Heart and Mind, Body and Soul

So here we all are then… all the same, all different, all like that throughout our life on this earth. We are completely ourselves yet yearn for connection, we’re individuals yet must live in tribes, we’re all unique yet can only share ideas, art, and indeed ourselves, through shared languages, shared ideas, an inner knowing of our commonality that somehow is on the outside too.

And we love our abstract concepts. It certainly looks as if they’re a key aspect of being human. So here’s a couple – mind0 and mindi. It would be usual at this point to set out clear definitions of each, but the approach here is to present matters to ponder, for reasons that will hopefully become clearer further on.

First, consider mindi. Here it refers to the individual mind belonging to each of us, as individual as a fingerprint. We refer to ourselves as ‘I’, and this is associated with mindi. Here, ‘i’ also stands for ‘imponderable’. ‘Imponderables’ are things like companionship, good company, humour, beauty, sister/brotherhood, being treated with appropriate respect, the particular sort of innocent love we receive from pets etc etc. All the things that in principle are not catchable in the net of science, and never will be. They are ∫, never ∑. They are life itself – love being the greatest imponderable of all, yet something that humans seem inherently prone to becoming profoundly disconnected from.

Science can analyse imponderables ever more minutely, and precisely by doing so ensure that they slip ever further away from the living and towards the abstract. Imponderables are vibey, boundaried yet simultaneously without a clear boundary and with no boundary at all. We know them well yet struggle to define or explain them (which in itself is a clue to perhaps realise and thus understand that analysis has limits – even if ironically those limits aren’t easy to define in themselves). Imponderables are vivid yet they’re fuzzy, they’re clear but they smear. They are neither-both and/or both/neither. They are somehow beyond, and yet the most profoundly present aspects of our lives. And they are the true material from which our lives are woven (not put together like Lego). They are the ‘gist’ of things, but also somehow their completeness. The fuzziness can include precision, but not the other way round. More on this further down the page. Alas, this isn’t the preamble to a easy-to-prepare slow cooker recipe that will ‘change your life’ or at least taste good – all of this writing is the important bit, all the way through, so it would be good if you could just read without skipping anything, thank you.

My beautiful pussycat Jess – there was a curious unclarity about her size. She seemed compact somehow, yet stretched out on the sofa next to me she seemed far larger. But her compactness was so striking other people commented on it. Then there was her pussycat style, the way she moved, moseying to the kitchen to perhaps nibble a few snacks, curling into a circle to sleep, deciding to view the room upside-down, all four legs in the air, yawning way beyond any yawn a human could attempt, meowing, burbling, trilling, rolling about in patches of sunlight on the carpet in the spring and only the spring, effortlessly radiating profound contentment, becoming imperiously haughty then in a flash full of affection, running over to see if I was OK…

There was her cat shape and way of acting, clearly defined (in particular when it came to graciousness), but in principle not pin-downable (especially when I had to get her into the carrier for a trip to the vets). And so it was with her companionship, the bond between us that grew ever deeper somehow the longer we shared a living space. It was all bounded, de-finite, and limitless. There was a Jessyness that was unmistakeably Jess yet without sharp edges (apart from on her claws, of course, one of which left a small, precise white scar on my hand that I treasure as a memento).

And Jess, my small-not-small furry guru, my teacher who brought me round to reality over and over again when I got home from work, my mind teeming with burning rubbish I’d brought from the office that had no relevance at all to where I actually was and who was actually greeting me, Jess pulling me out of my obsessive interiority right back to what was actually happening right there and then, Jess wanting food and cuddles, and communicating away with me – here clearly was a unique be-ing. Jess was both a physical cat and a feline process in the style of Jess, a representative of catdom with her own uniquely quirky Way, with an inner life of which I formed just a part, and she had a boundary to her being and yet she didn’t. The size and not-size, the boundary and not-boundary, her physicality but then the connection between us, that resonance in mind and heart – this all was soul. There was Jess, surrounded by not-Jess, yet also here we both were, companions.

The classical Greek concept of pneuma has always been somewhat troublesome for modern-day translators/interpreters. It seems quite slippery. It’s something to do with breath, but it also somehow refers to individual physical being. There are arguments over how to define it clearly. But to us moderns , the very unpindownability of pneuma displays the same characteristics outlined in the previous few paragraphs regarding Jess – so there’s some kind of identity, or an isomorphism, between the concept and what it refers to. So maybe the difficulty us so-called ‘modern’ people have in understanding pneuma is because we’ve become too reliant on – or even too dominated by – definitional boundaries. The point being that becoming overly or prematurely rigid over definitions can block out profoundly important insights further on. Which is one reason why mindi and mind0 were not clearly defined above.

(They say that the word ‘guru’ comes from a root meaning ‘heavy’. The heaviest aspect of my guru was losing Jess, then realising later that I’d needed to learn this profound lesson about love. Like all the important lessons, it was truly hard-won. But learning it changed me forever, in a way I urgently needed to change. This was a lesson of the heart, not the mind.)

Regarding ‘objective definitions’, it is important to note that science makes a big deal about the way in which we can ‘know’ things that turn out to be wrong. You think that the moon’s made of cheese, here’s the evidence it’s rock – moon rock, but rock nonetheless. Sorted. But science contains something in it that people can’t resist misunderstanding, and then misusing. If you think the moon is made of cheese you’re deluded and you can be proved wrong, but you can’t say that the vibe you get watching a full moon rise on a balmy midsummer night over a forest is either deluded or objectively real in the same sense. Getting contemplatively wrapped up in watching bright spring sunshine dance about on the surface of a glass tumbler of water you’ve just put on the table… is this ‘true’ or ‘false’? And don’t try saying it’s either good or bad by referring to effects on the brain, or mind, or society, or evolution – we’re referring to the watching of that interplay of light on the surface of water. That comes before all the post hoc, left-brain analysis.

Next time somebody mentions that they like something, try telling them ‘well you’re wrong!’. Obviously it doesn’t work, and it’s a bit silly. If somebody loves the beauty of a sunset or a moonrise, or being with friends, or the knowings that come upon them while listening to their favourite music, then that’s it – these things are primary. Yes opinion may in some circumstances be changeable or tastes change over time, but that doesn’t mean that their subjectivity doesn’t have this primary quality to it. (We certainly do have ideas of moral right and wrong, though, and appear to have got into proper trouble by saying those ideas are subjective in the same way as any other subjectivity – a huge mistake right there, yet unnervingly common these days. For some reason.)

We live the entirety of our lives in a consciousness that is completely outside the machinations of science, in a society that so often tells us science is capable of providing all the answers.

We turn now to mind per se – mind0. This is the ultimate ‘imponderable’ as outlined above, and can only be understood in ‘imponderable’ terms. In principle there is no outside to mind0, no other sort of anything through which anything can be understood, in the same way that there is no beginning to a circle. The fact that in terms of mind we act and keep acting like there is, or ought to be, ‘something outside the circle’, or a start to the circle that we can attach our projects to, something to aim for, pin down and ‘get’, is a key aspect of the tragedy of the human condition. We have this gift of self-awareness that somehow then gets snagged on itself and leads to so much suffering. Mindi blocks mind0 in the same way that the moon blocks the sun during an eclipse. We see (figuratively or who knows, maybe even literally) just the coronas of things. We never see them in their true radiance. There is this odd coincidence that the moon is nearly the same size as the sun in the sky from our human standpoint, which this strangely suggests the way that the ego nearly but not completely blocks the radiance of ‘objective’ reality, which really is (in) mind0.

The drama of a total eclipse is truly one of the amazing sights of nature, a powerful and awe-inspiring experience for those lucky enough to see it, but it only exists from our viewpoint on Earth. We love the drama when it’s exciting, or pleasurable, or beautiful, or loving and kind, but when it’s none of those things its horror hurts the heart.

As part of the tragedy, we create vast philosophies, religions, sciences, an endless variety of multifarious systems of thought, all of which represent a trying to neutralise the world, to tame it or use it, through abstraction. We hope to somehow go to the abstract level then come back with something that helps us in life… in this case with the concepts of mind0 and mindi, though these concepts have a ‘meta’ quality that makes them a bit different to regular ‘clear’ concepts even if there’s also clarity in there somehow.

A profound blind spot that is found everywhere – all our endless thinking that seeks to somehow ‘explain’ life in terms that themselves are not living.

But life cannot be distilled like water. For example, at the moment there is a movement towards espousing the philosophy of idealism and backing it up with some quite impressive intellectual firepower, yet the whole thing leaves the mystery of life-as-it-is entirely untouched. It’s curiously reminiscent of Wittgenstein’s dictum to the effect that even if all scientific questions were answered, it would leave the mysteries of life entirely untouched. As Bernardo Kastrup (currently a particularly visible proponent of idealism) put it on his FB page after the tragic chemical dump explosion in Lebanon, ‘why would Mind at Large do this?’. No matter the intellectual arguments for or against anything, the mystery of life remains untouched. The tragedy and the love continue, whether reality is ultimately mind or not.

There is a difference in that if everything is mind, death changes meaning, but even then there is still an imposingly huge barrier between death and life. And if we start looking into that, more questions of meaning appear, this time with even more bite… perhaps because they’re questions (and answers) that we’re not ready for in our current state. When it comes to the deeper aspects of life, the injunction against putting new wine in old skins is there for good reason. Imagine knowing that there definitely is an ‘after’life – so many people would be killed due to arguments and rages and lusts for power. The effect on the value of human life and indeed the whole drama of living would be catastrophic. Somewhere in John Cage’s book ‘M’, in amidst the cut-ups and typographic play is the phrase ‘if we knew for sure what happens after death we could not love each other’. A phrase that invites pondering, mulling over…

There both is and isn’t a boundary between mind0 and mindi, in the same way that there is and isn’t a boundary between you and other souls (in the pneuma sense), or you and me and the ‘outside’ world.

Maybe if we were able to see our individual mindis interacting with this apparent outside world and other mindis, we would be seeing it all from the viewpoint of mind0, in the same way that when we individually look at brain scans we can see somehow there’s a close correlation between brain activity and subjective consciousness but can’t go any further than that.

We see ever more clearly how different activities in the brain are somehow associated with subjective experiences, but we have no idea just it might give rise to those experiences. We try to duck the issue by referring to ’emergence’, but this leads to the question – ‘if matter can do this, what else can it do?’.

And perhaps the supposed ‘emergence’ of the drama of our lives within mindi, a drama that is so different ‘on the inside’, as we live it, follows an analogous principle. We can examine ever more minutely the workings of the brain associated with subjective thoughts yet with no explanation of that correlation, and so – perhaps – we can examine our mindi lives from the viewpoint of mind0 without ever being able to put together an intellectual ‘explanation’ for it all.

Again, the hint that by looking outwards we are looking in the wrong direction – even though there’s an objective world, even though that world sometimes gives us the impression it will offer up some kind of final answers if we just probe it the right way.

But in any event this mystery is not analysable into statistics dust, or mindi or mind0, or digital 1s and 0s, or in principle any abstractions, as doing so destroys what it was about in the first place. Thought and feeling, science and ethics, combine and there is always and ever a third Something we can sense but only understand by radically not looking for it. And the incredible thing is that yes, we can understand it profoundly – as long as we don’t go looking for it with our analytical minds. Looking outwards with our analytical intellect will only, can only, ever produce approximations. So be wary of those who have a prejudice against lack of clarity – they will block you from going towards deeper understanding. True clarity is not found in the neurotic pennings-in and pinnings-down of the egoic intellect. True understanding naturally goes with what the egoic intellect arrogantly likes to pejoratively think of as unclarity, fuzziness.

As you look at the 0 and i, even then you are seeing symbolism, intuiting it, being involved in an associative activity to do with O and I: the O of the void, of perfection, of the infinite, free from any localised particularity, and the I of I AM, but here seen as the small i of ego, with its imaginary nature that nonetheless is effective in the world in the way that imaginary numbers turned out to have practical uses, a limited reflection of I, with the head disassociated from the body, and the head being a tiny O that’s shrunk right down into a solid black dot, reminiscent of the way that our ego arrogates to itself the qualities of O, eclipsing the ground of being in the way the moon eclipses the sun, but without the emptiness within O that gives everything resonance, that permits everything to happen, that lets the light in…

But all of this is mere neutral philosophising, lacking in the sheer intensity of life as it is lived. In the end all arguments for and against the existence of God, all ideological and intellectual arguments, all the politicking, all that clever-clever clashing, is only happening because of our morbid craving for deracinated certainty. But the ironic paradox is that all this supposed ‘reason’ has become, or always was, intimately intertwined with emotion, intuition, feeling(s).

And however much darkness lets rip, its nature is that of a storm, and storms always burn out in the end – they have to by their nature. Love never burns out. It’s eternal. The beautiful nightmare of the world will be redeemed, no matter how utterly unlikely that may seem at any point in our life on this earth. It all works out in the end. All of it.

As for where we are right now in our lives, amidst all our approximations that are (whether we can see it or not) strangely suffused with the light of completeness, amidst all our struggles that we can’t let go of and have to live our way through… well… here we all are then.

