Human Consciousness

This discussion moved from TheBottleneck:

Were we less human when we were pre-agricultural like the AmericanIndians?

Yes. For one thing, we weren't conscious before about three millennia ago.

Huh?!? Conscious of what? - This refers to the idea that there was a profound change in the nature of the human mind a little before 1000 BC. From what I know, the best supported version is developed in The OriginOfConsciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, though there is some earlier scholarship leading to similar conclusions.

I find this a little hard to swallow. By some accounts, human civilization goes back at least 10,000 years. Cro-Magnon supposedly appeared some 40,000 years ago, or even well before that. That's us.

Civilization usually refers to cities and writing, so only goes back about 6000 years.

No. Records only go back 6,000 years. So we just don't know what happened earlier than that. Almost certainly something. Sanskrit didn't just appear out of thin air.

Sanskrit didn't start out as a written language. What I just said, if you were paying any attention, is that societies before the advent of writing are not generally counted as being civilizations. Not because they are not complicated enough, but because that's the normal definition of civilization. [Um, no. The defining characteristic of civilization is cities, which IIRC tend to develop just slightly before writing.] You or someone else does this same thing with consciousness below and it's really made a mess here.

But there is a good deal of work suggesting that even the late bronze people thought in ways very different from us now, even without Jaynes. For instance, studies have found that members of modern "pre-literate" groups don't apply syllogisms even in very straightforward cases. The reason, then, MrAristotle wrote so much about obvious stuff would be because it was still fairly new. This is all still somewhat controversial, but not nearly as unsubstantiated as it looks at first glance.

Um, first, a lot of Aristotle is far from obvious. Second, where Aristotle says anything about scientific or engineering matters, he's a superstitious primitive. Third, modern "pre-literate" groups aren't representative of any other groups at any other time. Your point dissolves in a sea of hasty generalizations.

I don't mean all of Aristotle is obvious, but he spends an absolutely huge amount of time describing things like modus ponens, when we use the word for a part to refer to the whole, and things like that. The rest of his stuff has mistakes but it much better than you're giving it credit for.

Pre-literate groups aren't representative but are suggestive. There are some parts of the world, after all, where not much has changed since times before civilization in terms of population or technology. If these all show some features in common, then in the absence of evidence to the contrary it would be reasonable to apply it to their ancestors. This doesn't sound conclusive? Well DUH. I was just trying to give a sampler of some things out there, not recreate Jaynes or Ong in their entirety.

Civilization refers to having a complex culture (I won't attempt a precise definition), so it needn't involve cities or writing, though these provide us with evidence of civilizations of the past. I contend that civilization is not likely to have arisen before consciousness.

Good for you. Excellent contention. Come back when you have an argument to support it.

The idea that conscious human beings like us spent tens of thousands of years achieving nothing is absurd. But this is exactly what people were like before the first millennium BCE; no technology, no social progress, no intellectual culture, no significant progress of any kind. For example, it took tens of millennia for the revolutionary idea "let's feed infants instead of killing them" to take hold.

Um, your evidence for this is what? It does appear that you are full of a remarkable quantity of opinionated bilge.

When humans evolved, they did not have language. Human language is a skill and an ability which had to develop over millennia. And since consciousness is a function of language, it's impossible for humans to have evolved conscious. It's flat out impossible for Cro-Magnon to have been anything like us, to be conscious like us.

Are you entirely sure you're conscious? Making such sweeping generalizations makes me wonder.

So no, they weren't us nor even anything like us. They were mindless automatons in human bodies, like would today be permanently relegated to a psychiatric ward. (See also WhatIsConsciousness)

AssumingTheAntecedent?. As you always do when you talk about something without trying to prove it.

I disagree. There's at least a restricted form of consciousness that doesn't require advanced language, and is far from mindless.

I don't know what "advanced language" is supposed to mean but consciousness certainly requires language. And Cro-Magnon did not have it.


If you're talking about qualia (see philosopher's take on consciousness on WhatIsConsciousness) then it is conceivable for cats to have qualia. Most people would not describe them as conscious. If you're talking about something else entirely then please describe it on WhatIsConsciousness.

