Friday, January 9, 2015

Does Science Kill the Spirit?

Just posted: a Darwin video about global warming, soil, with a mole joke at the end.

Some people in the humanities perceive science as a threat. They think that it turns all human creativity into the mere operation of neurons, the product of a complex brain computer. A scientific explanation of creativity, in terms of action potentials and neurotransmitters, may, they fear, kill the spirit.

When I was an undergrad, I took music theory courses. I learned about the overtone series, and how the notes of major chords blended together within that overtone series, whereas the notes of a minor chord created discord because they differed from that series. An overtone series occurs when the vibrations at a certain frequency, say 256 Hertz for middle C, also create resonant harmonies at higher frequencies, first at the octave (512 Hertz, or twice that of middle C), then the fifth above that (G), then another octave (high C, at 1024 Hertz), then the third above that, which is E. C major contains C, E, and G, while C minor contains C, E-flat, and G; the E-flat grates against the natural overtone of E. Major chords make us feel at peace, while minor chords make us feel on edge. This is usually interpreted as happy and sad. This is not quite true; Andean music, for example, consists largely of minor-mode melodies that are happy. Even if you do not know anything about chords, your emotions can be affected by hearing these chords. One could say that the human mind, with all its happiness and sadness, is the plaything of the laws of physics, particularly the overtone series of vibrations.

Furthermore, the overtone series can explain the differences in what musicians call timbre, which can be figuratively described as the color of the sound. A flute and a trumpet playing the same note, for example 512 Hertz, sound very different, because the trumpet has more of the high, piquant overtones than the flute. So also, the overtone series explains why you need to avoid certain compositional mistakes, such as doubling your leading-tones or having parallel fifths.

I learned this, and knew it, yet at the same time I was able to participate in the near-magic of musical experience. I knew that all of music could be explained by the mathematics of vibrations and by the human brain’s response to them. But I still imagined music as magic. At the time, I was a creationist, and believed that music was literally divine. It never occurred to me to worry that my knowledge of the physics of sound might destroy the magic of musical experience. I knew just enough about music to be able to write some mediocre stuff of my own, and just enough to be frustrated when I heard works of true genius, such as those of Mozart. You think Mozart’s music is nice; I understand why it is not only nice but profound. (You’ve never heard my “Emmaus Road” symphony of 1977? Thank God it was never performed or recorded.)

And so it is with all of science. A biological explanation of the working of the human brain in no way destroys the wonder of human creativity. Explaining religion in terms of stimulation of the right temporal lobe does not negate the transcendent experience of religion. Franz Schubert put the poetry of Wilhelm Muller to music in Die Winterreise, proclaiming that all our joys and all our sorrows, “alles eines Irrlichts Spiel,” they are all the playthings of illusion. Everyone who has sung Die Winterreise, including the late great Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, could experience the transcendent beauty of this line of music, even while proclaiming that this beauty is a mere illusion of the mind. You see, when we are participating in music, or in the world of nature as explained by science, we are inside of it, and the mathematical and physical explanations do not destroy the evolved capacity to experience them as transcendently inspiring experiences. We can analyze our animal evolution, but we are still animals, exulting inside of those experiences.

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