We sometimes think, and even like to think, that the two greatest exertions that have influenced mankind, religion and science, have always been historical enemies, intriguing us in opposite directions. But this effort at special identity is loudly false. It is not religion but the church and science that were hostile to each other. And it was rivalry, not contravention. Both were religious. They were two giants fuming at each other over the same ground. Both proclaimed to be the only way to divine revelation.
It was a competition that first came into absolute focus with the late Renaissance, particularly in the imprisonment of Galileo in 1633. The stated and superficial reason was that his publications had not been first stamped with papal approval. But the true argument, I am sure, was no such trivial surface event. For the writings in question were simply the Copernican heliocentric theory of the solar system which had been published a century earlier by a churchman without any fuss whatever. The real division was more profound and can, I think, only be understood as a part of the urgency behind mankind’s yearning for divine certainties. The real chasm was between the political authority of the church and the individual authority of experience. And the real question was whether we are to find our lost authorization through an apostolic succession from ancient prophets who heard divine voices, or through searching the heavens of our own experience right now in the objective world without any priestly intercession. As we all know, the latter became Protestantism and, in its rationalist aspect, what we have come to call the Scientific Revolution.
If we would understand the Scientific Revolution correctly, we should always remember that its most powerful impetus was the unremitting search for hidden divinity. As such, it is a direct descendant of the breakdown of the bicameral mind. In the late seventeenth century, to choose an obvious example, it is three English Protestants, all amateur theologians and fervently devout, who build the foundations for physics, psychology, and biology: the paranoiac Isaac Newton writing down God’s speech in the great universal laws of celestial gravitation, the gaunt and literal John Locke knowing his Most Knowing Being in the riches of knowing experience; and the peripatetic John Ray, an unkempt ecclesiastic out of a pulpit, joyfully limning the Word of his Creator in the perfection of the design of animal and plant life. Without this religious motivation, science would have been mere technology, limping along on economic necessity.
The next century is complicated by the rationalism of the Enlightenment, whose main force I shall come to in a moment. But in the great shadow of the Enlightenment, science continued to be bound up in this spell of the search for divine authorship. Its most explicit statement came in what was called Deism, or in Germany, Vernunftreligion. It threw away the church’s “Word,’’ despised its priests, mocked altar and sacrament, and earnestly preached the reaching of God through reason and science. The whole universe is an epiphany! God is right out here in Nature under the stars to be talked with and heard brilliantly in all the grandeur of reason, rather than behind the rood screens of ignorance in the murky mutterings of costumed priests.
Not that such scientific deists were in universal agreement. For some, like the apostle-hating Reimarus, the modern founder of the science of animal behavior, animal drives were actually the thoughts of God and their perfect variety his very mind. Whereas for others, like the physicist Maupertuis, God cared little about any such meaningless variety of phenomena; he lived only in pure abstractions, in the great general laws of Nature which human reason, with the fine devotions of mathematics, could discern behind such variety. Indeed, the tough-minded materialist scientist today will feel uncomfortable with the fact that science in such divergent and various directions only two centuries ago was a religious endeavor, sharing the same striving as the ancient psalms, the effort to once again see the Elohim “face to face.”
This drama, this immense scenario in which humanity has been performing on this planet over the last 4000 years, is clear when we take the large view of the central intellectual tendency of world history. In the second millennium B.C., we stopped hearing the voices of gods. In the first millennium B.C., those of us who still heard the voices, our oracles and prophets, they too died away. In the first millennium A.D., it is their sayings and hearings preserved in sacred texts through which we obeyed our lost divinities. And in the second millennium A.D., these writings lose their authority. The Scientific Revolution turns us away from the older sayings to discover the lost authorization in Nature. What we have been through in these last four millennia is the slow inexorable profaning of our species. And in the last part of the second millennium A.D., that process is apparently becoming complete. It is the Great Human Irony of our noblest and greatest endeavor on this planet that in the quest for authorization, in our reading of the language of God in Nature, we should read there so clearly that we have been so mistaken.
