Friday, April 6, 2012

Mozart's Magical Dice

Few would argue that a composition by Mozart is not the product of intelligent design. His sublime melodies and intricate arrangements exhibit a profound mathematical order that invariably engenders an emotional order in listeners. Mozart’s music is the virtual antithesis of random noise. In a Cosmos that too often seems a chaos, Mozart’s music is a reminder that life is filled with grandeur and the possibility of transcendence through aesthetic creation and contemplation.

But was Mozart himself a reflection of intelligent design, or the product of blind chance, random mutations, and the laws of natural selection? Geniuses like Mozart are often described as freaks of nature, but such a view raises the question, why should freaks of nature produce works with such universal appeal?

As science writer Timothy Ferris has noted, the music of Mozart, Bach, and many other accomplished composers is permeated by highly symmetrical patterns. Like the physicist’s conception of symmetry, these musical phrases can be inverted, reversed, or otherwise transposed while retaining an essential musical character. Indeed, composers like Mozart, and particularly Bach, layered such musical phrases so that the melodies play off one another, such musical mirror images creating the stunning harmonic effect known as counterpoint.

One peculiar feature of Mozart’s music concerns the process of its creation. Mozart claimed he could hear a piece of music in its entirety all at once, almost as if he was discovering a symphony rather than creating it from scratch. It might be tempting to dismiss such self-revelations into the creative process as merely the myth making that many exceptional artists try to encourage, or to the flawed self-understanding most of us have about our own creative powers. Then again, there has always been something timeless about Mozart’s music -- not to mention the fact that Mozart’s output in his short thirty-five-year life is simply staggering.

Even those disinclined towards religious explanations can readily admit there is something divine about Mozart’s music; that at the very least it represents one of the most sublime and inspiring achievements man is capable of. There is an old joke from a more theologically settled time, which goes like this: In Heaven, the angels play the music of Bach before God to honor Him. But when the angels are by themselves they play Mozart, and it's especially then that God likes to listen in.

As one thinker noted, not a single bar of Mozart’s music could be put to ill use. But are we going too far in ascribing some transcendental character to Mozart’s music? Plato first raised a related question: why should plucking sheep’s guts (the strings of a lyre) hail the souls of men? It is a question that doesn’t easily comport with the highly reductive and materialistic theory that is modern Darwinism.

What evolutionary advantage would musical ability confer? Is there some deep relationship between mathematical patterns and regularities woven into the fabric of the universe and the musical patterns that excite the emotional regions of our brain? There is a poem by Alfred Dorn that I believe touches on this rather profound issue:

Here is a snowflake in my hand, like some
white Athens in the palm of history,
a moment’s fragile Parthenon . . .

. . . And I a god who holds it as it dies
To sudden dew. This molecule of world
May be the dominion of a subtler nation,
Inviolate to our eyes. If atoms dream,
What kingdom claims this melting star of snow!

A snowflake is a pattern of exquisite symmetry. Concomitantly, as the philosopher Schelling observed, “Architecture is frozen music.” The Parthenon, in fact, is based on a series of precise mathematical ratios of proportions -- the Golden Mean -- the same pattern that can underlie natural and manmade phenomena, from snowflakes to symphonies. Dorn’s poem hints at this remarkable fact that the invisible and abstract patterns found at the sub atomic level resonate with us when expressed in our art and architecture.

The link between patterns found at levels from the quantum to the cosmic may have a bearing in the debate between Intelligent Design and Darwinism. Mozart’s music is undoubtedly the product of intelligent design, but to the extent that his music is both timeless and universal, might it not be possible that his music is a reflection of deeper symmetries and structures woven into the fabric of reality?

Unlike Einstein’s Relativity theory, Darwin’s theory of evolution is not elegant or beautiful. This has less to do with Darwin’s remarkable insight concerning natural selection as the driving force behind evolution, and more to do with the extraneous intellectual appendages grafted onto his ideas by his intellectual descendants. These have to do with the intellectual infrastructure of Darwinism, the generally unacknowledged assumptions that are the unprovable backdrop of contemporary Darwinist thought.

