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At first I didn't quite know what I would do with the book, other than read it over and over again. My distrust of history then was still strong, and I wanted to concentrate on the story for its own sake, rather than on the manuscript's scientific, cultural, anthropological, or 'historical' value. I was drawn to the author himself.

Orhan Pamuk

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Monday, May 30th, 2011

🦋 Cerro Paranal

Midway in between Taltal and Antofagasta, an array of four telescopes stands on a mountain in the Chilean desert, whirling through space under the clear skies of the Atacama. Take a look:

Full-screen display strongly recommended. (via PopSci, via Teresa's Particles at Making Light)

At Ivan Semeniuk’s Embedded Universe, you can read a couple of posts from the week he spent at the VLT observatory two years ago.

posted morning of May 30th, 2011: Respond
➳ More posts about Pretty Pictures

Sunday, May 29th, 2011

🦋 Further to historical accuracy

I'm heartened to read, in Jan Sleutels' essay "Greek Zombies: On the Alleged Absurdity of Substantially Unconscious Greek Minds," (from Philosophical Psychology, 2006) that he "will not try to establish that the claims made by Jaynes are historically correct... For present purposes it suffices that the data make sense." -- I get the feeling from this of being on the same wavelength as Sleutels, trying to establish the weak claim that Jaynes' ideas are plausible rather than the strong claim that they are an accurate description of history.

Most of the authors whose work appears in Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness agree that there are four related but independent theses in Jaynes. John Limber summarizes the theses as: "(1) human consciousness from language, (2) the role of verbal hallucinations in the ancient bicameral mind, (3) the history/timing of the changeover, and (4) the underlying biology" -- these essays seem to focus primarily on defending points (1) and (2). Sleutels is the only author who really devotes much energy to point (3), to Jaynes' assertion that the historical changeover to consciousness consisting of an internal mind-space and a narrative self occurred as recently as 3000 years ago; he is devoting his energy to defending the plausibility of the assertion rather than its accuracy, probably wise.

How does he do? I think he makes his task much more difficult than it needs to be by using language which implies this changeover occurred abruptly, in an on/off fashion. It seems to me that if you are saying consciousness is a social construct, a learned behavior, then that statement necessarily entails a long period, likely thousands of years, in which society is adopting this behavior, constructing this concept, learning this vocabulary. Jaynes and Sleutels both compare consciousness to baseball as a practice which necessarily entails its concept -- i.e. you cannot play baseball without having a concept of the game of baseball, you cannot be conscious without having a vocabulary to describe the mental state of consciousness. But this seems a little limited to me. There is no Abner Doubleday of consciousness. If the internal mind-space and narrative self which Jaynes describes are going to arise out of the process he describes, a process of applying concrete vocabulary metaphorically to abstract states and internalizing those metaphors, I don't see how that could possibly happen in a sudden fashion. When I'm reading Jaynes' timeline I'm thinking of his 1300 bc date as a date for this long, gradual process to come to fruition; he declares himself that well before that time, society had grown to the point where it was difficult and stressful to maintain a bicameral state of unconsciousness, what Sleutels is calling a "zombie" state.

That said, I liked Sleutels' essay a lot; its entertaining title was the least of it. The arguments he is refuting from Ned Block are atrociously poor (assuming he is quoting the best of what Block has to offer). Looks like I ought to find out more about Daniel Dennett. (Also, interesting recommendation from John: The Discovery of the Mind in Greek Philosophy and Literature by Bruno Snell.)

At YouTube, you can listen to Sleutels giving a lecture on "Greek Zombies" at the 2006 Julian Jaynes Conference on Consciousness at the University of Prince Edward Island.

posted morning of May 29th, 2011: Respond
➳ More posts about The Bicameral Mind

Saturday, May 28th, 2011

🦋 Tutankhamun means "the living form of Amun"

The key to [the King Tut] exhibit is...back in the Valley of the Kings on the north wall of the burial chamber. ...The second figure from the right is a depiction of the mummy as if it had just been stood up erect from where it lay and dressed as Osiris, the god of gods that each king becomes at what we call death.

Facing him... is Tutankamun's successor, Ay, caped in the sacramental leopard skin usual in such succession scenes. In his hand is a wrench-like prying instrument... What Ay is doing is well known and described in hieroglyphics that translate as "The Opening of the Mouth" of Tutankhamun's mummy.

A strange phrase. ...But not so strange to anyone remembering the history of a thousand miles to the east and a few centuries earlier In the great city-states along the Tigris and Euphrates, gods were wooden statues or idols, elaborately dressed, jeweled, and anointed, which from time to time underwent a ceremony called in cuneiform "The Washing of the Mouth." The idol was ritually carried to the river, where its wooden mouth was washed out with solutions of exotic ingredients as it was faced in various directions. And cuneiform texts state that such statues spoke and commanded their votaries what to do.

