Westworld, Julian Jaynes, and the Origin of Consciousness

The television series Westworld is the story of a theme park where guests are immersed in a recreation of the Old West. The setting is meticulously recreated: the buildings, sidewalks, furniture, utensils and everything else in the surroundings, but the real draw is the denizens. Unlike a place like Disneyworld, the hosts are not other humans, employed, paid, trained, and instructed never to break character. In Disneyworld, the pretty girl will pretend to be Snow White, and will submit to whatever indignities follow, all the while keeping to the illusion. It goes so far and no farther. In Westworld, the hosts are androids constructed of real flesh and bone, and they’re not pretending to be miners, sheriffs, gunslingers, barkeeps, and prostitutes; they are these characters. In Disneyland, the tourists may mock and pester the fairy tale princess, but because the hosts in Westworld are artificial, not human, and have neither rights nor recourse, the guests can brutalize, maim, and murder them at their pleasure.

The hosts are very strong, and potentially very dangerous, but because their every action is programmed, and because they retain no memory of the quotidian brutalities visited upon them, they are perfectly complaisant, innocuous, and defenseless. The guests came into the world by a viviparous birth and the hosts are the product of a 3-D printer. The guests have a birth certificate, a driver’s license and a social security number and the hosts have none of the documentation or protections of a citizen. Yet this is not the real, the crucial difference between them. The guests are conscious, and the hosts are not. It is this consciousness that matters. This is why, notwithstanding their nearly identical anatomies and physiologies, it is nothing more than a lark to butcher the host Dolores, but it would be a felony and an abomination to do the same to the human woman Elsie.

Without consciousness, Dolores is nothing more than an attractively packaged lump of meat, and with it, Elsie is the acme of the natural world, the vessel and apotheosis of spirit, the image of God. Yet what is this thing consciousness? That is one of the principal themes of the series, and to answer that question, the writers call upon ideas found in a book called The Origin of Consciousness and the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. The television series is a remake of a movie that was released in 1973, and Julian Jaynes’ book on consciousness was published in 1976, but the chronology is irrelevant. The movie was little more than a story of robots run amok, while the television series delves deeply into the problems of identity and humanity.

Julian Jaynes, a psychologist and guest lecturer at Princeton University, made the startling claim that ancient man had no self-consciousness, and that the subconscious made itself heard and seen through auditory and sometimes visual hallucinations. By ancient man, he’s referring to our own ancestors within the last four thousand years, and by his account, the builders of the ziggurats of Mesopotamia, and the pyramids of Egypt and Mesoamerica, were completely unlike us, as were the heroes of the Iliad. Achilles, Helen, Diomedes, and Hector were incapable of planning, deliberating, or anticipating as we can. Their brains were just as powerful, and could perform great feats of calculation, but the results couldn’t be accessed by a self, and could only be manifested in the form of a voice heard within the brain itself. Homeric man heard voices that censured, advised, mocked, and commanded, and he took these to be the voices of the gods. Like the voices heard by some schizophrenics, these were expressions of the subconscious but they were taken as the utterances of another.

An example found in the book is the incident when king Agamemnon robs Achilles of his prize, the maiden Briseis. This is a great insult and Achilles is filled with rage, but to resist will likely end in his death. Achilles most make a momentous decision and he’s under great stress, and this strain is what calls forth the hallucinations the subconscious use to make itself heard. Achilles is about to draw his sword and cut the great king down, whatever the consequences, when Athena appears and stops him. Only he can see and hear her as she seizes him, promises him great rewards to come, and commands him to back down. He cannot resist such overwhelming and smothering guidance, and he admits this as he sheaths his sword and gives in. Jaynes denies Achilles will, mind, and every other aspect of self-consciousness. According to him, terms that seem to denote these faculties, refer instead to bodily states but modern translators often project their own self-consciousness into their retelling and ascribe to the heroes of the Iliad, mental states and powers of which they were incapable.

The Greek of Homer is quite different from the classical Greek of Periclean Athens, and farther still from the koine of the New Testament, and we must leave it for those few among us who are versed in Homeric Greek to decide the truth of this. Jaynes finds the origin of all religion in the operations of this bicameral mind, and he finds evidence for this in the construction of temples, the representations of the gods in glyphs and statuary, religious texts of many widely separated and very different religions, and burial practices of ancient civilizations all over the globe. The validity of all this proof must again be left to be sifted and debated by experts in anthropology, neuropsychology, psychiatry, linguistics, ethnography, archaeology, history, and the other sciences of mankind.