At Last, it’s the Great Dodgy Band Name List

For 9 to 5 office worker drones, Fridays often have a curiously paradoxical vibe, featuring simultaneous boredom at still being stuck at work while the imminent weekend beckons, and excitement due to that imminently beckoning weekend. One thing I’ve often found that’s helped me make it through those last few tantalising hours to (temporary) freedom was inventing rubbish band names, and over a couple of years or so I built up a list – a list which I share now for the delight of you, dear reader, in all its meta-pretentious glory:

  1. Proton Pump Inhibitors (stern EBM from Chichester)
  2. Thee Luftwaffe Thinmints
  3. myrahindleyburgdisaster
  4. Colins
  5. Surgery Bombshells
  6. Thee Jane Horrocks
  7. Bury St Edmunds Divorce Unit
  8. Japanese Knotweed
  9. Habermas and the Public Sphere
  10. The Perfecitonists
  11. Dead Metaphors
  12. Chocolate Fireguards
  13. The Moon on a Stick
  14. Bollocks on Wheels
  15. Solicitors on Wheels
  16. Bollocks on Stilts
  17. Stilton Wheels (jangly indie from Mumbai)
  18. George Is In The Fridge And We Can’t Get Him Out (Nu-motorik meets free-form collectivist jazz from the founders of the Grimsby School)
  19. Derek on Wednesday
  20. Your Mum on Thursday
  21. The Tuesday Welders
  22. Without Prejudice and Subject to Contract
  23. New Age Sex Freaks (half a dozen denim-clad psych-rock jamming mountain-dwelling longhairs from West Virginia that change their name to Acid Grassland when the lead singer’s wife, an earth mother hippy called Flower (real name) joins in on flute)
  24. Nigel and Susan (6-piece crushingly heavy doom/sludge metal outfit from Northampton, obvs)
  25. Blanket Condemnation
  26. The Water Table
  27. Pregnancy
  28. Cars You Never See Anymore
  29. Chairman Mao’s Handwriting
  30. The Plan marked ‘A’ on the Copy Provided (‘Angular statistical analysis rock at its most angular and statistical. And analytical.’ – Shittocks fanzine)
  31. Barbara L’Arbre and her Macabre Candelabras
  32. Penoid Inexactitude (Californian thrashcore punk)
  33. Gonadic Catastrophe (Californian thrashcore punk)
  34. Testosteronal Demolition (Californian thrashcore punk)
  35. Venetta Get Back in the Pram (Stereolab-influenced pop from Gothenborg)
  36. The Deep Vein Thrombosis Band
  37. Ultrabuttocks (Ozric Tentacles meets ramshackle but enthusiastic squat party techno, the band decked out in pound shop “cyber” stylings featuring the post-ironic use of tinfoil as a signifier for “future”) (Their new, and so far only, album ‘WARNING – ULTRABUTTOCKS’ was mired for years in a legal dispute regarding the band’s name (see below) but should be released on Laxative Tapes ‘soon’.)
  38. Expecting White Space – debut album Elucidating the Vibrational Fingerprint of the Flexible Metal–Organic Framework out ‘soon’ on Haemorrhoid Industries
  39. Eileen and Wendy (Britain’s only plastic spoon chamber orchestra, from Leeds)
  40. International Sex Brigades
  41. Show Me The Invoices
  42. False Vacuum Fiascos
  43. £10.64
  44. £9.62
  45. £8.33
  46. £1,000,000
  47. Traffic Signal Faults (jangly doom/sludge metal from Bolton)
  48. Ablaut Reduplicants (more post-ironic grot party futurism, but this time the band members are festooned with bits of old circuit boards and red LEDs) (rumoured to consist entirely of members of Ultrabuttocks but because everybody including the band(s) has been so out of it when they’ve played, nobody’s entirely sure)
  49. Migratory Toads
  50. Fork Hunts
  51. Pom Pom Macoute
  52. Lower Back Pain
  53. Bradley Walsh’s Ultrabuttocks (after a lengthy, costly and ultimately futile legal argument with the ‘original’ Ultrabuttocks as to who came up with the name first (of which the Ultrabuttocks mentioned above have been entirely unaware from start to finish due to being so out of it), lawyers for both sides agreed on this name as a suitable compromise.) (Bradley Walsh was unavailable for comment yesterday.)
  54. Pruritus Ani (who, perhaps inevitably, have released a cassette of lo-fi harsh noise (‘Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc’) with a grainily photocopied monochrome cover featuring a photo of two unsmiling young men standing in front of a war memorial) (initial copies included a signed certificate of meaninglessness)

Luftwaffe Thinmints appeared in my mind about 20 years ago when my girlfriend at the time asked me how to pronounce ‘luftwaffe’ .

Surgery Bombshells is from the front cover of one of those lurid ‘Take A Break’ type magazines.

Ultrabuttocks is based on a band I saw at the George Robey back around 1995 called something like Genetix. They were an Ozric Tentacles spinoff doing Shamen-style techno/guitar crossover stuff in a distinctly post-ironic style that I really enjoyed. We’re talking wraparound shades and a certain smirk suggesting ‘we’re not taking this entirely seriously’ that paradoxically made it all brilliant. I thought that I’d found their cassette on the main record collector site Discogs once despite the fact that there are quite a few Genetixes on there, but annoyingly I can’t find it there now.

Traffic Light Faults is the heading of a notice on the front of an electrics box by the level crossing near where I live. I noticed that the vowel intonation in that phrase has an up, up, down intonation which led me to Ablaut Reduplicants, which I decided would be a good alternative version of Ultrabuttocks.

I think entry 37 may have been at least partly inspired by the missing short film in Peter Greenaway’s The Falls, which is supposed to have 93 short biographies in it but skips one entirely, no reason given. (I’m not really a fan of Greenaway these days but I’ll happily make an exception for The Falls, and would say that if you haven’t seen it, please do.) Maybe there’s a bit of John Cage in there too, with the implication that the band in question have taken 4′ 33″ out of the concert hall into, well, everything, even though that’s kind of what 4′ 33″ was about anyway. Or something.

Bury St Edmunds Divorce Unit was rubber stamped on a court bundle I saw at work a few years back.

False Vacuum Fiascos is a phrase in Jim Holt’s book Why Does the World Exist?

Proton Pump Inhibitors are a type of anti-ulcer medication. I’ve been on one since 2009 due to developing an ulcer that I suspect in part was due to cooking ever-hotter chilis con carne (or veggies) over a period of years, along with stress and drinking too much.

Habermas and the Public Sphere was the title of a book that my girlfriend in the mid-90s studied as part of getting a social work qualification. I saw it on her bookshelf, and imagined a large sphere in a town centre, perhaps a modern art installation, maybe somewhere in Holland or Belgium, and Habermas had something to do with it while not being its creator, perhaps he commented a lot on it, and the author of this book had in turn written about the relationship between Habermas and this sphere, and clearly the relationship was so important the publisher agreed to publish it. Maybe it included a chapter on the modern ballet dance performance that took place at its opening ceremony where the dancers all wore one-piece white body suits with a hole for their face – alas, we’ll never know, as none of these things ever happened.

Cars You Never See Anymore and Chairman Mao’s Handwriting were thread titles in a discussion forum I used to post on.

Expecting White Space was an error message that cropped up (just once and never again) on the work database (a kind of database hapax legomenon) – their album’s named after a research paper I found on the internet.

Venetta Get Back in the Pram was an overheard comment at the Victoria Station M&S, barked by a fratefully posh-sounding woman at her small child, who’d gone on the loose and needed to be brought back to her buggy.

At one point I had a markedly irascible boss who portentously snapped ‘show me the invoices’ at me for some reason, which I found inexplicably amusing (I nearly started laughing at the time but thought better of it as he was so very very cross about whatever it was he needed to see those invoices for).

If you don’t know what pruritus ani means, I’ll let you look it up.

And so, to round things off in a Rabbi Lionel Blue way, I would say that you know, isn’t it funny how in a very real sense, repurposing random guff can be a good way of changing the mundane into something magical, or mildly amusing anyway. The raw material is everywhere, and can be encountered at any time. And it can be a decent way of dealing with otherwise climb-up-the-walls boredom on a Friday afternoon at work (and if you type it up at your desk it even looks like you’re doing proper work – it helps not to smile while you’re doing it though…)

Have you ‘got’ it yet?

We get computers to mimic us, and programme them thus, and profess amazement that they act in a quasi-human way after we’ve programmed ourselves into them.  And a strange kind of hypnosis often occurs, whereby a lot of AI scientists (and their more gullible followers, which is a lot of followers) feel an overwhelming need to say that this shows that the computers are somehow ‘conscious’.  But at no point do the machines ‘see’ what they’re doing.  And this noticing is the rock on which reductionism flounders.  It flounders so completely, so humiliatingly, that rather than accept that it’s happened, otherwise very clever people such as AI researchers and philosophers of consciousness kid themselves that they’ve found an answer – an answer that when you look at it unflinchingly still boils down to a kind of programming, or a kind of disposition of 1s and 0s or electrical pulses, which as we all already really know, won’t ever ‘get’ anything.  Consciousness breaks the circle of this circular thinking. 

There seems to have been some kind of bait and switch.  We are asked to look over there, then when we look back a trick has been played.  Suppose, say, that instead of computers we got pointillist artists to convert everything into dots of paint, but coded in a way that ‘goes with’ real world events.  But what does ‘goes with’ even mean here?  Straight away science is getting itself in a muddle, before it even starts sciencing.  The dots can’t be used to create pictures, as that’s already getting human awareness involved in the creation of the picture, and we’re trying to avoid that in order to create machine awareness that doesn’t rely on humans.  So the dots must ‘go with’ real world events somehow, but without human involvement.  There’s the bit that’s easy to skip over.  There’s the bit where the switch happens. 

Those dots – would they ever create consciousness?  We know that could never happen – we can (ahem) see that.  So why is it supposedly different for electronic dots in the form of 1s and 0s?  Because computers, apparently.  Naturally there’s a lot of AI hype that begs the question, assuming as a foundation that consciousness can be created by computation, then setting about proving it.  Yeah, how’s that been going guys?  Not noted for its success so far, is it?  Perhaps one thing that doesn’t help is that electrical activity takes place in the brain, and in computers, so it’s assumed computers have a privileged property that can somehow give them a head start.  Though looking at the brain’s over 1000 neurotransmitters, and the way it has more connections between neurons than stars in the universe, is a trifle daunting.  Is it really necessary for a computer to embody this kind of complexity in order to create consciousness? 

So there’s now a line of AI research going on inspired by phenomenological philosophers, with embodied concepts of consciousness.  Suddenly philosophers are back on the scene, to some extent at least.  But phenomenological AI research always comes up against a new brick wall, namely the problem of common sense knowledge.  When even arch-eliminitavist Daniel Dennett acknowledges this as a serious problem then you know there’s trouble afoot.  Once again this issue, whatever it ultimately is, bounces off the brick wall of computation, now appearing as a deep problem in respect of location in the real world we all live in. 

In the end it’s the same problem – there’s no way even in principle that an outward-looking science can use that outward-directed approach in any way when it comes to interiority.  All the huffing and puffing and hand waving and just-so-storying of some scientists actually indicates is how ingrained the issue is, how widespread and embedded it is through so many different cultures, and how unacceptable, freakish, threatening this weird challenge is to that whole worldview.  We are all set for a long, long journey through frustration before this empty reactivity finally burns out. 

Then there’s another issue intimately bound up with the problem – time.  The standard approach in AI to divide the flow of time into snapshots, presumably at least partly because of the computer thing.  But what it is about that difference that means that moving electronic dots can create consciousness while still ones can’t?  Consciousness isn’t divided like this.  Remember that those dots, whether made of paint or electricity, are all individual snapshots of reality.  Why should creating a succession of them somehow go with consciousness?  How could it? And again, just how exactly is the coding done for transferring those dots or electronic blips into what they apparently ‘represent’? 

It’s the computer thing again – why do computers work by dividing things into snapshots?  CPUs always have a clock.  Why exactly is this the way computers work?  Perhaps it ultimately comes from the whole sciencey thing whereby we find out important things about nature by taking readings.  Get a lot of readings and you may well discover something profoundly important about the way that nature works – from the outside.  This approach hasn’t exactly proved successful when it comes to consciousness though. 

Here is the battleground – it’s not just that science looks outwards, it’s also the way that it runs on meter readings.  They’re a powerful fuel for the whole science project.  Combine particularly intense attempts to understand consciousness from the outside with a reliance on taking readings, and you get astonishingly fast sampling via computers. 

In mathematics, repeatedly adding the results of an equation is represented by the symbol ∑.  Meanwhile, integration is represented by ∫.  The difference between summation and integration is profound.  Summing with ∑ will bring the line of the curve on the graph ever closer to the axis, but only integration, ∫, will allow it to touch. 