-- Julian Jaynes
"The Meaning of King Tut"
Art/World Magazine, 1979

My archetypal reaction to Jaynes' writing: the bicameral-mind explanation of this mural seems completely plausible, so strongly so that I can't imagine its not being correct. But on the other hand... this is not at all my area of expertise. I can confirm via Google that the ceremonies Jaynes is referring to existed historically. So... I am just going to treat Jaynes' ideas as historically accurate and see where that leads me. Here is what the Egyptian Book of the Dead has to say about the mouth-opening ceremony, in Miriam Lichtheim's translation:

My mouth is opened by Ptah,
My mouth's bonds are loosed by my city-god.
Thoth has come fully equipped with spells,
He looses the bonds of Seth from my mouth.
Atum has given me my hands,
They are placed as guardians.

My mouth is given to me,
My mouth is opened by Ptah,
With that chisel of metal
With which he opened the mouth of the gods.
I am Sekhmet-Wadjet who dwells in the west of heaven,
I am Sahyt among the souls of On.

posted afternoon of May 28th, 2011: Respond
➳ More posts about Readings

Friday, May 27th, 2011

🦋 At the cast party

Sylvia is nearly done with elementary school, getting ready to move on to middle school -- one of the highlights of her fifth grade year was performing in the fifth grade musical, Grease Jr. Here is a photo of her with two friends from the cast party -- the photographer is Jeannine Redd, and congratulations to Jeannine -- the photo was selected for inclusion in the South Orange/Maplewood Community Coalition's Through the Lens of Integration exhibit.

posted afternoon of May 27th, 2011: Respond
➳ More posts about Sylvia

🦋 I saw a girl, she reminded me of you

Nature photo of the day comes our way from cleek:

I could look at this for a long time... The clarity of the light on her right claw is difficult to look away from.

(Also: some far-out shots of bugs and plants from Dave Bonta of Via Negativa, who is flirting with toxicity.)

posted morning of May 27th, 2011: Respond
➳ More posts about Music

Thursday, May 26th, 2011

🦋 Better jump down a manhole, light chaself a candle

Speaking of "Subterranean Homesick Blues": The city of Duluth, MN has hit on a distinctive way of honoring its favorite son.

(I always thought the lyric after this was "Don't wear sandals/ You can't afford the scandal" but apparently, per his home page, the second line is "Try to avoid the scandals".)

posted afternoon of May 26th, 2011: 1 response

Tuesday, May 24th, 2011

🦋 Io

Nasa's picture of the day is of the Prometheus Plume, a sulfurous eruption from the surface of Jupiter's moon Io:

Thanks for the link, Matt!

posted evening of May 24th, 2011: Respond

🦋 Learn to dance, get dressed, get blessed, try and be a success.

Bob Dylan has been in the world for 7 decades today. That's a good long time, and for about the last 5 of them he has been contributing some beautiful, significant art to the world. I'm not sure what to say about this but, happy birthday, Bob! Many happy returns of the day! The Guardian has a slide show of images from his career.

Below the fold, some of my own memories that involve Dylan and his music.

posted evening of May 24th, 2011: Respond
➳ More posts about Birthdays

Sunday, May 22nd, 2011

🦋 Μελέτη της Ψυχής

Holding as we do that, while knowledge of any kind is a thing to be honoured and prized, one kind of it may, either by reason of its greater exactness or of a higher dignity and greater wonderfulness in its objects, be more honourable and precious than another, on both accounts we should naturally be led to place in the front rank the study of the soul.

De Anima
(tr. J.A. Smith)

An interesting tidbit from Scott Greer's essay "A Knowing Noos and a Slippery Psychê: Jaynes's Recipe for an Unnatural Theory of Consciousness": Jaynes' estate library includes a copy of The Basic Works of Aristotle, in which the pages of De Anima are (unlike anything else in the library) covered with marginalia -- clearly it was an important book for Jaynes.

Funnily enough I have the same edition of Aristotle -- I have not read any of his works but I did make a brief stab at De Anima 11 years ago.* My pages of De Anima have some annotations, the early pages, but they are generally more of the "trying to unravel the syntax" sort than the "introducing original insight" sort. Next to the opening sentence (quoted above) I have written, "There are types of knowledge; some types are more desirable. The best type is the study of the soul."

*And there must have been some sort of faking-having-read Politics or portions thereof in freshman year of college. I've also (that I can remember) made attempts to read Metaphysics and On Generation and Corruption, but not really gotten anywhere with any of them.

posted evening of May 22nd, 2011: Respond

🦋 Crumbling Castle

photo: Dave Sanders

Today's New York Times has spectacular, picture-book photography of restoration work being done on the castles of Bannerman Island in the Hudson River. (Thanks for the link, Diane!)

posted morning of May 22nd, 2011: 2 responses

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