For Jaynes, and for the television series, what trigger the voice of the gods are situations of terrible and nearly unendurable stress. When Dolores is fighting for her life, prohibited from any act of violence even in defending herself, she hears the voice of Arnold commanding her to kill, and released from the prohibition, she strikes down her attacker.

For Westworld, it was trauma, memory, and hard choices that led to consciousness. The deepest misery and agony the hosts suffered led to them later remembering what was supposedly erased. The death of her child woke Maeve from her nightmare, and the memory kept coming back despite all attempts to wipe it away. It was through suffering that they went within themselves, and it here that they found themselves and their salvation. It is within the maze that consciousness is found, and unlike a pyramid, it isn’t a climb but a journey within.

For Jaynes, while suffering might occasion the hallucinations, it is through the use and development of language that self-consciousness arises. Language comes before consciousness, but it is the growth and deepening of language that creates the conscious self. He finds the origins of language in the warning cries of primate bands on the savanna. These cries are later modified to fit different predators and situations, and these modifications become nouns. The noun becomes the name and the name becomes the self. The use of names allows interactions and relationships between much larger numbers, and the small bands of hunters and gatherers grow into the great cities of antiquity, Nineveh, Babylon, Memphis, and Jericho. Bicameral humans cannot escape the voice of the gods, or their presence, and so have little choice but to heed and obey. Their societies are peaceful and orderly.

The great volcanic eruption on the island of Thera destroys this tidy world. The disaster brings war, plague, famine, and depopulation. Different peoples hearing and worshiping different gods are brought into collision and strife. These strangers and enemies don’t hear the same gods or hold the same beliefs. The clear, the unquestionable, the unshakable is now rocked to its foundations. The voices of the gods are no longer heard. The gods abandon their worshippers and like lost children, sick, hungry, and afraid, they seek out omens, auguries, and priestly intermediaries. The religion of the eye and the ear, becomes the revealed and organized religion of the priest, and the text.

Consciousness isn’t needed for learning, memory, reasoning, or solving problems. Indeed, it is more a hindrance than a help in all these operations, and the subconscious does a far better job at this sort of task. We then must ask, is consciousness useful? We can only answer that it really isn’t. Consciousness doesn’t bring dexterity or adaptability or any of the other skills needed for survival. We aren’t conscious so that we may survive, we survive so that we may be conscious. The unconscious may be perfect for absorbing large streams of data, for picking up new skills, for performing intricate calculations but it is to consciousness that these results are presented, whether as a tribunal or an audience.

But can we have language without consciousness? Jaynes believes that we can, and to agree or to rebut will likewise lead us into the old argument between nominalism and realism. Do our nouns and categories apply to something that is already real, or are all these properties merely what happens to be gathered under one heading? In either case, for Jaynes, it is language that consciousness begins. The human who has a name begins to have an identity. He can picture a self, an I, and he can shuttle this I backward and forward in time like a game piece. He can travel north, south, east, and west without stirring. He can picture himself in different scenarios and foresee different outcomes, whether they are pleasant or unpleasant, whether they lead to life or to death. An animal remembers, and prior experience will mold behavior, but with language comes a mental imagery that allows for pictures of the past within the mind. The conscious mind can more than remember, it can reminisce.

We are unconscious of most of what we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch, and when we do pay attention to these sensations it brings no utility. Yet when we pay attention, it is a miraculous dispensation, a light shone into the darkness. If we ask which comes first, the word or the concept, we may as well ask if the chicken or the egg come first. They are coeval and interdependent. There is something real about universals. They aren’t an accident in the history of one language or all languages, but without a name to which it is tethered, the concept can’t be grasped. It remains ineffable, not fully real, potential rather than actual. There can be no concepts without marks traced on paper or words uttered in breath, but the concept somehow uplifts its physical manifestation; it makes the word more than the scribble or the exhalation. Consciousness isn’t necessary for reasoning, memories, or skills but it is necessary for their appreciation.

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