So would a modern child raised for several years without being taught language be incapable of being conscious?

That's exactly what happened. There are cutoff points in neurological development at 3, 6 and 9 years of age. Beyond the crucial (second?) cutoff, it's impossible for them to learn language or become conscious. Unconscious people don't even have memory as we conceive of it.


Relevance to cro-magnons?

Supports the idea that there is no consciousness without language. You can draw some conclusions about ancient people by comparing them with modern people if you're careful.

I didn't have in mind children whose early mental development has, in all probability, been severely affected due to their being raised in the wild (or children abandoned to the wild due to apparent mental or physical handicaps). One needs a degree of consciousness (or very good memory and information processing abilities) in the first place to be able to learn the subtleties of a language as complex as English.

This is incorrect. One needs no consciousness to learn one's mother tongue. Consciousness comes with learning one's mother tongue, and then only if you've been raised in a way that allows consciousness to develop.

How can one tell that? The child needs to be more than just awake to learn a language. Your use of italics suggests you wouldn't deny that. I accept that a human's thinking is largely language-based once a language has been acquired, but I don't equate such thinking with consciousness or regard it as necessary for consciousness.

And by the way, all of these children were normal except for one case where the boy's tongue was fused to the sides of his mouth. If they had been mentally or physically handicapped, they would never have been able to survive in the wild in the first place. The claim that they were handicapped is nothing more than a baseless attempt to dismiss a disturbing fact: humans are not born, nor are they destined to be, conscious.

That depends on how handicapped they were. We don't have modern assessments of feral children. Severe handicap would prevent survival in the wild, but minor handicaps would not, but might have contributed to the original abandonment and then affected the child's development. Feral children were probably poorly nourished as well, which would tend to impair their development.

You make two unwarranted assumptions. First, that if children were abandoned, it's because they were inferior to children who were retained. IOW, that abandoning children was influenced by human rationality. You have no evidence of this whatsoever and in fact historical research shows that abandoning children was a deeply irrational behaviour. For example, children who "cried too much" or "shit too much" could easily be abandoned for those reasons alone. In fact, it is likely that the children abandoned were smarter and more predisposed to consciousness since the two qualities most valued in children through history were docility and obedience.

Second, you assume that feral children got less nutrition than civilized children. If you had any idea of how parents abused their children, often starving them to death, in cities, you would never have made such a naive assumption. Despite brutal abuse and neglect, children raised with human contact developed consciousness. Children raised without human contact did not. Malnutrition had nothing to do with it.

Those assumptions were not intended. I meant that in a particular case of a feral child, some defect noticed could have been one reason for the abandonment, and no more than that. Many children have been abandoned for no sensible reason.

With regard to nutrition, I accept that conscious adults may once have been deprived and abused children. However, the combination, likely in the wild, of poor nutrition, not learning language, non-treatment of disease, and generally poor conditions seems unlikely to help mental development, and could significantly impair it in some cases.

You grossly overstate the poor nutrition a child would have in the wild, especially as compared to children who were cared for.

In some societies, all children (all) suffered abuse that caused physical retardation of up to several years (eg, they learned to read at 6 years of age). Their mental development was harmed to an outrageous degree and they suffered permanent psychological defects due to that abuse. In these cases, an infant abandoned at birth and suckled by some wolf would be better off materially than the other children. Yet none of that matters because the overwhelming majority of children raised with human contact become conscious (as long as the abuse is within certain broad parameters) while none of those raised in the wild ever became conscious. Human contact is the determining factor.

I wasn't comparing nutrition in the wild to that in human care. I could read at six. I can't remember being so young I couldn't read. I haven't noticed any resultant physical retardation or permanent psychological defects - maybe I'm too defective to notice, but I don't think so! I had the impression you were saying that having a language is the crucial factor. Why switch to human contact?

Human contact divides into physical contact, human interaction, and language. I can rule out physical contact as a determining factor easily enough: without it, infants die. But I can't rule out human interaction with the arguments above. So I don't try nor hide the weakness of the argument.

