More on consciousness (i).

I want to say more about consciousness in the next few postings, given that my last sortie into the area was necessarily desultory (this is a blog, not an encylopaedia of philosophy).  The ?hard problem?, as set up by Chalmers, is this: we have a set of physical phenomena including (but not, as I noted, restricted to) the brain; and we have a set of mental phenomena, such as thinking emotions, qualia, etc.  (I take the Wittgensteinian point that these phenomena are not simply ?bubbles? floating in space; but in general have behavioural aspects: ?dividing 3796 by 37? can be done ?in the head?, but also worked out on paper by lots of more or less mechanical movements of the hand). 

The hard problem, as formulated, is simply inexplicable.  Kant pointed out the reason for this, in a different context, in the last section of First Critique:

 'I must never presume to opine, without knowing at least something by means of which the judgment, in itself merely problematic, secures connection with truth, a connection which, although not complete, is yet more than arbitrary fiction. Moreover, the law of such a connection must be certain. For if, in respect of this law also, I have nothing but opinion, it is all merely a play of the imagination, without the least relation to truth. Again, opining is not in any way permissible in judging by means of pure reason. For since such judging is not based on grounds of experience, but being in every case necessary has all to be arrived at a priori, the principle of the connection requires universality and necessity, and therefore complete certainty; otherwise we should have no guidance as to truth.'


In other words, given the two sets of phenomena, mental and physical (with deference to Wittgenstein for a moment), merely 'opining' about the connection between the two without any idea at all about the universal law that connects the two means our opinion is just that: ie not worth anything.  What we need is some more general law: when X happens, Y follows; which we can apply to consciousness and its physical ground.  But we have no such thing, basically because consciousness seems completely unique; there is nothing else like it in the universe.  Indeed, as far as each one of us is concerned, there is only one example; ie our own. 

Suppose we had an excellent, indeed perfect, science of the neurology of consciousness.  Let us invent a classical mad scientist who, not wishing to rely on behavioural investigations of others, intervenes in his own brain, and thus discovers exactly what sorts of neuronal connections and activities give rise to what sorts of mental phenomena.  For example, if I have this neuronal configuration, and these neurotransmitters released at these times and in these concentrations, then, he might report, he sees green. This is indeed a perfectly possible and reasonable research programme.  But where will it lead?  One would indeed find sets of connections, such as seeing colours in general would be underlain by particular structures; or calculating square roots, etc etc.  One would be able to predict what mental state someone was in by looking at their brain structure.  But we would never get any further than this: the actual connection between the two things would remain entirely opaque.  After all, we already know roughly what sorts of results one would expect: and we do not as a result know roughly how consciousness is actually ?produced?.  What else do we expect to find?  The brain is complex, but not mysterious: we know exactly what it is made up of, we have some idea of how it is organized, and how it works.  Let me give a counter-example.  We know quite a lot about electricity and how it is generated; for example in a battery.  Now we come across - for the first time - an electrical eel.  After a few painful encounters we know that the eel is 'somehow' producing electricity.  It might be amazing to us that an animal can do the same thing as a battery: but because we have a general theory of electricity to do with electromagnetic radiation, electrons, potential difference etc, we would have a very clear research programme about what to do with the eel.  And then we would discover that actually the eel does the same stuff - as we would expect -  as all other generators of electrical energy, in its own way, for sure.  But what possible analogy could be employed in the case of consciousness? 

Of course, given that we have set up a problem that seems impossible to solve, we must be asking the wrong question.  One common way to attack it is to deny the premise about the fundamental nature of consciousness and 'aboutness'.  After all, if you ask someone to define what they mean by being conscious, they typically can't give a very impressive answer.  But this does not mean necessarily that the whole concept is suspect; rather, the trouble is that we can't give 'like' answers.  For example, if someone asks 'what is it like to be electrocuted?' you can answer 'well, it is like being burnt, but there is also a shock, like being hit hard by something; and then it is startling too, like being surprised by someone suddenly'.  But what sort of answer could be expected to 'what is it like to be conscious?' It is not like anything.  All we can do is compare some mental states to others, e.g. 'seeing green is quite like seeing blue, but not very like seeing orange': but that is hardly helpful.

The sort of unease one feels when poking around in these sorts of issues suggests that something is very very wrong indeed.  One can go and meet the materialists half way and, for example, oppose the idea of the person being a real unified point of view, as opposed to some sort of 'illusion' (but who is having the illusion?  And what extra understanding of the world does this add?).  But this really doesn't solve anything.


On the 'Jupiter' Symphony.

Mozart has always been a difficult composer to classify. For many, he exemplifies the style and grace of the classical era: refined, poised, but merely entertaining; someone to be hurried past on the royal route that leads from Haydn to Beethoven to Mahler. Yet to become acquainted with his full body of work, entirely possible in this era of complete editions, reveals quite a different and more complex story. There you will find the serene melancholy of the Masonic Funeral Music: the path from tragedy to joy in the G minor piano quartet; the wondrous Gran Partita for 12 wind instruments; the late string quartets; the clarinet quintet, and so on. And this is to leave aside his major works, above all the mature operas and piano concertos.
However, I do not wish to discuss any of these works here, but rather his last and greatest symphony: No. 41 in C major K. 551, the "Jupiter". Mozart wrote his last three symphonies in rather a short time in the summer of 1788. Probably the most popular of these is the moody No. 40 in G minor; but the best, in terms of sheer audacity of technique, is surely No. 41. If nothing else, Mozart solved the "last movement" problem that bedevils all composers in sonata form.
In Mozart's concertos and symphonies, the last movement is typically a rondo, ie rather a lightweight structure compared to the much more weighty construction of the first movement. This is particularly apparent in the piano concertos, almost all of which have marvellous first movements; but more than a couple have a rather flighty last movement. Mozart's best last movements in the concertos in fact are not rondos at all, but are in variation form (e.g. No. 24 in C minor). And of the rondo ones, the best have a more complex and knitted together structure (such as No. 19 in F). Another way of fixing the last movement (particularly popular with Haydn, e.g. in his string quartets) was to have a fugal structure; and indeed Mozart, who was not the only composer to discover Bach in his maturity, sometimes adopted this too. In the piano concertos, this was not very successful; for example in the slightly disappointing No. 13 in C major where the fugal martial rhythms of the first entry of the orchestra rather dissipate: in the later, but somewhat similar No. 21, the fugal elements are much more toned down.
The inherently problematic mix of the concerto structure plus fugue did not, however, affect Mozart in his symphonic masterpiece, the Jupiter. The last movement is broadly in sonata form, with exposition, development, recapitulation and coda; but fugal elements are interwoven all through. For example, after the first statement of the formulaic first theme, wonderfully underpinned by the oscillating strings, the whole thing is restated fugally before going into the transition and second group of subjects. Here, as elsewhere, Mozart shows his skill by how he handles the junctions between the various units of the sonata form; the transition from first to second group; the effect of the repeat after the exposition (marvellous both in the first and last movements of this symphony); the retransition to the recapitulation, and so on. And interwoven through all this is the richness of the fugal textures.
Mozart waits until the recapitulation until revealing his masterstrokes in this movement. The very restatement of the theme is embellished by soft chords in the woodwind, giving it an added depth compared to the original statement. And this is quickly followed by a remarkable cycling of suspensions through more and more distant keys until, when the discord becomes unbearable, it triumphantly resolves into the second half of the second theme. Finally, in the coda, Mozart presents the famous five part fugue where he combines and cycles almost all of the principal themes of the entire movement in one extraordinary passage - overwhelmingly complex, frustratingly brief.