This secularization of science, which is now a plain fact, is certainly rooted in the French Enlightenment which I have just alluded to. But it became rough and earnest in 1842 in Germany in a famous manifesto by four brilliant young physiologists. They signed it like pirates, actually in their own blood. Fed up with Hegelian idealism and its pseudoreligious interpretations of material matters, they angrily resolved that no forces other than common physicochemical ones would be considered in their scientific activity. No spiritual entities. No divine substances. No vital forces. This was the most coherent and shrill statement of scientific materialism up to that time. And enormously influential.
Five years later, one of their group, the famous physicist and psychologist Hermann von Helmholtz, proclaimed his Principle of the Conservation of Energy. Joule had said it more kindly, that “the Great Agents of Nature are indestructible,” that sea and sun and coal and thunder and heat and wind are one energy and eternal. But Helmholtz abhorred the mush of the Romantic. His mathematical treatment of the principle coldly placed the emphasis where it has been ever since: there are no outside forces in our closed world of energy transformations. There is no corner in the stars for any god, no crack in this closed universe of matter for any divine influence to seep through, none whatever.
All this might have respectfully stayed back simply as a mere working tenet for Science, had it not been for an even more stunning profaning of the idea of the holy in human affairs that followed immediately. It was particularly stunning because it came from within the very ranks of religiously motivated science. In Britain since the seventeenth century, the study of what was called “natural history” was commonly the consoling joy of finding the perfections of a benevolent Creator in nature. What more devastation could be heaped upon these tender motivations and consolations than the twin announcement by two of their own midst, Darwin and Wallace, both amateur naturalists in the grand manner, that it was evolution, not a divine intelligence, that has created all nature. This too had been put earlier in a kindlier way by others, such as Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, or Lamarck, or Robert Chambers, or even in the exaltations of an Emerson or a Goethe. But the new emphasis was dazzling strong and unrelieving. Cold Uncalculating Chance, by making some able to survive better in this wrestle for life, and so to reproduce more, generation after generation, has blindly, even cruelly, carved this human species out of matter, mere matter. When combined with German materialism, as it was in the wantonly abrasive Huxley, the theory of evolution by natural selection was the hollowing knell of all that ennobling tradition of man as the purposed creation of Majestic Greatnesses, the Elohim, that goes straight back into the unconscious depths of the Bicameral Age. It said in a word that there is no authorization from outside. Behold! there is nothing there. What we must do must come from ourselves. The king at Eynan can stop staring at Mount Hermon; the dead king can die at last. We, we fragile human species at the end of the second millennium A.D., we must become our own authorization. And here at the end of the second millennium and about to enter the third, we are surrounded with this problem.
The erosion of the religious view of man in these last years of the second millennium is still a part of the breakdown of the bicameral mind. It is slowly working serious changes in every fold and field of life. In the competition for membership among religious bodies today, it is the older orthodox positions, ritually closer to the long apostolic succession into the bicameral past, that are most diminished by conscious logic. The changes in the Catholic Church since Vatican II can certainly be scanned in terms of this long retreat from the sacred which has followed the inception of consciousness into the human species. The decay of religious collective cognitive imperatives under the pressures of rationalist science, provoking, as it does, revision after revision of traditional theological concepts, cannot sustain the metaphoric meaning behind ritual. Rituals are behavioral metaphors, belief acted, divination foretold, exopsychic thinking. Rituals are mnemonic devices for the great narratizations at the heart of church life. And when they are emptied out into cults of spontaneity and drained of their high seriousness, when they are acted unfelt and reasoned at with irresponsible objectivity, the center is gone and the widening gyres begin. The result in this age of communications has been worldwide: liturgy loosened into the casual, awe softening in relevance, and the washing out of that identity-giving historical definition that told man what he was and what he should be. These sad temporizings, often begun by a bewildered clergy, do but encourage the great historical tide they are designed to deflect.