If by "human contact" you meant "contact by the human discussed", that wasn't obvious. I took you to mean "contact with another human". Language can be learnt from a computer (as an intermediary), so actual contact with another human is not needed. For the time being, let's not consider non-interacting humans.

It is ridiculous to dismiss cases of feral children on the basis that they grew up in the wild, since this is the only possible way to test the hypothesis at hand. If you tried to set up a proper scientific experiment, you would be imprisoned or killed.

A proper scientific experiment would be illegal rather than impossible. That doesn't improve the unscientific historical examples.

Don't ask me for what I'd go to jail to give you. If you're actually interested in learning something on the subject then start looking at the historical examples, no matter how imperfect, because that's the only thing you'll ever get. If you want more or different examples then ask for them but don't complain about them not being properly scientific. Especially since the theory that consciousness is a function of language has myriad historical support while the opposite hypothesis has the support only of unreasoning prejudice. I'll take a partially proven theory over folk mythology.

I am not keen to generalize from the few historical examples already mentioned, but "myriad historical support" is another matter, if it exists. I don't accept that it exists.

:) You don't know enough about the subject to accept or reject anything yet.

Consciousness is based on language and spatial relations. Learning that the world has three spatial dimensions can be done through sight alone, hearing alone, or touch alone, or any combination of them. IOW, deaf-mutes still have all that's required to become conscious. Now, if they do become conscious despite a "clear handicap likely to affect mental development" but wild children without human contact do not, then that tells me that language is crucial to human consciousness.

But do they become conscious only when taught language or is it just that their lack of communicative ability gives the impression of lack of consciousness? There seem to be too few cases of attempts to educate feral children for generalized conclusions to be drawn reliably.

To the feral children, we can add the deaf and blind, and the deaf(

Neither of the above links asserts that the people concerned were not conscious before they eventually acquired language skills.

That's because you have some weird notion of consciousness which doesn't correspond to the psychological definition of consciousness as explained on WhatIsConsciousness. Now, I'm tired of tracking down your comments everywhere so I'm stopping now. Geez, learn to write your comments at the end of a freaking page!

Cave paintings of hunting-related scenes suggest that hunting was either pre-planned or commemorated in a quite elaborate fashion, which would suggest consciousness, at least in an early form.

But that's not what they mean. Cave paintings mean nothing more than religious rituals recreating the images seen in sacred visions. They suggest pre-planning and commemoration to you only because you're used to assuming that all humans are conscious. They were deeply religious experiences which were likely done in the middle of a hallucinatory trance. This suggests instead that the authors of cave paintings were not conscious. (And at this stage in their evolution, they would have learned adjectives and verbs but not nouns or names. They wouldn't have any language to support any concept of self-identity.)

Deciding certain experiences are "sacred visions" rather than dreams, and are therefore so important that they should be preserved as paintings incorporating significant symbolism also suggests pre-planning or commemoration. If there were religious paintings, it's likely there were also religious ceremonies or enactments of some kind. The understanding and organization required for such abstract matters would be hard to achieve without consciousness.

There are modern examples of hallucinatory trance. It is scientifically (and legally) testable whether humans in such a condition are capable of cave-painting. Would they manage to prepare the necessary paints while in trance? How and why did they acquire the knowledge of how to do that? Why wouldn't they also paint when not in a trance? Wouldn't early human painters also paint themselves? And couldn't such self-painting support identity and self-identity concepts whether or not language was used?

Except that as far as I know, they never did paint themselves. [We don't know if they did, but other means of identification, such as carrying out different learnt tasks, also support identity concepts.]

And you'd be amazed at the list of things humans can do without any conscious attention whatsoever. Even thinking doesn't require consciousness.

You assume above that there was some kind of decision-making going on in cave painting, again just because you're used to assuming that every human is conscious. What kind of evidence do you have that Paleolithic people distinguished between dreams and visions at all?

You also don't understand what I mean by cave paintings being religious. They weren't "religious paintings" in our sense of paintings with a religious theme. The act of painting itself was a religious ritual. The painting was the ceremony. [And the means to do it was supplied by a "sacred vision"? What evidence is there for that? Or is it just a guess? What are you even talking about?]