Like all works of art, the Jupiter symphony is not something that can really be appreciated by just description: one needs to hear it. Furthermore, it also grows: it is something that can seem insubstantial or trivial on first hearing, but on repeated listening - when the listener does work, in other words - it draws the listener in. Many people indeed find it endlessly fascinating - a work that one can never tire of. In the most recent monograph on it (by Elaine Sisman) it is described explicitly as possessing the characteristics of the sublime: overwhelming, transitory, incomprehensible.
Why do we find such works sublime - what is it about a work without words that can make it so meaningful, a resource for life one can return to over and over again? There is something here about its complexity that exhausts our powers of comprehension; and something about its sheer emotional impact as a result: it is when our rationality fails that we glimpse once more over the edge of the world. Yet, paradoxically, our response is also a rational one: our reaction is not merely a gut one. Furthermore, we look somehow for the solution to its insoluble complexity within its sublime moments; but their necessary fleeting nature means we can never catch them resolving: if only they were to last longer, then perhaps we could understand! But by their very nature, they do not.
In cosmology, in pyschology and in art (especially music, although I would not care to argue this point strongly), we find ourselves caught in the same paradox of longing to understand, but not being able to: and yet finding that the very incomprehensibility is what attracts us. This is the power of the sublime: profoundly mysterious and thus disturbing; but at the same time compelling. It seems that it informs many of our activities, including others I have not yet turned to.

On the walls of the world (ii). A little more on cosmology. Psychology and its limits.

I have previously argued that, despite many impressive scientific advances (and they are impressive), we shall never be able to understand the origins of the world; what brought it about or why it exists. In simple terms this can be reduced to the following: we understand causality in terms of one thing (or state of things) causing another; and things do not cause themselves. But in the case of the universe as a whole, there can be no thing that causes it, because by definition all things are in the universe. Afficionados may note at this point a possible invalid logical procedure here; similar, as Russell pointed out to "all men have a mother" to "there is a mother to all mankind", ie the "quantifier-shift" fallacy. this might indeed apply to the argument "Every thing has a cause. Therefore there is a cause for everything". But I am arguing for the opposite: there can be no cause for the universe. If this seems a profoundly secular conclusion to draw, read on in this blog. Now I want to turn to the other blank in our understanding; ie ourselves. And now I shall somewhat preempt the Third Dialogue which shall deal with the same topic, but in more rhetorical turns. Again, this ground has been gone over very thoroughly recently, with absolutely no agreement. So let us delve in once again. The issue of consciousness has been a subject of endless interest to philosophers, and has rather recently begun to be of interest to scientists too. The basic points are well known, and I shall try to enumerate the least controversial of them:

i) Humans are conscious. It is of course not exactly known by this phrase, but the basic idea is of subjectivity: we have a "point of view" that a table doesn't. Or, to put it another way, the question "what is it like to be human?"makes sense, whereas "what is it like to be a table" does not. Kant showed, controversially, that human consciousness was not just some sort of "glow" that accompanied experience, but had considerable intellectual structure, which is why one can never fear becoming a vegetable through, for example; a severe stroke. We can pity such a victim, but we cannot fear ourselves being in such a situation, because to be in such a situation is to have lost the ability to intellectualise one's experience and thus to regret it. This is one of the reasons why the quality of life of those around those with Alzheimer's disease often deteriorates more radically than that of the sufferer themself, who often does not really notice things going wrong.
ii) As the examples of strokes and degenerative disease show, consciousness is at the very least strongly correlated with brain function. Injury, tiredness, illness or hangover will all diminish or alter our conscious states; and we know this happens by alterations in the brain, either physical or chemical. Indeed, various classical cases show that our entire personality can be altered by such things: in both "good" and "bad" directions. I think the above would be agreed on by at least moderates. Now come some more provocative statements:

The basic elements of consciousness; intentionality, qualia and all the rest, are non-reducible. Indeed, Wittgenstein's various obscure writings on the topic imply that we should not even think of them as being strictly activities of the brain. Here is an example of why not, which his disciple Ilham Dilman suggested. Suppose someone was running up a hill. We have all sorts of physiological paraphernalia attached to her, and can see that when she does so, the muscles work harder, the heart beats more strongly and faster, blood zips around the system more, and various hormones are released. In short, the whole system goes up a gear. Obviously if you rip someone's heart out they will, to say the least,, no longer be able to run up hills. But do we thereby think that the activity of "running up the hill" is somehow an activity of the heart, or that it is "in the heart"? Similarly, when we think harder, we also get a set of physiological responses, including the brain working harder as measured by its electrical and chemical activity. But, just as a stethoscope will not reveal "running up a hill" encapsulated in miniature in the heart, why do we imagine that a "Brain-O-Scope" would reveal "thinking" somehow encoded or hidden in the brain? The brain is, after all, just another organ, albeit a fantastically complicated one. But frankly, if you rip someone's heart out you can't think either. Thinking, like running up a hill, is an activity of the human system - the person, not of one component of it.

I want to leave this point aside for a moment and turn to some of the responses to the above comments. Simply because the above seems to suggest that consciousness is something so weird and mysterious that it cannot fit into our scientific world view, there have been various manoeuvers to avoid the problem completely by trying to get rid of consciousness altogether; either by trying to deny it exists at all (e.g. the Churchlands); or by otherwise dismantling it (e.g. Dennett, it seems). One could spend a lot of time picking through all this, but at the end of the day the answer surely is: they cannot really be serious. As a simple result of this, I simply cannot take Dennett seriously. For example, his theory of the "intentional stance" is effectively (Dennett is slippery, but this is surely the bottom line) behavioural: consciousness can be explained by reference to behaviour, and thus, when it comes to it, explained away. It is true that reference to behaviour can predict many aspects of consciousness (e.g. Fred left the cinema because the film was over); but equally true is the fact that we know that we do not just behave but also have a conscious life too. Dennett seems to go further than this, arguing that just as we are conscious, so are parts of our brain "sort of" conscious. How this could possibly be tested, or how exactly bits of the brain are conscious is left alone. Perhaps it is true that one could have a model of behaviour that made no reference to consciousness: but then it would not be a true description of the world, but only an empirical model of it. Scientifically this may not matter at all; but, just as in the cosmological problems I outlined before, it means that we are left effectively floating in a void of ignorance about how the world really is, which is what actually interests some people, including myself.

As Searle points out; science makes progress by extracting the subjective viewpoint from phenomena (see entry on the aesthetics of science and Goethian "science", below): but in the case of subjectivity itself this plan a fortiori cannot make progress. I thus place myself in the camp of Searle, Chalmers and McGinn, who in their extremely different ways, deny that the problem of consciousness can be solved by reduction to physical events. And, as science is all about physical events, it follows that our consciousness is a problem that lies outside science. This sort of view is intensely annoying to many people; but it is in many ways identical to the cosmology issues. People do not, however, say that because we shall never solve the origin of the universe issue that the universe therefore must not exist, or can be reduced to something else. Where does this leave us? We are left in a very curious place. We know of the physical correlates of consciousness, but the idea of a convincing connection between them that goes beyond a mere catalogue is entirely incomprehensible. Further, we know of the problems that Dennett and others have raised with what Kant called the "transcendental unity of apperception", the idea that conscious states do not just occur, but belong to someone; what is nowadays called the "binding problem". Yet we simply cannot get away from it: we are conscious; we are unified; we are a person. This is not to endorse a dualistic view of humans (and by extension, other animals), but simply to point out that science at this point comes to a grinding conceptual halt; we cannot go further. The attempts to do so have sometimes been interesting, but more often silly, bizarre or even embarrassing. I exist, not just as a physical lump of atoms but as a perceiving person, peering in to the universe from its edge: and science will never allow us to look over that edge. We have found the other wall. How do I as a person intervene the world? What is free-will? We inch towards the sublime once more, for these are questions we shall never know the answers to. Think about this terrifying, dizzying, compelling problem hard; in its inexplicability lies the answers to many questions.

