Confronting the Challenges of Conflicting World Views

ęCopyright 2003 by Ralph E. Kenyon, Jr.

The first step in confronting a challenge is to understand what it is. So, I ask, what's behind conflicting world views, and how can they be responded to. The answer to both these questions lies in the same source. Evolution took the first step in dealing with this issue by evolving consciousness.  See Julian Jaynes (1) The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Consciousness is evolution's response to conflicting cultures and world views.

Prior to the evolution of consciousness, long distance human communication was non-existent. Communication was largely verbal. The regular pattern of meter and rhyme in the poetic manner of speaking that comprised the time of the Iliad and before allowed "knowledge" to be passed from generation to generation with very little modification and virtually no thought. In the period of the bicameral mind, isolated cultures - each coherent within - had little opportunity for conflict as they were physically isolated by distances and geographic features.  But, as the human population expanded, and cultures pushed outward, and physical barriers were overcome, cultures came into contact, and into conflict.

In the time of the bicameral mind, cultures were already evolved, and the plastic brains of the members of those cultures programmed by them. Now, the nature of the bicameral man is such that directives are followed "religiously".  Bicameral man was not conscious as we (think we) know it today. The bicameral cultures were synchronized and held together by shared experience which we would call today mass hallucinations. Verbal (and visual) hallucinations were the method by which the "right brain" communicated with the "left brain" in bicameral man. It was the cultures of the time that homogenized and synchronized these experiences for the members of a given culture.  In many cultures these experiences took the form of gods.  In Egypt the form was of the Pharaohs.  In China the form was of ancestors. The common theme was authority figures giving direction for everyday activities. And these activities were carried out by the individuals of the cultures without question, without deviation. Ritual learning, repetition, practice, and participation "programmed" each new member of the respective cultures to carry on as had their parents. The "gods" (Pharaohs and ancestors) must all be obeyed instantly and without question.  The bicameral mind was not conscious, so it could not occur to such individuals to not obey. 

As we all know in general semantics, the brain is an organ that locates its experiences elsewhere.  Light from some thing that strikes our retinas induces nerve pulses that travel into the brain. So when we "see" or "hear" something, it is an experience happening in the brain after the fact and distant from the source of the stimulation.  But we seem to "see" or "hear" it as being "out there".  Similar brain function in both dreams and hallucinations give us the capability of experiencing what is happening in the brain as if it were "out there" in the world, even though, in these two cases the "cause" of the stimulation is something within the brain and not something from outside.  Based on this "general semantics" view of brain function, it should be very easy for us to understand how the bicameral mind man could perceive appearances of his "gods" (Pharaohs or ancestors) appearing before him and giving him instructions.  As a tangent, because the culture of ancient Egypt focused on a living member of the community as its authority figure, belief in reincarnation is a direct consequence.  Individuals that have been culturally programmed to hear or see their Pharaohs to give them instruction are not going to stop "seeing" or "hearing" their Pharaoh just because he has died. Brain function in an individual is not likely to change because an occasional source of stimulation is no longer present, especially when that brain function is routinely used in the absence of that occasional source.  That the Pharaohs existed in highly ritualized cultures, dressed the same, and followed the same paths, would allow transference from generation to generation. That leaders and god continued to "appear" after they had died supports a belief in life-after-death as well as reincarnation.  In the cultures that supported gods, the mechanism is simpler, as the gods simply last "forever", supporting a belief in immortal gods. (2)

But, what happens when human expansion brings two different cultures into contact with each other?  Individuals on the edges of the culture begin to be exposed to both cultures rules, beliefs, and practices. Leaders begin to heard stories and words about behaviors that are not part of their culture. Because deviations from successful patterns are usually disruptive of the culture, the "normal" reaction is that the way other cultures do things is "bad". It's a threat to be corrected. The result is inevitably war and conquest or subjugation.  Because the orientation of the bicameral mind is to obey the dictates of the gods - without deviation, reason is not an option.  These individuals simply cannot understand. (I once read that 'understand' originally meant that a person had stood below [or under] a master and received the word.)  In those days "understanding" meant to have received the word - instruction.   Negotiation was not a possibility.  Today we see the vestiges of this orientation in the "holy war" attitude of not only the Palestinians but the Jews as well.  Each claims they will never give up Jerusalem as their capital. Why, - because they have "received" the word from their "gods" passed down through the ages.  And, as in the bicameral mind, to question the gods is simply not possible.

Along the borders of conflicting cultures individuals grew up exposed to both cultures - to conflicting instructions of how to do what when.  These individuals were less able to experience their gods giving them instructions - because the right side of the brain was less coherently programmed.  Jaynes postulates that it was these situations of stress involving conflicting instructions that forced the reprogramming of the human brain and it to function in the mode of consciousness.  In a brain that is functioning consciously the individual can look and "see" hypothesized cause and effect sequences, predict outcomes, and reason about the desirability of these outcomes.  In the bicameral mind method of functioning, alternatives are not available.  There is only one "right" way, and anything else is just plain unthinkable - literally. 