The unprovable Darwinian assumptions preclude any teleological understanding of nature, ethical or aesthetic standards that transcend those created by humans, and the possibility that life has any significance or purpose apart from continually adapting to new environmental challenges. Some may say that this is appropriate: good scientific theories should be value neutral and exclusively concerned with making empirical predictions. Others may see this approach as inherently flawed because methodological materialism rules out from the start anything but the most reductive explanations concerning life.

From the Darwinian perspective, randomness and chance mutations are the engines that drive the evolutionary process. For the advocates of Intelligent Design, the architecture of a single cell, let alone complex organisms like human beings, are too intricate to have arisen from pure chance. For my own part I believe natural selection to be one of the most powerful and far reaching explanatory tools ever conceived. But I also believe the advocates of Intelligent Design, by and large, have raised interesting objections even if I have yet to find their case convincing. What bothers me about many of the more zealous proponents of Darwinism is their propensity to turn a theory -- which is by nature provisional -- into an orthodoxy. It is a troubling sign when supposedly open-minded scientists act with the same self-certainty they deplore in religious fundamentalists.

I’m convinced Darwin’s theory needs to evolve. In particular I believe the strict dichotomy between the blind watchmaker implied by natural selection and the intelligent designer implied by religiously inclined thinkers is not warranted. It excludes a possible middle ground where mathematical symmetries found regularly throughout nature reflect an inherent orderliness, organization, and even beauty woven within the fabric of reality.

Chance factors and mutations have undoubtedly shaped the fine details all along our evolutionary pathway from amoeba to Homo sapiens. But the fact that the universe has conscious observers may not be as accidental as some in the scientific mainstream suppose. As physicist John Wheeler trenchantly notes, what good would a universe be with no one to observe it?

Many scientists deride an idea associated with Wheeler called the Anthropic Principle, the notion that the physical constants in life are precisely and finely tuned for the emergence of conscious life. According to this view, the exact form of conscious life was undetermined, but a universe with observers was inevitable. It is views like these that may offer a credible middle ground between the dogmas of scientism and the mythic accounts of creation.

Interestingly, Mozart developed a musical composition that bridged the divide between randomness and intelligent design, a work called “Musikalisches Warfelspiel" (Musical Dice Game). The idea here is that selected musical themes could be selected from a table of possibilities and combined depending on the role of a pair of dice. It takes quite a bit of ingeniousness to generate musical fragments so that they can be combined at random and yet still produce a composition conforming to the melodic and harmonic requirements of an 18th century minuet.

Einstein once quipped, in a slightly different context, that God does not play dice. Musical dice, however, might be a different matter

Saturday, December 8, 2007

I Am a Strange Loop

I Am a Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter (reviewed by Scott O’Reilly)

"You would not find the boundaries of the soul no matter how many paths you traveled, so deep is its measure." Today, more than 2,000 years after Heraclitus wrote those words, science has scaled back the frontiers of the soul considerably. A soul that can transcend space and time, survive death, and even possess others is considered intellectually passé. In its place we have the brain – "a teetering bulb of dread and dream," as the poet Russell Edson described the grey matter within the cranium that makes us who we are – that is the indispensible substrate of personal identity and consciousness. As the brain goes, so goes the mind.

Not so fast protests the Pulitzer Prize winning cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter in his new book, "I Am a Strange Loop," the thoughtful companion to his seminal contribution to consciousness studies and the field of Artificial Intelligence, "Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid." Each of us is a point of view, and our perspective – indeed or most intimate subjectivity – can exist within other substrates outside of our brain. No, Hofstadter hasn’t gone mystical, religious, or superstitious, but he has pushed the boundaries of science by thinking poetically, which leads him to some very fruitful ways of looking at consciousness.

