by Stephen Ferguson, December 6, 2016:    Is that voice in your head you or God?

What if a few thousand years ago, at the dawn of civilization and the beginning of what we consider the written biblical era, the majority of human beings thought in a completely different manner? You know that internal voice inside your own head? What if ancient peoples did not have it, or rather they didn’t think that voice was them? What if instead, in times of stress or great decision, ancients heard an audial hallucination attributed to an ancestor, spirit, angel, demon, god or God?

 

What if ancients had no “consciousness” as we understand it? What if they could not engage in introspection – the ability to think within oneself?

 

What if these ancients lived mostly in the present, lacking the words to describe the past or future properly? Thus, while they could understand death, what if they had no real concept of a long-term future, such as an eternal afterlife or an eschatological end of time?

 

What if because of this audial hallucination they didn’t have free choice in the way we do? What if they couldn’t lie or engage in deceit?

 

What if civilization, especially writing, brought this ancient way of thinking to a gradual end? What if this explains the finish of prophecy, except in rare circumstances, towards the close of the Old Testament (OT) period in about 400 BC?

 

Are we all born natural schizophrenics?

 

Sound farfetched, if not completely insane? Not according to Princeton professor of psychology Julian Jaynes (b.1920-d.1997), in his book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976). Just as your brain has two hemispheres, Jaynes believed ancient humans effectively had two minds. In other words, “according to our theory, we could say that before the second millennium B.C., everyone was schizophrenic.”[i]

 

Did you notice this book is from 1976? Why am I bringing it up now? First, Jaynes has had a small but cult-like following for the last four decades. Second and more importantly, this theory is the central premise behind HBO’s new hit TV show Westworld. This means it is having something of a renaissance, and you are likely to hear more about it in the near future.

 

The basic plot of Westworld concerns human-like androids (called “hosts”) who are subject to horrendous acts of sex and violence, within a Western-themed amusement park for the depraved entertainment of human guests. The hosts are artificially intelligent, meaning they do have a degree of consciousness, experiencing pain and fear just as we do. However, like Jaynes’s ancients, these robots have a second mind, which contains programing that controls their actions with god-like direction.

 

Are you reading these words aloud?

 

Is the theory bunkum? Famous atheist and Oxford Professor Richard Dawkins himself said Jaynes’s theory “is either complete rubbish or a work of consummate genius, nothing in between! Probably the former, but I’m hedging my bets.”[ii]

 

Before rushing to judgment, consider how counterintuitive it is to imagine another way of thinking. As an anecdote, are you reading these words aloud? Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430) suggested most ancient people could not read silently in their heads.[iii]

 

If you speak another language, you might have a glimpse of this because language is key. Language defines our worldview. For example, how do you do mathematics if there is no word for zero, which didn’t arrive in Europe, from India, until the 11th century AD? How do you describe the color of the sky if your language has no word for blue?[iv]

 

Did ancient prophets have two minds?

 

A central argument of Jaynes is that it was language, especially the invention of metaphor and writing, and not race or genetics, which brought about this fundamental change in thinking. As such, if we want proof, we see glimpses of this bicamerality in ancient literature, including but not limited to the Bible.

 

A recent exploration of the biblical evidence is set out in The Minds of the Bible (2014) by Rabbi James Cohen. Rather than go through all the biblical proofs, I would instead suggest you buy this short but readable book. In a nutshell Cohen points to clear changes in concepts and grammar in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, from the beginning of the chronological OT, through to the late OT and then into the New Testament. The best comparison is between earlier prophets, who act with absolute certainty like automatons directed by God, compared with later prophets, who are full of introspection about who or what God is.

 

Why do children have imaginary friends?

 

There are also everyday remnants of this bicameral mind. For example, children routinely have very real imaginary friends. It is only our culture that teaches children to internalize that other person as they grow up.[v]

 

Many non-Western societies also show remnants of ancient thinking, although centuries of globalization have impacted virtually all peoples on earth. We know traditional Australian Aboriginals had no sense of time as we do, but had a non-linear “Dreamtime.” Many of these communities also remain very spiritual, believing in the presence and influence of possession by spiritual beings in a much more tangible way than today’s Western Christians.

