Happy New Year! And what better way to start the new year and a new decade than by talking about rogue neural agents :)
Seriously though, this post has been brewing in me for a while and I just happened to have the time to write it today.
I had heard of Julian Jaynes’s groundbreaking book on consciousness and the bicameral mind, but Kevin Simler’s posts on Jaynes’ work, in particular, his post, Neurons Gone Wild has brought this idea fresh credence.
In a nutshell, he posits the idea that due to the semi-feral nature of our neurons, that in some sense the various neural groups in our brain can be described as being alive and even sentient.
This gels with me for a number of reasons, not the least of which is because I’ve noticed that there are often competing motivations within each of us.
You are a System
How often do you know what you should do (clean your room, file your taxes, study for a test) but there is something else inside you that wants to do something else. Or even multiple alternative ideas.
For me, since I’ve stopped trying to hear the voice of God before I made a decision, most of the times it’s easy to make a decision. But then there are times when I am conflicted between two or more options.
I know what I ( the me behind my eyes) wants or thinks, but there are other parts of me that exert influence non verbally but quite clearly through emotions.
Some times it’s just a reserve or a caution, what some Christians call a check in the spirit. Other times it’s a strong passionate feeling of guilt or fear. Yet still other times it is a voice in my mind.
While the exact nature of consciousness is not fully understood, one thing we know is that there is no single area in the brain responsible for it.
Rather consciousness seems to be distributed through the brain, and if Jaynes and company are right, between the two hemispheres of the brain.
While most psychologists have debunked a lot of Jaynes’ assertions, the fact remains that no matter what model of the psyche you have, we have many competing forces inside each of us, and it seems like our sense of self is just sitting atop all the others.
One reason why I’m so fascinated by this is because of the religious implications. Jaynes believed that before 3000 years ago, everyone lived by taking orders from the right hemisphere, and viewed that as their gods speaking to them.
This resonates so much with me because when I started examining my faith, one of the things I struggled to deal with was explaining all of my spiritual experiences, both positive and negative.
It’s hard to explain if you weren’t in a super charismatic church, but the realm of the spirit was real to me, and to those around me. It was almost tangible.
Until I heard of Jaynes, Wathey, and others I had no idea how such experiences could be natural. But now I know.
The key insight from Kevin’s article is that these rogue neural agents can grow or shrink. He gives the insight that people who struggle with addiction often describe it as someone else fighting with them to do something that they themselves don’t want to do.
If you focus your effort and pay attention to anything your brain will get better at it. This is provable, we know that the brain has a certain degree of plasticity. This applies to math, sports, and even the sense of the divine.
The more you focus on God, on hearing his voice or seeing visions, the better your brain will get at it. It just makes so much sense.
When I was in the ministry, I saw people go from barely being able to write a sentence in a journal (what they heard from God) to writing the most beautiful long-form prose and poetry. The same is true with spoken prophecy and speaking in tongues. The more you do it the better you get at it.
At the time, I thought it was simply spiritual maturity. I thought the more you deal with sin and crucify the self the more you could experience God. However, now I believe that it was all in the mind.
I recognize though that it’s unfalsifiable to say that it is all in the mind. Maybe consciousness is an external force and our brains are just antennae, but I think the naturalistic explanation makes the most sense.
To their credit, many Protestant cessationists say that you can’t hear God’s voice or feel his presence as God is a Spirit, so how can you feel a spirit. In particular, Joh Macarthur has been critical of the charismatic movement, calling it emotionalism and fantasy.
But it is striking how many people believe that God is speaking to them, and not just charismatic Christians but in many other faiths as well.
For me, the last straw in believing it was real was realizing that I could think of no method to determine what was the real voice of God and what was just my mind. Because if God does speak to you it has to be processed in your mind, and there is no way to tell them a part.
So all that to say, that I think Jaynes was right about people taking direction from the “gods” because I’ve done that most of my life.
In my church, it was basically taboo to make a big decision without seeking God’s direction and getting confirmation from somebody else. And if something was going wrong in someone’s life, the first thing we did was pray and seek God for an answer.
While I respect anyone’s right to practice their faith in a way that doesn’t hurt anyone, I think that if you are a Christian, you should rather go by what the Bible teaches instead of subjective revelations.
Source of all our problems
But here is the point I really want to get to. Even if you are not a Christian, all of us have various neural agents within us. And the problem is that because they are in us, it feels like they are us.
Let me say it another way. When you are paying attention to the source of an emotion or a thought, you instinctively identify with it as being your thought or your emotion.
But as I’ve posited here, you are not a unity, you are a confederation with the self (the you behind your eyes) being the head of state.
We need to be aware of that fact and seek to grab the reins of power and take charge of our lives.
It’s far too easy to sink into mediocrity and make stupid decisions because we are afraid, or driven by obligation, or are just plain lazy. Or to just react without thinking. Or to hold on to grudges without thinking.
There is no point in learning to think critically if you are going to let the baser parts of you make the decisions. And that’s really what is at stake, not just personally but as a species.
I’ve often pondered about the fate of humanity. As a fundamentalist, I believed every problem in the world traced back to original sin. That people did evil things because of rebellion against God and the devil’s temptations.
Well, I no longer see things like that but I don’t think we are pure as angels and can do no wrong.
Clearly, from the historical and current record of oppression and violence to the climate crisis, we can screw things up wholly. But why?
Why is it so damn hard to live in peace? Why is it so damn hard to forge societies that work in our long term best interest? Especially when we know what that is?
Well, I think because as below so above. Just like you are a system with many competing faculties that don’t do what is in your best interest, so too with a country, so too with the world.
Paradise is possible
I think if we were all Vulcans, the earth would be a paradise. Why? Simply because we wouldn’t do stupid stuff driven by these rogue animalistic forces in our psyche.
Without being driven to accumulate more and more wealth individually, we would realize that reducing worldwide poverty is important for our flourishing.
Without greed, we would ban special interests, introduce strict term limits, and make better policy decisions.
Without a fear of the Other or an unthinking patriotism, we could get rid of nuclear weapons, stop fighting, and start building a paradise.
Think that’s unrealistic? I don’t thik so. Because behind the drive for greed and power is an animal desire to eat, be safe, and procreate that doesn’t get switched off once you have enough.
And I think it’s possible, that through a focus on mental health and philosophy that we could learn to transcend our baser programming. We’ve already done it in the West regarding slavery and other human rights, why not with other things too?
Anyway, I’m convinced that what truly keeps a nation poor is disunity. Japan and Switzerland are two great examples of what can be accomplished when a country is very united and integrated.
The problem with many African countries for example is that there are so many ethnic groups in a country and no overarching national identity that people want to belong to.
In America, despite being diverse, being Christian and pro-liberty was enough for the country to prosper. But that is rapidly changing as more people come into the US without those values and young people move away from religion.
This is Jordan Peterson’s main critique of the New Atheists. Not that it’s wrong to move away from religion, but you need something else to replace it, and radical leftism just doesn’t work.
It is hopeful
To sum it all up we face a lot of problems as we enter this new decade. Climate change is a real problem, but there are many other challenges on the horizon.
I don’t know how to solve all of them, but I think the root of the problems go back to the fact that we as human beings need to learn how to control our darkest impulses.
This is why Christianity teaches us to crucify the flesh, to not be greedy for money, to not vie after positions of power. Not because those things or bad, but because when you make those things your gods, they control you, rather you controlling them.
As for me, knowing this I plan to walk more circumspectly. I plan to observe my impulses and think critically about what I do. I plan to focus on empathy and compassion and less on fear.
And maybe if we all do that, we can make the world a better place.