I imagine this confession will gratify some readers and annoy others, but lately I’ve been diving into Julian Jaynes’s 1976 book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. I’m not sure why, exactly—I’ve heard it was a big influence on the currently popular HBO series Westworld, but I haven’t gotten around to watching that one, so that’s not the reason. Nah, I guess I just have a thing for reading about mind-blowing psychological theories. The human mind is one of the universe’s greatest mysteries, and probably one we’ll never understand—after all, how can something be expected to comprehend itself?
The gist of the work, if you’re unfamiliar, is this: Until about 3,000 years ago, human beings were not “conscious,” at least as we understand consciousness. They weren’t capable of introspection, or creativity, or deliberate problem-solving. Instead, they were what would be considered schizophrenic today—guided by voices generated by one side of the brain and heard audibly by the other. These voices, according to Jaynes, were called gods. Obviously, this premise would call into question any religion’s theology, including my own, and I’m not saying I necessarily “buy it.” Still, it’s fascinating—and often terrifying—to think about, in part because it’s a reminder of how difficult it is to even define ideas like consciousness or the human mind.Fiction is what we turn to when we have nagging questions that we can’t quite put into more precise language.
After all, I have the vague idea that I’m an individual experiencing the world and making decisions—but what does it mean to be an “individual,” or to “experience” something, or to “make decisions”? It’s pretty clear that people don’t need to be conscious, even to perform complex tasks; we’ve all heard of things like somnambulism (sleepwalking), or the “blackout drunk” phenomenon, or “highway hypnosis” (where someone gets into his car and drives all or part of the way to his destination, only to realize that he has no conscious memory of the trip). Consciousness isn’t necessary for day-to-day life; in many cases (such as when trivial decisions are being made or motor tasks are being learned), it can even be an impediment to it.
Questions like this pose a particular problem for those with a purely materialistic understanding of the universe. If your consciousness is located in your brain, and your brain is made of matter, and matter simply follows physical law, then things like decision-making, creativity, and even free will are purely illusory. Nor is there any reason to think your experience of the world is objective or even accurate—if your brain evolved to maximize your reproductive potential, it makes very little sense that it would be equipped to comprehend differential calculus or astrophysics. If ancient human beings experienced imagined voices of the gods as objective reality, what reason do I have to think my own experience of the world is any more accurate?
All of that might seem like aimless intellectual indulgence to some, but the reality is that none of these issues stop being open questions just because we choose to stop thinking about them. Modern science has given us some insight into the brain’s faults and fallacies, but there’s no reason to think it’s given us insight into all—or even more than a tiny fraction—of them. Our own experience of reality is objectively in doubt, whether such questions nag at us personally or not.
I guess that’s probably why my first book, Ophelia, Alive (A Ghost Story), is a psychological thriller. A lot of people who know my writing from online saw the genre as something of a curveball from me—most know me as a humorist, or at least an essayist—but I think fiction is what we turn to when we have nagging questions that we can’t quite put into more precise language. And what could be more difficult to put into words than the question of what the human mind is? My (MULTIPLE-AWARD-WINNING) novel (which you can BUY RIGHT NOW) tells a fairly simple story (in part because all the murder and mayhem are mainly an excuse for philosophical and theological introspection): My main character is forced, out of financial desperation, to try a mind-altering drug—and while the ghosts she begins to see as a result may not be real, the bodies she finds in her closet definitely are.
Or—cue mysterious music—are they?
I guess that question is up to the reader to answer. In truth, none of it is real—it’s all just words on a page, sort of like your experience of the universe is all just little electrical impulses in your head. And whether you’re experiencing a sneeze or the presence of the transcendent God of the universe, it could all be real, or else you could just be a brain in a vat somewhere getting zapped by very specifically calibrated electrodes. How can you even know?
I’m not sure I’ll ever have a particularly convincing argument otherwise—and certainly not without appealing to the supernatural. A large number of the philosophers who have wrestled with the question of how anything at all can be known—such as Aristotle, Aquinas, and (especially) Descartes—have come to the conclusion that nothing can truly be known without positing the existence of a supernatural (i.e., not purely material) mind and a benevolent God. In his famous “evil demon” problem, Descartes speculated that perhaps his entire experience of reality was an illusion created by—you got it—an evil demon; his only resolution to this problem was to argue himself into the believing in the existence of an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God who had created his mind for a purpose.
How do you know your mind exists? You can’t, unless God exists.
How do you know God exists? You can’t, unless your mind exists.
These are two premises that seem flimsy on their own, but, in my mind at least, seem to support each other fairly well—and, of course, they’re ultimately what my book is about. I don’t know if anyone who picks it up will be convinced, but hopefully they’ll at least be a little bit scared—first by the ghosts and the murders, and then by the realization of how little they actually know.
