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Temple Israel brings conference on thinking to Charleston

Douglas Imbrogno
"The best case scenario for every single one of us will be to think more creatively about ourselves and the circumstance of what it is to be human than we were before," says Rabbi James Cohn of the upcoming conference at Temple Israel.

WANT TO GO?

Julian Jaynes Society Conference on Consciousness and Bicameral Studies

WHEN: June 5 to 8

WHERE: Temple Israel, 2312 Kanawha Blvd E.

ADMISSION: Early registration (by Sunday), $125 adults, $65 students

INFO: Register at templeisraelwv.org.

  CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- You constantly study yourself and your thoughts about the life you're leading, but were we as humans always so introspective about this experience of existence?

Temple Israel has announced an ambitious conference for June 5 to 8 that will attract a cadre of neuroscientists, clergy, linguists, psychologists, philosophers and historians to West Virginia's capital city to think about, well, thinking.

The conference, whose discounted early registration comes to a close Sunday, has a daunting title: "The Julian Jaynes Society Conference on Consciousness and Bicameral Studies." But for Temple Israel's Rabbi James Cohn -- who pulled it together as part of the Bertie Cohen Rabbi's Invitational Series -- there's a rather straightforward aim.

"Hopefully, every person's point of view will be enhanced by the conference in a way that allows them to see bridges of connection between themselves and the other people who are here and the history of the human drama," he said.

Julian Jaynes, who died in 1997, was an influential psychologist whose 1976 book, "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind," helped to reframe ideas about how human consciousness developed.

Jaynes' theorized that only relatively recently -- about 1000 BC -- did humans start to have, as the Wikipedia entry on his career puts it, "awareness of awareness, thoughts about thinking, desires about desires, beliefs about beliefs."

Before that, that voice in the head was heard as the delivered voice of prophecy or as a message from God, said Cohn, himself author of the recent e-book "The Minds of the Bible: Speculations on the Cultural Evolution of Human Consciousness."

"In the earliest writing across different cultures, when people had a decision to make they inquire of God or the gods or the voice of their ancestors. The voice tells them what to do and they act," Cohn said.

But because of some fundamental shifts in human society, including among other things the development of writing and huge human migrations that dislocated this experience of revelation, the modern mind developed.

"What Jaynes said is that what was happening is that the authoritative voice that people believed they were hearing and which they experience as an external voice was, in fact, the way that their culture pre-disposed them to understand their own thoughts," said Cohn.

"So that all of human culture -- whether its Greek or Hebrew or any other culture -- starts out by interpreting the communication between the left and right hemispheres of the brain as a communication between God and myself."

This does not necessarily dethrone the idea of "God" as some kind of mental illusion, he said.

"Jaynes dovetails best with, I think, the so-called critical or historical or scientific view of the Bible, that treats the Bible not as a literal communication from God, but rather as people expressing what they believed they heard or received from God. That's a huge difference," Cohn said.

The conference's theme fits with his own lifelong fascination with the nature of religion, holy books and their place in human life, he said.

"All my life, I've approached religion as a product of culture that is developed by human beings trying to understand the universe. It's not that I doubt the reality of God. It's just that any text represents beliefs about God rather than God's reality. All the text can give is what people thought and believed about God, not a perfectly communicated truth about God."

Approaching the Bible with that point of view, Cohn said he was ready to read Jayne's view of the ongoing development of human consciousness. It certainly is a different way of coming to grips with the interior dialogue of the mind.

"The British atomic scientists used to say that they got their biggest insights from the Three B's: the Bed, the Bath and the Bus. They were doing things with their conscious focus and suddenly they were able to perceive something significant that didn't seem to proceed from some line of reasoning.

"In ancient times, that would have been experienced as the voice of God. In modern times, that's experienced as an insight, as an 'A-ha!' moment. What you and I experience as an a-ha moment, our ancestors experienced as a revelation and a prophecy," said Cohn.

Teasing out the implications of these ideas, the conference will bring to town such folks as Jan Sleutels, a philosophy professor from the Netherlands; Bill Rowe, a retired research associate for the Santa Cruz Institute for Particle Physics, now working on neural implants for neurological disorders; psychology professor Roy F. Baumeister, author of the New York Times bestseller "Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength"; Merlin W. Donald, author of "A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness"; and John Geiger, author of "The Third Man Factor: Surviving the Impossible."

Given these and other notable guests, Cohn has a no less a notable goal for whomever comes to the conference.

"The best case scenario for every single one of us will be to think more creatively about ourselves and the circumstance of what it is to be human than we were before. If a person comes out of attending the conference with no result other than being more intrigued by life than the person was a few days earlier, that will be sufficient for me."

For more on the conference and its guests, visit templeisraelwv.org.

Reach Douglas Imbrogno at douglas@cnpapers.com or 304-348-3017.


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