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Julian Jaynes and the Ancient Tablets


Achilles is furious at Agamemnon for threatening to take from him the fruits of war that Achilles justly earned with his sword. He is so furious, in fact, that before he knows it, his hand is already on the hilt of his sword and he is ready to kill the King. Then, something very special happens: Athena herself comes down from Olympus and, seen only by Achilles, tells him (Homer, 1974):

Here is my promise, and it will be kept:
winnings three times as rich, in due season,
you shall have in requital for his arrogance.
But hold your hand. Obey.”

Thus, Achiless begins a tirade denouncing Agamemnon in the strongest possible words, although returning the sword into the scabbard—however angry he may be, he can’t disobey the Godess.

We could interpret this scene as a sort of a poetic instrument, where the need for Athena signifies the scale of emotions felt by Achilles; in his classic The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind Julian Jaynes rejects this trivial explanation and offers an another hypothesis: Athena was, in a sense, present there, seen, indeed, only by Achiless, by the virtue of being hallucinated by him. Without her voice, commanding him not to act on the impulse, he would have killed Agamemnon with no remorse.

This sequence offers us an insight into the working of the mind of people of ancient civilizations, for according to Jaynes they experienced reality in an extremely different fashion than we do—well, or didn’t experience it: he tells us that they “did not have subjectivity as do we; [they] had no awareness of [their] awareness of the world, no internal mind-space to introspect upon”: their mind—the Bicameral Mind—was split between the automaton part—incapable of adequately engaging in any novel or complex situation, and the “god” part—auditory and visual hallucinations that were obeyed immediately and did allow people to engage in novel and complex situations. In the scene above it was of course Athena taking the role of the god part.

At first, this theory seems downright outrageous and you may wonder why on Earth did I call this book “classic”. But it does have more than three thousand citations; and reading on, seeing the evidence not only from ancient Greece, but also from ancient Egypt, Babylon, and even the Inca, one starts to vacillate.

I will be honest with you: by the end of the seventh chapter I was utterly convinced that Jaynes was basically right.

I love n+1's profile of Jaynes and his theory: There Is Only Awe [2k words].


Thinking a bit more about this, though, the Bicameral Mind theory is almost trivially, comically false. For example, while even some animals can engage in short-term deception, based on the immediate behavioral reward, the bicameral mind fundamentally lacks the faculty for long-term deception (Jaynes, 2000, p. 219):

[Treachery] is impossible for an animal or for a bicameral man. Long-term deceit requires the invention of an analog self [i.e. a model of self] that can ‘do’ or ‘be’ something quite different from what the person actually does or is, as seen by his associates.

In light of this, coups d’état seem to be strongly incompatible with the bicameral mind, since they usually require gaining the trust of the ruler before conspiring against him and trying to overthrow him. This intuition is explicitly confirmed by Jaynes just a few pages later (pp. 227-228).

The earliest coup d’état I could find was that against Yahdun-Lim—king of Mari (an ancient Mesopotamian city), who was killed around 1796 BC, apparently, by his own son, who succeeded him and was himself assasinated two years later (Pitard, 2001, p. 39; Liverani, 2013, p. 226).

But Jaynes writes that the first evidence of modern consciousness dates around 1300 BC and calls Hammurabi, who lived in 18th century BC, “bicameral Hammurabi”. With timings this off, most of the evidence presented by Jaynes comes crashing down.

But we’re not finished yet.


A curious fact about the ancient Middle East is the preponderance of clay tablets from the first writing civilizations that were saved through the millenia for us to read. Jaynes uses clay tablets freely to bolster his argument and, even though the correctness of his Bicameral Mind theory is now out of the way, he prompted me to read the number of ancient letters much larger than I’m willing to admit; some of them were rather fun (Heimpel, 2003, p. 251):

[In the quotation below, curly braces enclose damaged sections and all emphasis is mine]

To My Star speak! Inibšina (says), “Some time ago, the pederast Šelebum gave me a directive, and I wrote you. Now one shock-head of {Dagan} of Terqa {came} and spoke to me {as} follows: She (said), ‘The peace offers of the {Ešnunakean} are deceit. Water runs below chaff. And I will collect him (the Ešnunakean) in the net that I knot. I will erase his city. And his wealth, which is from old, I will cause to be utterly defiled.’ This she said to me. Now guard yourself! Do not enter inside the city without extispicy! I heard the following: ‘He scintillates all by himself.’ Do not scintillate all by yourself!”

