Consciousness as Metaphor: What Jaynes Has to Offer

by Hazard8 min read7th Jun 20204 comments


ConsciousnessWorld Modeling

Cross-posted from my roam-blog. Greatly inspired by a lot of the stuff in Kaj's Multi-Agent Models of the Mind Sequence

This first paragraph of a recent SlateStarCodex post:

Julian Jaynes’ The Origin Of Consciousness In The Breakdown Of The Bicameral Mind is a brilliant book, with only two minor flaws. First, that it purports to explains the origin of consciousness. And second, that it posits a breakdown of the bicameral mind. I think it’s possible to route around these flaws while keeping the thesis otherwise intact. So I’m going to start by reviewing a slightly different book, the one Jaynes should have written. Then I’ll talk about the more dubious one he actually wrote.

Nice job beautifully capturing my love of, and frustration with, this book. Jaynes has so many wild and exciting ideas and most of them are really weird. Not weird as in code for "stupid or wrong", but weird as in being so far outside what you thought the realm of possibility was that you're left sorta scratching your head.

One paragraph summary of Jaynes' book: consciousness is learned, not innate. From the development of language up till the Bronze Age Collapse people were directed around by the voices of the god's which they heard in their heads and would have conversations with and this was perfectly normal. The gods were neurologically real in the sense that cultural expectations allowed people to experience the thoughts that their right hemisphere produced as hallucinated voices that they attributed to the gods. Eventually writing, trading, and the collapse of most civilizations began to break down this bicameral mind, and modern consciousness (were "you" are in control and think things with your mind) came about.



... wut?

I can already tell that "the gods were real, but not like in a supernatural way, like in a uniform auditory hallucinations across populations way" is weird enough to knock most people off their game. Scott's post does a great job of trying to across this one piece of weirdness by recasting Jaynes' takes in terms of "Theory of mind". If you're hung up on gods being real, I'd recommend it as a Minimum Viable Explanation. Kevin Simler has a great series that delves more into the guts of this space.

That being said, I'm not writing this post to talk about auditory hallucinations or the idea that the gods were a real part of everyday life for thousands of years. I'm here to talk about consciousness. One of the problems with Origin is that there's 4+ interesting out-there big ideas in it, but "people literally hallucinated the voices of god all day long" is just so fucking weird that it forms a weirdness black hole that sucks everything else into it. Though I like Scott's gloss using theory of mind, it throws away the ideas that were most interesting to me.

It's understandable. As Scott points out, there's a lot of ideas, experiences and concepts all bundled under "consciousness", and Jaynes does a C+ job of sorting them apart. That's part of what frustrates me about the book. I owe a lot of my recent lines of thinking to Jaynes, but I'm also not sure if he'd even agree with my new takes. This means that I'm not going to talk about god-voices, and I'm not even necessarily going to try and defend Jaynes' point of view (because I disagree with it, find it confusing at various points)

This post is going to be an exploration of ideas built off of Jaynes' initial, "What if consciousness is a metaphorical construction?" From Jaynes:

"The conscious mind is a spatial analog of the world and mental acts are analogs of bodily acts. Consciousness operates only on objectively observable things. Or, to say it another way with echoes of John Locke, there is nothing in consciousness that is not an analog of something that was in behavior first."

(note: Since the 70's, when Jaynes' book came out, there's been a lot more awesome research on consciousness, so the picture I'm painting will look a good bit different from his)

Translating into my own phrasing, the big thesis is: The contents of consciousness are constructed via metaphor.

It was hard for me to wrap my head around what this could even mean, let alone figure out if I thought it was true, so don't feel bad if this makes no sense yet. My first task is going to be helping build an understanding of what "consciousness" being "constructed" via "metaphors" could even mean.

(other note: I'm going to be putting lot's of words in quotes. Generally, this will be to highlight that I'm appealing to the ever-day intuitive understanding of a concept, while acknowledging that said understanding probably isn't a good literal description of what is happening.)

Let's go!

"The Contents of Consciousness"

I'm going to explore consciousness as a verb, in a way that's mostly synonymous with "awareness". Ex:

"I was conscious of a weird tremor in the ground"

"I am aware of thoughts about dinner"

Breaking down consciousness as a verb you have the subject (some flavor of "you") is conscious of something, and these somethings can be internal or external. You can be aware of a fly darting back and forth and you can be aware of thoughts darting back and forth in your mind.

