Minding Souls

The mind, despite nay-sayers, is real. It isn’t an illusion. Emergent phenomena are often larger than the sum of their parts. One of the problems with the non-physical is that we can’t parse it precisely. “Mind” may be called “soul” may be called “personality” may be called “spirit.” You get the picture. Many scientists would answer “none of the above” to the question of which of these exist. Other scientists, not on the fringe, are beginning to see that the answers aren’t quite so simple. A recent piece in the mainstream Washington Post, dares to say what we all feel. Or at least many of us feel. There are realities that religions have recognized for millennia, that demonstrate the existence of the non-corporeal. “As a psychiatrist, I diagnose mental illness. Also, I help spot demonic possession,” an article by Richard Gallagher, is worth reading. Gallagher, with a hat-trick of Ivy League-awarded degrees, believes in demons. They’re rare, of course, he says, but real.

The standard story—in large part correct—is that ancients misdiagnosed epilepsy and some forms of mental illness as demons. Undoubtedly their standard threshold was too low. Occasionally, however, they may have been right. Unlike what we’re sometimes told, the ancients recognized at least some mental illness when they saw it. There were non-functional people then, and while some may have blamed demons, others saw them as people who don’t think like the rest of society. Then there were the possessed. As Gallagher notes, humans with superhuman strength, speaking languages they never learned, and yes, even levitating, have been witnessed by credible viewers. Very rare, yes. But also very real.

Despite the need that many feel for freedom, we are, as a species, fond of laws. We want to know the rules and we’re quick to call out those we catch cheating. We’re so fond of laws that we apply them to nature and claim that natural laws can never be broken. Well, at least not above the quantum level. A friend shared that this concept of applying legal language to nature is a fairly recent development in human thought. The idea of a law, however, requires someone to oversee and enforce it. One of the subtleties here is that any enforcement that takes place requires a measure of value, and value, as much as we all treasure it, simply can’t be quantified. Is gold more valuable than silver? It depends. The value comes in assessing its usefulness. Laws separate good behavior from bad behavior. And, if many credible people are to be believed, the behavior of mind sometimes defies the laws of nature.

Buer

6 responses to “Minding Souls

    • Thanks for the links! I’m familiar with Julian Jaynes (although he’s been largely discredited, at least in the mainstream), but I need to check out the others. If only there were more time…

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      • I guess it depends on what you mean by discredited.

        It was dismissed in the mainstream. But the evidence for decades has been piling in favor of the theory or some similar kind of theory, such as that of McGilchrist. There has been several recent books that have shown the recent research showing Jaynes was right about some key points in neurology and psychology.

        It’s far from proven. It’s just becoming an increasingly probable hypothesis over time. Originally, it was seen as wild speculation because no one knew how to test it. Since then, research has become more advanced.

        Anyway, I brought it up because, if you’re entertaining demonic possession, Jaynes’ theory is far closer to the mainstream than that. You obviously have great capacity for seriously considering what is outside of mainstream thought and not taking at face value the dismissals from within the dominant paradigm.

        I don’t know what is true. It’s more that I have a strong feeling that those who think they know what is true may not be right on all things. When you read ancient texts, it’s obvious that there was something very strange going on, however we attempt to explain it.

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  1. I was noticing that you have some association with Neal Stephenson. And that this association has some relevance to the issue of Jayne’s theory of the bicameral mind, in relation to the novel Snow Crash.

    Anyway, noticing that reminded me of my comments here. Another person also mentioned Jaynes in another post of yours. And elsewhere on the web, you mentioned Jaynes in a comment of your own.

    Are you familiar with some of the more recent work on or inspired by Jayne’s theory? Iain McGilchrist has a nice book that updates and revises the theory, putting a different spin on it. But considering your long study of religion, there were several books that might be of interest to you.

    Brian J. McVeigh studied under Jaynes and has written several books that touch upon bicameralism, such as his recent book How Religion Evolved. Another recent book is a collection of essays edited by Marcel Kuijsten: Gods, Voices, and the Bicameral Mind (I quoted from an essay in this book in a comment to your post “Spirit of Equality”). One from a few years ago is Rabbi James Cohn’s The Minds of the Bible.