Does the score of a Bach fugue contain a trace of the composer’s soul or essence? Certainly, there is a world of difference between the Old Master himself and a set of his sheet music that lies waiting to be played. Nevertheless, that objective musical notation does represent a pattern of subjective symbolic activity that once danced Bach’s brain. And when we hear a particularly sublime passage, Hofstadter speculates, are we not in some sense sharing in Bach’s subjectivity?

Poetically speaking, Bach, Mozart, Shakespeare, Plato, Socrates, and our loved ones can live on through us in so far as we can see the world through their eyes. Immortality by proxy may not be what most of have in mind when we think about life after death. But Hofstadter, it seems to me, is on to something very profound.

Hofstadter subscribes to what is known as the narrative self; the notion that the psychological self is ultimately a hypothetical construct, a story our brains spin that generates the illusion that there is a single, stable, and unified locus of willing, thinking, and choosing that constitutes our "I." We are all like Scheherazade, the Queen from the 1001 Arabian Nights who postpones her execution by seducing the king with one fantastic tale after another. In other words, our "I" can only be sustained in its existence through an act of perpetual storytelling on "our" brain’s part.

Who – or what – is doing this storytelling? According to Hofstadter, the threads that make up the tapestry of a self are patterns of active symbols (neurological patterns) that mirror the outside (and ultimately inside) world. For instance, we experience a sensory precept, which causes a pattern of neuronal firings that symbolize or represent an outer object. Our concepts are built up this way; the fast-moving furry critter with whiskers and spots in our visual field triggers a complex pattern of neuronal activity that, once stored as a memory, symbolizes a leopard.

Our enormous craniums -- each containing a hundred million neurons (with thousands of potential connection between each individual neuron) -- are the most complex information processors in the known universe. The concepts we are capable of creating are infinitely extensible. That is, we can pile concept upon concept to generate ever increasing levels of generalization and abstraction. The individual leopard belongs to the genus feline, which is part of the category mammal, which falls under the heading life form, which is subsumed in the more-encompassing category class of being.

Concepts are also extensible in so far as we can map analogies between seemingly dissimilar concepts. For example, one might say that writing an original philosophical essay is a lot like trying to cut a new trail through the jungle; they are both an arduous process where the destination is uncertain, but the thrill of new vistas and discoveries is possible. No two concepts could seem more dissimilar on the surface – writing a philosophical essay and blazing a trail in the jungle – yet thanks to the infinite extensibility of concepts we perpetually manage to make valid comparisons between seemingly disparate ideas.

The inner self, of course, is invariably described in analogical terms -- the Cartesian Theatre, the engine of reason, the cork bobbing on the ocean, the tip of an iceberg, and the homunculus (the little man inside the head) – are just a few of the vivid analogies that have been proposed as the ideal images for understanding the psychological ego. A great deal of philosophical ink has been spilled debating whether these figurative reifications are true or not.

Perhaps Hofstadter’s most intriguing argument is his contention that that the complexity and extensibility of active symbols in the brain inevitably leads to the same kind of self-reference Gödel proved was inherent in any complex logical or arithmetical system. Gödel’s argument, in a nutshell, is that mathematics and logic contain "strange loops," propositions that not only refer to mathematical and logical truths, but also to the symbol system expressing those truths. This recursiveness inevitably leads to paradox – Gödel-like statements such as: "This statement is false."

The psychological self, Hofstadter argues, arises out of a similar kind of paradox. We are not born with an "I," the ego emerges only gradually as experience shapes our dense web of active symbols into a tapestry rich and complex enough to begin twisting back upon "itself." The psychological "I," according to this view, is a narrative fiction," a point that Wittgenstein made when he argued that the "I" not an object in the world, but a precondition for there being a world in the first place. "It is the "I," it is the" I," that is deeply mysterious," exclaimed Wittgenstein.

A perspective is a consequence of a unique pattern of symbolic activity taking place in our nervous systems. But Hofstadter contends it is the symbolic pattern that is paramount, not the substrate. That is, organized the right way silicon chips could support consciousness just as neurons do. Hofstadter’s also believes that the pattern of symbolic activity that makes us who we are, that constitutes our subjectivity, can be instantiated within the brains of others!