Fourier analysis represents a particularly promethean attempt by humankind to get from ∑ to ∫.  And it must be said it’s incredibly useful maths in terms of technology.  The crucial feature here of this powerful mathematical tool is that undulating sine waves can approach square (on/off) waves by adding them in the right way in terms of frequency and amplitude. The easiest way to see it, is to see it:

This process in itself can be seen as ∑ making a claim upon ∫.  But to become true square waves they still need to be integrated, not summed.  The jump from ∑ to ∫ is still there.  ∫ triumphs after all, even when we’re making square waves – we can’t do it just with ∑ .  The difference between discrete summing and perfectly smooth integration isn’t just total, it’s key.  In integration is infinity, yet paradoxically there in the integral also is the everyday analogue world, our continuously flowing human world of crackly vinyl and emotion and feeling, of qualia and meaning, of feeling tone, mood and the sense of the aesthetic.  The situation isn’t symmetrical.  Precisely because ∑ can never reach the infinity of ∫ , sine waves created by Fourier addition will always have a hint of the square wave about them – it might be very fine-grained, but it’ll never be totally absent.  No matter how many snapshots you take, they will always be snapshots, and making a flickbook out of them will never result in the inherent smoothness of experience.

We can never make the final leap from ∑ to ∫ however, as you can add forever without end and still be finite, so digitally constructed sine waves will always have this hint of the square wave.  And infinite sidebands means a certain lack of presence, a not-quite-there-ness.

(As an aside, a curious feature of Fourier transformation is that square waves have infinite sidebands.  When a sine wave is modulated, spectral components are created in the sidebands. Perhaps this can be thought of analogously as how when we remove our day-to-day consciousness from consciousness in general, we start to see what we call ‘psychic’ phenomena. Without the presence of the ‘carrier signal’ of our usual egoic consciousness, these curiously appropriately named components are not pin-down-able in the way that concepts usually are in everyday consciousness. They’re there and they’re not – they speak of truth then they lie, they are ambiguous. Ideas of the trickster are found in the numinous, the liminal aspects of so many different cultures.

We can never make the final leap from ∑ to ∫ however, as you can add forever without end and still be finite, so digitally (i.e. square wave) constructed sine waves will always have this hint of the square wave.  And infinite sidebands means a certain lack of presence, a not-quite-there-ness.

And curiously, if you listen to a square wave tone, there’s something hollow about its sound.  It can be filtered and phased, treated so it paradoxically gains a certain fullness, and that’s a very satisfying sound indeed to hear, but the reason it’s satisfying depends on one level on the contrast between the fullness of the filtered sounds and the hollowness of the square wave. )

There are Buddhist methods of meditation that can bring you to the point where you are aware of an incredibly fast blinking on and off of reality.  But if you consist solely of that reality, how can you be aware of the alternating on and off?  What is it that is noticing it? 

We certainly aren’t digital beings, but we discovered something in our minds, something connected with how we make our way in this world, perhaps connected with the fact that we have digits in the sense of fingers, that finds the whole on/off thing profoundly useful.  But only in the slinky integral∫are we found, not in the jagged ∑.  Digits/fingers are for grasping, making, holding, playing, working on the world.  But discrete summation in our minds turns us into ghosts, makes our consciousness a deus ex machina.  And constant sampling is a form of anxiety, never far from OCD. 

Somehow as the ∑ whirls ever faster until it reaches and becomes the infinite (but only in our conceptual minds), time stops and the ∑ is now ∫.  A circle has no gradations, and as it whirls there are no snapshots in time – we cannot see it spinning.  But in our timebound human world the time-free ∫somehow now includes ∑ – we have brought the infinite sidebands of the square wave into our minds, in a major way, through scientific sampling, and we have become not entirely present, as with a sine wave with hints of the square wave of sampling in it.  The Fall is sometimes viewed as something that happened when humans brought time into the world.  The Fall was (and is) when our human ∫ became mixed with ∑ and we started to count out (and keep counting out) each petty second… 

The same issue seems to keep reappearing in different guises – there is the sum of discrete intervals but also the smooth integration of (the area under) the curve.  Light is a wave and a particle – there it is again.  The foundational barrier getting in the way of a Quixotic quest that can’t even delineate a definition of consciousness in the first place. 

In Christianity – we’re separate from God, so ∑. In Vedanta, we are ultimately God, so ∫. But we are beyond ∑  and even ∫ , because all dichotomies melt when faced with the ultimate truth.

Somehow consciousness is right in there at the heart of any reality we can ever know, and for that very reason all our attempts to get inside it from without can never cross the flaming sword barring our way back to the garden of Eden. 

So watch them.  Watch them as they dutifully go about tackling this problem in a way that will never work.  Watch them as they assess from the outside and ponder on their inside how they can make any headway with their outward-based assessments. Then watch as they lie to themselves and others, saying they’ve got a breakthrough theory of consciousness, this time for real.  Note how each new theory is hyped, touted as a genuine breakthrough this time for sure, before it recedes into the past, fading out along with all the other ‘breakthroughs’. Watch as all the appeals to theory, complexity, brain activity, computers inexorably begin to bend out of shape as they approach the unmeasurable mirror of mind.  Railtracks of science disappear into the radiant void of consciousness.  We try to see where the tracks lead, but they vanish into the light. 

To say that meter readings of any sort will – or even could – somehow provide anything in any way subjective is an article of faith that would make a creationist blush.  But it’s peculiarly hard to get a lot of people to see this.  The numb hypnosis of measuring and its dulling of our sight, its attendant deadening of our true human essence…  we live asleep, we are lulled to sleep, a sleep so often tinged with nightmare.  But there is no meaning in a meter reading… 

The Novels of Philosophy

… we have first raised the dust, and then complain, that we cannot see

George Berkeley, or Thomas Jefferson, or Murray Gell-Mann, Marilyn Monroe, Einstein, or somebody else off the internet

Philosophy bears a curious resemblance to the novel in the way it creates concepts analogously to the way characters in a novel are set up and then interact.  But the characters themselves are a creation.  We passively observe the world, and ‘take notes’, either scientific or novelistic, but we also actively create. And just as the novelist doesn’t know how things will pan out until their characters actually do stuff, so it is with philosophy… which is how it is of course with us players on the stage of life… 

Postmodern philosophy, of course, seems quite aware of this self-created aspect, but it does tend to get tangled up in its self-referential cleverness. It can be fun, it can very much not be. Where it gets contentious is in more postmodern philosophies such as, say, those concerning gender.  For example, we are asked to assume there is a male gaze, something for which there is no evidence as such according to the rigorous standards of scientific proof demanded so often in other areas of discourse, but which nonetheless is somehow an essential bit of structure in the whole field of gender studies.  If however you point out that an aspect of this given fact is that if a woman finds the man looking at her attractive then this is much less likely to count this as an example of the dreaded male gaze, this somewhat weakens the whole structure built around the concept because it implies that there is another aspect to the whole dynamic of the gaze – something has been left out, but how that might be, and what the implications are, is not examined for some reason. Discourse so often finishes there instead of going further. And so often people who are proud of their irreligiosity will defend the concept of the male gaze with ironically religious fervour.  But such concepts are like a character in a novel that isn’t entirely believable – or even turns out to be an unreliable narrator.  We’re asked first to take various concepts as givens, then library-loads of academic studies are built around the various ramifications of the interplay between the components of the system and all their myriad implications, which implications of course then feed back into more of the same intellectual ecosystem.  The outside world also has a role to play, especially when it’s fed into the academic research that’s part of that system.  Perhaps this is why questionable concepts such as the male gaze are guarded so ferociously.  But there is always a creative component to observation of the world, and thus always a creative component to concepts that ‘objectively’ describe the world.

The point is, though, that philosophy aims for Truth.  Postmodern philosophy says truth is still a thing but not in any ultimate sense but that’s OK (apparently).  But both classical and postmodern philosophy share this curious trait with the novel that there is an initial framing of ideas that then lead to an interplay with many ramifications, but not so much examination of how the initial concepts are formed/created.  If we consider concept A that we have constructed, and concepts B, C, D… and using these various concepts we explore their interrelations and differences in different ways, we don’t actually know in advance how it’s all going to pan out.  It’s like this for philosophy, the novel, and science, despite the way the latter is constantly pushed, and surface-understood, as a somehow purely objective endeavour.

It’s weltanschauung stuff.  But with rickety components in the foundations.  We are asked to believe people as a matter of principle because of their ‘lived experience’, yet it’s a commonplace outside of these more postmodern philosophical areas that people can believe things that are mistaken.  It isn’t very nice to be on the receiving end of having your mistakenness pointed out to you, but that’s more to do with ego than truth.  And of course it goes both ways – people can be 100% right but find themselves subject to not being believed. 

But.  Let’s not draw the wrong conclusions here. For the curious thing is that novels despite being ‘fiction’ can nonetheless still speak to profound truths of what it is to be human.  (“Fiction is the lie that tells the truth.”) And this is the case with philosophy.  So it’s not like saying ‘there is no male gaze’ – far from it.

This way of thinking about philosophy is a good riposte to scientism, though.  You can see something ‘novelistic’ in statistics with the Bayesian approach, i.e. getting your setup right before analysing anything, analysis itself being a process fraught with all manner of problems and far from the off-pat descriptions of supposed ‘determinism’ or supposedly disinterested ‘objective’ science that are squirted about the place in public.  There’s a reason for that quote about lies and statistics.  Statistics veer into the counterintuitive so quickly and easily, just as they always quickly become part of a sociological and political ecosystem, despite supposedly being ‘objective’. It’s not even that statistics are useless, either.  It’s just again there’s that ambiguity, that nuance, that phenomenological aspect always found in life.  The more we try to grasp, the more it slips away.

To keep things contentious – consider that atheism (as opposed to agnosticism) depends on a particularly intense use of reason to somehow show that any kind of supreme being apparently doesn’t – or even can’t – exist.  But as is stated in the Bhagavad Gita, ‘Brahman is beyond existence and non-existence’.  Perhaps this is why atheists like to spend so much time attacking a supposed version of the God of Christianity and/or claiming that Vedanta Hinduism is atheist really (in spite of its own traditional description of itself in Sanskrit as astika – theistic).  Who knows.  As soon as you see that the reasoning, logical intellect is a subset, or just one aspect of, consciousness, and that consciousness in itself is beyond any labelling, things straight away take on a very different aspect.  But of course we all have our egoic intellect, which is always fragile, angry, insecure and defensive, yet paradoxically rather arrogant, not willing to admit it’s but a part of true selves. 

You can see one way that the egoic intellect is limited, however, by the way that the arguments about God’s existence or lack thereof go back and forth without end – there’s always a response from the other side.  Despite what either side may say, or believe, neither side lands a knockout blow. (Let’s hope they never do – imagine if for example an intellect-only knock-down proof of God’s existence was constructed that everybody could intellectually see was unarguably right, and what that would do to humanity and society, and ironically religion too.)  This in itself suggests that the answer isn’t being sought in the right place, that egoic intellectualising is only part of the story of the mind, a subset of consciousness per se.  And indeed, the fact that you can’t actually prove a negative – an old philosophical chestnut precisely because there isn’t a way round it – means that in that one particular solely technical sense, the theists actually win.  As the saying has it, the arguments for God’s existence may be a bit rubbish, but the arguments against are even worse.  But the theists’ intellectual arguments seem quite off in the face of the sheer evil of the world, the evil of humanity, the numberless tragedies, the ruined lives.  And the reason they don’t sit right because they aren’t an answer for the heart, which is ultimately all that matters. It’s a forceful reminder of the way that life is so much more than intellect. Life isn’t about technicalities.

And this is the heart of the matter.  The arguments for and against the existence of God ultimately aren’t a matter of the intellect alone.  In the end they are found in profound depths of the heart.  The analytical, egoic intellect is important of course, but it’s become so disconnected from the heart with which it’s meant to closely work and this is the cause of so much suffering, so much lostness.

Which is quite momentous, because it points back towards this key aspect of our humanity that the intellect is meant to be in harmony with but which has instead been denigrated and/or heavily suppressed for millennia now – the heart.  Atheism is ultimately born of pain in the heart.  Hence the anger – it comes from hurt. And that pain ragefully fires up the mind and the egoic intellect, which expresses its pain in terms of being insulted by the very idea of a loving God.

But ultimately the intellect and heart are joined, and intellectual proofs of ultimate truths are never going to satisfy the heart. This can be seen quite easily by this consideration – that all the metaphysical discussion and decision in the world as to the ultimate nature of reality is as nothing if you’re not able to behave decently towards your fellow human being.  And therein lies the key to true understanding.  That is where you see something about what it is to be human, what it is to live human life.

It isn’t exactly easy to put this knowing in terms that satisfy the intellect, but that deeper, true understanding is in us all nonetheless.  And that’s the next key.  Which is that if it’s in us all, and we’re all so very different to each other, we must nonetheless share something with each other.  This knowing comes first, before all the intellectualising.  But what is that knowing? And that’s the key to the next understanding… 

Music and Philosophy, the Second Movement

The first movement is here.

sound fx: generalised rustling of papers and fidgeting audience, occasional cough, orchestra tuning up

sound of conductor tapping the rostrum rapidly followed by sudden expectant hush

A few days ago I was reading an article on the BBC website about how philosophy can help people in these trying times of pandemic – the stoics inevitably popped up, and also inevitably so did a professor of philosophy. Only one thing stuck in my mind about the article, though – for some reason, the Professor thought it important to warn people that philosophical systems of thought can become incredibly complex and demanding when you look into them more deeply.