Exploring the subject ("I") is delving into the nature of the self, and what's up with this apparent homonculus?

Exploring the verb "to be conscious" is what people are doing when they talk about qualia and subjective experience. There's this thing that is being aware, what is it? What's it like? Round here is the supposed "hard problem of consciousness" (link to optional post with my thoughts on this "problem").

I'm focused (for now) on the object, the things that we are aware of, and specifically the internal objects that we are aware of. The thoughts that dart into awareness. The beliefs that we can inspect and asses. The motives that you find when you query yourself. You clearly have some privileged access to what's happening in your head (I can't read your mind). Also, there are clearly limits to your conscious reach, (you can't be directly aware of the firing rate of a particular neuron)

So when I say that "the contents of consciousness are constructed via metaphors" I'm saying "The stuff that you find when you introspect and observe your own mind, is all constructed via metaphors."

"Are Constructed"

This is the trickiest and maybe the most counter intuitive part to explain, so I'll be summoning three different metaphors to try and bridge the gap.

(here's a short related riff on thoughts and feelings I have on calling something a "construct". Optional)

Factory Foreman vs The Press Secretary

The first metaphor is conscious introspection as a foreman walking around observing the goings-on of a factory.

If consciously reflecting on your own mind is like the factory foreman walking the production line, then you can accurately report on most all of the stuff happening in your head. Plenty of things are happening that you can't see, but you could walk over and check up on them. Though you aren't omniscient, you can observe and report events in real time. You are directly perceiving what is there and what is happening.

Contrast this with the press secretary metaphor, which Robin Hanson uses in The Elephant in the Brain. Here, the rest of the mind is The White House, making decisions and taking actions. You as the Press Secretary have little clue what went into any of the decisions, all you're told is the policies that have been made and then you have to face the public and explain. Despite not knowing the true reasons for any decision, you do an admirable job of concocting a reasonable story when the press questions you. Sure, sometimes you might actually be informed about what's going on, but this is the exception rather than the rule, and most of the time you make due without.

The key difference here is the amount of access introspection has to "what is actually happening inside your head". The foreman "directly perceives" what's there, while the Press Secretary "constructs a story". I think the truth is much closer to the creative construction of the Press Secretary.

Now, Hanson picked the secretary metaphor specifically to convey the idea that your conscious reasons are constructed and shaped via PR incentives. The press secretary, who is mostly kept in the dark, is trying to construct the "most reasonable" backstory, in order to appease others and make the oval office look good. Though I think that pressure exists, I want to de-emphasize it, and instead highlight the constructive nature of the secretary's explanations. What you find when you introspect is almost entirely constructed, a recreation, a guess, an inference at what is happening in your head, and this construction process can be more or less accurate, depending on the situation.

The press secretary metaphor is a good one, but part of it falls flat for my purposes. It stands to reason that the press secretary could become more accurate, if only they could sit down and have a conversation with everyone else. There are actual reasons for decisions that are made, but the secretary just can't get to them, or someone is preventing them from accessing those reasons. This is implied by the press secretary metaphor, and I want to get rid of it.

The Mind as an Iceberg

Here's a metaphor from The Mind Is Flat that captures a common way of thinking about the division between the conscious and the unconscious:

"It is tempting to imagine that thoughts can be divided in two as the waterline splits an iceberg: the visible conscious tip and the submerged bulk of the unconscious, vast, hidden and dangerous. Freud and later psychoanalysts saw the unconscious as the hidden force behind the frail and self-deluded conscious mind." [...] "But the vision of the iceberg, with its vast dark mass hidden below the water, hides an important but entirely flawed assumption. In an iceberg, the material that is above and below the waterline is precisely the same – ice is ice, whether deep beneath the waves or sparkling in the sunlight. And, for this reason, it seems only natural that what is hidden can be made visible and what is visible can be made hidden – it is still the same ice whether we lift it from the waters or plunge it into the depths. The metaphor suggests that the very same thought could be either conscious or unconscious – and could jump between the two states. [...] Our conscious trains of thought are presumed to be paralleled by shadowy unconscious musings, torments and symbolic interpretations. This unconscious mental activity is supposed to be the same ‘stuff’ as conscious thought – the only difference being that it is submerged below the level of conscious awareness." 