That tablet was addressed to Zimri-Lim—another king of Mari, who ruled from about 1775 to 1761 BC, and who was the grandson of Yahdun-Lim we are already familiar with, by his sister.

Or take this letter (Oppenheim, 1967, p. 92):

Tell the Lady Zinû: Iddin-Sin sends the following message:

May the gods Šamaš, Marduk, and Ilabrat keep you forever in good health for my sake.

From year to year, the clothes of the (young) gentlemen here become better, but you let my clothes get worse from year to year. Indeed, you persisted(?) in making my clothes poorer and more scanty. At a time when in our house wool is used up like bread, you have made me poor clothes. The son of Adad-iddinam, whose father is only an assistant of my father, (has) two new sets of clothes [break] while you fuss even about a single set of clothes for me. In spite of the fact that you bore me and his mother only adopted him, his mother loves him, while you, you do not love me!

I love these two tablets in particular for the metaphors used. The first one reads:

Water runs below chaff. And I will collect him (the Ešnunakean) in the net that I knot.

and the second one:

in our house wool is used up like bread.

Jaynes is captivated by metaphors (p. 48):

Let us speak of metaphor. The most fascinating property of language is its capacity to make metaphors. But what an understatement! For metaphor is not a mere extra trick of language, as it is so often slighted in the old schoolbooks on composition; it is the very constitutive ground of language.

and by the ways metaphors operate at every level of our description of consciousness (p. 55):

Subjective conscious mind is an analog [i.e. a map] of what is called the real world. It is built up with a vocabulary or lexical field whose terms are all metaphors or analogs of behavior in the physical world. Its reality is of the same order as mathematics. It allows us to shortcut behavioral processes and arrive at more adequate decisions. Like mathematics, it is an operator rather than a thing or repository. And it is intimately bound up with volition and decision.

Consider the language we use to describe conscious processes. The most prominent group of words used to describe mental events are visual. We ‘see’ solutions to problems, the best of which may be ‘brilliant’, and the person ‘brighter’ and ’clearheaded’ as opposed to ‘dull’, ‘fuzzy-minded’, or ‘obscure’ solutions. These words are all metaphors and the mind-space to which they apply is a metaphor of actual space. In it we can ‘approach’ a problem, perhaps from some ‘viewpoint’, and ‘grapple’ with its difficulties, or seize together or ‘com-prehend’ parts of a problem, and so on, using metaphors of behavior to invent things to do in this metaphored mind-space.


In conclusion, even though Jaynes’ main bicameralism claim does not hold up to scrutiny (but it could probably be reformulated as a claim about the proportion of people who had hallucinations being large in the past and small today), the book is worth reading just for the chapter on the interrelation between metaphor and consciousness, for the original reading of Iliad, and for the narrative that Jaynes maintains throughout. The Breakdown may be wrong, but it’s definitely good aesthetic: 7 clay tablets out of 10.

Thanks to Ann Taranina and Chris Beiser for reading early drafts of this post.


Heimpel, Wolfgang. Letters to the King of Mari: A New Translation, with Historical Introduction, Notes, and Commentary. Eisenbrauns, 2003.

Homer. The Iliad. Translated by Robert Fitzgerald. Anchor Press, 1974.

Jaynes, Julian. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.

Liverani, Mario. The Ancient Near East: History, Society and Economy. Routledge, 2013.

Oppenheim, A. Leo. Letters from Mesopotamia: Official, Business, and Private Letters on Clay Tablets from Two Millennia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967.

Pitard, Wayne T. “Before Israel: Syria-Palestine in the Bronze Age”. In Coogan, Michael David. The Oxford History of the Biblical World (revised ed.). Oxford University Press, 2001.

Philosophers for Sale

Zeus is short of money. He takes famous philosophers from the afterlife and puts them up for sale, as slaves:
“Great teachers of life are sold!”, Hermes is shouting, “If you want a good life, come forward and choose one for youself!”, the buyers approach the slaves and start to examine them.

