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Elliot BenjaminElliot Benjamin is a philosopher, mathematician, musician, counselor, writer, with Ph.Ds in mathematics and psychology and the author of over 150 published articles in the fields of humanistic and transpersonal psychology, pure mathematics, mathematics education, spirituality & the awareness of cult dangers, art & mental disturbance, and progressive politics. He has also written a number of self-published books, such as: The Creative Artist, Mental Disturbance, and Mental Health. See also:


The Origin of Consciousness

Wallace in the Light of Jaynes

Elliot Benjamin

Julian Jaynes' theory of the origin of consciousness is interesting and has merit in spite of its highly speculative nature.

A few months ago, David Lane and I engaged in a handful of back and forth Integral World essays that got spurred on by David's essay Explaining Evolution in Four Minutes [1]. The crux of our exchange was focused upon the metaphysical outlook of the relatively unacknowledged evolution co-founder Alfred Russel Wallace. I argued that Wallace was a bona fide spiritualist, believed wholeheartedly in the claimed phenomenon of life after death through the communications of mediums, postulated a “metaphysical” explanation of how the universe was formulated, and consequently I took exception to David's inclusion of Wallace in his phrase: "Darwin and Wallace's great discovery was that rich complications can arise naturally without any intelligent guidance whatsoever" (cf. [1]).

Julian Jaynes
Julian Jaynes (1920-1997)

To David's credit, he took my concerns quite seriously, and in our back and forth essays I think we reached a point of temporary resolution where David acknowledged Wallace's metaphysical leanings in his last essay—beyond the restriction to the advent of consciousness in human beings—and said that he would be writing two more Integral World essays/videos about the Wallace controversy (cf. [1]). Although these essays/videos have not yet appeared on the Integral World site, I have recently read Julian Jaynes' 1970s book: The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind [2], which although highly speculative, I found to be stimulating and captivating, and which has spurred me to re-examine my thoughts about Wallace and the origins of consciousness—in the light of Jaynes.

First off, to briefly summarize Jaynes' perspective on the origin of consciousness, he saw the origin of consciousness as a development from the state of mind of our simian ancestors through what he referred to as the “bicameral mind” of the inhabitants of ancient civilizations [3]. Carter Phipps, in his book Evolutionaries [4], after referring to Jaynes' aforementioned book as “one of the most popular books on consciousness written in the last decades,” described Jaynes' ideas as follows:

The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind
His radical thesis shocked readers in the 1970s by suggesting that consciousness, in the way we understand it today as an introspective interior space, only came into being relatively recently in human history, perhaps 2,500 to 3,000 years ago. He suggested that when the ancients claimed to hear voices of the gods, for example, this wasn't a quaint religious metaphor. They were actually hearing voices directing them to act. They were, in a sense, unable to internalize their own instinctual impulses within the context of self-structure, and so they externalized them as outside forces. It was what we might call an extreme form of projection, to use current psychological lingo—although Jaynes attributed it to the developmental structures that had not yet formed in the brain. He noted that much of early literature represents a struggle to find a deeper sense of subjective selfhood, but for the most part the characters simply do not refer to themselves in any kind of way that suggests internal reflection (cf. [4], p. 183).

I think Phipps' description of Jaynes' main thesis is accurate, and I think that Jaynes' ideas (assuming they have merit—cf. [3]) can serve to ease Wallace's concerns that the theory of evolution is not sufficient to explain the development of human consciousness and culture [5]. It is instructive and interesting to see how Jaynes himself described Wallace's above concerns:

He felt the evidence showed that some metaphysical force had directed evolution at three different points: the beginning of life, the beginning of consciousness, and the beginning of civilized culture. Indeed, it is partly because Wallace insisted on spending the latter part of his life searching in vain among the séances of spiritualists for evidence of such metaphysical imposition that his name is not as well known as is Darwin's as the discoverer of evolution by natural selection. Such endeavors were not acceptable to the scientific Establishment. To explain consciousness by metaphysical imposition seemed to be stepping outside the rules of natural science. And that indeed was the problem, how to explain consciousness in terms of natural science alone ([1], p. 10).

I believe that Jaynes accomplished a noteworthy task in demonstrating the “plausibility” of how human consciousness and culture could be explained on a purely scientific basis. However, I also think that Jaynes omitted some significant aspects of our relevant knowledge that may pertain to consciousness, which perhaps can be partially explained by the fact that his book was written in the 1970s.

First off, Jaynes hardly mentioned the theories and accomplishments of quantum physics. He frequently referred condescendingly to anything of a “psychic” nature as merely an outgrowth of Mesmerism and the “bicameral mind,” which for Jaynes is essentially what he described as the (“pre-conscious”) society-approved religious hallucinations that he claimed were commonly experienced by the ancients and attributed to the Gods. However, in our contemporary physics perspective, quantum physics has emerged as a bona fide explanation that subatomic particles can exert powerful attractions on each other over distances way beyond what was thought possible from our preceding Newtonian model of the universe.

