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

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