 

Finally, modern humans with cognitive “abnormalities” provide an insight into types of non-introspective thinking. For example, many autistics cannot think in language and have problems meditating on their own feelings.[vi] Epileptics can also experience two minds:

 

There are two temporal lobes in the brain, one on each side. They are in constant communication with each other. The lobe on the right controls our sense of self. When communication between the lobes is interrupted, during an epileptic seizure for example, the result is a separate sense of self on the right side, to that of the left. Because of this, there is a sense of presence. The feeling is usually undeniable and unexplainable.[vii]

 

Do prophets invent God in their own minds?

 

I am not at all suggesting this theory of bicameral mind is unequivocally true. But what if it is – even a little? It is probably all rubbish, but consider this a fun thought experiment – a “what if?” I’m writing this article in part because, with the SDA Church almost tearing itself apart over the issue of women’s ordination and other “culture war” issues, I want to explore an issue that makes such debates seem pretty inane. Maybe if we focused on something really big we’d have better perspective, realizing other issues are actually really small.

 

Does the bicameral mind suggest God doesn’t actually exist and prophets were really just listening to themselves – mistaking one hemisphere of their own brains for the voice of God? Was God just an imaginary friend? Someone like Dawkins would say yes, which is after all why he mentions Jaynes’s theory in his book The God Delusion (2006).

 

I am not so convinced. The bicameral mind only provides a scientific explanation as to how the voice of God originates and is transmitted internally within our own brains. Sure, that involves a subjective human element – even personal imagination. But the ultimate source of those thoughts, and how consciousness actually works, still remains a mystery, a point made by Christian apologist and Oxford professor John Lennox.[viii]

 

I am reminded of the 2014 Ridley Scott movie Exodus: Gods and Kings, which many Christians considered blasphemous. The story begins with a skeptical Moses experiencing what appears to be a mental hallucination of God. However, Ridley Scott’s genius is that when the plagues occur and a comet-driven tsunami dries up the Reed Sea,[ix] the audience is subtly shifted from skepticism to belief. The extraordinary chain of events at first seems natural, but then becomes too much of a coincidence. By the end, the audience is left feeling that maybe Moses isn’t just experiencing a mental trick after all.

 

Are prophets lying to us?

 

This distinction between a god-voice manufactured in the brain, compared with God himself, is really just a modern reformulation of the ancient mind-body problem discussed by the likes of Aristotle and Plato. To borrow a useful analogy from a recent article by Dr Ervin Taylor,[x] and one Jaynes himself used,[xi] consider radio or television. A television set does “make” the pictures in the sense it lights up pixels on a screen. Nevertheless, we realize the picture is truly “made” somewhere else, in a studio many miles away. Modern science often confuses the set for the studio.

 

Alternatively, consider the Mona Lisa was admittedly “made up” by painter Leonardo da Vinci. But none of that suggests Mona Lisa didn’t actually exist. Now imagine if Picasso had also painted her, and Van Gogh, and Michelangelo. The fact that multiple artists kept painting something very similar, admittedly from different perspectives and in different styles, would suggest Mona Lisa was a real person.

 

Perhaps the best analogy comes from Westworld itself. The androids may have a secret god-like program buried in their unconscious second minds. Yet doesn’t that program suggest a programmer?

 

Was Ellen White mentally ill?

 

If the bicameral mind is true it also has implications for the Adventist prophet – Ellen White.[xii] We’ve all heard theories about a rock thrown to her head as a child, which supposedly caused her epilepsy. However, far from discrediting her claims to prophethood, the bicameral mind theory in fact suggests such a condition would affirm rather than deny her status. It puts her in a different league than, say, treasure-hunter Joseph Smith or science-fiction writer and tax-dodger L. Ron Hubbard. In a post-bicameral world, White’s experiences recall the Apostle Paul’s own blindness or Zachariah’s muteness.

 

White seemed to grasp many of these psychological realities about prophecy. One of her most famous statements was, “The writers of the Bible were God’s penmen, not His pen.”[xiii]

 

Does this suggest anyone who hears voices is a prophet of God? No. The Bible seems to draw a fine line between mental illness, prophecy and demon possession. Going back to our radio or television analogy, not all sets are equal. Some only pick up certain channels. Imagine only getting the weather channel, an unintelligible foreign language broadcast, or one that only played death metal music. I suspect you don’t believe everything you see on television, just because it is on television.