Pythagoras is on the platform.
“Here’s a wonderful life, a heavenly life! Who wants to become a superhuman? Who wants to learn the harmony of the creation and come to life after death?”
“Can I question him?”
“Of course.”
“So, Pythagoras, if I buy you, what are you going to teach me?”
“To be silent.”
“Becoming a mute is not to my taste! What’s after this?”
“To count.”
“This I know already!”
“How do you count?”
“One, two, three, four.”
“See, but you don’t know that four is not just four but it’s also the body, the square, the perfection, and our oath.”
“Swear by your oath, I don’t know! What else can you say?”
“I will say that you consider yourself one, but in reality you are different.”
“How so? Is it somebody else and not me talking to you?”
“Well, now it is you, but before you were different and afterwards you’ll be different.”
“So, I don’t ever die? Not bad! Well, how should I feed you?”
“I don’t eat meat, I don’t eat beans.”
“Good enough! Hermes, I’ll take him.”

Diogenis is on the platform.
“Here’s a manly life, here’s a free life! Who will buy him?”
“Free? Will I not be taken to court for buying a free man?”
“Don’t be afraid, he says that he is free even as a slave”
“Well, what crafts does he know?”
“Ask him!”
“I’m afraid he’ll bite me!”
“Don’t be afraid, he’s tame.”
“So, Diogenis, where are your from?”
“From everywhere!”
“What are you like?”
“I’m like Heracles!”
“I fight the pleasures, cleanse the life from excesses.”
“Well, how does one do that?”
“You throw the money into the sea, sleep on bare earth, eat garbage, cuss everyone, don’t be ashamed of anything, shake your beard, fight with your cane.”
“I already know how to cuss and fight, thank you very much. But you have strong hands, you’ll make a great digger; I’ll give two mites for you.”
“Take him!”

“And here’s two lifes at once, one wiser than the other! Who wants them?”

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Against Basic Income

I used to think that basic income was a good idea. I no longer do. Here’s why:

  1. Basic income solves the wrong problem.
  2. Means-tested social programs are just better than basic income.
  3. Basic income is an exercise in the typical mind fallacy.

1. Basic income solves the wrong problem.

Key argument: in developed countries the main problem is the absence of meaning and cultural and status inequality. Basic income doesn’t address any of these problems and may only exacerbate them.

Chris Arnade’s tweetstorm:

  1. I know many think Universal Basic Income is the cool “hack” solution to our problems. But it is addressing the wrong problem

  2. Our problems not just about a inequality in wealth, although that is a problem[.] It is also inequality in social capital. In meaning

  3. Places that I go to, minority or white, have broken social structures. Have disintegrated networks. Communities have been destroyed.

  4. People in them feel very much “left behind”, & not just economically. The educated set the social agenda. From language allowed to style

  5. Almost all “valid social networks” these days are driven by education & the culture that follows. They are left with McDonald’s & Chili’s

  6. That loss of meaning, of being on the outside of what is cool, and NOT having a job that is also considered cool – that is humiliating

  7. Universal Basic Income does nothing to solve the issue of humiliation. In fact, for many, it will be MORE humiliating.

  8. I guarantee within X months of there being a UBI program there will be nasty & derogatory terms for those on it. UB-ees, or something […]

Rory’s The Redistribution of Humiliation:

One problem is inequality of wealth. In theory, this is simple to solve, we just give people money. If we don’t have enough money to give people, this is unfortunate, but long term growth, trade and neoliberalism will mean there is more to go round. This misses the bigger picture though. People are very poor at identifying disparities in wealth, their perceptions are very far from reality, and so addressing this is unlikely to allay frustrations. When people talk about inequality in society, they are really talking about the hierarchy of status.