What happens in this modern dissolution of ecclesiastical authorization reminds us a little of what happened long ago after the breakdown of the bicameral mind itself. Everywhere in the contemporary world there are substitutes, other methods of authorization. Some are revivals of ancient ones: the popularity of possession religions in South America, where the church had once been so strong; extreme religious absolutism ego-based on “the Spirit,” which is really the ascension of Paul over Jesus; an alarming rise in the serious acceptance of astrology, that direct heritage from the period of the breakdown of the bicameral mind in the Near East; or the more minor divination of the I Ching, also a direct heritage from the period just after the break-down in China. There are also the huge commercial and sometimes psychological successes of various meditation procedures, sensitivity training groups, mind control, and group encounter practices. Other persuasions often seem like escapes from a new boredom of unbelief, but are also characterized by this search for authorization: faiths in various pseudosciences, as in Scientology, or in unidentified flying objects bringing authority from other parts of our universe, or that gods were at one time actually such visitors; or the stubborn muddled fascination with extrasensory perception as a supposed demonstration of a spiritual surround of our lives whence some authorization might come; or the use of psychotropic drugs as ways of contacting profounder realities, as they were for most of the American native Indian civilizations in the breakdown of their bicameral mind. The collapse of the institutionalized oracles resulted in smaller cults of induced possession, so the waning of institutional religions is resulting in these smaller, more private religions of every description. And this historical process can be expected to increase the rest of this century.
Nor can we say that modern science itself is exempt from a similar patterning. For the modern intellectual landscape is informed with the same needs, and often in its larger contours goes through the same quasi-religious gestures, though in a slightly disguised form. These scientisms, as I shall call them, are clusters of scientific ideas which come together and almost surprise themselves into creeds of belief, scientific mythologies which fill the very felt void left by the divorce of science and religion in our time. They differ from classical science and its common debates in the way they evoke the same response as did the religions which they seek to supplant. And they share with religions many of their most obvious characteristics: a rational splendor that explains everything, a charismatic leader or succession of leaders who are highly visible and beyond criticism, a series of canonical texts which are somehow outside the usual arena of scientific criticism, certain gestures of idea and rituals of interpretation, and a requirement of total commitment. In return the adherent receives what the religions had once given him more universally: a world view, a hierarchy of importances, and an auguring place where he may find out what to do and think, in short, a total explanation of man. And this totality is obtained not by actually explaining everything, but by an encasement of its activity, a severe and absolute restriction of attention, such that everything that is not explained is not in view.
The materialism I have just mentioned was one of the first such scientisms. Scientists in the middle of the nineteenth century were almost numbed with excitement by dramatic discoveries of how nutrition could change the bodies and minds of men. And so it became a movement called Medical Materialism, identified with relieving poverty and pain, taking to itself some of the forms and all of the fervor of the religions eroding around it. It captured the most exciting minds of its generation, and its program sounds distantly familiar: education, not prayers; nutrition, not communion; medicine, not love; and politics, not preaching.
Distantly familiar because Medical Materialism, still haunted with Hegel, matured in Marx and Engels into dialectical materialism, gathering to itself even more of the ecclesiastical forms of the outworn faiths around it. Its central superstition then, as now, is that of the class struggle, a kind of divination which gives a total explanation of the past and predecides what to do in every office and alarm of life. And even though ethnicism, nationalism, and unionism, those collective identity markers of modern man, have long ago showed the mythical character of the class struggle, still Marxism today is joining armies of millions into battle to erect the most authoritarian states the world has ever seen.
In the medical sciences, the most prominent scientism, I think, has been psychoanalysis. Its central superstition is repressed childhood sexuality. The handful of early cases of hysteria which could be so interpreted become the metaphiers by which to understand all personality and art, all civilization and its discontents. And it too, like Marxism, demands total commitment, initiation procedures, a worshipful relation to its canonical texts, and gives in return that same assistance in decision and direction in life which a few centuries ago was the province of religion.
And, to take an example closer to my own tradition, I will add behaviorism. For it too has its central auguring place in a handful of rat and pigeon experiments, making them the metaphiers of all behavior and history. It too gives to the individual adherent the talisman of control by reinforcement contingencies by which he is to meet his world and understand its vagaries. And even though the radical environmentalism behind it, of belief in a tabula rasa organism that can be built up into anything by reinforcement has long been known to be questionable, given the biologically evolved aptic structuring of each organism, these principles still draw adherents into the hope of a new society based upon such control.
Science then, for all its pomp of factness, is not unlike some of the more easily disparaged outbreaks of pseudoreligions. In this period of transition from its religious basis, science often shares with the celestial maps of astrology, or a hundred other irrationalisms, the same nostalgia for the Final Answer, the One Truth, the Single Cause. In the frustrations and sweat of laboratories, it feels the same temptations to swarm into sects, even as did the Khabiru refugees, and set out here and there through the dry Sinais of parched fact for some rich and brave significance flowing with truth and exaltation. And all of this, my metaphor and all, is a part of this transitional period after the breakdown of the bicameral mind.
