Beyond Our Present Knowledge

When talking about revolutions of the mind, the most well known examples come from the past. The names that get mentioned are those like Galileo and Copernicus or, more recently, Darwin and Einstein. Most often, radical new theories and paradigms aren’t immediately recognized for what they are. It can take generations or even centuries for their contributions to be fully appreciated and for the full impact to be felt.

John Higgs argues that the entire twentieth century has been a period of rupture, when multiple lines of change merged. I agree with him. On a regular basis, I find myself wondering about how little we know and to what extent we are wrong about we think we know. There has never before been an era during which our understanding about the world and about ourselves has changed so dramatically and so quickly. And there is no sign in this trend abating, if anything quickening.

Some futurists see this leading toward a singularity, a tipping point beyond which everything will be transformed. It could happen. I wouldn’t bet against it. Still, I’m more neutral than optimistic about the end results. The future will be known in the future. The present is interesting enough, as it is, no matter where it will lead.

My focus has always been on a particular kind of thinker. I’m interested not just in those minds with a penchant for the alternative but more importantly those with probing insight. I like those who ask hard questions and considered challenging possibilities, throwing open the windows in the attic to let out the musty smell of old ideas.

That is why I spend so much time contemplating the likes of Julian Jaynes. Some consider him an oddball while others look to him as an inspiration or even a visionary. However you describe him, he was first and foremost a scholar of the highest order. Even as he crossed fields of knowledge, he presented his thoughts with firm logic and solid evidence. You can disagree with the case he made, but you have to give him credit for proposing the kind of theory few would even be capable of attempting. Besides that, he inspired and provoked other serious scholars and writers to take up his ideas or to consider other unconventional lines of thought.

For the same reason, I’ve had an even longer interest in Carl Jung. He was a similar wide-ranging thinker who came out of the psychological field, one of the greatest investigators of the human mind. He was likewise highly influential, an inspiration to generations of thinkers both within and outside of psychology. As I’ve mentioned previously, an unusual line of influence was that of his personality theory as it was developed by anthropologists in their own theorizing about and comparison of cultures. By way of Ruth Benedict and E.R. Dodds, that set the stage for Jayne’s focus on ancient cultures.

Let me share two other examples, limited to a single field of study. Corey Robin and Domenico Losurdo political theorists. The former made a powerful argument, in The Reactionary Mind, that conservatism isn’t what it seems. And the latter made a powerful argument, in Liberalism: A Counter-History, that liberalism isn’t what it seems. If either or both of them turn out to be even partly right about their theories, then much of the mainstream American discussion about ideology might be skewed at best and useless at worst. It could mean we have based nearly our entire political system on false ideas and confused beliefs.

While I’m at it, here are two more examples. More in line with Jaynes, there is Daniel Everett. And of an entirely different variety, there is Jacques Vallée. One is a linguist who was trained to become a missionary to the natives, specifically the Pirahã. The other was a respected astronomer who wandered into the territory of UFO research (an interest of Jung’s as well, as he saw it as symbolic of a new consciousness emerging). Both became influential thinkers because they came across anomalous information and chose not to ignore it. Everett more than met his match when he tried to convert the Pirahã, instead having found himself losing his religion and learning from them, and in the process he ended up challenging the entire field of linguistics. Vallée, a hard-nosed scientist, was surprised to see his fellow scientists throwing out inconvenient observational data because they feared the public attention it would draw. The particular theories of either Everett or Vallée is not as important as the info they pointed to, info that doesn’t fit accepted theories and yet had to be explained somehow.

That last example, Jacques Vallée, was particularly an out-of-the-box thinker. But all of them were outside mainstream thought, at least when they first proffered forth their views. These are the thinkers who have challenged me and expanded my own thinking. Because of them, I have immense knowledge and multiple perspectives crammed into my tiny brain. I’m reminded of them every time I read a more conventional writer, when all the exceptions and counter-evidence comes pouring out. It goes way beyond mere knowledge, as many conventional writers (including many academic scholars) also possess immense knowledge, but it’s conventional knowledge interpreted with conventional ideas, leading to conventional conclusions, serving conventional purposes, and in defense of a conventional worldview. Reading these conventional writers, you’d have no idea the revolution of the mind that has been occurring this past century or so and the even greater revolution of the mind yet to come.

The effects of this paradigm change will eventually be seen in the world around us, but it might take a while. If you live long enough, it will probably happen in your lifetime. Or if you exit stage left before the closing curtain, the changes will come for the generations following your own. Just don’t doubt a new world is coming. We are like the lords and serfs at the end of feudalism, not having a clue of the Enlightenment and revolutions that would quickly wash away the entire reality they knew. We aren’t just facing catastrophes in the world around us, possibilities of: world war, nuclear apocalypse, bio-terrorism, climate change, refugee crises, mass starvation, global plagues, robotic takeover, or whatever other form of darkness you wish to imagine. More transformative might be the catastrophes of the mind, maybe even at the level Julian Jaynes theorized with the collapse of the bicameral mind.

One way or another, something else will take the place of what exists now. Whatever that might be, it is beyond our present knowledge.

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As a bonus, below is a nice personal view about Julian Jaynes as a man and a scholar. Even revolutionaries of the mind, after all, are humans like the rest of us. About the assessment of consciousness in the latter part of the essay, I have no strong opinion.

What It Feels Like To Hear Voices: Fond Memories of Julian Jaynes
by Stevan Harnad