friend evariste did me a great service when he introduced to me to Julian Jayne's The origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. It is a dense, challenging book that not only seeks to clarify a scientific definition of what consciousness is and how it relates to our current knowledge, but also in proposing an explanation of how our current mode of awareness developed, gives us a fascinating portrait of how differently man viewed his world in antiquity. The core premise is that ancient man did not operate based on personal decisions and free will, but received signals from the mysterious part of the right side of the brain that corresponds to the speech centers on the left. This was perceived as hearing the speech of a particular god, and Jaynes cites numerous examples from the epic literature of this period, such as Iliad to illustrate how fundamental a feature of human experience this relationship to the gods was at the time. As a scientist and agnostic while he describes this phenomenon as a man-god relationship, it becomes clear that he feels that his "gods" represent a higher brain function that atrophied when civilization and culture became a stronger influence that allowed our more modern mental functioning and moral sense. He also makes some fascinating observations on what he sees as vestigial survives of this older modality such as hypnotism, and schizophrenia that strengthen his argument. I've argued myself that the mesmerizing influence of television might rightfully be added to this list.

I applaud Professor Jaynes achievement in reclaiming an accurate view of the pre-classical world. But I would challenge him on two points. His knowledge outside his field in the areas of classics, history and linguistics is impressive, but shows itself to be thin when he addresses the Old Testament and its historical setting.He breezily refers to the Pentateuch as forgeries of the post-exilic period then reassures us in a footnote that this is based on several sources of modern Biblical scholarship, including the Encyclopedia Britannica. The entirety of his argument shoehorning the story of the covenant of the Jews with their God into his theory of bicameral consciousness could have been based on a few humanities courses taught by an acolyte of the post-modern reductionist school of Biblical criticism. Despite the prevalence of these views,even a mediocre Torah scholar would make short work of these theories, pointing out Egyptian loanwords in Genesis and Exodus, and descriptions of the establishment of temple worship in Deuteronomy and the Nazirite order in Numbers, without which later texts could not have been written. He does in places acknowledge that the prophets, priest and kings of Israel are different in nature than his robotic epic heroes, but as soon as he ignores the story of The Fall (His only other mentions of Genesis is the baffling statement that "...the first and second chapters tell different creation stories..."), he misses the plot of the whole narrative, and with it, the way in which free will distinguishes the Bible personalities from the other actors of his bicameral tragedies.

Also, in general he portrays the "god" function of the right brain as a kind of gestalt of all sensory information about the environment. But it seems illogical that a higher order of understanding could be synthesized from the same sense data available to most creatures without some higher signal or organizing principle. From what did we synthesized our model of a god in the first place? He does outline a somewhat plausible progression from a king who becomes an object of veneration in death, in line with traditions of ancestor worship. But that only postpones addressing the problem, for the concept of an afterlife itself suggests a higher order.

As all our other sense organs are receptors, why wouldn't Jaynes entertain the idea that the "god" area of the right brain might also be receiving signals from a non-material source? Jaynes' work is the closest I've seen the scientific approach comes to acknowledging a spiritual reality that was experientially a daily fact of life for our ancestors. But his work lacked the boldness to see it as anything more than a ghost in the machine of our neural networks. The question remains open whether Jaynes' line of thinking should be pursued further or abandon altogether in favor a different approach.
papijoe 8:39 AM