Well duh, we’d expect that sort of thing from philosophers really – but why the warning? Beware, normal people, of the intensity and difficulty of proper philosophy – that’s best left to the experts. Unmentioned philosophical things might have a bad effect, perhaps like getting overanalytical and intense, or wearing a beret and smoking curtain-browning French cigarettes, or developing a huge walrus mustache and going mad like poor Fred Nietzsche.

We turn now to birthday drinks at a pub near Brighton station on a very pleasant summer night in 2017. Somebody I was in my local youth orchestra with decades ago was having a birthday, and had invited a hugely diverse selection of friends – always a good sign, that. It was a really nice place to meet and there was already a good turnout by the time I got there early in the evening. But a bit later on, when more drink had been had, somebody else from the orchestra who I hadn’t seen since the 80s turned up, a violinist who’d done a philosophy degree. I happened to mention that I was quite interested in philosophy, especially as it relates to consciousness. Whereupon he told me that his favourite theory was Daniel Dennett’s eliminativist idea that it’s all an illusion – consciousness doesn’t actually exist.

I can’t think of a worse theory of anything ever, and I was a bit put out that the Eliminitavist Violinist (a) despite having done an actual, real-life philosophy degree nonetheless enthusiastically raved for a bit about how great this utterly crap idea is, and (b) that somebody involved in a creative pursuit like music could possibly be so interested in such a totally dead-minded take on such a great mystery. Point (b) is a real ‘thing’ of mine – how people in the arts let themselves be unjustifiably wowed by the most enormously inappropriate people to be wowed by if you’re in any way artistic, namely scientists. Too often when artists engage with science the results set my teeth on edge, usually due to an entirely unwarranted starry-eyed amazement at ‘science’ on the part of the artist concerned.

Unfortunately I then mentioned Wittgenstein for some reason, probably due to being somewhat ‘lubricated’, whereupon the Eliminativist Violinist mentioned his famous(ish) quote about ladders. From wiki:

“My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them—as steps—to climb beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)”

And I don’t know where it came from but I found myself bursting into laughter and blurting out ‘yeah but you’re not meant to throw away the ladder before you’ve climbed up it’. Which resulted in a bit of an angry storming off – “Ho, ho, you’re soo funny”. Ah well. He said hello and waved to me later in the night (the Violinist, not Wittgenstein – I didn’t drink that much) so I suppose he wasn’t that upset in the end.

What’s this got to do with music, though? Well the guy sat next to me at the table, who I’d been chatting to for a while about random stuff, shook his head and said he strongly disagreed with the eliminativist take on consciousness (which boils down to ‘it’s an illusion’, which for most people then leads to the question “what’s the illusion occurring in?”, which is where the whole eliminativist thing does start looking a bit silly). The reason this guy disagreed so strongly, though, was because he just happened to have a masters in philosophy, and in fact lectured in it at the local university. What are the chances of that, eh? To my eyes he looked like he should still be at sixth form, but that’s all part of the fun of getting old. We got talking about music, and I casually mentioned that my hero (musical and otherwise) John Maus writes music that’s non-elitist, unlike that plinky-plonk modern classic stuff.

Be careful when casually mentioning un-thought-through things to professional philosophers. My not-previously-rigorously-analysed comment prompted the Philosophy Lecturer to ask ‘but if people want to study this sort of thing why shouldn’t they? After all, Hegel is notoriously difficult but some people do want to study his ideas.’ He even slowly moved his hand rightwards as he said it, as if sweeping a load of pistachio husks off the edge of the table into a bin, in proper academic philosopher style. It was clear he’d suddenly switched to philosophy lecturer mode, serious of face, gestural of hand.

I actually (usually) really like it when I’m asked a question that forces me to re-evaluate an idea, and this one proved very fruitful. (No more philosophy was discussed that evening, no doubt on the busman’s holiday principle that the last thing you’re going to want to do as a philosophy lecturer out for a birthday boozeup on Saturday night is sit there talking about philosophy. The rightwards-moving hand did not make any further appearances that night.)

But I’ve often found myself pondering the Philosophy Lecturer’s point since that night. And this is what it’s led to…

Firstly, composers like Bach, Beethoven, Mozart etc etc created quasi-impossible technical feats of transcendental composition that still had tunes the barmaid at the tavern could whistle. Despite the extraordinary technicalities of their music, it’s still so profoundly human. Listening to the Bach Cello Suites, you’re aware of a profound humanity even as astounding brilliance unfolds. JSB fathered a total of 20 children with his two (consecutive) wives Maria Barbara and Anna Magdalena (respect to both!), though sadly only 10 of them survived to adulthood. All of this, both the joy and the heartbreak, is very much of the human world. And JSB’s music is redolent with this humanity. Classical composers had lives, and communicated this human depth so well in their music.

The people that this music was written for were usually classically trained sophisticates themselves, capable of appreciating all the subtleties of that artistry. Yet this sort of music, written for elites, has somehow gained huge, lasting popularity outside such rarified spheres. Indeed it’s retained that popularity for centuries despite immense changes in society at every level during that time. You can enjoy the contrapuntal technicalities of, say, Thomas Tallis, with tunes running backwards and forwards, the ‘right way up’ and in inversion (‘upside down’) and all its intricate interplay, but if you don’t know about any of that, somehow you can still find the music profoundly beautiful, or just plain enjoyable. It’s why we have Classic FM and the like.

It has tunes. This is the mystery of melody – it’s somehow inherently part of all the old masters’ music, arising amidst and somehow growing from their profound understanding of music and their rare ability to create new compositions. So the sophisticates can really get into it, but so can anybody else. Somehow the melody in its simplicity is brought forth from, is innately part of, the complexity of the music. (See the User Illusion analogy.)

But by comparison, what use is academic philosophy? It’s notorious for its lack of consensus about anything ever. (Though I will admit to loving the way so many scientists in the fields of consciousness and/or AI are nonetheless being forced to address philosophical issues as part of their research, whether they like it or not, which in turn is forcing them to face the philosophical preconceptions found in science and stop denying that they’re there in the first place.) Regarding music, there is no such ‘consensus’ as it just isn’t needed. People have different tastes in music and will argue about that, but in a marvelous and curious way in the end it doesn’t matter. Music is there for us all.

When it comes to philosophy, however, something seems a bit amiss. We all have our own personal philosophy just as we all have our own personal taste in music, as a deep part of our lives. It’s always there in the way we are, giving us a certain tone, whether we’re aware of it or not. In that sense we have a ‘philosophy for all’ but not one most of us read up on. Yes, there are pop philosophy books, but they do tend to consist of bits and pieces from of old, and philosophy is scarcely as ubiquitous as music. There’s no Philosophy FM. You have postgraduate academic philosophy books that only graduates will understand – unlike music, where most classical music is technically advanced yet still accessible to the untrained.

Given all this, I find myself wondering why that academic in the online article felt the need to warn the plebs about how difficult philosophy can be? It seems a bit elitist.

We now return to the world of music. I refer to most classical music being accessible but not all because a problem with elitism has appeared there too. In the early 20th century a profound fracture appeared in the world of classical music. It was presaged in the compositions of Joseph Hauer, who began writing atonal music a couple of years before the more widely known Arnold Schönberg. But it was the latter, of course, who’s gone down in history as the progenitor of atonal music. Their two approaches were hugely different however, Hauer being a mystic profoundly interested in the I-Ching who eventually gave most of his possessions away, while Schönberg invented a rigorous compositional scheme to ensure the complete avoidance of tonality with all its baggage of harmonies, chord progressions and keys. If you’re not a musician and you don’t know what these things are, in fact you intuitively do. Which is all part of the magic of music. You’ll certainly recognise their absence – which is why atonal music is problematic in terms of elitism.

Schönberg felt that the tonality of western music had got all used up and thus needed to be left behind, gone beyond in some way. He found that just writing any old notes hither and thither was unsatisfactory and worse still, while composing in that way the now apparently used-up tonality had a way of accidentally sneaking back in, which was verboten. To keep music 100% free of tonality while also remaining musically complex, a radically new way of composing music had to be invented. Free atonality a-la Hauer was far too musically baggy and all over the shop. Schönberg’s new system had to be highly technical in order to let this pure new atonal musicality function fully at a high (or deep) level, to express profound new music. And it wasn’t a punk-style ‘smash it up’ reaction either – Schönberg was actually a big fan of Mahler with his enormous symphonies requiring enormous orchestras and enormous timespans to play out, it’s just that he thought conventional harmony and tonality had come to an end. To be fair, by this point we’d have a few decades of the likes of Wagner and Mahler writing what could be called the 19th century equivalent of prog rock – huge, long-winded, often bombastic, possibly involving elves at some point, so it perhaps wasn’t surprising that Schönberg felt this way.

(As an aside, the philosopher John Stuart Mill had a big crisis back in the 19th century over the idea that (western) music was getting all used up, as there are only 12 notes in the scale and there couldn’t be many more combinations left, so it looks as if the idea may have been in the air for a while – amongst the very clever/well educated at least. Perhaps there was a vibe around, a post-Enlightenment mood that everything, not just music, was beginning to implode under its own tired weight. It’s certainly easy to see from a present-day viewpoint a somewhat hard-to-digest richness, a seriousness, a heavygoing stolidity in so much later 19th century culture – a stolid weightiness that would inevitably become wearisome and lead to reaction.)

But there’s an issue. Classical music composition is highly technical but as previously mentioned, until Schönberg came along it had tunes – and tunes democratise music. There was also the whole ‘tonal’ harmony and counterpoint thing – a common language of music that the untutored could still appreciate. Schönberg’s ‘atonal’ music, however, was explicitly written so that it could only be fully understandable by the tiny percentage of classically trained musicians with a first-rate inner ear. ‘Inner ear’ being the ability to read a musical score and hear it in your head. Not exactly an everyday skill even amongst classically-trained musicians. The idea was you could sit down with the score and understand how it all played out musically. Atonal music is in this way a bit like the ‘Hegel’ stuff in philosophy – for only a particular, very small subset of musicians. There’s nothing there for ‘ordinary’ people, whoever they are.

However. We all have a sense of the aesthetic, and music is included in that. The way music sounds is important to us, and it must be said that atonal music’s quite spindly and jagged – it hops and jumps about the place in order to keep away from that pesky tonality. In the world of tonal music, a ‘key’ part of the language (as it were) is bringing dissonance into resolution. But in atonal music it’s all dissonance, no resolution. Atonal music is the splintering that happens – that has to happen – when you avoid tonality on principle. It sounds splintered too – somehow it’s ‘pictured’ as such in our minds.

This is reminiscent of academic philosophy. As the Professor in the BBC article intimated, you’re apparently not going to really ‘get’ philosophy unless you train properly, just as is the case with atonal music. ‘Ordinary’ people simply can’t climb the mountain and rise into the philosophical cloud-capped heights of academia, and in atonal music there aren’t any tunes that the (wo)man in the street could whistle. Indeed Schönberg was quite contemptuous of people who ‘don’t know about music but know what they like’ – he said ‘To be musical means to have an ear in the musical sense, not in the natural sense. A musical ear must have assimilated the tempered scale. And a singer who produces natural pitches is unmusical, just as someone who acts “naturally” in the street may be immoral” (quoted in ‘Wittgenstein’s Vienna’ by Allan Janik and Stephen Toulmin).

Bit snobby that, I reckon. So now we have a big gap between all previous western music that could be enjoyed by plebs and posh alike, and this new music that’s strictly for not just those in the know, but those capable of knowing. Training can help with gaining this understanding to a degree, but it is nonetheless required in the first place for the vast majority of people in a way that’s not half as important with tonal music, and there are limits on how far you can go with it unless you’re naturally gifted with a clear inner ear.

But surely can’t regular, common people get into atonal stuff without formal training if they want to? OK, so they won’t have all the training to understand it ‘properly’ but can’t they still ‘get’ it in their own way? As mentioned above, the untutored can still intuit to some extent the toings and froings of the music, the way it’s orchestrated, its internal dynamics – everything apart from the actual music in fact.

This is where it gets interesting. (To me, anyway.) (And if you’re not sure, keep going.)

In the 60s the psychologist Robert Zajonc discovered that repetition makes people like things more when they encounter them repeatedly – his term was ‘the mere exposure effect’. It can apply to anything from music to shapes to pictures, and it consists of a ‘misattribution’ of perceptual fluency (i.e. the improved ability to ‘get’ whatever it is) to the object itself – people will say ‘oh that’s a nice triangle’ when in fact they’re actually finding it extra-nice because they’ve seen that triangle before. Nothing’s actually different about the triangle, but the perceiver’s mind thinks it’s better somehow due to the repetition.