God: a skeptic's guide in dialogue form (ii).

Day Two. Among the ruins of the Karnak temple complex, Egypt.

Protagonists: as before.

Johannes: What fine buildings the ancient Egyptians erected! How remarkable too, that they have weathered the tumults of the ages and remain standing still. How many of our own buildings will still be here, thousands of years hence. Precious few, I fancy.

Petrus: The buildings indeed impose. But I never liked much Egypt of old.

J: Surely theirs was one of the great civilizations?

P: It is not one I could care for. They built many monuments, but, as here, they were erected to a fantasy; their shapeless pantheon, stolen as war booty from those they conquered. And their cruel religion led them to scant care for life, and a dreadful lingering on death. What riches they wasted in their tombs! This is the true fruit of religion, a turning away from life towards the shimmering mirage of what might come after. How I rejoice we are now free of such foolishness.

Beda: The Egyptians were not obsessed with death, but with life. We know them only through their graves and other necropoleis. This must colour our view. And who can blame them for taking care to bless their dead with the joys they knew in life? Burial of the dead was the first sign of the awakening of humankind. Would you that they threw them into the Nile?

P: (angrily) Look, we come now to the precinct of Muntu, warmonger of the gods. Not thousands, but tens of thousands indeed were slain! Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum - how right wise Lucretius was!

B: (sadly) We are such tribal creatures. Look at our cousins the chimpanzees, who, too, seek each other out for slaughter, ambushing where they can. Yet they worship no god. Different tribes have different religions, it is true, but that is surely not why they hate and fear each other. Surely our studies of our long-evolving lineage has taught us this: that men fight for food, and land, and women. Indeed, it is amongst the least urbanized and least complex societies that such death is at its highest. The tale told of men organized under religion to do evil is wrong; it was with the rise of civilization and its rituals that our primitive murderous impulses were first brought under rein.

J: Yet there is surely the closest connection between the gods and war.

B: Indeed so, and many of those who seek to exert their will claim the gods fight for them. But why choose just this explanation, when we know how much of what we do is driven by our past; the desperate fight for survival amongst the parched lands that made us fight off all comers? We justify our acts with all the tools within our reach. But to do so does not compel us to assent.

We were born, not just from war, but from the darkness of ambush in the night, the raid, the rape, and infanticide. This is where our dead have fallen most, not in the grand spectacles of shining soldiers marching forward, carrying the holy banner of a god before them!

P: Without the gods our bitter fights, even if fuelled by our ancient and just struggle for life, would be softened, and a rational temper would prevail.

B: A wise man rules the stars. It is only in breaking free from our slaughtering instincts that we show ourselves as rational. It was Akhetaton the prophet of the one Sun-God who was the first pacifist, he who turned back the hordes of war. And then the followers of the Buddha, who denounced all violence. There could be not even been any hope for peace before religion: only the hopeless long blind struggle in the night.

J: You speak well: but I fear my friend Petrus will not easily assent to such a bold assertion!

P: I shall not. Indeed, I reject it.

J: But now we must once more bring our discussions to a close. Let us meet another day, and let us move from troubled ancient Africa. We still must talk of the soul too: that hangs still with us from before. Let us bring that topic forward with all our capabilities.

B: With all pleasure.

End of the second day.

The aesthetics of life (i). What life 'is like'. On Rosebud.

I do not wish to rush this blog, to hurry to conclusions that should rather be drawn together from reflections on its subject matters. But at this point I should make a few comments that will I hope become more important later on.
What is it like to live life, and what gives it content, a content we would dearly love to hold on to forever, if we could bear the thought of eternity? There is a secret to life that you will rarely find in the pages of even the greatest novels,perhaps not even in the most profound music. It is the hidden art of life, the knitting together of which creates a dynamic that we can hardly describe, let alone analyse. It is born from the phenomenology of life, our point of view that can have no general theory simply because it arises from pure subjectivity, like all art. I believe it is a general phenomenon that is shared by all of all persuasions about religion, and none. Let us name it and thus bring it a little into the light.

I recently sat in a railway station waiting to change trains. It was in the late afternoon of the summer, and the weather was not kind. A young man sat on the platform with a guitar and played rather a sad ballade. On the platform opposite, a couple embraced; and as they did so, a goods train, with all its noise and power, slowly moved in front of them as it pulled out of the station. None of these events was extraordinary; but their combination created a strangely still moment of the utmost beauty. It was gone in an instant, like all experiences of the sublime are. Or think of a nostalgic memory from childhood, walking along the edge of a wood in the late evening as dusk turns to night; or the sight of a child's bicycle lying in the sun in a meadow; or the glimpse of droplets of water in a spider's web in the dewy early morning. A woman walks past a shop, her legs moving in strange concord with the ticking of the clock inside. What strange symmetries are formed in these, crafted in light and shade. How we cherish them, and long for them still when years are past and we remember them, insignificant though they were. Even under duress can such moments come to us; opening the curtains to the morning on the day of an interview, or visiting a desperately ill relative in hospital. All the shape of life is formed around them. They are indeed the fragments we shore against our ruins. At such moments of the sublime, time slows for an instant, and they hang like insects in a warm summer evening; still for ever and yet instantly gone, flitting away into twilight. Such small, simple things.

In Citizen Kane, which is truly great despite its fame, the poor damaged anti-hero lies on his deathbed and whispers of such a moment, held close despite a lifetime of self-destructive sorrow. It is a moment that stands as one of the pinnacles of western art, a glimpse of what it truly is to be human, and to know it. The children's author "BB" knew it too:

The wonder of the world
The beauty and the power,
The shapes of things,
Their colours, lights and shades,
These I saw.
Look ye also while life lasts.

The aesthetics of science (ii). More on Goethe.On our point of view. On sunsets and 'the beautiful theory'.