Redistributing wealth does little to address inequality of status, and may even make the problem worse. While making money yourself confers status, being given it doesn’t. In fact, being able to afford to give a handout is a costly signal of your own strength, whereas accepting a handout incurs reputational costs. The hierarchy is reinforced. In the past, the government has managed to work around this by disguising the handouts. They use white lies like the contributory principle to justify tax credits and pensions, or more roundabout ways, like the Thatcher government’s subsidised sell off of council housing. […]

2. Means-tested social programs are just better than basic income.

Different people require different amount of assistance. A typical healthy adult doesn’t need any. A typical sick and old person needs a lot. It’s not clear why we would want to break this asymmetry. Here’s Vipul Naik elaborating this point:

It seems overall that the incentive structures of these programs [Food stamps, etc.] are reasonably okay – the bureaucratic structures around them help guard against both over fraud and a lot of people using the programs when they don’t really “need” it. And the programs meet specific use cases (like, if somebody is really bad at handling money, food stamps help the person buy food without blowing away the money; if somebody has started working and needs encouragement, EITC steps in. If a family is going through a hard time and has dependent children, TANF steps in. […]

3. Basic income is an exercise in the typical mind fallacy.

There’s a blog post (not mine) on this point which is currently offline and wasn’t archived anywhere, as far as I know. Below are several quotes from it. I’m not sure if I can publish the whole post, so message me if you want to see it.

This rigorous yet free life of the mind sounds extremely appealing to the intellectual 1%, and living in this utopia would be reason enough to favor the basic income guarantee, even leaving out all the selfless stuff about fixing the culture of poverty.


Even after the death of the old aristocracy, there was a pretty guaranteed way to live a low-key life of the mind; you could join academia.  Now academia today is a rat race like any other prestigious career track, and if you want to make it you have to apply your nose firmly to the grindstone and not spend too much time fooling around. But it’s really only quite recently that academia was so difficult and Darwinian to try to break into.  James Watson, as recently as the 1950s, was a mediocre college student until he read What is Life, got excited, and decided to go to grad school in Indiana to work on it.  Today he wouldn’t stand a chance against students who had spent undergrad getting good grades, working with the right mentors, and generally jumping through the right hoops.

I think the basic income folks are fundamentally reacting to this shift, this closing of the last sanctuary of aristocratic intellectual freedom.  The reason they have a low-resolution view of the poor[3] but portray an incredibly compelling portrait of what an aristocratic intellectual life could look like is exactly because that is the main driving force, a semiconscious cry of pain at the possibilities that were lost as the last academies closed their gates.  And whatever one may think of the policy proposal itself, I think this pain is perfectly real, not only for individuals but for a society’s intellectual health, and whatever else they do, the proponents have done a great service by articulating it.


[3] Of course it has to be pitched as reforming charity, because “creating a new lifestyle for the intellectual elites” would poll terribly.  This despite the fact that the basic income is a much better tool for the latter than the former.

Anki Intro / Tips / Strategies

I find myself recommending Anki quite often. It’s an app that helps you remember anything you want (words, formulas, maps, poems, etc). If you aren’t using it, you should. Actually remembering things is like a minor superpower! Unfortunately, Anki has a rather steep learning curve, which means that simply recommending is not enough – some introduction is necessary.

First, go to this page and read Introduction section up until The Basics section. It should have gotten super excited to actually try the app out :) So navigate to, download the program, and install it on your computer.

Then, watch this video, which is a very nice demonstration of the learning process itself. Just like on the video, instead of creating our own deck, I would recommend to start with a shared deck, for example, “Countries of the World”.

After you have studied for a bit, click Decks (to leave the studying mode) –> Browse. You’re gonna get overwhelmed by the window that has just opened, so simply click random things, derp around, maybe try to understand something. When you’re satisfied, go back to Anki’s site and read the instructions until you get too bored, which would probably be enough. The only thing to remember is that this page exists and whenever you’re confused about something, go read it.

Now, you’re capable of creating your own decks and notes. However, there’s a whole lot of implicit knowledge involved with using Anki, which is why if you google “anki tips”, you’ll see a lot of differet articles. I tried to assemble the best tips that I know and my strategies below.

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A Comment on Dalio

Alternatively titled, “Why you don’t want to reason about economics, without having actually studied economics”.

This is an explanation of faulty reasoning in “How The Economic Machine Works by Ray Dalio” video, attempted to be clear for people with no ready economic intuition.

The specific claim I have a problem with is “When interest rates are high, there’s less borrowing because it’s expensive” (time: 4:15).

This statement is important not mainly because it’s wrong, but because it’s a perfect example of something that sounds entirely uncontroversial, common-sense, and does not raise any red flags, unless you’re deliberately looking for them.

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