We now put atonal music in context. You can imagine me moving my hand rightwards at this point if you like, like the Philosophy Lecturer at the birthday bash. (It’s my right hand because I’ve got a putative marker pen in my left hand and I’m stood in front of an imaginary whiteboard. In front of a large, eager-to-learn audience, natch – let me have my fantasies! Anyway.) Researchers such as the ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl have found that repetition is one of the few musical universals, found in music throughout the world, but repetition will start to trigger tonality in the mind. More on this in a bit.

Another universal feature of music is some kind of tonality. Scales may have different numbers of notes but they always have an octave that’s divided up into those notes. When you double the frequency of a sound, it will go up an octave, becoming paradoxically the same note yet higher. Halve the frequency and it’s the same note but lower. There is no escape from this. You can divide the octave in various different ways, from the pentatonic scale with 5 notes (as found in Auld Lang Syne, the black notes on a piano, or a lot of Chinese music) through to various Arabic scales with 24 notes, but the octave is always the same note but higher or lower. It’s outside any particular culture.

It’s also a mathematical fact. This is part of the deepest mystery of music – it’s allied with maths. And maths has a strange effectiveness in nature despite being somehow independent of it. 2+2=4 eternally, but if you have 2 of any object and add another 2 of those objects, you will have 4 of those objects right here in our timebound material world. How you label the objects, how you decide to group them, is up to you, but you can’t escape the mathematical truth. You can’t say 2 goats and 2 chickens is 4, but 2 goats and 2 llamas is 5 – that would stop you from being able to use numbers at all.

It can be more complex than this, as a quick look at imaginary numbers will show. These were first mentioned by Hero of Alexandria back in the 1st century CE, then seem to have escaped notice until 16th century Italy, when certain adumbrations that they might be a thing began appearing amongst mathematicians. Of course, it was humans beginning to notice them, so there was a kickback – they were regarded as weird and/or useless, and the very term ‘imaginary’ was coined by Descartes as an insult. They became mathematically respectable in the 18th century thanks to the Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler, but still remained in the world of maths. Yet over 100 years later when radio was invented imaginary numbers turned out to be essential for modelling the behaviour of oscillating circuits. Here they now were, amongst us on earth in the most practical way. And after that, they turned out to be a key feature of the wave function equations of quantum mechanics, which is notorious for working incredibly accurately in practice even if nobody’s quite sure what it’s all about. Here are imaginary numbers again, now part of a realm of science of huge practical use but also with a tinge of the mystical that nobody can quite get to properly go away. Not bad at all for the concept of a square root of a negative number.

Imaginary numbers are also involved, in a roundabout way (so to speak), with Fourier transformations (which also have their place in the wave function equations too). If you check the wiki page here you’ll see the very first sentence refers to music. (And that’s all you need to check for the purposes of this essay, you might be relieved to hear.) Maths and music are intimately entwined, and thus is infinity brought through to our finite lives. And for some reason we love this rather a lot – it’s not trivial. Which is in itself highly suggestive.

Atonal music does of course have octaves – and it still has 12 notes, just like tonal music. (Hence its confusing alternative description as 12-tone music.) So what’s the problem? Here we are with your 12 tones, just like all the rest of our western classical music, that ‘tempered scale’ that Schönberg said was so essential to familiarise yourself with. OK, so no harmony or chord progressions or anything but it’s still mathematical isn’t it?

Well. In 1995 the musical psychology researcher Diana Deutsch discovered something called the speech to song illusion. To experience it is quite something, so please do spare yourself a minute to check it:

It’s 54 seconds long. If you’re finding yourself unable to wait that long you need to have a word with yourself. Remember you’re up and about for 16 hours a day and that’s 57,600 seconds – so why are you chomping at the bit and desperate to ‘get on with it’ over a 54 second recording? Especially bearing in mind that if you can be bothered to listen to it you’ll be rewarded with something quite weird and brilliant.

Apart from the immediately striking effect of the illusion, it has another odd aspect. Once you’ve heard the selected phrase as music, there’s no going back – if you go back and listen to the spoken words in their original context, when the speaker reaches the selected phrase she suddenly seems to break into song. If you hit replay on the video, you’ll find Diana apparently starting so sing ‘sometimes behave so strangely’ even though you know she’s actually just saying it – but now it’s been repeated, you will never hear it as anything other than a tune again. (And since researching this article I’ve found myself a few times singing/humming the ‘sometimes behave so strangely’ tune as I potter about the house.)

The wiki page is here, and if you briefly look further down the page you’ll see that the composers mentioned all write tonal music that is high art yet still accessible. But it’s not just classical composers, though – in the world of popular dance music known as ‘tech house’, back in 2005 a producer called Da Sunlounge released a track called ‘Whore House’ featuring dialogue from a ‘low budget independent adult-themed art film’, as it were, which uses the speech to song illusion to quite amusing effect, looping the phrase ‘I don’t know what to do I love you so much’, whereupon it turns into a melody. (It’s on YouTube.) (And it’s a ‘banging tune’ as I believe the current modern vernacular parlance would have it.) (And yes, back in my DJ-ing days it went down really well the one time I played it out.)

Repetition works like this for non-speech sounds, too. When I was little I found the garden gate made a squeaking noise that turned into a sad song if I kept opening and closing the gate. I found it fascinating, and would get lost in moving the gate backwards and forwards, listening to the short repeated melody. (One day my Mum found me doing that and I was all embarrassed – something she still remembered 40 years later when I happened to mention it in conversation.)

Crucially, the speech to song illusion is experienced by both trained and non-trained people – it’s innate, a part of nature, just as we are, just as the octave and tonality are, just as maths is.

It gets better. Researchers at the music cognition lab at the University of Arkansas played participants in a study excerpts of atonal music by various composers such as Luciano Berio and Elliott Carter some of which had been doctored by having random bits taken out of context and repeated. If the music had been tonal that would be a pretty awful thing to do, making a nonsense of the whole structure, the development of the composition, cutting off melodies mid-flow and generally messing it all up. What actually happened, however, was that the listeners in the study consistently found the altered excerpts more enjoyable, more interesting, and more likely to have been written by a human rather than a computer. The participants were standard undergraduates with no musical training, so showing no bias due to that training.

So we know that repetition changes our response to music, and in addition to that there is that inescapable way that we have scales based on octaves.

We can now see more clearly what’s really going on when people outside the gifted musical elite listen to atonal music. Anybody who’s heard a particular atonal composition before will almost certainly be hearing it in a different way due to its repetition – and repetition tends to make things tonal and more enjoyable to listen to due to the mere exposure effect. If non-elite listeners are hearing atonal music they haven’t heard before, they’re just kidding themselves. That sort of listening will be instead through the usual aesthetic assessment of loud/soft, fast/slow, high/low, the timbre of the instrumentation etc, but devoid of any real musical appreciation – it’ll be all the stuff apart from the actual notes.

But how come there are all these concerts and stuff with jabby pointy music without any tunes even though hardly anybody can understand the music in the way its composers intended? The research mentioned above strongly suggests it’s emperor’s new clothes. But of course some people like to be seen being cultured and going to ‘high culture’ concerts. Going to concerts of ‘difficult’ music is a good way to show your proper bien pensant credentials. None of that Classic FM stuff for me – I like it without tunes! And I want that to be a matter of public record! This is one curious side-effect of this new, music for the elite – a public side-effect.

Maybe I’m being a bit of a meanie here. Humans are inherently tonal, and they’re inherently social. Music has always had a strongly social aspect, and there will always be musical gatherings of some sort, including ones where people get to be visibly ‘cultured’. And gatherings where people go to take bucketloads of ecstasy and get to be visibly very sweaty indeed.

Around the world repetitive/tonal music has a communal aspect whether part of ritual, rave, celebration, or a coming together involving all these things. Over here in the west, raves are particularly notable for the repetitive aspect of the music – the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 refers to such rave music as ‘sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats’. (Which solemn legalese inevitably led to a fair bit of humorous piss-taking on the rave scene.) The repetition in dance music is particularly turbocharged (including in terms of sheer volume) and the direct effect on your mind is quite something. Why was music like this created? It might drive a lot of people round the bend, but it was clearly fulfilling a need to some extent.

The foundations of all music throughout the world are based on laws of nature, maths, the strange link between maths and nature, and our connected innate tendency to create tunes out of repetition. There’s no escaping the whole double the frequency and you get an octave up thing. But if you want to truly understand atonal music on its own terms, you have to make a determined effort to leave all that behind. The octave has to be allowed, but it has a kind of open emptiness to it, and the lack of tonal harmony in atonal music stops it from speaking directly.

But music and philosophy are part of all of our lives. They exist in that context. We now appreciate more than ever before that ‘ordinary’ people are profound. Snobbery has been brought out into the open in a way that it never was before. So by all means do the training, but bear this in mind: that somebody with no formal musical training can write an amazing, and entirely original, 3 minute song that nobody else has ever written before – a unique take on music and life that becomes enormously popular – but no academic philosopher or ‘plinky plonk’ composer can do this.

In the old days music was for everybody, before a new music solely capable of appreciation by elites was invented behind closed doors. Philosophy was more for those with an education, but of course there used to be a lot of churchgoing, which is where certain non-shallow ideas of ethics and morality, of how to live your life, would be promoted, both in scripture and sermon. So-called ‘ordinary’ people could find depth in that. They could find depth in political ideas, too – it didn’t have to be religious stuff. Philosophy was thus still found amongst the plebs, and music was still around amongst them too, all part of their inbuilt human appreciation of tonality.

Pop philosophy’s around now, of course, but a lot of it’s so bland – the equivalent of AOR. It’s part of this dull granola-with-non-dairy-milk-for-breakfast humanism that for some reason seems to be popular these days. Comfort philosophy for frazzled, overworked, overstressed victims of the bastardry inherent in the neoliberal machine. Understandable, but ultimately not enough.

Of course, as the Philosophy Lecturer intimated in the pub that night, there’s a place for the long-winded, difficult stuff – I’m not arguing with him on that one. But the difficult stuff is so remote. Postmodern philosophers in particular seem to waffle on (even as they talk about pop culture) in a way that is curiously reminiscent of the fiddliness for fiddliness’ sake, the inability to accept that there might be a point to reach, the pretention, shown by the prog rock titans of the 70s. And unlike the prog rockers they don’t even have elves in their books. Some people do like it like that, naturally – there’s a big market for noodly jazz and the like – and like the people who dig Hegel or postmodern philosophy, it’s what they’re into. And of course it’s possible to like both tune-free improv that goes on and on and on, and 90 second long speedcore punk, er, ‘songs’ (or maybe ‘intensely focused outbursts’ is a better word).

But while music had the whole punk reaction thing, this never happened in the world of philosophy. It seems long overdue. Philosophy, like music, is part of who we are, and I can’t help but think that philosophy could do with its punk moment. We need something with that wild energy and pure originality that isn’t only understandable by a gifted elite but also by others without training with whom it resonates powerfully, with depth but a unified, coherent intensity that sparks passion. The ultimate punk philosophy would be understandable by that elite as well as everybody else, in various ways, on different ‘levels’ if you like.

And it would have a communal aspect, like music. How could this be, though? Pop philosopher Alain de Botton put forward the idea for an atheist temple in the City of London precisely because the fading out of organised (western) religion has created a dearth of places for people to come together and ponder humanity’s deeper aspects. (Interesting article by John Gray here complete with inevitable angry, shouty, and to be fair occasionally insightful comments.) Of course the temple was bollocks. But where is that vibey, accumulated-weight-of-history public arena for philosophy? Can we even have one? And what could contemporary philosophy learn from today’s music that might give it the necessary jolt to start reconnecting with more people?

Maybe philosophy needs to discover, or rediscover, a kind of ‘repetition’. And maybe that repetition should engage with a philosophical ‘system of chords and harmony and counterpoint’, whatever that could be.

Because of this intense engagement with tonality, and the whole system of harmony and counterpoint built on those foundations, music has this remarkable widespread power that’s rarely there in academic philosophy. The power of tonality that most music uses would appear to be an inherent part of what it is to be human. The research into this (as for example mentioned above) tends to view it all in neurological terms but I think it’s much deeper than that. Still, could there be a way nonetheless of doing neurological research with regard to philosophy?

Maybe there’s a way through this, though, without having to resort to brain scans and the like (which neuroscientist/philosopher Raymond Tallis, who I do rather admire, regards as modern-day phrenology). Three short words sum it up:

Less is More.

That’s it. This principle is particularly powerful when applied to music. Depth may be found in simple music. (Again I refer to the User Illusion analogy).

On top of all that, the complexity that music speaks to can be within the listener as much as the music.

‘Less is More’ intimates a way in which complexity and simplicity play off each other, with the artistry somehow combining the best of both. An earlier version was ‘ars est artem celare’ – the art is to conceal the art. Between the simple and complex, partaking of both while being ultimately neither, art has a liminal quality, a quality of moving between the higher and lower – which was also a key aspect in ancient Greek philosophy. The liminal is often depicted as having a certain twilit, dusky mysteriousness to it (see for example A Liminal Tale). But the liminality of the complexity/simplicity interplay in music is of a different sort – it brings forth a radiant light that reaches deep into our psyche and which does amazing things there. It would be great if philosophy could find its way back to being like this again.