And this essay is no exception.
Curiously, none of these contemporary movements tells us anything about what we are supposed to be like after the wrinkles in our nutrition have been ironed smooth, or “the withering away of the state” has occurred, or our libidos have been properly cathected, or the chaos of reinforcements has been made straight. Instead their allusion is mostly backward, telling us what has gone wrong, hinting of some cosmic disgrace, some earlier stunting of our potential. It is, I think, yet another characteristic of the religious form which such movements have taken over in the emptiness caused by the retreat of ecclesiastical certainty — that of a supposed fall of man.
This strange and, I think, spurious idea of a lost innocence takes its mark precisely in the breakdown of the bicameral mind as the first great conscious narratization of mankind. It is the song of the Assyrian psalms, the wail of the Hebrew hymns, the myth of Eden, the fundamental fall from divine favor that is the source and first premise of the world’s great religions. I interpret this hypothetical fall of man to be the groping of newly conscious men to narratize what has happened to them, the loss of divine voices and assurances in a chaos of human directive and selfish privacies.
We see this theme of lost certainty and splendor not only stated by all the religions of man throughout history, but also again and again even in nonreligious intellectual history. It is there from the reminiscence theory of the Platonic Dialogues, that everything new is really a recalling of a lost better world, all the way to Rousseau’s complaint of the corruption of natural man by the artificialities of civilization. And we see it also in the modern scientisms I have mentioned: in Marx’s assumption of a lost “social childhood of mankind where mankind unfolds in complete beauty,” so clearly stated in his earlier writings, an innocence corrupted by money, a paradise to be regained. Or in the Freudian emphasis on the deep-seatedness of neurosis in civilization and of dreadful primordial acts and wishes in both our racial and individual pasts; and by inference a previous innocence, quite unspecified, to which we return through psychoanalysis. Or in behaviorism, if less distinctly, in the undocumented faith that it is the chaotic reinforcements of development and the social process that must be controlled and ordered to return man to a quite unspecified ideal before these reinforcements had twisted his true nature awry.
I therefore believe that these and many other movements of our time are in the great long picture of our civilizations related to the loss of an earlier organization of human natures. They are attempts to return to what is no longer there, like poets to their inexistent Muses, and as such they are characteristic of these transitional millennia in which we are imbedded.
I do not mean that the individual thinker, the reader of this page or its writer, or Galileo or Marx, is so abject a creature as to have any conscious articulate willing to reach either the absolutes of gods or to return to a preconscious innocence. Such terms are meaningless applied to individual lives and removed from the larger context of history. It is only if we make generations our persons and centuries hours that the pattern is clear.
As individuals we are at the mercies of our own collective imperatives. We see over our everyday attentions, our gardens and politics, and children, into the forms of our culture darkly. And our culture is our history. In our attempts to communicate or to persuade or simply interest others, we are using and moving about through cultural models among whose differences we may select, but from whose totality we cannot escape. And it is in this sense of the forms of appeal, of begetting hope or interest or appreciation or praise for ourselves or for our ideas, that our communications are shaped into these historical patterns, these grooves of persuasion which are even in the act of communication an inherent part of what is communicated. And this essay is no exception.
No exception at all. It began in what seemed in my personal narratizations as an individual choice of a problem with which I have had an intense involvement for most of my life: the problem of the nature and origin of all this invisible country of touchless rememberings and unshowable reveries, this introcosm that is more myself than anything I can find in any mirror. But was this impulse to discover the source of consciousness what it appeared to me? The very notion of truth is a culturally given direction, a part of the pervasive nostalgia for an earlier certainty. The very idea of a universal stability, an eternal firmness of principle out there that can be sought for through the world as might an Arthurian knight for the Grail, is, in the morphology of history, a direct outgrowth of the search for lost gods in the first two millennia after the decline of the bicameral mind. What was then an augury for direction of action among the ruins of an archaic mentality is now the search for an innocence of certainty among the mythologies of facts.
Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.