We see the iceberg assumption baked into the secretary metaphor. Both the back office and the secretary are the same sort of thing-- people who think and decide. Ice is ice, it's just that the secretary can't can't go into the back office and see what's happening "below the surface".

Nopes. I claim ice is not ice. I'm using the press secretary metaphor to emphasize the constructive nature of the contents of consciousness, but I also want to highlight that conscious content is a very different "type" of thing from unconscious content. Though we can use the same word "belief" to talk about our conscious and unconscious beliefs, I claim that they are very different creatures, are represented/encoded very differently, and play by different rules (to be explored later in the series!).

(breadcrumb: an example of this is the difference between Beliefs and Subdoxastic States)

"Via Metaphor"

We've homed in on what chunk of consciousness I'm talking about, we've homed in on what I mean for it to be constructed, now all we have left to do is unpack metaphor. I used the iceberg metaphor to highlight that conscious contents are a different "sort of thing" from unconscious contents. Metaphors are "the sort of thing" that make up the bulk of conscious content.

If you haven't been introduce to George Lakoff's work, you might think of metaphors as a poetic nicety that you might add to writing to make it more fun or artsy. There is literal, concrete, pragmatic speech, and then there's poetic, metaphorical speech.

Lakoff spreads the good word that you couldn't escape metaphor even if you tried (spending a day talking with an annoying literalist 8 year old will quickly convince you of this), and that instead of being a poetic nicety, metaphor is the backbone of how you think about anything and everything . Take the following paragraph:

"Britain was deep in recession while Germany was flourishing three years ago. France kept moving ahead steadily long after Germany had fallen into recession. But now France is plunging deeper while the German economy continues to struggle. Britain has been taking small steps toward stimulating its economy by cutting interest rates, and has finally started to emerge from recession."

If this looks like a perfectly normal paragraph about economics, it is. It's also the case that every single sentence makes metaphorical use of spatial concepts to represent abstract non-spatial ideas. Britain was deep in recession, and has finally started to emerge from it. Recessions aren't physical things that one can move deep into and emerge from, and yet we effortlessly think of them as such.

To Lakoff, metaphor is the process of creating a mapping between two domains so that you can use your understanding of one to understand the other. The metaphor-red-pill is that virtually all of one's abstract concepts are understood via metaphorical bridging to concrete domains that you have already evolved machinery to intuitively understand and manipulate. You don't learn a topic and then come up with metaphors-- the metaphors themselves form the base of your understanding, from which all else grows.

Now, Jaynes' initial statement makes a bit more sense. Here it is again:

"The conscious mind is a spatial analog of the world and mental acts are analogs of bodily acts. Consciousness operates only on objectively observable things. Or, to say it another way with echoes of John Locke, there is nothing in consciousness that is not an analog of something that was in behavior first."

The "via metaphor" part of my big claim states that the contents of consciousness are metaphorical entities, ones that are understood from their mapping to the domain of space and movement.



Tying it all Together

So all together, let's transform "The contents of consciousness are constructed via metaphor" into something more understandable.

Whenever you introspect and look inside yourself, whether to observe your mind in action, or to examine your beliefs and motives, what you are doing is looking at your inferred guess at what's happening in your head. You aren't seeing your mind "directly", but instead are looking at a representation that you have constructed. This construction is a very different sort of thing from what is actually happening in your head, though it is useful for understanding what's happening in your head. This construction is a metaphorical one, piggybacking on your understanding of space, concrete objects, and movement, to breath motive logic into itself.

This is the beautiful idea hidden in Jaynes' book, and one that I want to spend many more posts exploring! I have yet to do anything remotely close to defend this thesis and provide evidence, but hopefully you've at least got a sense of what it is that I want to convince you of.

I'll finish with a list of some important questions, and directions to go

  • If conscious contents are one's inferred guess at what's actually happening in the mind, what information channels are available to make this guess?
  • How does the mind think metaphorically? Why is this the sort of content that makes up most of the contents of consciousness, and not something else?
  • How do the contents of consciousness relate to other things, like "conscious reasoning"?