As general semantics eschews "two valued thinking", lets consider the possibility that the human brain can function simultaneously in both conscious and bicameral modes although with regard to different subjects.  What aspects of our culture are more likely to be dealt with in bicameral mode? What aspects in conscious mode?  It's apparent to me that those aspects of the culture that we call values are more likely to be experienced in the bicameral mode.  The stronger a cultural value, and the deeper it is embedded, the more likely it's handled in bicameral mode.   Edward T. Hall, in his trilogy of books, The Silent Language, The Hidden Dimension, and Beyond Culture, characterized this as formal as opposed to technical or informal. Contrast one simple behavior in our culture as it has changed over the years.  In 1975, just prior to my second marriage, my wife-to-be at the time announced to her commanding officer's elderly secretary that she was getting married.  The secretary asked what her name was going to be. Joan Rosenberg answered "Rosenberg". This nonplussed the secretary, so she tried a different track.  She then asked, "What is your husband's name.".  Joan, immediately understood what was going on and stated, "I'm keeping my maiden name.", whereupon the secretary said, "But, you can't do that!".  Here is an example of a person who was completely unconscious and automatically obedient to the unwritten cultural rule that a woman changed her name to that of her husband's at marriage. The immediate conflict with a contrasting "equal rights" culture brought great consternation to the individual.  She eventually acquiesced to our choice, but she "knew" in her heart that it was "wrong". It would have never even occurred to her to do otherwise. It is clear to me that we still have a significant part of our normal brain function that falls in the functioning mode similar to that of the bicameral mind. And the stronger and more coherent the cultural experiences of the individual, the less the areas under those modes are subject to alteration.

Do we experience this functioning as external verbal and auditory hallucinations?  Not normally, but we do hear ourselves talking (sub-vocalizing) to ourselves. We are more likely to label this functioning as "sub-conscious", particularly when its automatic.  It takes a mind that is at least partially conscious to recognize that the person is "hearing voices". Now-a-days "hearing voices" is often interpreted as a symptom of schizophrenia (3), a "brain disease" that is sometimes treated with neuroleptic drugs - which alter brain functioning.

As a generalized learning organ, the brain is extremely plastic, as is evidenced by the ability to recover - particularly when young - from brain injuries. However this plasticity does not remain throughout life.  As we get older, our brains become more fixed in their patterns, as evidenced by the lack of an ability to effectively recover from strokes and other brain injuries late in life.  It is indubitable that our brains are programmed by the cultures we are raised in, and that the older we get the less changeable those learned behaviors are.  I'm sure most of you have heard the adage, "You can't teach an old dog new tricks." - which seems to apply to humans too.  If you don't believe me, just try to change your grandparents views on things they grew up with.

Cultures have multiple levels of resistance to change.

The vast majority of cultures on the face of this earth are "externally directed".  The main values of these cultures are dictated by their heritage including, especially, the manifestations of the bicameral mind era, their gods.  And, as the first commandment says, "Thou shalt hold no other gods before me.", each abhors the others. This is true of all major religions, although not true of more enlightened disciplines. The majority of the word's population fall under the influence of a few major religions, all of which are theologically antagonistic to the others, in that each believes that it holds the Truth (with a capital T) and that the others are false and believe in false gods. These "false gods" are often viewed as a threat to be extinguished, and the believers as infidels to be either rescued from their false gods or in the absence of the ability to "save" them, exterminated.

So, we have some understanding of causes behind cultural conflicts, and why the values and beliefs are as intransigent as they are.  Understanding cultural clashes requires more than that.  We need to understand our own culture, and how it differs from the others.

The United States is the only country (that I know of) whose "sacred document" were created by people.  Other countries and religions that control countries attribute their authority to the long past words of gods heard by individuals - the bicameral mind heritage. Even with our enlightened perspective, a majority of citizens in the united states profess to be "god fearing" moral Christian, and a significant portion are actively trying to bring their religious heritage - which dates back to bicameral man - into our system of government.  During the '50's they succeeded in getting "under God" added to the Pledge of Allegiance as a direct response to "godless communists" of the Soviet Union, whose "official" religion was atheism. While the Bolshevik revolution sought to take power from the long standing cultural power sources - the Czardom and the church - and give it to the people, they failed to put limits on themselves.  Under the rubric of "the ends justify the means", they "purged" the historical power source through a combination of killing the intelligentsia, outlawing the church, and exiling thinkers and possible challengers.  All manner of rules were broken in the name of enforcing the same rules.  Self-reflexivity was not in evidence, owing in part from whence the revolutionaries came themselves - the workers - the sheep who are used to following the orders of their "gods".