 

The bicameral mind theory also suggests we need to change our negative attitudes to mental illness. For example, people within the Autism-spectrum have long railed against the suggestion they are somehow sick and need to be cured.[xiv] In fact, Jaynes’s theory suggests we “normal” are possibly the defective ones.

 

Were Adam and Eve the first anti-prophets?

 

Finally, bicameralism also has other important spiritual implications. For example, if I pray, do I pray to my unconscious self or to an actual external God? Who knows, but who says it can’t be both? In either case, it probably helps.

 

Going to spiritual origins, Adam and Eve’s fall, which presupposed the rise of civilization, may be about the first “modern humans” and first “anti-prophets” – the first literal people to lose their innate bicameral abilities. They indeed become like gods in attaining introspective self-awareness, which includes true free will. However, there is a heavy price: losing communion with God; obtaining a greater understanding of and dread for death; and the ability to deceive. God’s curses foretell the environmental destruction and human subjugation that has followed.

 

While this fall has affected us all, Jaynes’s theory suggests the effects are learned – not chromosomal. The original sin is a meme not a gene. We are all still innately born as potential prophets.

 

Therefore, is there a way to achieve a balance between old and new thinking – to hear God without going literally crazy? Does the example of Jesus, who was connected to the Father at all times and yet whose teachings were centered on introspected morality, provide a glimpse into the answer?[xv] I am not sure, to be honest, but it certainly makes you think twice – pun intended.


stephen-ferguson-resizedStephen is a 37-year-old lawyer from Perth, Western Australia. He is married to Amy, and has a one infant child, William. Stephen was raised within the Adventist Church and remains a member in good standing at Livingston SDA Church. Stephen’s legal expertise is in planning, environment, immigration and administrative-government law. His education includes tertiary qualifications in history, political science, anthropology, law, military studies, management, theology and town planning.


[i]Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976), Book III, Chapter 5, p.405.

[ii]Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (2006), Houghton-Mifflin.

[iii]Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, 6.3.3.

[iv]Many cultures do not have a name for blue because except for the sky, it rarely occurs in nature; see: <https://www.sciencealert.com/humans-couldn-t-even-see-the-colour-blue-until-modern-times-research-suggests>, retrieved 9 Nov 16.

[v]Rabbi James Cohen, The Minds of the Bible (2014), Henderson: Julian James Society, Kindle Ed., Loc. 236 at 19%.

[vi]Dr. Temple Grandin, Thinking in Pictures (2006), <https://www.grandin.com/inc/visual.thinking.html>, retrieved 10 Nov 16.

[vii]“Holy Visions: Mystical Experience or Brain Malfunction,” <https://www.religioustolerance.org/vis_brain.htm>, retrieved 22 Nov 16; see n1, p.115-116.

[viii]John Lennox, Seven Days That Divided the World (2001), Grand Rapids: Zondervan, p.101.

[ix]Many scholars believe the Bible’s reference to the Red Sea is better translated as Reed Sea, suggesting a much smaller body of water. Whether you agree or not, it seems Ridley Scott adopts the Reed Sea approach.

[x]Dr. Taylor raises a number of interesting thoughts that might also be relevant to this current discussion; see: Dr Ervin Taylor, “The Existence of the Supernatural: An Unnecessary Assumption,” Adventist Today, Aug. 8, 2016.

[xi]Julian Jaynes, p.331.

[xii]For example see “God in the Brain And the Outside of It”, <https://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/mmg/god-brain-and-god-outside-it>, retrieved 22 Nov 16.

[xiii]Ellen White, Selected Messages, book 1, pp.19-22.

[xiv]Anya Ustaszewski, “I don’t want to be ‘cured’ of autism, thanks,” The Guardian, 14 Jan 2009.

[xv]Jaynes’s theory also reminds of the Christological discussions going back to the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) about how and whether Christ was one or two persons – human and divine, whether Christ even had a human mind, or whether he had two.