Goethe was well known for objecting to Newtonian physics (especially his theory of colour), and tried to formulate a different view; one that was ultimately completely unsuccessful. Such a world-view was however formulated by Steiner and the anthroposophists. I am not at all recommending it as a way of doing science, even less as a way of spiritual enlightenment - clearly it is not a very good one - but it still tells us something about the world that the rest of science tends indeed to minimise.
Science in general wants to take apparently unconnected sets of observations - a sunset, the fall of an apple, the path of an arrow - and connect them all up into more general, abstracted theories. It almost always does this by removing the component that makes sets of events look less interconnected than they actually are; ie the human point of view. We could never have a science of gravity if we did not attempt to abstract what was common through all these events, as Newton did when he connected the fall of an apple to the motion of, say, the moon. Indeed, when such a movement away from the phenomena themselves is made, typically into a mathematical formulation, then the phenomena become of no interest. A sunset, considered qua sunset, tells us nothing about gravity after all; and may well mislead us. Another fine example is provided by electrical and magnetic phenomena: they were puzzlingly connected, yet so obviously different. It took more general electromagnetic theoretical developments that culminated in the work of Maxwell before this conundrum could be solved. This in turn laid the basis for relativity and the revolution in our world view that took place at the turn of the twentieth century. Indeed, the principle of relativity, that the laws of physics should be the same no matter what the frame of reference is, explicitly denies any special point of view of human observation.
Nevertheless, the human viewpoint is, as Kant pointed out, the only one we can possibly have. And because aesthetics is itself subjective, and thus to do exactly with the human standpoint, any aesthetics of science must return at some level to phenomenology. To abstract away from our own view allows us to make extremely powerful mathematical models; but at the same time it, in some way, diminishes our aesthetic experience of the world. Of course, as I suggested earlier, a reflective movement derived from experience is indeed part of what aesthetics is, and perhaps mathematical abstraction plays a similar role in science (of which more below). But it should not be at the expense of the experience itself, in the same way that the reflective movement caused by the sublime finale of the Marriage of Figaro is a complement and not a replacement to the music itself.
A quirky, even bizarre example of this is given by the anthroposophical work Movement and rhythms of the stars by Joachim Schultz. Rather than taking its stance on the Copernican heliocentric world-view of the planets, moon and sun, it rather develops in great detail what their movements look like to us. It thus goes into details of the patterns caused by the passages of eclipses, the slow loops of the planets in their normal and retrograde movements, and the shifting path of the moon through the years, all from our point of view. In doing so it reveals symmetries, patterns and beauties in planetary movements that are quite ignored by conventional science. I can recommend the book to anyone interested in naked eye astronomy, as long as you can overcome your queasiness caused by its blatantly geocentric stance.
The point is that we are on the Earth, and this is what things actually look like to us. Indeed, as long as we remember not to confuse the aesthetics of an experience - ie what the movements of the planets etc look like, with the abstraction we make from it, ie the development of the mathematical and physical model that explains it - we should feel no unease. Rather, such an approach brings out even further the intense beauty of our world, the world we see and live in. It should be encouraged, as part of a general programme of aesthetic restoration.
One further point seems worth mentioning. In science, the abstraction away from the phenomena leads to mathematical theories; and these themselves are often beautiful: indeed, it is their very beauty that famously attracts scientists and mathematicians. thus one has a sort of double reflection (to somewhat inappropriately borrow a phrase from Kierkegaard); a scientific one, away from the phenomena; and an aesthetic one, towards the 'right theory'. Perhaps by somehow preserving the phenomena in all this one might get another sort of aesthetics: the resonance between the beauty of the phenomenon and the beauty of the theory. This is the sort of abstraction that one perhaps gets in the Glass Bead Game of Hesse; more important, it may show some analogies to Kant's theory of aesthetics in terms of the resonance between internal and external ordering. Finally, I want to suggest that in all this, scientific endeavour, especially as construed here, is essentially an aesthetic one; it is the beauties of the regularities of the world that lead us to equally beautiful theories. But how does this aesthetic relate to that of nature (considered in its own right, not as an object of science), art, and indeed religion? Or are these all unrelated?

On the walls of the world (i). Cosmology and its limits.

Human beings, then, are animals set in the organic matrix of the world. Yet because we evolved the ability to think and talk -probably about 40,000 years ago - we are not at all like other animals. We have investigated every aspect of the world around us; not just to exploit it, or to gain food or shelter, but out of sheer curiosity. We have developed mathematics of elegance and power that allow us to think about the first moments of the universe, and to send probes out into space and other planets. We have plumbed the depths of the oceans and climbed mountains; written poetry and music, made abstract art, and sequenced our own genes. Such achievements have led some to think that there is no limit to the sorts of things we can do; and, conversely, anything we cannot investigate is not worthy of consideration.
Yet, despite the extraordinary expansion of the human sphere of influence and understanding, some limits, understood so clearly by Kant, mistily emerge. The two most important are cosmology and psychology: the understanding of the world as a whole, and of ourselves. And, simply because we cannot ever understand these two foundational aspects of our life, I want to argue that in a most profound sense the rest of our understanding, amazing though it is, is left floating in a void that can never be filled; and thus is rendered ultimately empty. Let me try to justify this very strong claim, that I know will be seen to be contentious.
Our views of the world have evolved away from the ancient cosmogenies towards the modern view of the space-time world of Einstein, full of the familiar materials of atoms and their constituents. We also strongly suspect there is a lot of 'dark matter' and indeed energy that we cannot see, and have only a sketchy idea of what it consists of. By measuring the background radiation and looking at the ratio of especially helium and hydrogen in the world, we can deduce that the universe began almost 14 billion years ago. All this should be uncontroversial. We also know that our current models of the quantum world, which are field theories, are not really compatible with Einstein's geometric worldview, and intense efforts are ongoing in order to resolve the differences: leading to such exotica as superstrings etc. All this lies within the purview of science; and just because science has not resolved these issues as yet is simply a sign that it is science and not, say, engineering.
The problems come when we take one further step back and think about the stage before. Even to attempt to formulate the problem, however, immediately runs into problems, because if time began with the universe, there can be no 'before'. As our basic understanding of causality is hopelessly rooted in time (states of affairs are caused by those that precede them), in what way can we formulate what came before the universe? Those who are determined to have some sort of solution talk about 'quantum fluctuations' being the cause of the universe. Apart from the fact that this sort of idea is in fact rather old fashioned and probably untenable, this simply pushes the problem one stage back: for what was the quantum fluctuation of? Such a theory already demands space, time and energy - all the things it is meant to explain. We also hear talk now of 'branes', drifting through multidimensional space (the 'bulk'), and their possible collisions giving rise to the universe. These theories may or may not be ultimately testable; but even if they are, they still do not get us anywhere: they too still demand energy, space and time. If we really want a radical, rather than just local origin of time and space, then we need to assent to the view that out of absolutely nothing - no time, no space, no energy, something came; and furthermore, such an 'event' (if it could be called such) should have a scientific theory to explain it. Of course, we have absolutely no clue about what such a theory might consist of; but more important, we cannot conceive what it might consist of either. For to rely on such an event 'to get things started' seems to be the shipwreck of reason, and of the entire scientific endeavour. It would have to be an event without a cause; and even Hume said that he never asserted anything so absurd as something happening like that. If such a thing can happen, then our attempts to categorise, generalise and predict the world are simply empty.
Suppose, then, that the world really has no beginning: perhaps it has endlessly cycled through time and space, with a popular theory being the expansion and collapse of something like a giant black hole. I believe there are in fact several technical objections to such a view; time and space really did start at the big bang; and even if they did not, all sorts of trouble comes when one considers what entropy is doing during all this (entropy would be conserved; yet we know, as entropy is always increasing, that it started off very low; yet after an infinity of time it should be, to say the least, very very high). And even if we overcome these technical (ie scientific) problems, we are then left in the position, of asserting that something can just be. Indeed, this is the position that some famous philosophers, notably Russell, have adopted: the universe is simply a 'brute fact'. One of the reasons this is so unsettling (apart, again, from its flatly anti-scientific nature) is that if something can just be, it can presumably also just not be. Perhaps the universe could suddenly snap out of existence? In any case, we are left with the biggest mystery of them all - why there is something, rather than nothing, as profoundly unsolvable.
At this point, many of the superspecialists would jump in with a claim that I am pushing a 'God of the gaps' theory: we don't know, scientifically, how the universe came to be, so therefore 'goddidit'. I am not. This is a blog about aesthetics, not about general apologetics. In any case, pointing to trouble at the limits of science is not pointing to a gap (ie an unknown causal mechanism joining two states of affairs), but the end of all states of affairs. It is not a gap, but a wall beyond which we cannot go. What I want to draw attention to, though, is the dizzying sense we get when we contemplate this wall: the wall that is the profound limit to all we can ever know. It disturbs, excites, moves. For, viewed against this backdrop, it becomes clear that all we think we know about the world is similarly limited. After all, cosmology (and indeed the quantum world) long ago departed from the shores of our practical knowledge, and instead sailed out on the sea of mathematical models, with no clear relationship to the world we know. What value, then, in reality, do such models actually have? What does the world really exist of, how did it come into existence, and what sustains it? All these are profoundly unanswerable.