In what perhaps is not a completely unrelated phenomenon, there have been many highly sophisticated parapsychology experiments that appear to statistically demonstrate that some people have abilities to gain information beyond what can be explained by our current scientific knowledge [6]. Now of course this whole subject of parapsychology and psychic experience has been hotly debated for at least the past 130 years (cf. [6]), but my main point here is that Jaynes dismissed far too easily (and condescendingly) any possibility of something going on that may be legitimate. There is a great deal of evidence that supports what has been referred to as “extrasensory” communications, with evidence that would hold up to scientific scrutiny in virtually all other topics, and it may very well be the case that the editors of the mainstream psychology journals have been prematurely closed to the inclusion of this evidence in their journals, which accentuates the fact that the great majority of these publications are not in mainstream psychology journals (cf. [6]).

Furthermore, there is an obvious “consistency” between our current quantum physics mainstream explanation of the attraction of subatomic particles to each other that are essentially independent of the distance between them, and the theory that extrasensory perception may exist in some kind of bona fide form. And this at least “consistency” between our currently accepted mainstream science theories of physics and ideas from parapsychology brings me back to what I discussed with David Lane in regard to the metaphysical views of Alfred Russel Wallace.

I argued that Wallace's metaphysical views were not limited to his concerns about the advent of human consciousness and culture, but were inclusive of the very formation of the universe itself (cf. [1]), as he described as follows:

Just as surely as we can trace the action of natural laws in the development of organic forms, and clearly conceive that fuller knowledge would enable us to follow step by step the whole process of that development, so surely can we trace the action of some unknown higher law, beyond and independent of all those laws of which we have any knowledge....But even if my particular view should not be the true one, the difficulties I have put forward remain and I think prove, that some more general and more fundamental law underlies that of natural selection....only in reference to the origin of universal forces and laws have I spoken of the will or power of one Supreme Intelligence....The view we have now arrived at seems to me more grand and sublime, as well as far simpler, than any other. It exhibits universe, as a universe of intelligence and will-power ([5], pp. 147, 158, 162, 163).

In conclusion, I think that Julian Jaynes' theory of the origin of consciousness is interesting and has merit in spite of its highly speculative nature, but that it does not address the wider question of how and why the universe came into existence to begin with, and if there is some form of intelligence that has guided the process from the very beginning, as Wallace apparently believed. And by “from the very beginning” I am referring to ”before” the Big Bang—assuming there actually was a “Big Bang” about 14 billion years ago, as our current mainstream science theories tell us.

Frank Visser gave us a peak at the comprehensive theory of Big History [7] to explain the formation of the universe, but I always go back to the question of “now where did the 'energy or whatever' come from to begin with?” As far as my mathematical/philosophical mind is able to comprehend, there can be no actual beginning to all of this, as there is an infinitesimal regress to earlier causations, just as the “nothingness” that Lawrence Krauss discussed in his recent book A Universe From Nothing [8] always contains the potential for something being formed, and there appears to be no escape from postulating that some kind of physical laws such as gravity were “always” with us. And I think I shall end matters like this for now.


[1] See the following 2013 Integral World essays at David Lane: Explaining Evolution in Four Minutes; The Darwin-Wallace Debate: Natural Selection and its Implications: A Reply to Elliot Benjamin; Natural Selection and Metaphysics: The Continuing Darwin-Wallace Debates: Part 1; and Elliot Benjamin: Alfred Russel Wallace and “Evolution in Four Minutes”: Getting the Record Straight; The Darwin-Wallace Debate Continues: “Metaphysical” Intelligence Not Just For Humans: My Response to David Lane.

[2] See Julian Jaynes (1976, 1990), The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

[3] There are numerous critiques and criticisms of Jaynes' book, including a number of passages from Kevin Shepherd's recent Integral World essay Ken Wilber, Up From Eden: A Critical Assessment of Ken Wilber's Early Writings; For an overview description of the book that includes some critique excerpts, see

[4] See Carter Phipps (2012), Evolutionaries: Unlocking the Spiritual and Cultural Potential of Science's Greatest Idea. New York: Harper/Perennial.

[5] See Chapter 10 in Alfred Russel Wallace (1870, 2010), Contributions to the Theory of Natural Selection. Memphis, TN: General Books.

[6] See Stanley Krippner and Harris Friedman (Editors)(2010). Debating Psychic Experience: Human Potential or Human Illusion? Denver: Praeger.

[7] See Frank Visser (2013), Integral Theory and the Big History Approach.

[8] See Lawrence Krauss (2012), A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing. New York: Free Press.

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