For 70 years corruption reigned in the Soviet Union where dissidents were executed, imprisoned, exiled, or (rarely) expelled. People in the new power structure viewed themselves as above the law - as the new "gods", and so fell into the same modus operandi as the bicameral man.  So we may safely discount the Soviet experiment as a having been ruled by "sacred documents" that were created by people.  While the Soviet Constitution was a marvelous document, it was never a guiding force for the culture.  Russians today view laws as the means of the powerful to do their bidding.  An adage I heard from one Russian dissident goes, "Russian laws are very strict, but it's not strictly necessary to obey them.".  Contrast that with the United States.  We view our system as a government of laws - laws created by, administered by, and supported by, the people themselves.  Many of us were weaned on wild west stories where the vast majority of the people, and all the "good guys" were described as "law abiding citizens". We give allegiance to our documents, our laws, our flag, and our country, more or less in that order. We don't carry pictures of our current ruler, as they do in a majority of foreign countries.  Our symbols of power are our flag and the seals of the intuitions of government.  In other countries the symbols of power are more often than not the current king, dictator, or other ruler. 

General semantics is purported to be a "superior" means of reasoning, and seems to claim, that if we would all just use its methods, we could solve all the problems of the world.  Teach each individual about levels of abstraction, the "correct" order of abstracting, the perils of assuming, how to be more objective, the "value" of time-binding, our special place in the universe distinct from animals (and plants), and agreement must necessarily fall into place.  This naive view has been advanced by many practitioners of general semantics, as is evidenced by the consternation created by my article Some biases of general semantics. As I noted earlier, we can view present day humans as operating at conscious levels of brain function only partially.  The remainder is driven by the leftover functioning not unlike the bicameral mind.  'Conviction' is the word of the day here.  Those of us who are convinced that general semantics is the end-all to end all where reasoning is concerned would hardly be able to have an "open mind" about general semantics. Could the same be said about our other cultural heritages? Who among us is totally scientific in his or her everyday life?  I, for one, am still examining general semantics.

Can we effect cultural harmony between distinct cultures? Can we at least find ways of preventing one culture from seeking to annihilate others?  I suspect not, at least not until evolution provides us with ways to prevent the permanent programming of the young.  We can't even effect agreement among scientists.  To illustrate this I'll close with an anecdote I read in Scientific American in 1980. Scientists long disagreed about the nature of light.

Maxwell is said to have observed in an introductory lecture on light: "There are two theories of the nature of light, the corpuscle theory and the wave theory; we used to believe in the corpuscle theory; now we believe in the wave theory because all those who believed in the corpuscle theory have died." (4)

Am I saying that there is no hope?  No of course not. But I am saying that the problem is much more difficult and intractable that any well meaning politicians and other do-gooders have imagined. What does the foregoing suggest? Only the destruction of a culture by replacing its institutions, retraining its citizens starting with the young, educating all with massive amounts of information - including,  especially, general semantics, - and preventing the continued existence of the very patterns that define the culture over the period of the average lifespan of its citizens, only this massive change can prevent cultural conflict.  But to do that is to remake the culture in the image of our own.  Imagine that.

Ralph E. Kenyon, Jr. July 4, 2003

1. Jaynes, Julian The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, (1977) Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin. 

2. ibid p 138-144

3."What are its symptoms? - Schizophrenia is characterized by a constellation of distinctive and predictable symptoms. The symptoms that are most commonly associated with the disease are called positive symptoms, that denote the presence of grossly abnormal behavior. These include thought disorder, delusions, and hallucinations. Thought disorder is the diminished ability to think clearly and logically. Often it is manifested by disconnected and nonsensical language that renders the person with schizophrenia incapable of participating in conversation, contributing to his alienation from his family, friends, and society. Delusions are common among individuals with schizophrenia. An affected person may believe that he is being conspired against (called "paranoid delusion"). "Broadcasting" describes a type of delusion in which the individual with this illness believes that his thoughts can be heard by others. Hallucinations can be heard, seen, or even felt; most often they take the form of voices heard only by the afflicted person. Such voices may describe the person's actions, warn him of danger or tell him what to do [italics mine]. At times the individual may hear several voices carrying on a conversation. Less obvious than the "positive symptoms" but equally serious are the deficit or negative symptoms that represent the absence of normal behavior. These include flat or blunted affect (i.e. lack of emotional expression), apathy, and social withdrawal)." An Introduction to Schizophrenia

4. Irving M. Klotz, The N-Ray Affair, Scientific American Vol. 242, May 1980. p. 175


Annotated bibliography of general semantics papers
General Semantics and Related Topics
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