The entire notion of "enactments" (like the notion of decision-making) prerequiring consciousness, is groundless, and has no evidence going for it. They weren't "enacting" anything anymore than an artist in a furious artistic trance is "enacting" something else.

And the only "symbolism" that exists in cave paintings is the psychoanalytical kind, which is thoroughly non-conscious.

So the drawn animal doesn't symbolize a real one, or imagined real one? That doesn't seem likely. Why do you waste time doing paintings (or any other tasks for that matter), if you can't see a benefit and haven't made a conscious decision to carry out the activity for some reason? Look, this is getting outright idiotic. Why do I do something? Because I'm freaking conscious!! Well guess what, that doesn't mean jack for non-conscious people. You can't use "most people are conscious now and consciousness plays a key role in most of their behaviour" to imply "everyone was always conscious" when you can't even imply "everyone now is conscious".

Just for the record, the most common interpretation of the cave paintings is as sympathetic magic. So if you're actually going through a ritual attempt to bring things into existence when you draw, by all means, draw conclusions about them from that.

Such paintings seem far from arbitrary, which is why they suggest decision-making. As for thinking not requiring consciousness, how would one test that? There's no doubt that many complex activities don't require conscious attention all the time, but achieving them without ever being conscious is another matter.

It is possible to train someone to perform a complex task and have them perform it over and over without their consciousness ever noticing it (let alone being involved). This is called "instrumental learning" and is what's involved in training bears and dogs, which are hardly conscious. With conscious humans, there is a possibility that they will notice a complex task they are performing. But if you know what you're doing you can avoid it. And of course, with non-conscious humans that's never a factor to begin with. Consciousness impedes the learning and performing of tasks, it's certainly not required for it.

As for thinking without consciousness, this is the experience of every brilliant scientist, artist and writer. Everyone who has had a significantly creative thought in their life will have had the experience of being stumped by a problem, setting it aside and busying themselves with something else, and then suddenly having a brilliant solution handed them on a silver platter. What distinguishes us most from mindless computers is the Flash Of Inspiration, which is unconscious.

I wouldn't call a flash of inspiration "thinking". It needn't be a conscious process, but that's not important here, since the complex tasks of religious rituals, say, wouldn't arise through just flashes of inspiration or imitation of a vision. You would need some appropriate decision-making in finding a way to accomplish the desired tasks. 1) Inspiration can't be a conscious process. 2) How do you know that complex long-winded rituals can't arise through flashes of visions? Especially if there's plenty of brain power to generate those visions freed up by being unconscious? 3) No, you do not need any kind of decision-making, except of the unconscious variety. Your claim that they would doesn't make it so.

Consciousness is as useful to thinking as herding cats is effective. Consciousness is only ever involved in the setting of the problem in the right format and the gathering of all relevant information. After that, one waits patiently for that part of our brain which does our thinking for us.

Easy to state, but what is your evidence? Anyway, "us" includes all of our brain.

No, it does not. And the "evidence" as already stated, is the experience of any brilliant person.

From Chapter 7, page 279 of Foundations of Psychohistory (

This can best be seen in the famous composition from the cave of Lascaux (Illustration 4).

Marshack describes this scene as depicting "a naked bird-headed man with an erect phallus lying or falling before a wounded bison with its entrails spilling. There is a spear in the bison, a bird on the stick and an oddly branched form," usually called a "spear-thrower."(126) If you will look carefully at the scene, however, you will note several obvious errors in this explanation. First, the "spear" is not in the bison at all-it is superimposed on it, with its "point" facing away from the bison, certainly odd if a spear-scene was meant. In fact, the "spear" is not a spear at all. Paleolithic spears are poles with small stones at their very end-this is a long line with a branch line at some distance from the end. Neither is the "spear-thrower" like any one ever seen in the Paleolithic. Spear-throwers are short sticks with a slight notch at the end, while this is again a branched symbol, very much like the so-called "spear" itself. Both, in fact, are versions of the standard placental symbol of a branch from the "Tree of Life," mentioned above, and so often drawn near beasts in cave art (see Illustration 1). The bird-headed man is, of course, a shaman, not a hunter at all, and his shaman's umbilical stick is shown next to him, with its bird on the top exactly as it is found in so many contemporary shamanistic groups. The shaman has an erect penis here just as he does in primitive myth, because he has been reborn, revitalized. The "entrails" are probably not entrails at all, since it is a shamanistic rebirth ritual not a hunting scene; the lines are menstrual blood, as they are on the "Venus" figurines. The scene is in fact the complete fetal drama, and contains every one of the five elements we previously described: (1) Poisonous Placenta (woman-beast with "branch of life" signs), (2) Suffering Fetus (dying shaman), (3) Pollution (menstrual blood), (4) Nurturant Umbilicus (bird-headed shaman-stick) and (5) Cosmic Battle (the whole composition, the opposition between dangerous beast and shaman.)