Next clear night, then, stare out into the unimaginable depths of space, and instead of thinking of what we know, think of what we do not know, and can never know. I want to help you to feel the aesthetics of cosmology; the complete sense of insecurity of existence, the enforced humility in the face of total mystery. This is, indeed, the aesthetic sense of the sublime. It is part of our quest.

On the Great Divide and Where It Is: the argument from baby monkeys.

So this is an important part now.

I am a scientist: you are a philosopher, or perhaps a sociologist. Who has the right to decide how to describe human beings and how they really are - me, or you?

Here is an example to make what I mean a bit clearer. John Bowlby, the famous psychoanalyst and investigator of child behaviour, wrote a set of works on how children interact with (especially) their mothers; their attachment to them, and their behaviour when separated from them. He drew much of the animal behavioural analogies from the work of Robert Hinde. It is apparently just about acceptable to do rather sad experiments on baby Rhesus monkeys that most of us would hesitate to carry out on humans.

What Hinde showed was that baby monkeys, from an early age, are intensely attached to their parents; to a degree that it is physically and certainly emotionally difficult to separate them. Bowlby argues - correctly, I think - that this attachment behaviour evolved as an anti-predation response (baby monkeys on their own make tasty snacklets for hungry leopards). Baby monkeys are apparently much more comforted by some fuzzy shape they can cuddle than a feeding tube, suggesting that their attachment is not just all cupboard-love. This intense attachment is manifest in the behaviour of both mother and baby. When baby monkeys are forcibly deprived of their mother, their pathetic cries are enough not just to drive their mother mad with anxiety, but are also plaintive enough to reach across the species barrier and affect us too.

Cute, and not just to their mothers

There are some differences between attachment behaviour in humans and monkeys (notably in the time of its onset), but in all generalities it seems remarkably similar, including the very strong subsequent effect that even short periods of separation from their mothers has on children.

I want to focus, not on the behaviour of the child here, but on how the mother responds to it. For human mothers, too, just like their children, behave in closely comparable ways to their monkey counterparts; they are anxious when separated from their children, they feel the urge to pick their children up when they cry in a certain way, and so on. As an aside, anyone who finds young children intensely annoying should read Bowlby; who locates their behaviour not in the sphere of being deliberately pesky but firmly in the category of survival.

Now, there is of course a very very important difference between monkeys and humans, which is that, whereas monkeys simply do their thing, humans can both justify it and indeed resist it. A Rhesus mother would never not run to her abandoned baby unless she was engaged in some other overwhelming activity- say, being attacked by a leopard. And humans, too, can be distracted from maternal care too -say, by a telephone call, needing to work on a thesis, and so on. Indeed, they have to be, because Bowlby implies that the attachment behaviour of humans would mean that children would naturally spend the first few years of life in absolute intimate and constant contact with their mothers. But this is not the real point. Human mothers can also give reasons, in a way monkeys cannot; I went to my baby in order to comfort him, to see if she was hungry, and so on. And just because we can reason, we can also resist: I decided that, although she was crying, not to go to her just now. This is not a distraction, but a decision.

So we come to an absolutely critical juncture in the whole human phenomenon: a juncture that will colour all subsequent entries in this blog too. Extreme sociobiologists (if they exist) would make the claim that human behaviour is nothing but animal behaviour; and our attempts to justify it, to add rational thought to the reasons why we behave as we do, are just an empty add-on. In other words, if science can exactly describe human behaviour in terms of animal models that everyone agrees do not include rationality, then why include rationality when describing humans? On the other hand extreme sociologists would exclude all biological input into their description of human behaviour, and instead rely on theories such as those based on the exercise of power, etc: human behaviour is a social construct, not an inherited pattern of survival.

There is little doubt in my mind that vast swathes of human behaviour, from wars to maternal care to degrees of infidelity in relationships, can be accounted for by sociobiological models. We are after all evolved organic beings that are set in a particular biological matrix (e.g. we are primates, not whales). I have in fact grown more sympathetic to this viewpoint over the years. But the simple case of the resisting mother above implies that humans, "when we put our mind to it", do not simply behave in this kind of instinctive way. Think, after all, about what an average day is like: a great deal of it is simply run on auto-pilot. We do things the whole time without thinking about them, but rather, they simply knit together seamlessly to make the fabric of our lives. It is just as well, as life would otherwise be highly exhausting.

But not all things run like this; and at any point we can, if we so wish, rationally intervene to do something else. I normally have an egg for breakfast, and I usually do not agonise or even think about it at all. But sometimes I want something else, or the eggs are finished; and then as a rational being I intervene in my own behaviour to do something else. Of course, our ability to be rational colours all of our experience, so it sometimes seems to us that everything we do is thought out: but Bowlby (e.g.) shows us that this is not really the case.

Searle's Background and Heidegger's Coping seem to me to be attempts to articulate this sort of thing. And perhaps also Aquinas' "wise man ruling the stars". And the important point is that rationality cannot be reduced to molecules, even if brain processes can be. A rational argument or judgment must be assessed on its own merits, and a syllogism has no sociobiology.

I do not wish, incidentally, to give the impression that human behaviour is so compartmentalized: this is instinct, this is emotion, this is reason. Rather, they all are united in one organism. But insofar as we allow any place for reason in our lives, we are radically resisting a complete reduction of humans to molecular behaviour.

The superspecialists are divided on this topic, as well they might be. Some wish to abolish the role of the rational consciousness in human behaviour, as part of an ambitious but I think doomed project of radical reduction. Others are more ambivalent, allowing its role in some but not other aspects of human behaviour. But anyone who writes a book or a blog, anyone who seeks to persuade, implicitly endorses a social view of humans and denies the total reduction, which is why attempts such as those of Dennett to dissolve human consciousness (without which there is no rationality) strike me as being simply bizarre. More commonly, such as with Dawkins, the attempt is to rubbish some, but not others, of our rational endeavours. E.g.: religious thought and activity is seen as the outcome of some sort of strange compulsion, whereas scientific activity is the outcome of a rational search for truth. This is special pleading, and until some even slightly interesting justification is produced for it, I shall ignore it.

One thing I have not mentioned so far, although now begin to touch on it is this: where do our aesthetic sensibilities fit into all this? Are animals aesthetic beings? What is the relationship between rationality and aesthetics? And how does religion in fact relate to all these? We must dig further to find our thread.

Goethe (i)

In der Beschränkung zeigt sich erst der Meister

Und das Gesetz nur kann uns Freyheit geben.

In Petrarchan style.

The weary sun hath made a golden set

And in the dark we hurry to our end

A lonely path with none us aid to send

No planet's kindly light will us abet.

For gloomy shadows us with fears beset -

The terror of the road and unknown bend,

As into tearless loss we must descend,

The hidden journey into all regret.

Yet can you not beyond the loveless sky

Feel silent, joyful calling, not withdrawn

But given to us, loving wondrous cry

A call that boldly names the night begone?

Not lost are we and we shall not all die

But with all hope ablaze shall wait on dawn.

God: a skeptic's guide in dialogue form (i)


Petrus, a skeptic.


Johannes, an agnostic. (But no hunter).

Day One. By the shores of Lake Turkana, Kenya.