It’s not as if the world of classical music took to atonality in a huge way, anyway. Debussy was the initiator here, writing uniquely evocative music in the late 19th century entirely apart from the ‘official’ ways of classical music that nonetheless really communicated with audiences. (And it does sound rather nice too.) Neoclassicists such as Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Hindemith, Ravel etc also stayed with tonality and wrote music often more like new wave – smart, dry, ironic, preppy and attitudinous – or sometimes like post-punk – moody, sensuous, atmospheric.

There was a distinct tang of ‘less is more’ to the neoclassicists. But starting in the early 60s a new, substantially more full-on Less Is More began appearing. We now saw the rise of the minimalists, starting with the original drone master La Monte Young then burgeoning with his pupil Terry Riley, then Steve Reich and Philip Glass, Eliane Radigue, Charlemagne Palestine and so on. As non-classical music is generally thought of as being ‘simpler’ than classical, a quick look at minimalism is in order as it’s both ‘simple’ and classical.

Minimal music seems to come in two basic flavours. With drone, you start to become aware of the most tiny details in the music and they become hugely significant. Here, the deep information is more somehow between the music and the listener, triggered by the composition and the way the listener’s mind behaves, but it is still there nonetheless. Compare this with all the different forms of popular music which come from certain ways of being in society and then resonate with listeners who are psychologically primed to find it speaks to them – not all the complexity is necessarily in the music, and neither need it be all in the listener, but a certain level of complexity has to somehow be there in the artist-listener relationship, and there has to be a certain (concealed) artistry in the music. Again, consider how this might relate to philosophy.

Meanwhile, the other type of minimalism features enormous amounts of… repetition. Repetition again.

When I was a kid we had a Dansette record player, and every now and again a record would get stuck when it was playing. I found it first hilarious then fascinating when one of, say, my dad’s country and western songs would start looping, transforming suddenly into something fabulous and exotic, a bright new music limned with light from an unworldly realm. I felt the change from ‘standard’ music to a mantra was really important somehow, and incredibly satisfying to hear.

Repetition is perhaps in a way the timebound version of the octave – it’s the same thing again, but because it’s again it’s another instance of the same thing. The same but different. With sound, the effect is powerful. And of course Eastern philosophies use mantra specifically to get the mind out of its usual, timebound way of being. There’s a connection here between philosophy and (innately musical, innately tonal) repetition.

Both repetition and drone have the same effect – of changing time perception. If you do anything at all regularly for any reasonably long period of time, you will notice after a while that your time perception has markedly changed. The one that got me was when I used to post a lot on an online discussion forum every day for years. Searching through my posts or old discussion threads to check stuff, posts I thought I’d made recently turned out to be 10 years old, stuff I thought was old turned out to be quite recent. It was really weird to have my sense of time subverted like that.

For some reason we find certain repetition-based ways of escaping time an enormous relief. There’s a bad version, of course, where for example sufferers from PTSD ruminate repetitively on their trauma. But the most promising therapy for PTSD these days involves therapy using psychedelic drugs such as psilocybin – and psychedelics are notorious for rendering the everyday sense of time meaningless.

In the world of music both ‘less is more’ and repetition (which as outlined above both inherently involve tonality), give us glimpses of a perspective on ourselves from outside, releasing us from our timebound nature. In practice – and it is in practice, not just stuck in the conceptualising intellect – they help us to understand, sense or remember, even if just a little, who or what we really are. Through time-based activities that subvert time we’re given a bit of relief, a bit of escape, and usually this is so therapeutic it’s sought after. Hence raves, and rave music. Contemporary philosophy might do well to learn from these things, to remember them.

Repetition is of course a key aspect of ritual. Remember again the coming together in ritual involving repetitive music. The sheer ubiquity of doing this shows that’s a key part of being human. Which makes me wonder. In the world(s) of philosophy there’s a lot of searching for and arguing about human nature, whether it exists, if so what it’s like and so on. Maybe philosophers haven’t been looking in the right places? And maybe when philosophers are being all postmodern and engaging with pop culture they might perhaps serve us all better by easing off on the longwinded guff and/or at least giving their ponderings some kind of recognisable ‘tune’, a riff even, some kind of pop aspect to make them more accessible to a greater number of people? That strikingly ironic difference between the windiness of the pomo philosophers and the neatness of pomo arts really points up what’s gone wrong with philosophy, or at least what needs to happen to get philosophy up and running again as a richer, more inclusive way of being human. The voice can philosophically ramble on and on, or it can sing.

Bereft of help from modern philosophers, everyday people stuck in the vicissitudes of our postmodern condition seek relief in pop philosophy books based on the ancients, who of course are still relevant, but without reading a ton of abstruse books they’re excluded from anything newer. Classical training seems to go with heights for some reason, whether it’s music or philosophy. But with philosophy the heights are remote and hard to access – you go up the mountain and disappear into the clouds and stay there. With (tonal) classical music, the music appears amongst us on earth, trailing clouds of its almost uncanny glory – that curious way it’s both mathematical-analytic and super-sophisticatedly emotional.

The bodhisattvas of buddhism would vow to come back from the cloud-hidden peaks to help us in our vale of suffering. This is one reason why John Maus is my hero – he went up the mountain and came back down with a uniquely powerful music that somehow bridges the gap that opened up in classical music in the early 20th century. Replete with archaic musical stylings often from the late medieval/early renaissance period, his music is nonetheless totally of our time – and that juxtaposition of nowadaysness with the archaic is itself a powerful relief from the drudgeries of time. The way Maus effects this therapy combines intense intellectual firepower with a even more intense compassionate heartpower. (And it must be said some killer intense humour.) This is why JM came back down the mountain – life is hard, and compassion is urgently needed. Mausmusic is post-ironic.

Music is of human life, and exists in our human, social context, and can be such a powerful healer. Intellect is at its best when it’s in service of the heart – something too easily forgotten or even denied in present-day life. Indeed the heart is so often denigrated as being something sentimental, wayward, not to be trusted (see the first movement of this essay) but if the mind isn’t connected to the heart, to compassion, it can give birth to monsters.

From the subjective, phenomenological viewpoint amidst which we live our lives, atonal music and analytical philosophy both represent a kind of striving, also found in science, to delineate a ‘pure’ objectivity that can actually never be known directly precisely because subjectivity is primary. But the ‘misattribution’ of the object referred to by Zajonc is actually its completion in mind, the true reality, and this goes for music and philosophy and even science. (It’s a shame that crystal-bothering new agey types got in there early with quantum mechanics, as since the turn of the millennium ever more sophisticated experiments have shown that actually there isn’t an objective reality after all. Scientists suggest ever more desperate possibilities of loopholes in the experiments, and in answer ever more powerful new experiments close those loopholes and confirm the lack of an objective reality. Eventually, this will permeate through to society. Or will it? Are these profound discoveries destined to remain the ‘atonal music’ of science, only known by the elite? Right now, who knows.)

As science, art and philosophy reach the borders of the humanly knowable, they all start bending out of shape, and splintering. Science becomes string theory, or blossoms into pseudoscientific metaphysical ramblings about multiverses, art becomes broken, splintered, abject, philosophy becomes an unending pointless rambling.

It’s getting late. This essay is becoming a rambling, showing a certain noodling improv quality despite my best efforts to keep things interplaying amongst each other in a neat, zingy resonating way. For sure, some noodling’s fun, but I don’t want to ‘do a Derrida’ and end up back in the clouds as the reader’s eyes glaze over. And I want at least somebody to read this all the way through.

So. I say again, the intellect needs to be connected with the heart. And with the heart primary, not the head. All the things that really matter in life are imponderables of the heart such as love, meaning, time, friendship, kindness, humour, happiness, grief and that indefinable something that you find in yourself when you work through it – the sort of things where you somehow know what they are until the intellectual mind tries to codify them, to pin them down. When the analytical intellect finds itself suffused with the imponderable, there is both simplicity and complexity, and when they’re properly getting on with each other we have proper art. Music that touches us, of course, is of the heart and thus one of those most important, indefinable imponderables. With the heart firing on all cylinders, the intellect is freed from the drudgery of being in charge, something it ultimately isn’t cut out for in any event, and with that freedom it feels a huge burden lift, and it dances joyfully, allowed to be itself for a change.

Curiously, the Philosophy Lecturer’s name that Saturday night down the pub was Arthur, a name shared by one of the philosophical greats known for his pessimism and for really, really hating Hegel with a borderline scary passion. Old Arthur I’d need to check more fully, though to be fair he certainly had ‘tunes that you could whistle’ in the form of very many often rather droll quotes and indeed his guide to winning arguments, which is still as relevant in the internet age as it was when he wrote it, plus ça change. But in any event I’m really grateful to the young Arthur who got me thinking so fruitfully that sunny summer night. Cheers!

The Night of the Hand Grenades

Now that I think about it, ‘Hand Grenade’ isn’t the most reassuring nickname for a cider-based drink. This hadn’t occurred to me back in 1984 during my first term at Surrey University when I first heard about a cider house in Godalming called the Ram that sold these things, part of student lore, passed down from year to year.

The discovery of the Ram is shrouded in mystery – it wasn’t somewhere a Surrey student would happen upon on a standard pub crawl. You had to catch a suburban stopping train south out of Guildford and get off at the next stop, then walk for a quarter of an hour or so through a housing estate until you reached a T junction at the end of a particular road, then swing left down a track at the end of which was The Place Of The Hand Grenades. It was a rather nice 16th century thatched cottage with flagstone floors, a log fire in winter, and a large beer garden that was actually a garden. It did nice homely pub food too, such as macaroni cheese. And I’m pretty sure the word ‘gastropub’ didn’t exist when we used to go there. No quasi-‘authentic’ fripperies served on roofing tiles. Alas, it was converted back to residential use in 1999 – a sad fact I only discovered when I was floating the idea of going back for just one Hand Grenade for old times’ sake with a friend.

Which brings me to the next thing about these mysterious and powerful drinks – the usual maximum in one session was 2. I was of course a massive pisshead in my first year at uni (and to be fair, my second, third and fourth years too) and didn’t quite understand why this might be so. A mere 2 pints on a night out? I found out why quite early on when a group of us were taken to the place of legend by an initiate. It wasn’t a tale of grim drunken excess either – it was simply that 2 was indeed enough for a hugely entertaining night out, even for booze-hardened 18-year-olds.

And it wasn’t because they were massively strong either – a key counterintuitive feature of this particular charismatic admixture of zymurgically enhanced liquids. The Hand Grenade consisted of a Bulmers No. 7, a still cider that came in small bottles that looked a bit like a kind of monochrome Victorian Babycham complete with foil around the cap, topped up to a pint by an on-tap fizzy Bulmers. That’s it. That’s all it was. The No. 7 was pretty strong but not that strong, somewhere around 8% ABV. The topup was the green brand draught Bulmers at the bar, probably around 6%. There was a red branded one but for some reason that wasn’t the required ingredient. I can’t see that the ABV of a pint of this stuff would’ve been any more than say 7% tops, but clearly in the Hand Grenade there was some kind of synergistic molecular interaction in a previously-undiscovered way that created novel effects not normally associated with alcoholic inebriation. There was an exalted exhilaration, a joyously disinhibited flight into higher, undefined states of consciousness that could be accessed by no other means. I wish scientists had done some research on this – I feel it could’ve resulted in a great boon for mankind in some way that I can’t quite describe right now.

After a few visits to the Ram, I found that in fact I could in fact handle 3 in one night. I was perhaps helped in my confidence to do this by the incredible fact that I never had a hangover after a night out there. Actually never. Even though my liver in those days was but young and fresh, my first year at uni introduced me to some of the most supremely putrid alcohol comedowns of my life, and there’s a long list of drinks I haven’t touched since the mid 80s purely because I fucked myself up on them so totally and was so devastated by the aftermath, even just thinking about the smell of them still makes me feel queasy. But I had no hangovers with Hand Grenades. Strange but true. Truly this is a mysterious world.

A key aspect of being human, of course, is that urge to go further, to explore and experiment, to take things to the next level. It’s why Everest was conquered, why the atom was split, why people put videos of themselves eating 100 mini chocolate swiss rolls in under 3 minutes on Youtube. And part of the legend of the Ram was that a couple of years before we came to Surrey a postgrad music student, a Scottish (church) organist no less and definitely fond of his booze, had managed to down 9¾ in one session, a record.

This is where Davie comes in. Davie was Scottish too, a Glaswegian trumpet player from the schemes doing his MMus and interestingly also quite fond of a drink. Which is apparently a bit of a thing about Scottish people, and musicians in general, and in particular brass players. So they say. So perhaps it was no great surprise when the idea appeared that Davie might well have a go at breaking the record.

A plan was drawn up. Phil (nowadays the CEO of a well-known Scottish ultra-high-level hi-fi company) was to accompany Davie and stay sober, drinking only unfermented apple juice in order to keep a true tally for the records. There was a timetable, starting with 4 HGs in the first hour, then one every 30 minutes, then one an hour, until 10 had been achieved.