This notion may seem far out at first, but I believe Hofstadter is onto something rather profound. As Hofstadter observes, each of us is a more than just a self, we are a collection of selves. That is, in addition to a core self we identify as our "I," each of us contain neuronaly-based models that mirror and reflect the people in our lives. These models are patterns of symbolic activity that have a certain degree of autonomy in so far as they really do simulate the perspective of our significant others. If we have lived and loved someone long and deeply enough, Hofstadter contends, our models will come to mirror their perspective ever more closely. We will in essence, be able to see the world through their eyes.

Hofstadter acknowledges that the simulated subjectivity of another that can exist in us will not be as robust as the subjectivity that arises in the cranium of its owner. However, Hofstadter’s intuition seems to me is a remarkably deep way of understanding the permeable fluidity and the profoundly poetic dimensions of self-hood. The Cartesian prison, if you will, of isolated and monadic selves, is demolished in favor of selves that are deeply enriched and entwined by their relationships to other points of view.

Hofstadter is a natural phenomenologist and a first rate scientist (a pretty good combination, by the way). But his forays into the philosophical implications of his ideas, though often provocative, are the most frustrating part of his book. He argues that concepts like freewill make no sense as part of scientific explanations when we are talking about matter at the most fundamental level. Yet, Hofstadter readily acknowledges that when we shift our attention to the macro world, then invoking freewill (or the intention of an agent) is frequently the most expeditious and justified way of arriving at an explanation of the behavior in question.

Hofstadter asks us to consider, for instance, the two very different levels which we might view a painting like the Mona Lisa: 1) at the micro level the reality we experience will consist of subatomic particles and pigments that reflect light of a certain wavelength. 2) At the macro or everyday level, however, we experience an entirely different reality; a gal with an enigmatic and captivating smile. Which level is more real? The utility of thinking in terms of freewill, Hofstadter argues, depends on which level we are speaking on.

There are several problems here, however. If a self is a narrative fiction, then how does it pull the levers so to speak, that initiates free actions? That is, how does a hypothetical construct exercise causal powers? Second, when push comes to shove, Hofstadter (dyed in the wool scientist that he is) opts for the lawful, deterministic, and in principle entirely predictable universe of matter and the physical forces as the most appropriate candidate for Ultimate Reality. The self, when you get down to it, as far as Hofstadter is concerned, is the Ultimate Illusion, or even a hallucination, as he puts it.

Hofstadter is certainly right in exercising the ghosts of dualism. The self is not, and cannot be, some indivisible, indissoluble, and immaterial phantom that nonetheless inhabits the physical body. He is also, correct, I believe, in expanding the frontiers of the soul, illustrating how the phenomena of subjectivity is much more open-ended, permeable, and relational than we ever imagined. When we share our perspective with a receptive other we are implanting a part of our self in another, and vice versa. We can live in others, just as others can live in us. The boundaries of our souls are indeed beyond all measure.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Science and the Soul

Heraclitus once reckoned that you could not find the boundaries of the soul even if you followed every path, so deep was its measure. Today, it is scientifically unfashionable to speak of the soul. As Francis Crick so memorably put it, "You're nothing but a pack of neurons!"

Mental matters, however, are not so simple that, otherwise our brightest brains might have already hit on a third person theory that accounts for our first person subjectivity (if that isn't something of a contradiction). I prefer paradox . . . like Emily Dickenson's wonderful lines:

The brain is wider than the sky,
For, put them side by side,
The one the other will include
With ease, and you beside.

The brain is deeper than the sea,
For, hold them, blue to blue,
The one the other will absorb,
As sponges, buckets do.
The brain is just the weight of God,
For, lift them, pound for pound,
And they will differ, if they do,
As syllable from sound.

As Wittgenstein observed, "It is the I. It is the I, that is deeply mysterious."