P: Good friends, how pleasant it is for us to meet once more, and in such inspiring surroundings! I longed always to see the Kenyan hinterlands, wherein our forefathers once roamed.

J: The African colours are, indeed, all they should be.

B: How poignant it is, though, to see that wondrous sunset across the lake. How sad.

J: Why sad? Surely it is a comfort in this uncertain life?

P: I myself prefer not to talk of sunsets, given their illusory nature. But still, I must agree with my friend Johannes: why be downcast at such a sight?

B: One day, there will come no more.

P: Indeed not, but not for many hundreds of millions of years?

B:...but not for me. Or you. Too soon will our eyes close for the last time on such a scene - or any other.

P: but that should not be a cause for sadness. Rather, a reason to rejoice in the time we have.

J: And with this I must agree: the loss of the future is no reason to regret the present, surely.

B. (casts about on the darkening soil) - look, here is a fragment...of bone from one such ancestor.

J: (doubtful) is it not from a pig or other beast?

B: (mildly) I, like Petrus, have devoted many years of my life to the study of nature. And what little fame I have in this world is based upon it,

J: I acknowledge your skill in this matter. But what tale does this long-dead man have to tell us? Surely the red dust has long stopped his mouth?

B: Listen! Can you not hear still his song, sung across the hills of long ago, the hills we see today in gathering gloom? The shouts of respectful triumph as the prey is brought to its noble end; the burning fires at night as meat is turned to feast? Stories of his own forefathers, and their mighty deeds. And, all trembling, his waking to the nature of things, the glittering sky above, the dread of doom, the sadness of loss irrecoverable. How carefully will he then bury his dead, wreathed in the brave flowers of spring, in hope of meeting once again beneath Elysian skies!

Shall we not join our voices to his lament of joy and loss? That song through all the ages sung, as man faced into wheeling night from which there comes no dawn?

P: I am no dullard who would deny the richness of life. I too thrill at the stars, and yet more now I know them not as gods but as the great flaming orbs scattered across the unimaginable depths of space and time. And as for our end, we come and go as the long patterns of change through time dictate, a fact we must face with no regrets. It is at it is; and we must free ourselves from all the fantasies with which we have deluded ourselves through the ages that you recall. Truth must be our goal, not the glittering illusions that can offer no real comfort, a comfort we should not in any case long for.

J: Truth we must indeed seek, but I feel the melancholy that good Beda describes. Is it not to lower the value of life to make the claim we would not miss it? Or, as we cannot miss our own life, is it not to diminish the lives of those we love?

P: If our new learning of the world teaches us that things are thus, it is a loss we must accept.

B: To look into another's eyes and to talk of love is to claim eternal life for both. Love does not allow its own abolition and end based on the prognosis of the natural philosophers.

P: Love is but a trick our brains play to force us to pass on our genes. No dullard am I, but we must not romanticize the processes of nature.

B: Love is no chemical process. All our hopes and longings, even for truth, lie without the mechanistic whirling of the atoms. One is not the other.

P: Your claims now stoop to the soul, that ancient disreputable ghost within the machine! Show me the evidence for such a thing and I will answer this charge. Until then I shall stay silent on the matter.

J: (hastily) Good friends, the night draws on, and from this one at least may we all hope to wake once more. Let us take the comfort of the still stars with us to dreamless sleep and hope to return again to our discourses.

End of the first day.

On persuasion. Making a start with Kant's subjective universal judgements. On persuasion again.

Modern Bede is a quiet scholar more at home in heaps of papers than in angry public debates. Bede wants to examine lines of arguments and show when they are bad. But he is painfully aware of how ineffective this is as a method of persuasion. Logic rarely persuaded anyone of anything.


And in any case, the real problem here is that we have to deal with what Kant would no doubt call (with the capitalization too) Subjective Judgements. He pointed out something paradoxical about aesthetic judgements which I think is true; ie that when we make the subjective judgement that, say, Citizen Kane is a great film, or Lear is a profound play, we are trying to say something more than simply ?I happen to like it?. Such judgments are universal, so we are trying also to say "...and furthermore, this is great art that everyone else should appreciate too". In other words, although aesthetic judgments are subjective; they feel objective. Kant called these "subjective universal judgments", thus neatly encapsulating the paradox.

I shall inevitably write more about Kantian aesthetics, but at the moment I want to say that the reason that people don't agree about art is of course that they have different taste (almost tautologically so). One can talk about communities of taste: sets of people who share the same aesthetic interests. But still; why is it that some people like Cradle of Filth, and others Mozart piano trios? Indeed, these two communities are largely (one imagines, without wishing to prejudge the issue too much) mutually exclusive.



I think that different tastes arise because people expect "art" (or whatever plays the equivalent role in their community of taste) to do different things. Some people want excitement; some repose; and some want the sort of reflective movement that I have already referred to. If a Mozartian wants a Cradleoffilthian to start appreciating piano trios, then they are clearly not going to have an easy time of it. They must somehow shift the expectations of the COFian towards the things that the Mozartian wants. I.e.: the thought that "If only you saw the world as I see it, and wanted the same things as me, then you would appreciate the same art that I do" seems entirely reasonable.

But I think this type of view goes further: persuading anyone of anything must first involve shifting their aesthetic perspective; indeed, it must make the end point desirable or even loveable. So at the heart of any argument, no matter how logically cast, lies a Kantian subjective universal judgment.

Kant, being Kant, thought that our rational ordering meant that all humans should somehow have the same taste, in art as well as morals (hence his arguments for objective morality). Subsequent events have weakened this belief. In any case, even if it were true, one would still have to do the work of persuasion: to show people their true aesthetic options.

In later posts I shall expend some cyber-ink in trying to appeal to the aesthetic sensibilities of hardened, anti-religion scientists. Most of these types, as far as one can judge, find the aesthetics and outcomes of religion despicable; which is why they fail to spend too much time trying to examine the logic of the situation (which is of course entirely understandable). I want to persuade them to shift this aesthetic, and to see the essential lovability of religion. I am under no illusions about the a priori plausibility of this endeavour.


On chance and necessity (iii). What is meant by creation? Are musicians special?

Now on to slightly more heavy-duty stuff. Please do not be confused; there is absolutely nothing even slightly original in this posting. Every single thought has been expressed many times by others much better qualified to do so. Still, I wish to set up some waymarkings to how I am going to proceed further. And just because it is not original does not mean it is not controversial.


What is meant by "Creation"? Some, perhaps many, would say nothing at all, but let us in this Christmas season exhibit a little charity and allow it a place in the pantheon of meaningful words, at least for the moment. If it means anything, it surely can only do so by reference to that equally problematic word "God". Creation is generated by God; depends on God, was (and is) made by God; all these would be reasonable views of what the word might be found to contain upon unpacking it. I want to argue - or even, rather more ambitiously, show, that these ideas of Creation are rather bad news for the control-freak wing of theology (CFT).

Here is Jürgen Moltmann on the topic:


"And if (because of creation out of chaos, and creatio ex nihilo) we have to say that there is a 'within' and a 'without' for God - and that he therefore goes creatively 'out of himself', communicating himself to the one who is other than himself - then we must assume a self-limitation of the infinite, omnipresent God, preceding his creation. In order to create something outside himself, the infinite God must have made room for this finitude beforehand, 'in himself'."


"Isaac Luria developed this idea in his doctrine of zimsum. Zimsum really means concentration or contraction, a withdrawal into the self. Luria transformed the ancient doctrine about God's concentration at the single point of his Shekinah in the Temple, into the doctrine of God's concentrated inversion for the purpose of creating the world".