(Phil was from a strict Scots Presbyterian background and his mother just happened to work at the bank where he held his account. One day on the phone she mentioned that there seemed to be an awful lot of cheques he’d written out to ‘Unwins’ and asked what that was. Phil told her it was the name of the university bookshop, and she believed him. But anyway…)

This was all quite exciting, and a few us decided to tag along. One of whom was an, erm, Scottish trombonist called Grant.

The summer of 1985 was pretty grim, more like late September most of the way through, and it was on a cold, grey afternoon in June that we made our way to the Ram. This was still in the days where pubs shut between 1 and 3, so we got there around mid-afternoon. This would allow Davie plenty of time to reach the summit – a sensible move no doubt.

Davie had a classic way of drinking where decorum was maintained at all times, no matter how much alcohol had been consumed. A long-standing habitué of schemie pubs, he did an incredible pub singer impression, but only when sober. I never actually saw him drunk as such although if you looked really closely certain subtle signs could be seen, like a tinge of purple to the face. The dry Glaswegian humour would remain intact, as indeed would Davie’s general sociability, throughout the night. Usually.

I remember Phil with his small flip-top notebook, pen in hand, as we sat indoors, out of the cold. And I remember Phil asking Davie, who’d gone a bit quiet, if he’d perhaps like something to eat. Davie had finished HG number 6 at this point. And I remember a very nice homemade macaroni cheese being brought to the table in an oval earthenware pot. And I remember Davie, sat upright, silently staring into space, most of the macaroni cheese uneaten, placidly hiccupping some of it back up, a long slow drool of saliva dangling from his chin. This is when we realised something had gone wrong. Davie remained silent when asked if he’d like to go home. It was decided to treat this as a ‘Yes’. Phil, not a man of bulky stature, now had to get a suddenly catastrophically drunk Davie home, which proved tricky as his charge was having difficulty staying upright, which in turn made walking a bit of a challenge. Their journey back to Farncombe station was by all accounts (i.e. Phil’s) a bit of an ordeal, and took far longer than it should.

So there were were: me, Grant and my friend James, around teatime, not too pissed, still up for a night out. Which is where Alfred Hitchcock comes in. Back in the 1920s his screenwriter Angus MacPhail invented the concept of the MacGuffin – “an object, device, or event that is necessary to the plot and the motivation of the characters, but insignificant, unimportant, or irrelevant in itself” (it says here on Wikipedia), and Hitchcock adopted it for his films. I don’t think it’s entirely fair to refer to Davie as an object, device or event – he’s all of those things of course, but he’s a unique human being, greater than the sum of his parts. But he’s nonetheless the MacGuffin in this tale.

Grant now takes centre stage. Six foot two and no doubt tidy in a fight, very physically fit with plans to become a firefighter, Grant, like the rest of us, was having a great time. Grant was very happy indeed. Really having fun. We all kept drinking. More Hand Grenades. Things became vague. At one point Grant was out in the beer garden wandering about asking other people for sips of their cider. And he got chatting to a group of road workers from Guildford. Of course it’s nice to get chatting to new people. Usually.

I don’t know why – Hand Grenades I suppose – but Grant told these guys there was a rugby club drag disco happening that night on campus. I also don’t know why – but again I suspect Hand Grenades – the roadworkers were really, really interested in going. They were quite persistent about this. No doubt they were New Men, in touch with their feminine side, and perfectly comfortable at a student disco surrounded by mindblowingly pissed rugger buggers dressed unconvincingly as women. I’d seen the Rugby Club after matches in the student bar quite often – they actually did drink piss, their own and each others’, and at least one night one of them shat in a pint glass. I know this because I was there when it happened (though not for very long, as we all ‘made our excuses and left’ when we saw what was happening). These are the sort of people that I strongly suspect are not that good at being ladylike.

And so it came to pass that throwing out time came. I’d had 4 HGs by this point. Grant had had about 7 or so – more than Davie. And the roadmen were coming back to campus with us of course, for the drag disco they were so excited about. What could possibly go wrong?

What indeed. As we tottered back to the station, I became aware at some point that my chin was in contact with the ground. I’d apparently said something to one of the roadworkers, and got a slap for my troubles. I think. What I do remember, because it kind of stood out, was Grant alternating between full-on Glaswegian ‘I’ll fucking take yers all on ya bastaaz” then “Nah, you’re me best mates, you’re alright” when our new friends geared up to beat the shit out of him, over and over again, all the long, long road back to Farncombe station. I think there were about 4 or so of them, and one Grant. And of course me and James, definitely not tidy in any sort of fight, and just starting to feel a little bit concerned.

As it would appear, was Grant. We were on the 5 minute train journey back to Guildford complete with frightfully rough sorts who worked with tarmac when he realised what he’d got us into. Luckily he came up with a plan, and leant over to whisper to me and James “When we get out at Guildford, when I say run – run!”. A simple, and to be fair, the only possible plan. It needed fleshing out a bit on detail, perhaps, which is why when Grant shouted “Run!” me and James followed his lead without hesitation and jumped off the platform at Guildford station to run over the tracks to safety. I actually remember quite clearly watching out for the third rail, and gingerly stepping over it before pegging it to a chicken wire fence by the carpark which somehow I got over in a flash with no bother before running all the way back to campus without looking back. Given that chicken wire fences certainly seem to be at least partly designed that way to be utter bastards to climb over, I do feel that this is one of the Hand Grenade effects scientists should be looking into. It could be a breakthrough in the field of anti-gravity if nothing else.

Late next morning, I got up (without a hangover of course) and popped over to see how Grant was. I was rather surprised to see him wearing a suit, but before I could ask why he explained that he’d just been to church for the first time since he was a kid. And before I could ask about that, he explained that they have overhead electrics on the trains in his part of the world – no third rails. He had no idea when he was drunkenly clambering over the tracks the previous night. So for some reason this necessitated a trip to church, I think to say ‘sorry about that and thank you for still being alive’ to God. I’m not aware of Grant going back to church ever again, mind. But it does show how shaken up he was the morning after our adventure.

(Phil later told me that after he’d got Davie to bed, Grant appeared and began throwing around the furniture in the communal kitchen, then spent some time getting various people up against the wall giving it the whole “do you want some, eh, EH?” shtick before he finally passed out, to the immense relief of all concerned.)

As if to “ram” the point home, a couple of weeks later a student who’d come back from a session at the Ram climbed off the platform when he got back to Guildford and put his ear to the rail “to see if he could hear any trains coming”. And got electrocuted. He lived, but with life-changing injuries – third degree burns, some of his intestines removed, permanent scarring, that sort of thing.

I went to The Ram a total of 10 times in my first year, and never went back. I just didn’t feel like it. Nobody else did, either. It just felt right to leave it at that somehow. I think my last ever trip was at one point after my exams when I got a few friends up from Brighton all of whom refused to believe me about the power of the Hand Grenade, and none of whom managed to finish even 2. I could happily down 4 by this point – a real achievement for sure. It took discipline and commitment, that did. In my second year word went round that the Ram had been shut down by the police, though a google search about 10 years ago showed comments on a lad culture forum from the late 90s mentioning Hand Grenades and their lethality in awed and amused tones, so it had clearly reopened at some point. Even those comments have vanished now. So this tale now takes on a certain melancholic air, as the last record of the Lore of the Hand Grenade. The Ram now is a home, no doubt worth a fortune, unlikely to ever be converted back into a cider house, and Bulmers no longer make No. 7, a key ingredient of this drink now destined to pass into legend…

A Liminal Tale

Both in man and in the universe, in the microcosm and the macrocosm, there exists the world of the Intermediate, transmitting and receiving between levels of being. It is not simply that Plato sees the universe as “three-leveled” – earth, heaven and the intermediate realm, the realm of the daimon, the link (syndesmos). It is often put this way mythically in order to be felt – in order that the idea will guide man’s conduct, rather than engage the activities of his intellectual faculties. Ideas cannot guide man’s conduct, cannot point towards meaning, unless they are felt in the way and in the manner in which real feeling operates.

Jacob Needleman, The Heart of Philosophy


And so it came to pass in June 2013 that I was made redundant. I could sense it coming, but my intuition was telling me that a lot more than just that particular shock was coming down the line. In May I’d had a short but vivid dream where I was looking through a window at a menacing jet-black sky even though it was daytime, and I knew when I woke up that the black portended death. An unshakeable fear came into my life, a fear I had to learn to live with but not cultivate.

This concept of inbetweenness… Plato called it metaxy, but I prefer the word liminal – it sounds nice, and it has a sort-of symmetry, a semi-symmetry, with the ls at each end and the i, m, n and a forming a kind of fence either side of the i in the centre.

We always have to somehow ‘try to get there’. Even if we rest, it’s just in order to gather ourselves before going back to the drive. But the mystery is that neither linear drive nor aimless wandering take us where we want to be deep down inside. And speed matters too – if we go too fast or too slow, we miss the core of it all. We still must keep going, though – we yearn to understand. Plato calls this eros, an inescapable urge, an unscratchable itch to find out what it’s all about, to seek Truth. In his Symposium he has the teacher of Socrates, Diotima, state that love is a daimon, a force between heaven and earth, transmitting and receiving between the two realms.

Music, of course, combines the objective and subjective, the rational and the intuitive, as I’ve written about here. In the West, we’ve had to (try to) go further, so we’ve invented atonality and various sorts of electronic musics, but there’s no escaping the objective fact that if you double a frequency you get the same note an octave higher. But how is it the ‘same’ note if it’s an octave higher? Well, quite.

That’s more Pythagoras than Plato though, so to de-digress… In 2013 my job was quite specialist and quite well-paid (by my standards at least) so of course I’d got used to that and lived somewhere reasonably nice in north London that was ridiculously expensive for what it was. I was able to pay off a credit card debt that had built up quite quickly in the early 00s when death and disaster first came to visit, and was enjoying the heady sensation of being debt-free. A kind of grounded stability was appearing in me and in my life for the first time in many years (or ever, really), but there was always that nagging sense of vulnerability as I knew that if I lost my job there weren’t many similar ones around I could apply for, and I had no career in the conventional sense. It didn’t bother me that much until the arrival of a new boss that gave all of us at work the skincrawls. We all suddenly developed forced smiles hiding the urge to get out of the immediate vicinity of that hard-edged energy and yukky forced positivity. Bad vibes properly began appearing in early 2013 – we all knew something was coming. And we were right.

When the shock hit, there was no particular place to look for anywhere else to work, and the normality that had been establishing itself in my life, normality in the sense of security, regular income, an ability to pay for somewhere to live, ended. It’s common to criticise normality as being something deadening, a kind of conformist flattening out of what it is to be human, but there are some basics that really do matter, that you really must have at a deep level of your humanity. But in June 2013, suddenly I found they’d vanished. And I couldn’t see a road in front of me. There was also the growing intuition that losing my job wasn’t the only harsh thing on the way.

So I’d go to Trent Park. I’d moved from south to north London specifically to be near it as I loved walking there. It’s a huge country park near Enfield, a few minutes’ walk north from Cockfosters tube at the end of the Piccadilly Line. As you walk up from the ornamental ponds at the park’s lowest point, you’re suddenly presented with a strikingly beautiful, very English pastoral landscape. And the whole place is a glory, and has a powerful Spirit of Place. Or spirits, even.

It’s a storied place, in various ways. During WW2 captured Luftwaffe pilots were kept in the country house, their conversations secretly recorded for intelligence purposes. Before the war, Sir Philip Sassoon, an ultra-uppercrust aristocrat, owned Trent Park for a few decades before he died in 1939. Visitors to the house when he lived there included Winston Churchill, GB Shaw, Rex Whistler, the Duke of York… not plebs, then. There will have been the lower orders there, of course, but not as guests.

Sir Philip apparently placed the three monuments he’d acquired for the park (the obelisk, the monument to Henry Duke of Kent and the column with a pineapple on top commemorating the Duchess of Kent) in a layout showing the proportions of the Great Pyramid at Cheops because of his interest in ancient Egypt. Which is the sort of thing you can do when you’re rich enough to buy Trent Park – no need to visit a garden centre like the common people. The obelisk is particularly striking, set at the top of a hill, at the head of an avenue of trees, facing the Georgian-style country house on the other side of the park where Sir Philip lived.

For years I would walk each weekend for a good long while through the park, amidst woodlands and meadows, pondering life and enjoying feeling better through being in nature. I’d try different routes now and again, exploring new parts of the park I’d somehow missed. But I found the most magical place there on a walk I’d made many times before, in the wooded area to the east of the obelisk. I just didn’t look to my left for some reason. Then one day I did, and there it so obviously was. Indeed, part of the mystique of Camlet is that many people walk in Trent Park for years before finding it, if they ever do. It’s a fenced off wooded glade, with two gates one each at the north and south. In the enclosure there’s a small island reached by a walkway surrounded by an algae-coated moat. It somehow doesn’t seem like the rest of Trent Park – it has its very own rather distinctive spirit of place. Or spirits, even.