While I'm considering those points, I'll observe that you are suggesting that early forms of man were not conscious, but nevertheless were capable of devising, learning and observing some form of elaborate religion. I find that somewhat absurd.

There's nothing elaborate about it. It's all unbelievably crude associations from early events in life (birth memories) with everyday experiences and feelings, on the same level as Freudian slips. Regardless, there is nothing absurd about non-conscious people being able to devise, learn and observe complex things. Countless experiments demonstrate that all of these things are done without any help from consciousness, and are usually inhibited by it. This is how the Egyptians and Babylonians could have infinitely more complex societies than Paleolithic peoples (and complete spoken language!) yet be non-conscious. And this is all possible because consciousness isn't what you think it is.

I put in "elaborate" to imply the presence of enough detail for my point. I don't accept that the (ancient) Egyptians and Babylonians were non-conscious. Since they are dead, there is no experimental confirmation. I have no knowledge of the "countless" experiments which demonstrate that non-conscious humans can devise, learn and observe any elaborate (ie., complex) religion. If their are so many, why don't you give at least one good internet reference? I have not tried to give a watertight definition of consciousness because that's very difficult (or impossible) to do.

Does anthropological evidence that the Egyptians and Babylonians were non-conscious count? Because it's available in spades.

It could count, but you haven't presented it here. There's allegedly evidence available "in spades" for all sorts of spurious hypotheses. Most of it turns out to be of little value when examined carefully. See OriginOfConsciousness. If you want a book, then read one.

Note that I never said that experiments had been done where non-conscious people could perform complex activities. I said that people in non-conscious states could be taught to perform that complex activity and perform that activity without having any conscious knowledge of it. Of course, the more complex the activity, the more likely it is to be noticed by the person's consciousness. It's obvious that if a person were non-conscious, they could perform the activity and never become conscious of it, no matter how complex it was.

Such teaching usually requires consciousness on the part of the teacher at least. Even the cat who teaches her kittens to use a litter tray may be employing a rudimentary form of consciousness. A cat has told me "No!" on occasion to stop me from doing something it didn't like.

Ok! The reason you disagree, then, or one of the reasons you disagree, is because you are using a different standard of consciousness then that Jaynes means here. See WhatIsConsciousness, psychological section.

JJ's book has had some rather poor reviews, but portraying humans of only a few thousand years ago as 'mindless' (or the like) is hardly a reasonable conclusion, and his explanation of their apparent abilities is little short of crackpot. Spades of misinterpretation rather than evidence. OriginOfConsciousness has also had rave reviews. Most of the people interested in the subject will tell you to read it, and certainly not dismiss it on the basis of some review!

In our conscious world, we have a drastic shortage of people who have "never been conscious". That's because every parent's first and most important job is to teach consciousness to their child. And schizophrenia doesn't manifest itself until adolescence. So if you'll accept experiments performed entirely under non-conscious states (from start to finish) then I can point you to hypnosis.

Isn't a hypnotized state often referred to as being semi-conscious rather than non-conscious?

That's because most people think "consciousness" refers to reactivity, so if you're awake then you can't possibly be unconscious. See WhatIsConsciousness.

Note also that there are varying degrees of unconscious behavior, some really quite capable. People probably advanced through a series of them before reaching consciousness proper. So, for instance, speech would probably have caused a partial transformation. These are probably what the person above had in mind when they referred to restricted forms of consciousness.

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