Luria (fl. mid 16th Century) was a central figure in Kabbalism. What both these authors (Luria in fact wrote very little, so almost all we know about him is second hand) are getting at is that in order for Creation to mean anything, it must be at least in some way "other" than God. If not, why not simply regard creation as just another divine subdepartment? And thus, what work would the word "creation" really do? God is unlimited and fulfilled; but in Creation, at least the "ravine of existence" must be brought forth.

After all, anything that one completely and permanently controlled would, in a fashion, be simply regarded as a personal extension; and there seems no reason at all not to call it part of you as well. But for God to have created Creation, so to speak, implies a self-limitation, a literal "making space" (there was no space before); or, as Luria puts it, a "contraction".

So it seems that creation, if real, must produce some element of genuine freedom. That is not to say that creation is autonomous, in the sense that once "up and running" it would have no further need of God. What this "need" might be must be examined later. But at the moment, suffice it to claim that the freedom the world has must be radical. Here is Moltmann again: "Creation is the first stage on the road to freedom."

It is absurd, as the CFT would have it, to claim that this somehow diminishes God. Au contraire. A self-limitation on behalf of someone else implies not weakness but community; the society of love. I want to claim later that this diminishment necessarily involves tragedy, loss and cost, and thus to nail my colours firmly to the mast of those who reject the "philosophical" idea of the impassible (ie unsuffering, unaffected) God. If only a God can save us, it is indeed a God that has given the possibility of salvation in the first place; ie a Creator in the sense given above.

It would be hardly be reasonable not to point out at this juncture the relationship (even if it is just linguistic) between Creation here and the creation of an artist - a point explored in a demanding but rewarding way by W. H. Vanstone in Love's Endeavour, Love's Expense. In a blog ostensibly about aesthetics, this is all well and good. But I want to point out something else here; which is that, in the best art, art is concealed. Let me give another Bachian example: in Book I of Das wohltemperierte Clavier, the D sharp minor fugue (no. 8) is one of the most austerely complex small works ever written, with ten stretti, inversions, augmentation etc etc; yet of course the listener is not really aware of the structure per se, only of the endlessly cycling permutations of the theme. I want this thought to be an organic part of what I will go on to say later. It could easily be seen as preparing the ground for a later (and boring) evasion of the question of why God is not more obvious in the world (or indeed, not obvious at all!). But that is not my point. Rather, when we respond to a work of art, it is not the work of creation that we are directly responding to; only to the aesthetic experience that that work gives us. It is only with a reflective movement that we deepen our appreciation of the work by an intellectualizing of the experience. Just as we gain something by knowing something about the geology of a landscape, we can appreciate Bach more by knowing how he constructs his musical landscape. But objectively, we see or hear the same thing. I am not really implying a Gestalt switch here, for that is too abrupt; and perception, when not of a duck-rabbit, can change and deepen gradually as well in catastrophic mode.

Several questions to ponder: does the performer, who necessarily (or not?) must have more insight into composition of music, have a privileged access to experiencing it? If intellectualizing, indeed, does not add something more to the aesthetic experience, does it add something else, and if so, what? And if the intellectual pondering of divine creation adds this "else", what is it in this case - something similar, or different to the music example?



The aesthetics of science (i).The starry heavens without.

We are approaching the peak of the geminids, one of the best meteor showers of the year.  Surprisingly modern in origin (they were first observed only 150 years ago) they are consistent and strong performers that seem to be getting better through time.  At this time of year, one needs to be fairly committed to sit and patiently watch for them (very few "showers" actually produce the popular idea of floods of meteors of course).  Even worse, the level of light pollution we now experience means only the brightest can be seen.  Still, in a truly dark sky location, with the winter Milky Way blazing across the sky, the passage of these meteors is still a wonderful sight.  As they are so unpredictable, every one seen gives a little thrill of the unexpected; and although one somehow imagines they should be accompanied by fizzing or crackling noises, their uttermost silence raises their appearance to the level of the majestic. 

The geminids seem to have the peculiar 3200 Phaethon object as their parent body.  It shows no signs of being a comet, except that its orbit is far from normal (it plunges perilously close to the sun at its closest passage, yet can also pass worryingly close to the Earth).  Furthermore, its orbital elements match those of the geminids.  However, geminid meteoroids are dense like rock, not light like comet debris, so their origin is not easy to explain.

What a pity it is that we no longer see the night sky in all its glory.  It was not just Kant who was inspired by it, but early humans, as their reasoning consciousness evolved must also have been deeply affected.  Is it really so surprising that so much time and effort was put into such monuments as the great henge circles, which seem to have at least some astronomical import? 

The centre of the galaxy in Sagittarius (principal stars marked in red: all you are likely to see in a bad viewing site)

Despite our loss of the vision, our theoretical understanding of the heavens above has of course been transformed.  And furthermore, the loss is offset somewhat by our ability to produce images of the skies that are far more spectacular than anything our ancestors could have experienced.  Still, one wonders if it is the same.  Seeing a picture of the sky is not the same as seeing the sky; and further more, does not inform our everyday life.  Living under dark skies would add a constant subliminal aesthetic component to life that would surely enrich far more than a Google search for Hubble Space Telescope images; and far more democratically too.  On the other hand, people who live in such conditions today are often living in extreme poverty, and one can reasonably doubt if the noble vision of the centre of the galaxy in Sagittarius is really a comfort to Aids orphans in sub-Saharan Africa.  I do not wish to romanticize poverty, but perhaps there is something here even so; we pay a penalty for living as we do, with all of modernity literally blazing around us.  A topic, again, to return to.

Meanwhile, let me try a tentative stab at political activism to urge you to consider supporting a campaign for dark skies such as this one.  Street lights are ridiculously inefficient and send about 30% of their light up rather than down, with concurrent costs in energy, carbon dioxide emission and so on; not to mention private lighting on houses.  One might argue, there are more pressing political issues to worry about than this; but my whole point is that the aesthetics of human experience is really what needs fixing.  Poverty, pollution, war, there is nothing of beauty here, only harsh ugliness.  Perhaps the night sky is a comfort after all.

An Die Musik

This blog is not just about science and religion, but also aesthetics: its aim is an eirenic union between the three. Anyone who scents a whiff of late Kant about this endeavour may not be grotesquely misled, despite his notorious fondness for brass band music.

Bach's Die Kunst der Fuge and Schubert's last three piano sonatas are both sets of works that areromantically connected to the last days of the composers' lives. In fact, neither seem to be quite as late as fable requires. Bach's son Carl Philipp Emanuel wrote "At the point where the composer introduces the name BACH in the countersubject to this fugue, the composer died" at the point where the famous Contrapunctus XIV breaks off in the 239th bar (see image below), but this may be an ugly attempt to conceal Bach's executors' incompetence. The idea is that the handwriting shows Bach wrote the work considerably before his death; and may have even finished it, only for the last part to be mislaid by his sons (the "manuscript X" of Wolff) . The art of fugue is the most demanding and unearthly work to listen to Bach wrote (and not a walk in the park to play): its complexity, built by necessity out of such a simple, even rather dull theme, bewilders and disturbs. Like other unfinished last works (the Mozart Requiem, Turandot etc) the dialectic of fascination and disappointment tugs us relentlessly. If only these works had been completed! Yet would they be the works they are if they had been? Isn?t partof their very appeal their tragic, iconic incompleteness? If nothing else, conspiracy (Mozart)and detective (Bach) theorists would have so few playthings.

Example. Contrapunctus XIV is a multiple fugue and labeled in Italian as being in three parts. But the principal theme of the entire Kunst is missing, which led to some confusion about whether this fugue even belongs here.

