Morsella has gone back to basics. Forget art, symphonies, science. Forget the step-by-step learning of complex tasks. Those may be some of the things we use consciousness for now but that doesn’t mean that’s what it evolved for, any more than the cones in our eyes evolved to give kaleidoscope makers something to do. What’s the primitive, bare-bones, nuts-and-bolts thing that consciousness does once we’ve stripped away all the self-aggrandizing bombast?

Morsella’s answer is delightfully mundane: it mediates conflicting motor commands to the skeletal muscles.

New Comment
20 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 4:15 AM

On that topic, I'd be curious to know how many LWers are familiar with the thesis of the other Jaynes - that is Julian Jaynes, the author of "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind" - and what y'all make of that thesis.

I've been reading it, mainly because it seemed interesting and Dennett saw some merit in it (google "jaynes software archaeology"). I've finished the first section and some chapters in the 2nd and 3rd.

Unfortunately, I've put it off for a while, but here's what I remember as being impressive: Jaynes refutes a list of things people think consciousness is necessary for, citing experiments. For example, how people non-consciously learn and even act on what they learn, as shown in an experiment where people activate a nerve that's impossible to consciously control because its activation becomes correlated with attenuating an annoying sound.

I was also interested in his discussion of hypnosis, which he cites evidence for as being capable of making people do things they can't do consciously, like control eye dilation and hold their hand in ice-cold water indefinitely (which is painful but, he claims, harmless).

Finally, I was interested by his discussion of the role of metaphors in understanding new phenomena, and how we use them a lot more than we acknowledge.

I can't reach a conclusion yet on whether to recommend it though.

How does Jaynes explain the lack of this kind of thinking among peoples who have culture and genes unchanged in the last 3000 years ?

Jaynes postulates, in passing, a genetic basis for bicamerality (which I assume you mean by "this kind of thinking"), for instance p.311: "...there was probably a strong genetic basis for this type of remaining bicamerality. It is, I think, the same genetic basis that remains with us as part of the etiology of schizophrenia".

Does that help ?

To defend or critique Jaynes properly (well, any better) I'd have to reread him. I picked up his book out of curiosity a few years ago when I was going through Dennett's consciousness books; he cites Jaynes approvingly a few times. However, Dennet does not directly cites his bicameral theory, just his contention that language (more specifically "a capacity for self-exhortation") played a key role in the development of minds capable of formulating plans. The other hook was Stephenson's "Snow Crash", which features Jaynes' theory prominently.

I found this interesting pdf of a discussion involving Jaynes (and Dennett) and it makes clear what he believed, which was that the change was mostly cultural, and that uncontacted tribes might be bicameral, but there were none left. ( I'm not sure this is true - anyone reading this have an anthropologist handy ? )
Also contains a very odd fact (?) about children.

EDIT: Oops, didn't notice it was on Jaynes' own website. So presumably quite a lot more stuff there.

Just a nitpick: Jaynes is dead; the site you refer to is that of the Julian Jaynes Society, which promotes his ideas about bicameralism.

Also contains a very odd fact (?) about children.

Are you talking about the bit about imaginary friends on page 5?

Indeed. (I thought it would be a bit of a spoiler to be more specific)

peoples who have culture and genes unchanged in the last 3000 years

To quote the pdf you dug up:

Anthropologists once had the assumption that if you find a hunter-gatherer tribe nowadays, it is in a stone age similar to a pre-civilized era. This is not true. Each has had a history just as long as we have, and perhaps a complicated history of going through a bicameral phase somewhere...

...and Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs and Steel" explains why this long history doesn't result in industrial capability.

What’s the primitive, bare-bones, nuts-and-bolts thing that consciousness does once we’ve stripped away all the self-aggrandizing bombast?

I suggest 'self-aggrandizing bombast' is a closer match to that which we refer to as consciousness than motor command mediation.

The problem is that the "conscious mind" takes exaggerated credit for a whole lot of stuff it barely intervenes to mediate and certainly doesn't micromanage (everything from picking up a cup of coffee to driving to work) and pretends away the huge workload of stuff it isn't involved in (visual processing, body language interpretation, language, etc).

When you strip out the conscious mind's delusions of command, it gets a lot harder to see what it's useful for. Hence the paper.

Reminds me of Process Control Theory...

You should add a little more context in the post, at least some appropriate quote from the linked article.


So, zombies are possible after all? (Haven't read Eliezer's refutation yet. Seems that this is a good time to do so)

New to LessWrong?