Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Julian Jaynes’s Software Archaeology

Daniel Dennet, speaking on Julian Jaynes, ~1984

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Now, I take Jaynes to be making a similarly exciting and striking move with regard to consciousness. To put it really somewhat paradoxically  you can’t have consciousness until you have the concept of consciousness. In fact he has a more subtle theory than that, but that’s the basic shape of the move.

These aren’t the only two phenomena, morality and consciousness, that work this way. Another one that Jaynes mentions is history, and at first one thinks. “Here’s another use-mention error!” At one point in the book Jaynes suggests that history was invented or discovered just a few years before Herodotus, and one starts to object that of course there was history long before there were historians, but then one realizes that in a sense Jaynes is right. Is there a history of lions and antelopes? Just as many years have passed for them as for us, and things have happened to them, but it is very different. Their passage of time has not been conditioned by their recognition of the transition, it has not been conditioned and tuned and modulated by any reflective consideration of that very process. So history itself, our having histories, is in part a function of our recognizing that very fact. Other phenomena in this category are obvious: you can’t have baseball before you have the concept of baseball, you can t have money before you have the concept of money.

archaeology software

I have used up as much time as I should use, but I am going to say a few more words. If you want to pursue the interesting idea that consciousness postdates the arrival of a certain set of concepts, then of course you have to have in your conceptual armamentarium the idea that concepts themselves can be preconscious, that concepts do not require consciousness. Many have
held that there is no such thing as the unconscious wielding of concepts, but Jaynes’ account of the origins of consciousness depends on the claim that an elaboration of a conceptual scheme under certain social and environmental pressures was the precondition for the emergence of consciousness as we know it. This is, to my mind, the most important claim that Jaynes makes in his book. As he puts it, “The bee has a concept of the flower,” but not a conscious concept. We
have a very salient theoretical role for something which we might as well call concepts, but if you
don’t like it we can call them schmoncepts, concept-like things that you don’t have to be conscious to have.

For instance, computers have them. They are not conscious—yet—but they have lots of concepts,...


archaeology software

The underlying hardware of the brain is just the same now as it was thousands of years ago (or it may be just the same), but what had to happen was that the environment had to be such as to encourage the development, the emergence, of certain concepts, certain software, which then set in motion some sort of chain reaction. Jaynes is saying that when the right concepts settled into place in the preconscious minds” of our ancestors, there was a sort of explosion. like the explosion in computer science that happens when you invent something like LISP. Suddenly you discover a new logical space. where you get the sorts of different behaviors, the sorts of new powers, the sorts of new problems that we recognize as having the flavor of human consciousness.

Of course, if that is what Jaynes’ theory really is, it is no wonder he has to be bold in his interpretation of the tangible evidence, because this isn't just archaeology he is doing: this is software archaeology, and software doesn't leave much of a fossil record. Software, after all, is just concepts. It is abstract and yet, of course, once it is embodied it has very real effects. So if you want to find a record of major “software” changes in archaeological history, what are you going to have to look at? You are going to have to look at the “printouts,” but they are very indirect. You are going to have to look at texts, and you are going to have to look at the pottery shards and figurines as Jaynes does, because that is the only of course, maybe the traces are just gone, maybe the “fossil record” is simply not good enough. Jaynes’ idea is that for us to be the way we are now, there has to have been a revolution— almost certainly not an organic revolution, but a software revolution—in the organization of our information processing system, and that has to have come after language. That, I think, is an absolutely wonderful idea, and if Jaynes is completely wrong in the details, that is a darn shame,
but something like what he proposes has to be right; and we can start looking around for better modules to put in the place of the modules that he has already given us.

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