Sleep well tonight. And happy Halloween.
Excerpt from OPHELIA, ALIVE by Luke T. Harrington
She sucks more smoke into her lungs and finally says, “You know that the very first teaching of Zen is to deny the teachings of Zen?”
“I dunno, I heard that on NPR once.”
“Oh.” I breathe in some secondhand smoke and swish it around in my brain. “How does that even work?”
“It doesn’t, right? I think that’s kind of the point. It doesn’t make sense on the surface, but nothing spiritual does, I don’t think. Anyway, I first heard that my sophomore year, and it occurred to me that any real pursuit of knowledge has to start with questioning what you already know. And that almost nobody actually has the balls—the ovaries—to do that. To question herself.” A beat-up car rumbles by, and the moon comes out from behind a cloud, and she says, “It’s probably not that brilliant of a revelation. It’s just part of growing up, I guess—realizing that the stuff you were laser-focused on was just a tiny shard of an infinite universe, and quite possibly the tiniest and least important shard. And you start thinking that maybe you should chain your soul to something bigger, something that’s outside the universe. So you start looking. And then, maybe when you find it, the poetry comes. And then the poetry turns into song.”
She’s fumbling in her pocket with some rosary beads. Trying to hide them.
“Anyway,” she says, “I’m not trying to Jesus-juke you or anything, I’m just trying to be honest about who I am. Like I said, it’s fucking annoying. I know it is. But I can’t pretend that the big questions don’t exist, or that they don’t gnaw at me, just because nobody wants to hear my opinions on them.”
She sucks more smoke down her throat.
“But don’t let me act like I’m some sort of deep thinker or anything. I know I’m not. I just needed something bigger than myself and had a friend willing to take me to mass.”
“And things got better?”
She laughs. “Better than what? Actually, they got worse. It’s kind of depressing to know you get meaning out of something that’s just an annoying cliché to other people. Kind of depressing to know that I’m pouring my heart out to you right now and all you’re thinking is God, she’s so annoying. But when a 2,000-year-old dead guy talks to you from a cracker and says Follow me, I mean, what can you do? It’s like getting abducted by aliens, right? You don’t believe it’s a thing until it happens to you, and then you’re the only one who thinks it’s a thing, and you’re like, Well, either I’m the crazy one or I’m not. But if it’s happened to you, then you’ll never convince yourself that it hasn’t. It didn’t matter at all before, and then suddenly it matters more than anything.”
She hits her head on the speaker behind her. I hear the thwack and I wince.
“And then you have a bunch of teachings you’re supposed to live your life by. And none of them actually apply to the real world, but I guess that’s sort of the point.” Takes a drag. “I mean, with Christianity. Not with the alien abduction thing. But maybe with that, too.”
“I’m… not really religious.”
She laughs. “Not really religious. Well, okay. God, what am I supposed to say to that? Why do people always say that?”
“I guess I didn’t know what else to say.”
“Man, I hate it when people say that. I’m not really religious. As if ignoring important questions makes them unimportant. It’s like the people who tell me I don’t see race. Well, good for you, but race sees me, whether I want it to or not. You might have the luxury of ignoring important stuff, but damned if I do. I’m not really religious. What else are you going to tell me? I’m not really anything other than a privileged white girl? Fascinating.”
She takes a drag.
And she adds, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to blow up like that. I can be a jerk, I know I can. It’s just—what can I say to that? It’s just a defense mechanism, and not even a good one. Nah, you’ve been sitting here, listening to my insane ranting for, what, almost an hour now? I’m not mad at you. I should be thanking you.” She stands up, gives me a hand, and pulls me to my feet. “And anyway, I can’t judge. I used to say the same thing to people. It’s a useful line. A good way to deflect important conversations. But you can’t do it forever. I mean, I couldn’t, anyway.”
“I questioned myself for a second. Dealt with the possibility that I might be wrong about something.” She coughs. “It was scary, but I highly recommend it.” Drops her cigarette, grinds it out with her boot. “Listen, I gotta get back to the coffee shop. They’re probably hoping to close sometime soon, and I still have a couple of speakers to grab.”
“You want some help?”
“Nah, there’s really only a couple things. You need a ride?”
She punches me on the shoulder, like a dude. “I’ll see you back at the room, then, all right?” Her eyes catch mine for a second, a flash of white in the dark. And then she starts walking away, up the hill, toward the coffee house. And I’m a little dazed, but I feel like I should say something else. Not let things be awkward.
She turns around. “Yeah?”
“Thanks for taking the time to talk to me. It’s been a while since anyone bothered.”
“Are you kidding?” she says. “Thanks for listening.” Then she turns back around, and she rounds a corner, and she’s gone.