A Litmus Test of the “Scientifically Minded”

Julian Jaynes’ The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind  has been making the rounds over the past year or so (despite originally having been published in 1976 – I blame Westworld.)

I read it last summer, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I was wholly skeptical of the premise as I had encountered it prior to reading the book, in particular the shift from bicamerality to unicamerality/consciousness happening in such a brief period over such a wide area. (Spoiler: a good part of it is driven by the advent and diffusion of literacy.)

The book was not at all what I was expecting. It’s a deep dive into the anthropology and history of archaic cultures and early civilizations, particularly those of the Eastern Mediterranean and Mesopotamia, and what our knowledge (as of the mid-1970s) tells us about their conception of knowledge and its origins, what that reveals about the structure and operation of their minds, and how these things evolved over thousands of years – first glacially and then all at once.

There are plenty of summaries and analyses of the book and Jaynes’ ideas, however, so I’ll focus instead on an aspect that I find particularly interesting: the reaction to it all.

My take is pretty common, and I would say properly scientific: the book is a flood of interesting ideas and conjectures, some of which are argued more convincingly than others, but which overall are very thought-provoking and point in a potentially useful and informative direction. One can and should read it (as all science books) with open-minded skepticism, and tease out the useful threads of inquiry. As I’ve seen it put by several readers, Jaynes may not have hit a home run, but he’s definitely on the field – however flawed or limited, there is a “there” there that merits consideration and further exploration.

And then there are the reactions from the “scientifically-minded”.

Because it’s not wholly-accepted and Expert-Approved Science, or employs some evidence which has been overturned in subsequent decades, or engages in conjecture which is (of necessity given the antiquity of the examples) unfalsifiable, they write the whole thing off as pseudoscience.

Which is itself an unscientific attitude to take, but one which is all-too-common among those who fucking love Science™ but are utterly bereft of the curiosity and ability to think independently which are essential to true science. If science is supposed to be about the discovery of knowledge and the development of understanding about reality, closing one’s mind to new ideas and dismissing potential insights in this manner is plainly counterproductive.

Contrasting Views on What Science Is

While I’ve been bashing Sagan lately, he does get some things right about what science is supposed to be. However, despite his flaws as a writer/ranter, Bruce Charlton in Not Even Trying does a far better job of defining what science ought to be (along with what it actually is, which is something else entirely).

My reading notes on his take:

  • Reality exists independently of our knowledge of it;
  • Reality is coherent/integrated/consistent – there are no contradictions, no isolated phenomena cut off and unrelated from other phenomena or the rest of reality (as our siloed scientific disciplines and areas of study imply);
  • Our knowledge and understanding of reality are always provisional and incomplete (Sagan actually gets this);
  • Science is an intellectual tool (or suite of tools) we use to observe reality and to form and test ideas as to its nature, one with in-built methods for minimizing the effects on its function of our intellectual and cognitive biases and the natural limitations of our observational and cognitive capabilities;
  • The purpose of “science” as a tool is to expand our knowledge and understanding of reality while bringing them ever closer in line with reality as it is;
  • The process of science must follow strict rules of inquiry, reasoning, and methodology and those performing it must demonstrate strict honesty, integrity, and independence (and an obsessive fascination with the subject) for the output of the process to have any value;
  • “Science” in the sense of the corpus of knowledge and understanding of reality generated by scientific processes is not reality itself, nor is it a holy idol to be worshipped (e.g. “IFLS!” types), but our current best map of reality and nothing more.

I’m sure there are some holes in the above, terms I’ve left undefined, etc., but it’s clearer, more concise, and more complete than what definition Sagan presents in The Demon-Haunted World, and without the smug, patronizing, and self-important tone.

And I think Sagan himself would probably agree with the gist of it.

“The Probably Likely Demon-Haunted World”

In skimming back through Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World, I’m struck by something that didn’t catch my attention when I read it a year ago – or nearly did, to judge by my margin notes, but not consciously so.

And no, it’s not his smug, patronizing tone (impossible to miss), nor the tiresome and cliché takes on various subjects presented as deep thoughts. It’s his very unscientific writing throughout the book.

Isn’t it more reasonable that…[his own interpretation, presented without evidence]?”

A friend of mine claims…[some plainly sockpuppeted assertion].”

…although these estimates are probably too high...[presented without reasoning to back up the claim]”

“…is an interesting question.” [a rhetorical one he then leaves unanswered]

“…clearly these factors are playing a role.” [on which he doesn’t elaborate further]

Is there really any alternative but Explanation X and Explanation Y?’ 

What does that imply about ___ ?” [another question he asks but doesn’t answer, leaving the reader to fill in the implication he’s too chickenshit to spell out himself]

“In more than one case…”, and “…the single German city of Wuerzburg in the single year 1598…” [(emphasis added) using a small number of examples to imply the general case, with no indication of how representative it actually is]

Their story seems very plausible, though I have no evidence.’ [an “argument” he would surely not accept from anyone with ideas differing from his own]

How could [incredulous misrepresentation of some matter he wishes to deride and debunk]?’

…And a bunch more that I only made short notes on after consciously noticing it.

In a book aiming in part to expose the soft thinking and intellectual shenanigans behind popular woo, this weaselry comes across as annoyingly hypocritical at best, if not intellectually dishonest. It’s exactly the kind of thing one encounters in the works of those he is debunking here: unsupported assertions, conjectures presented as fact, obvious fallacies, conclusions implied but left unstated, etc..

I’d always assumed that Sagan was the authentic science popularizer – actually super-intelligent and hyper-rational and intellectually powerful, unlike the pair of dimwits who succeeded him. I’ll grant that reading a single one of his books is hardly an exhaustive study of the man’s mind – to be fair given my criticism above, I have to acknowledge that this one book may be representative, but it could be better than or worse than his other works, or even not comparable. That said, I was underwhelmed with what I perceived of it the first time I read The Demon-Haunted World, and have been even less impressed on the second pass.

Sagan on Scientific Inquiry

Looking back through my margin notes in Sagan’s The Demon Haunted WorldI found this:

There are no forbidden questions in science, no matters too sensitive or delicate to be probed, no sacred truths.

He couldn’t say that honestly today.

Indeed, there are many such observations in the book that don’t hold up 25 years later, or even as well as they did a year ago when I first read it. So much so that I question whether they were accurate when he wrote it, or whether his entire stated conception of science was even at that time aspirational rather than descriptive.

He does indeed present an idealized conception of the culture and philosophy and conduct science, what these could and should be. The catch is he’s describing these things as if they already are that way, rather than increasingly diverging from the vision he articulates.