‘Westworld’ and the breakdown of the critical mind

I just finished watching ‘Westworld,’ which I found okay, but a letdown overall. My primary incentive to watch was its reference to Julian Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind, which has inspired my storytelling, but the theory wasn’t really dealt with in any substantial way.

I’m ready to move on with my life, but I did notice some articles already discussing ‘Westworld’ in relation to Jaynes. One is particularly wanting, from Thrillist, by a Matt Patches.

julian-jaynes-origin
On Amazon.

The article shows poor comprehension of bicameral theory. It’s like the author breezed through it, full of preconceptions, basing his article on maybe Book One (of three), and it shows in the language he uses to summarize what Jaynes supposedly said.

Patches confuses the advent of consciousness with a scientific revolution or a golden age of reason, rather than, as Jaynes depicts, a lamentation and yearning for the voices no longer heard. Conscious man in 500 B.C. was not questioning the ontological reality of God, or seeing divinity in terms of mere instinct – not that reducing God to material descriptions makes for science, as Patches implies. It would be foolish to think modern humanity has achieved the self-awareness Patches claims Jaynes claimed that post-Iliad man has.

For the sake of sounding clever, or maybe dumbing things down, Patches writes that the left hemisphere dictated “Jump” and the right asked “How high?” He meant the right as dictator and the left as follower, and leaving that basic error aside, Jaynes would explain that the right hemispheric god’s voice also gave the specifics; there was no conscious self to introspect on the height of one’s jump.

westworld-hopkins
hbo.com

Jaynes clearly doesn’t present Homer as “major evidence” of his theory, but illustrates the importance of language in understanding mentalities. If there is “major evidence” in Jaynes’ book at all, it would have to be with regards to bicameralism explaining the behavior and neurology of schizophrenics and children who claim to have imaginary friends. But Patches probably didn’t get that far into the book (To be fair, it is 120,000 words long).

There’s a quote in the article from a certain Ed Block – it’s actually Ned, according to Wikipedia, which goes to show the depth of research Patches plunged himself into – a criticism that Jaynes himself dealt with in the later edition of his book, that consciousness may have existed prior to ‘The odyssey’ but it itself was not referred to earlier on, to which Jaynes makes a good point, that the concept of consciousness and consciousness itself are the same thing, in the same way talking about baseball came with baseball. And Jaynes, much like Chomsky, whom Patches refers to as a critic of Jaynes’ theory, explains consciousness in terms of the development of language, as I believe Chomsky would. There is just no weight to the claim that the bicameral mind is a matter “beyond scientific evidence.”

That bicameral theory is fruitful to science fiction is no argument against it. If Arthur C. Clarke, and Philip K. Dick for that matter, are indications, science fiction serves as a prelude to a shift in paradigms, in this case in favor of Jaynes.

When all is said and done, I’m glad Patches raised the issue at all.


Of course, by critiquing Patches’ critique, I’m opening myself to others doing the same to me. Here are my notes on Jaynes’ book, which has been a big influence on the last 18 months of my life.

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