Bach's last word?


Such an idea was given obscure impetus by the claim that the rest of the Kunst adds up to 2135 bars, the same number as book 1 of Das Wohltempterierte Clavier. However, it seems more or less likely that the principal theme was to be introduced as the fourth part, so that CXIV is in reality an unfinished quadruple fugue. It seems from the space Bach left for its end that no more than 40 bars are missing, and this, combined with what is missing structurally from the fugue,gives a surprisingly strong idea of what the mysterious end must have been like. Efforts to reconstruct have been spurred on by Zoltán Göncz's publication in 1991 of the 'permutation matrix' of the structure of the fugue: a four-by-four scheme of the known three subjects in the four voices. When these are superimposed, four logically ordered gaps are left which surely must have been filled by the missing and thematic last subject.

Schubert's last three piano sonatas are, on the other hand (and somewhat unusually for him given the large numberof sonata fragments he left behind, not to mention the eponymous symphony itself) complete. For a long time neglected on the grounds of the length, supposed poor structure, unpianistic and so on, they have come to be seen as the final embodiment of his autumnal style. Probably sketched out well before the end, they may indeed have been finally completed in September 1828; six weeks later, at the age of 31 he was dead. The most famous of these last three is the final one, in B flat (banally obvious choices to listen to are Brendel and Uchida, but there are many others). Its slow movement, reposed and replete with the magical key and modal changes that only Schubert could achieve, achieves transcendental greatness. A point to which I shall return.

In Schubert's last years the contemplation of mortality during his own decline through syphilis informs his output. Quite simply, these works are, I choose my words carefully, some of the saddest ever written. But they would not be by Schubert if they did not contain within their melancholic cadences a golden thread of joy - the thread we must indeed seize. How can this be a thread of pain, offering, as it seems to, a respite and response to its tragic setting? This is the very point that has to be rigorously pursued. One starting point: why is it that the shifts into the major are the most affecting - just as in the first song of Winterreise, Gute Nacht?

On chance and necessity (ii). Fatalism vs determinism.The new astrologers.

Everyone serious knows that astrology as a science is dead. Although the time of year one is born may well have some effect on one's subsequent health and perhaps personality, this does not mean that the positions of the planets affects this. The only exception to this general rule may be the amount of sunlight. The availibility of vitamin D, which plays a role in nervous and immune system development, varies throughout the year, which is probably why the incidence of diseases such as multiple sclerosis varies according to season of birth (and indeed latitude). E.g. this study.
Although astrology declined during the early Middle Ages, it still exerted significant influence on the scholastics, most famously Aquinas. Yet herein lies a conundrum. One can contrast the determinism of Christian philosophers after Augustine (the theoretical distinctions between, say, Calvanism and Catholicism that arose at the Reformation are slight) with the influence of the planets. A Christian philosopherr might want to say that God oversees all that happens in the world in such a radical way that He indeed determines what happens (a position I shall examine later). But if so, what role does the controlling influence of the planets play in this?
Here is Aquinas on the topic:
"The majority of men ... are governed by their passions, which are dependent upon bodily appetites; in these the influence of the stars is clearly felt. Few indeed are the wise who are capable of resisting their animal instincts. Astrologers, consequently, are able to foretell the truth in the majority of cases, especially when they undertake general predictions. In particular predictions, they do not attain certainty, for nothing prevents a man from resisting the dictates of his lower faculties. Wherefore the astrologers themselves are wont to say that 'the wise man rules the stars' forasmuch, namely, as he rules his own passions."1

In other words, Aquinas claims that the wise man can resist the influence of the planets by exercise of will: hence the famous tag he quotes "Sapiens dominabitur astris". And thus he shows that his theoretical determinism is not, in fact, fatalism: which here I consider to be a special case of materialism. A fatalist should theoretically consider him or herself to be detemined inexorably by the material matrix they find themself placed in: the view of Democritus the atomist, and par excellence Spinoza. Despite their problems with reconciling free will with divine determinism then, medieval Christian philosophers were not fatalists.

I bring this up to make a (admittedly slightly cheap) point against certain superspecialists (see previous post) of today. Nothing pleases modern "skeptics" more than astrology-bashing; with Dawkins, for example calling for astrologers to be prosecuted for fraud (see Dawkins on astrololgy here). It´s worth asking who the real "astrologers" of today are though. We have rechanelled the fatalism of materialism away from the stars into our own inner space. One reads with remarkable regularity how every ill or characteristic of a person, be it aggression or mental illness or alcoholism is somehow written, not in the stars, but in the genes. What, really, is the difference between drawing up an astrological chart of someone's birth, or producing a genetic map of someone, in order to predict their future? One can perceive an irony here, as it was in the realm of medicine that astrology kept its influence longest.
Of course, geneticists would rush to their own defence by talking about mechanism (ie we have, at least in some hazy sort of way, a mechanism for how genes affect our lives, whereas no such astrological mechanism is known) and indeed evidence (the evidence for the genes is good, that for the stars is, to say the least, not good). All fine, but there seems little way of stopping the modern materialist from slipping into ancient fatalism. Some would welcome this; others, such as Dawkins himself, give off ambiguous signals, as if they would long to be able to persuade themselves to be fatalists but can't quite manage it - yet. Is there some sort of subminal projection going on here, then, with the violence of the attack against the poor modern astrologers merely an attempt to conceal one's own predelictions in this area? Is Professor Dawkins, in fact, effectively an astrologer himself?

1. For the astrology of d'Ailly, for example, see History, Prophecy, and the Stars: The Christian Astrology of Pierre d'Ailly, 1350-1420 by Laura Ackerman Smoller (Princeton Univ. Press, New Jersey, 1994)

On chance and necessity (i)

"The publication 'Le hasard et la necessité' by Monod [1970] can hardly be taken seriously, since this author entirely fails to understand the significance of both chance and necessity as well as the relationship between these two concepts. The late Jacques Monod [1910-1976] is a typical example of numerous 'superspecialists' who, because of their particular substantial achievements, have been canonized by the Establishment and subsequently believe that they are thus qualified to express pontifical views on topics beyond their narrow grasp. Other such examples are Medawar with respect to his pronouncements on phylogeny and related topics, as well as Eccles and diverse quantum physicists elaborating their 'philosophic' views."
H Kuhlenbeck

What this blog is about

Let me speak plainly. Philosophy, aesthetics, politics, all these things only have point or meaning to them if they are rooted in God. There is nothing worse than the bourgeois "appreciation of culture" that is an end in itself, or the chatter of self-regarding philosophers: an entertainment no better or worse than playing computer games or scratching your head. They are all pastimes, no more or less.

There is thus only one end that could bring about a just society, a moral art and a noble philosophy. Only, indeed, a God can save us.

That is the teleology of the situation, but what about the route to this epiphanic and ecstatic vision? That is what we must search for, diligently, urgently, prudently. We must lay aside our own imperfections and not be sidetracked by them. We must look for the thread of hidden pain and, grasping it firmly, follow it hand over hand. And, though the thread cut deeply, we must follow it to the end.

Bede on epistemology

The present life of man, O king, seems to me, in comparison of that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the room wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your commanders and ministers, and a good fire in the midst, whilst the storms of rain and snow prevail abroad; the sparrow, I say, flying in at one door, and immediately out at another, whilst he. is within, is safe from the wintry storm; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, into the dark winter from which he had emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space, but of what went before, or what is to follow, we are utterly ignorant. If, therefore, this new doctrine contains something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed.

Bede at work

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