    All of these latter books look to more recent research coming out of various fields, including religious studies but also neurology. Are you familiar with any of these books or the authors? I’d be curious what you think of them. Bicameralism and related theories are becoming more interesting and plausible as time goes on, since further research has confirmed some of Jaynes’ hypotheses.

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    • Thanks for pointing these out–I am still very much interested in the origin of religion and I read a lot in this area (but not, so far, the sources you mentioned). Right now another area of research has been taking up my time, but I will get back to this specific area eventually.

      The bicameral mind was roundly criticized a number of years back and scholars tend to avoid it because of that. It makes the theory itself no less viable, however. I’ve actually got a number of books on my shelf that continue the discussion but since I’m not an academic any more I don’t have the concentrated time I need to read them. Please do let me know about other sources like this, however. I plan to come back to this once my current book is done.

      (Neal Stephenson is my brother-in-law. I met his sister in graduate school and we’ve been married for nearly three decades now. When I started this blog I didn’t want people to read it because of Neal, so I kept our relationship somewhat quiet.)

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  2. Another collection by Kuijsten is Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness. And McVeigh also has another book I’ve been reading, A Psychohistory of Metaphors—metaphors having been a favorite topic of Jaynes.

    Some of the recent works like these are useful as they deal directly with the critics by better explaining what the theory is and is not about, while also offering new info. Jaynes’ book was inspirational to many who have taken his ideas in different directions, sometimes developing their own theories in the process. I get the sense that is what Jaynes always wanted to accomplish, to inspire people to think for themselves and to follow knowledge wherever it led.

    Are you familiar with some of the earlier thinkers that shaped Jaynes’ speculations? It is part of a tradition of thought that goes back to early anthropology. Julian Jaynes had written about the comparison of shame and guilt cultures. He was influenced in by E. R. Dodds (and Bruno Snell). Dodds in turn based some of his own thinking about the Greeks on the work of Ruth Benedict, who originated the shame and guilt culture comparison in her writings on Japan and the United States. Benedict, like Margaret Mead, had been taught by Franz Boas. Boas developed some of the early anthropological thinking that saw societies as distinct cultures. I found those connections to be fascinating.

    There are a bunch of other books that explore changes of thought and consciousness over time. There are numerous books on the Axial Age, some directly focused on religion, such as Religion in Human Evolution by Robert N. Bellah. There are the likes of Ken Wilber who partly based his integral theory on spiral dynamics, originated by Clare W. Graves and further developed by Don Beck. But Wilber in his spiritual view is maybe less respectable than even Jaynes. A more tame, respectable and conservative scholar, specifically about the ancient world, is Bernard Williams in Shame and Necessity. A more scientific approach is Geoffrey Lloyd’s Cognitive Variations, which explores the diversity and plasticity of the human mind.

    Here are some other similar books, including some great scholars: Walter J. Ong’s Orality and Literacy, Eric Havelock’s Preface to Plato, A. A. Long’s Greek Models of Mind and Self, William V. Harris’ Restraining Rage, David Konstan’s Pity Transformed and Before Forgiveness and The Emotions of the Ancient Greeks, David Wengrow’s The Origin of Monsters,David M. Carr’s Writing on the Tablet of the Heart, Benjamin D. Sommer’s The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel, Lynne Kelly’s Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies, Michael Horace Barnes’ Stages of Thought, Daniel B. Smith’s Muses, Madmen, and Prophets, etc.

    I was recently focused on the issue of color. It’s an intriguing example of how language and possibly cognition changed since the earliest civilizations: Guy Deutscher’s Through the Looking Glass, Daniel L. Everett’s Language: The Cultural Tool, Vyvyan Evans’ The Language Myth, and Benjamin K. Bergen’s Louder Than Words. You might find Everett particularly interesting. He has another book about his time spent with the Piraha tribe. He was living with them as a missionary and their native atheism deconverted him.

    There ya go. Probably more than you wanted. But it’s simply awesome all the new thinking that is going on in society right now, among academics and beyond. It’s impossible to keep up with it all.

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