What to do when the gods fall silent, or, the axis of ethics

by John MacBeath Watkins

In this post we discussed Julian Jaynes's theory that consciousness, in the sense of a metaphorical space in your head that narrates your life, originated about 1,200 BCE. But what happened next?
The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions, by Karen Armstrong, does not address Jaynes directly, but she is examining the ethical and religious response to the breakdown of the bicameral mind, in my opinion.   

Jaynes theorized that prior to 3,200 years ago, civilization functioned as a sort of hive mind, a shared hallucination that had evolved a way of life that worked if people followed the guidance of the gods. He further theorized that the part of the brain that generates hallucinations, which is now seldom used by anyone who is not schizophrenic, was active and integrated with the reasoning part of the brain in a left-right bond unlike the way our brains work now.

This worked very well in civilizations that changed slowly. By about the time the Odyssey was written, the world was changing too rapidly for this to work well, and people had to learn to think for themselves. Jaynes thought that this explained why the Illiad was all about people doing as the gods directed, and the Odyssey is about an individual adapting to changing circumstances.

But once people learned to think for themselves, the natural inclination was to think in terms of one's own self-interest.

So we find that the age of the breakdown of the bicameral mind was followed by what Karl Jaspers called the axial age, that pivotal time when prophets and philosophers as diverse as Jesus, Socrates, the Buddha, and Confucius taught the golden rule: Do not treat others in a way you do not wish to be treated.

This was a call for empathy and compassion, for seeing the word through the eyes of others as well as yourself. Prior to this era, you were simply required to follow the way the gods dictated, directed by voices in your head that could not be denied, according to the theory Jaynes propounded.

If Jaynes was right, there was no need for ethics during the time of the bicameral mind. Acting selfishly or failing to follow the customs or your society was, for most people, not really possible.

But in a rapidly changing world, customs did not always give guidance. Armstrong notes that the axial age was also the period when coinage was invented.

My theory about money is that it represents a favor owed, which can be claimed in the form the owner of the money desires -- meals prepared for you, new wheels for you chariot, or sex with a person of negotiable affection, for example.

Money made it possible to trade in these favors with strangers, and to accumulate favors in a form that would keep. Prior to money, you relied on the memory and custom of people you knew. If you gave someone grain, they would remember it, perhaps write it down, and that person would know who the grain came from and what its quality was.

Money made it possible to trade favors with strangers, to accumulate them in great quantity, and vastly increased opportunities to cheat. It also brought on new ethical questions, as the parable of the talents demonstrated; the master reaps where he does not sow.

This would have been a confusing world to people who had no framework for working out what they should do when the gods fall silent. In addition, there were questions in peoples' minds that could never have occurred to those functioning with a bicameral mind, questions about identity, and what one's life means.

This brought forth an age of thinkers, sages, and prophets. People were hungry for a chance to learn how to live when the gods fell silent and no longer directed their actions. In the bicameral era, all were part of a whole, in this new and unfamiliar world, individuals had to look for guidance outside their heads.

And the advice that struck a chord in many different societies was to show compassion and try to empathize with others. No doubt there were other ideas, like "every man for himself," but those did not lend themselves to long-term success for a society in the way the more compassionate philosophies and religions did.

Armstrong wants to bring us back to this philosophy of compassion and empathy. Here's a TED talk she did while writing The Great Transformation:

The strangeness of being human is a series of posts about the way language makes us human, giving us abstract categories we use to think and memes that make up much of what we are.

Night of the unread: Why do we flee from meaning?
The conspiracy of god, the well-intentioned lie, and the strangeness of being human
Spiritual pluralism and the fall of those who would be angels
Judging a book by its author: "Fiction is part confession, part lie."
What to do when the gods fall silent, or, the axis of ethics
Why do we need myths?  
Love, belief, and the truth we know alone

"Bohemians"-- The Journey of a Word

On being a ghost in a soft machine
On the illusion of the self