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Desert Solitaire
by Edward Abbey

This Is Your Brain On Music

Daniel Levitin
This Is Your Brain On Music

This Is Your Brain On Music
This Is Your Brain On Music is the sort of non-fiction book that doesn’t really make an argument, but is more a collection of interesting observations. In this case, that doesn’t make it any less of a book. Levitin has basically compiled the state of the art in cognitive studies of music from papers published in the field, and turned them into a bestselling piece of popular science writing. It’s the good kind of popular science writing that explains the content of the papers without leaving out the science, and provides a complete bibliography in the appendix for further reading. And the two-sentence summaries of the published research are such that you (or at least I) want to look them up and read them. Rather than letting the research speak for itself, Levitin threads it together by abstracting away from the data to make generalizations of the sort that you can make in popular science writing, but not in an academic journal. Sometimes those generalizations seem insightful; other times they seem to over-extend. But they are nearly always provocative.

One example: Levitin observes that most of us don’t mind not being expert at our hobbies. When we go out to play a game of basketball with our friends, we aren’t bothered that we aren’t NBA superstars. We shoot some hoops, maybe we’re competitive or maybe we aren’t, and we go home. But most of us are embarrassed to make music or sing in public, because we think we aren’t good at it. Not being good at basketball doesn’t embarrass us; singing badly does. Levitin makes the observation, which I think is astute in itself. He offers what seems on the surface to be a plausibly social explanation — we’re encultured into it. Levitin claims that particularly in pre-technological cultures, music and dance aren’t something reserved for experts; they are things in which everyone participates.

It does sound plausible, but it also undermines much of what he’s doing in the rest of the book, which is to show the biological and neurological basis for music creation and appreciation. If that’s his line, I’d like to have seen him follow through on it. I can see a couple of openings:

  1. Levitin makes the case that music has an evolutionary origin. Birds sing to communicate, to establish territory, or to find a mate. Male birds with a wider vocabulary of songs are more successful at mating than those with a smaller vocabulary. Clearly consistency has to be a factor: a mating song has to sound like a mating song every time. If it were mixed up with a song to warn of predators, it would be counter-productive. As such, we could convincingly argue that singing with accuracy, reproducibility, and consistency confers a reproductive and survival advantage, and that having a good ear for hearing the songs does likewise, at least for birds. If human music is analogous to bird song (and it’s not at all obvious to me that it would be, but Levitin makes the case for it), then it would follow that we are genetically and biologically predisposed to want to sing well, and to shun those who sing badly. Which is to say that our embarrassment is not strictly or even primarily cultural, but has a strong selection component. Of course, I don’t actually believe that, but it would be more consistent with the rest of Levitin’s argument than the somewhat weaker “It’s cultural” claim.
  2. The other possible line that I see (and the one that I find more plausible, despite not really being mutually exclusive with the evolutionary explanation) is more developmental. An observation: almost no children are concerned about the quality of their public singing or dancing, unless seriously pressured by an adult. It’s not until pre-adolescence that we become mortified to sing in public. Certainly that’s partly just cultural, but more importantly, it’s when we cross the developmental threshold out of childhood that we become truly self-aware. Embarrassment requires self-awareness; it requires that we realize that we’ve done something different, that there’s a norm and that we’re outside of it. So what of those pre-technological cultures where there seems to be no taboo about singing? It’s not that they’re childlike; it’s that their music-making is (if I may generalize) tribal. It’s not about individuals, but about subsuming the individual to the collective. Church singing does exactly the same. Most of the congregation enjoy singing in unison, but most would abhor being a soloist. If we can bring the tribal element of music back into everyday life, we can resurrect the the group serotonin high that lets us overcome our individualistic embarrassment.

So: shanty singing. Old-time music. Frenzied social dancing. We’re wired for it, and I dislike solo music for a good reason. I’m contributing to the collective survival of our social species.

You’re welcome.

To Spring

I can’t help but think of this cartoon every year about this time:

I think we’ve all felt like the elf who just can’t quite get his pants on. Time for spring, I say!

Four Dissertations and Essays on Suicide and the Immortality of the Soul

David Hume
Four Dissertations and Essays on Suicide and the Immortality of the Soul

Four Dissertations and Essays on Suicide and the Immortality of the Soul
It seems like lately I’ve been having more conversations about religion than has been usual for me. I’m not sure why — it might have to do with the company that I keep, or it might have to do with the fact that I can finally talk about it without frothing at the mouth. Whatever the reason, I’ve had several chances to expound upon my cosmology over the last couple of months. So, while it’s been on my mind, here it is:

People like categories. We like to know who’s a Christian, a Muslim, an atheist, a Buddhist, a Republican or Democrat. It lets us make quick judgments about people, based on our predispositions about what those things mean. And most of us like to fit into categories, because it’s expedient. Once I call myself a Pentecostal or a Libertarian, I don’t have sort out every thorny issue of doctrine or politics myself — I can just ask my Pentecostal pastor or Ron Paul what’s good. And most of us adopt our religion or politics from our family. It’s rare for Baptists to have a Muslim child, and vice versa. As the twig is bent, so grows the tree. But if we feel uneasy about our category later in life, we go fishing. The Information Age makes the fishing more interesting. An American Civil War soul-searcher wouldn’t have much opportunity to become a Taoist; where would he find out about it? These days, we have toys like the Belief-O-Matic and the Political Compass Test to tell us our orientation. (I’m apparently a Socialist and a Universalist, if you want the handy categories.)
The problem is that the categories hide at least as much as they reveal. The standard opening questions to religious discussions is “Do You Believe in God?”, and as soon as it’s spoken, it’s already a bad question. The Buddhist and the Baptist both say “yes”, but of course they aren’t talking about the same thing at all. My standard answer is “You tell me what ‘god’ means, and I’ll tell you whether I believe in it.” Because if you really need a category, I’m basically an atheist. But only basically. I find it crazy to think that there’s some super-human intelligent being out in space somewhere that controls human lives but nonetheless has human characteristics like a will, desires, and rationality. I understand why people want to believe it — it’s nice to think of a divine being that’s just like us, but more perfect — but that doesn’t make it an accurate picture of the world. So basically, atheist. But for most people, that category also implies some unwavering faith in human reason, human science, and naturalistic explanations of the unexplainable. And here is where I depart from the label, and nuance enters.
I don’t think human rationality is a sufficient tool to explain the world. And I don’t think any possible human science can understand it, either. I find that idea nearly as arrogant and crazy as the idea of a giant bearded Caucasian pulling the cosmic strings from heaven. We humans have about three pounds of goo in our heads, connected to another few ounces of sense organs. The whole enchilada took on its modern form barely a half million years ago; the universe, by contrast is somewhere in the neighborhood of 13 billion years old. So our little head full of modern neurons has existed for about .004% of the history of the universe. That ain’t much. We’ve had anything like “science” for about 500 years of that; maybe more if we’re generous to the Greeks. Do I think that our little bucket of monkey brains is capable of perceiving much of the universe, let alone explaining it with this new-fangled “science” thing? Please. It’s more likely that I could explain calculus to my cat.

So I’m very willing to accept that our experience of the universe is a minute portion of what’s actually going on — .004% seems as reasonable a guess as any. I’m willing to accept that we may observe phenomena that are fundamentally unexplainable, because we’re experiencing a tiny sliver of something much, much bigger. And I’m willing to accept that if we stick around long enough to give our brains a couple million more years to evolve, we’ll be able to perceive and understand a whole lot more. Not merely because scientific understanding has advanced, but because our sensory and cognitive capacities will have advanced. In the mean time, we’re operating with a scarcity of information and very imperfect models, and we muddle along with those as well as we’re able. If somebody wants to take that vast sea of what we can’t perceive and couldn’t possibly understand with our little monkey brains and call it “god”, I don’t have a problem with that. But don’t pretend for a second that you know what’s in that sea, and certainly don’t tell me that it looks just like us, but more perfect, and that it “loves” or “wants” or “gets jealous” or any of those other petty things that our monkey brains do. I think Wittgenstein nailed this one in the Tractatus — “What we cannot speak about, we must pass over in silence.”
So science and religion are both just imperfect models, and one is just as good as the other, right? Not so fast, cowboy. They definitely address different domains, and solve different sets of human problems. You can’t run your car on prayer or transcendental meditation, and you probably can’t learn to love your fellow man by drinking gasoline. I’m not personally very interested in the question of truth-seeking in either science or spirituality, because I don’t think that our bucket of monkey brains can get very far in that direction. I am, however, very interested in improving the human condition and solving problems in the realms of perception to which we do have access. Scientific pursuit has done a pretty good job of that. I’m willing to say that since the days of Sir Francis Bacon, both quantity and quality of life have improved. Sure, we’ve also made atomic weapons and designer plagues, but on the whole, we’ve done pretty well. I find the case for religion quite a bit shakier. Certainly it has improved the lives of some, but it’s also been a primary justification for a majority of the armed conflicts and genocides in the last three thousand years. It’s hard for me to imagine a much-improved version of the world that doesn’t include some form of scientific curiosity (I don’t know what would take its place), but it’s not so hard for me to imagine a better world without religion, in which basic human respect and decency took the place of the existing mythology. I’m constantly amazed when we pit recent scientific information against two-thousand year old mythology in our schools, and the mythology wins. It probably has something to do with community-building: the two-thousand year old myths and rituals give people something with which to bond. The genius myth of twentieth-century science fails in that regard. As long as we cling to the myth of the solitary scientific genius toling in his laboratory, of course people are going to be turned off by it. We evolved as social animals. If the genius myth and ritual of modern science can’t provide for that, people will look for it elsewhere. Folks do so love those Sunday afternoon Baptist church dinners. And why shouldn’t they?

As for Hume’s “Dissertation on the Natural History of Religion”, I was disappointed. He catalogs the religious beliefs of “less enlightened” (i.e., “not Scottish”) people, and shows how preposterous they are, but why people believe in them, anyway. And then he always add something to the effect of “But of course our Christianity is nothing like that (wink, wink)” which is supposed to be a transparent veneer that shows that our Christianity is of course exactly like that. And he’s not wrong, and I understand the social context in which he couldn’t just come out and say that Christianity is as much bunk as every other primitive myth, but there’s really no philosophical argument in it. It lacks the argumentative precision of the Treatise on Human Nature, and it’s that precision that makes Hume such a joy to read. The Dissertations are a pretty lackluster effort overall, and it’s no surprise that they’ve been barely a footnote to Hume’s philosophical legacy.