Sir Philip spent time in archeological research with Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon in the Valley of the Kings and was present at the opening of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922. On his return he decided to excavate Camlet. The excavations were in the form of a star for some reason, which has led to murmurings about a possible interest in the occult. A huge drawbridge was discovered, out of proportion to the size of the present site, and thick flint walls resembling those of a castle. Some of the walls featured decorative tiling – not something you’d get on a building of purely functional use. Yet none of this is apparent if you go there now; there’s a different kind of feel to the place.

As I explored the island, I found altars, shrines, dreamcatchers hanging in the trees, charms, dedications, tokens of thanks, votive offerings, a labyrinth made of pebbles set into the ground. I took a photo of a particularly nicely-done shrine on my phone but when I went to show it to a work colleague it wasn’t there – I had the pictures before and after, but not the shrine.

Over time I developed a routine where when I got there I’d sit awhile on ‘my’ tree stump facing the island, soaking up the vibes and relaxing awhile. Then I’d walk round the island, ending up by the site of a well that legend has it contains a holy grail – or even the Holy Grail, some say. There was one particular bender shrine complete with a couple of small tree stump seats where I’d sometimes find a lantern still alight on the altar in the afternoon.

But it wasn’t just new age at Camlet. Back in the 80s a Hindu holy man from Kerala called Atmachaitanya had a vision of Camlet Moat, so he flew out there in the early 90s with a few acolytes to perform a sacred ritual at the well.

It’s just one of those sorts of places.

The reason I know its name is because on one visit I’d found fliers attached to the fence for a book called London’s Camelot and the Secrets of the Grail by an author called Christopher Street, an earth mysteries aficionado. Indeed, I saw him one morning on Camlet Island, stood next to a witchy woman with very long hair who appeared to be performing some kind of ritual as incense burned nearby. Somewhat incongruously, he was standing there wearing an anorak and holding a Tesco carrier bag – it didn’t seem to quite go with the general scenario. I know it was him because a few days later I went to a talk he gave and he came up to me and told me he’d seen me at Camlet the previous weekend.

I’d always wanted to go to Trent Park, to Camlet on a summer’s evening but the weather during my first summer in north London in 2011 wasn’t great, and summer 2012 was a quasi-apocalyptic washout followed by a few weeks of glowering, subfusc moodiness that resembled summer with the volume turned down. But in 2013 I finally got my chance, not least because I suddenly had a lot of spare time. After I’d been unemployed for a month or so, a heatwave hit, and I finally had my chance.

And on one scented summer night in July, something deeply Other played out. I reached Camlet as the sun was setting, silent gold painted on the bark of the trees as the dusk deepened, the only sound the rushing rustle of the trees. I sat on my usual ‘seat’, at last in this mysterious place in an ambiguous zone between night and day. I crossed over the walkway onto the island, visited the usual shrines, and walked back onto the enclosure of Camlet. I opened the gate and left, and was now between Camlet and Trent Park proper. I was in a large kind of walkway bounded by sparse bushes and ferns, one of many that criss-cross the woods in the park. As you walk back into the park, facing the country house, there are some grand old trees then suddenly you find yourself back out in the open air, looking out from the beautiful vista that you first saw arrayed in front of you on walking up from the ponds.

But before I got there, when I was still between Camlet and the open air, between day and night, between Camlet and the outside world, between jobs, and between secure places to live, between everything, I saw a movement in the ferns.

And into that gap between all the gaps walked a beautiful feline creature, 2 or 3 times the size of a domestic cat, with semi-circular ears, fur dark brown with mottled black marbling, face more like a leopard than a cat. And right there, for indeterminate time, for no time at all, we stared at each other, just a few feet apart. I looked into intelligent, alert black eyes that glistened in the half-light – eyes that were looking into mine. Two intelligences, one human, one feline… in mutual encounter. Then the ‘cat’ suddenly spun round on its hind legs in just the way that my beautiful little Jess used to when I gave her a treat she didn’t like, and casually moseyed its way through the ferns, back into the night. There was an impression of lithe, sleekly powerful yet effortlessly focused muscularity as it sauntered off – it clearly wasn’t overly bothered about its encounter with me. The ferns moved as it walked through them – this was a physical, solid creature.

I walked back down to the bottom of the hill and turned round to look at the obelisk, now silhouetted against an imperceptibly darkening post-sunset orange/dark blue sky, and a nightingale at the top of a nearby tree began its rollcall of exultations – the first time I’d ever heard its song in real life.

And then I went back to the temporary residence that I wasn’t going to be able to afford to live in much longer, which was a sort of home, for the time being

Punk Philosophy and Cheap Music: A Contrapuntal Essay

Strange how potent cheap music is

– Noel Coward

Back in the 90s I used to work for a musicians’ charity which had a number of visitors spread throughout England who used to visit beneficiaries in particular need. Because the visitors never normally meet each other, once a year a get-together would be organised for them to share experiences and ideas. At these meetings there would be a different guest speaker each year on various subjects that had relevance to the whole musician/music thing. The only one I remember now is a psychologist, who gave a talk on why musicians tend to be a bit ‘different’. Obviously there’s the whole thing about performance anxiety and associated substance misuse issues, and then of course the way that musicians tend to work at night and only ever meet other musicians which tends to reinforce their differentness, but there was a deeper reason behind it all – that musicians are trained over a long period of time usually starting in childhood to conceptualise and express emotion through technicality. The whole way music works, whether you’ve had classical training or not, is technical through and through, yet it’s in the service of expressing effectively infinite shades of emotion, and contrasts amongst emotions, and ambiguities of emotions in and amongst themselves.

Perhaps that’s why music is regarded as so particularly special – in music, both reason and feeling are perfectly in harmony (so to speak) because the way feeling is expressed inherently involves the technical. There are the 12 notes of the scale consisting of notes separated by semitones, major and minor keys (which come in three different sorts – modal, melodic and harmonic), different chords, different ways of sequencing those chords, different ways of changing key by manipulating those chords, ways of keeping one note going while everything else changes (pedal note, ‘sus’ chords), musical phrases, different ways of ending those phrases called cadences, rarities such as octatonic scales (which as the name suggests consist of only eight notes), and so on and on and on.

Then there’s the way all these aspects of music interact. Certain types of chord or chord progression have a ‘flavour’ or a vibe. That’s more of a building block used in the service of music, but you get the idea. Or to give another couple of examples, there are two possible forms of the Neapolitan sixth both of which have a strikingly fiery sound – because of the way Western music works, there can only be two forms of this chord that qualify as a Neapolitan sixth, no more. Regarding that wiki link, just cast an eye over the page as a whole, and note the sheer technicality involved – I’m not expecting anybody (including myself) to read it all the way through – then check the audio samples (apart from the first one, which is just a major triad and which appears to be there in error). The audio clips aren’t fantastic examples, but they will nonetheless show you, non-verbally a snippet of what this technicality actually refers to, albeit at a pretty much homeopathic level. Now consider a similar way of contrasting concept and reality.

Meanwhile, the augmented fourth interval might be ‘just’ at the midpoint of the octave, but to this very day we can see why back in the middle ages it earnt the name diabolus in musica, (and of course the acid techno crew do like to pop it in there amidst their 303 riffing, so it lives on today).

Meanwhile squared, the alternation between I and III chords is also very distinctive, sometimes heard in more commercial trancey dance music like you’d hear in Ibiza. And so on. And to repeat, this is just the rudimentary stuff – it’s taken far beyond this in most music. But the principle is the same – creating emotional effects through technical means. If you’re a musician from childhood upwards, then the sheer amount of hours spent training yourself like this will have a strong, permanent effect on your mind.

Meanwhile cubed, we find that however much we may be unaware of it, or aware of it, we are irresistibly pulled this way and that to what we subjectively ‘know’ is the case. Even if we’re trying to change mistaken or painful thoughts and feelings, we do this with an aim in mind we ‘know’ is right. We all have our individual worldview to which we are compelled, either naturally or through reasoning (or through telling ourselves that we come to our conclusions through reasoning, to be more precise). Whether we let go or work on it, we cannot escape some kind of overall view of life. There’s a distinct tinge of chicken/egg to all this. Our worldview may come before the way we conceptualise it, or the concepts may even change the way we think and feel, though the latter isn’t often as effective as people would like it to be. Some of us have the idea that clarity can be brought to the whole thing by reason, but the strict use of supposedly pure reason still somehow leads to all manner of different and often contradictory views, which shows that there is more to our minds, to our lives, than just reason. But to the extent that you identify with reason, make a long-term ironically-emotionally-charged investment in it, you are more likely to feel threatened by the idea that reason has limits, the more likely you are to try to stomp out unreason (while then realising, of course, that there’s a whole load of life-affirming stuff out there, like music, art and literature, that transcends reason – even though if you’re that besotted with rationality you’re going to (a) want to define transcendence and then (b) find that you can’t convincingly do so, while still nonetheless knowing what it is, which in itself is a bit of a sign, surely).

This distrust of feelings permeates our culture, which perhaps isn’t surprising as it goes back a long way. In medieval times there was a general concern about demons, both within and without. Supposedly along came the renaissance and blew all that away. But this is simplified to the point of wrongness. In his book Cosmopolis Stephen Toulmin writes of the birth of two humanisms in renaissance Europe. The first (‘humanism 1’), a humanism of Montaigne and Shakespeare, appeared in the 16th century. It is warm, and deeply interested in all the myriad ways of us lot, of all the things that we’re interested in, of how we place ourselves in nature and how we regard our mortality. Later, however, comes the rise of a second kind of humanism (‘humanism 2’), that of Descartes, top heavy on the rationality and down on the passions, and with a top-down view of the organisation of society. This is a humanism that seeks to suppress the emotions as inherently troublesome and suspect, that regards nature as deterministic and to be dominated, that regards pure reason as the ultimate arbiter of value. Toulmin makes a good case that this supposedly purely rational humanism actually arose in reaction to the atrocities of the Thirty Years War. But this very suppression has a tone, an approach, an aesthetic. It may speak of objectivity and rationality, but looked at in context, there’s more going on – a reaction to evil. And it’s suffused with that particular flavour – Newton’s clockwork, regularity everywhere, reason as King. Meanwhile, the humanism 1 of Montaigne and Shakespeare, devoid of this reactivity, has a warmth and a humanity to it that’s lacking in the later, supposedly ‘objective’ version. Though luckily in the world of music we’ve got Bach, with his simultaneous transcendence and humanity. Humanism 2 is above and beyond our lives. Humanism 1 is found persistently in music, through the centuries.

Here are the aspects of humanism 2 as outlined by Toulmin as they relate to Humanity:

  • The “human” thing about humanity is its capacity for rational thought and action
  • Rationality and causality follow different rules
  • Since thought and action do not take place causally, actions cannot be explained by any causal science of psychology
  • Human beings can establish stable systems in society, like the physical systems in nature
  • So humans have mixed lives, part rational and part causal: as creatures of Reason their lives are intellectual or spiritual, as creatures of Emotion they are bodily or carnal
  • Emotion typically frustrates or distorts the work of Reason; so human reason is to be trusted or encouraged, while the emotions are to be distrusted and restrained.

It has become commonplace to regard ‘feelings’ (however defined) as somehow suspect due to the rise of humanism 2, but even the decision to regard them in that way already happens after some kind of ‘feeling’ or aesthetic sense or hunch has been felt in the first place. And again, to the extent that you regard reason as primary you are going to be driven to fight against this, to tame that realisation somehow. And humanism 2 goes with a top-down organisation of both society and the individual. (There are also half a dozen beliefs listed by Toulmin pertaining to Nature that include the whole top-down hierarchy thing but that’s a whole other essay as it’s theist and we’ve supposedly done away with that sort of thing now, and that needs unpacking somewhere else.)

Just actually step back and watch the activities of philosophising. Everybody including non-philosophers does it, but how do we choose, or go for, or end up following any particular worldview? Intellect is involved for sure, but it’s always just part of an overall approach that has a tone, a mood, an aesthetic. For example, the existentialism of Sartre is very different indeed to that of Camus.

In the end, and inescapably so, we have to come to any worldview in this way that combines intellect and feeling, in a way that has an aesthetic, a way that is inherently phenomenological, a way that’s a living interplay between the intuitive tones of feeling and the technicalities of reason. And how we interact with philosophy, how we are when we’re doing so, becomes an inherent part of that philosophy. Pessimistic doom may form part of a feeling of bravery, of overcoming, or complete despair and defeat. Schopenhauer may make you depressed, or get you through depression and out the other side. It’s complicated – when we’re feeling down, we may need to somehow work through it by really getting into the darkness (by playing dark music for example), but the very next day we may need something soothing to take away the pain (by playing something beautiful). Two days in a row when you’re suffering, and the same piece of dark music that helped the first day makes it worse on the second. Thus it is with our worldview(s). But humanism 2, which is still everywhere after all this time, insists that things be neat and tidy. We must work on ourselves, tidying up our messiness. We must stick to a clearly-defined path. Or rather we feel we ought to try to, even though it never quite works out, because of those feelings hidden away.

A nihilist may quite enjoy it all, or sink into suicidal despair, or go wild with a strange mix of anger and passion as they rebel against the meaninglessness of life. And all of these different ways may be triggered by what reason regards as the same supposedly neutral ideas.

We’re not aware of this interplay, and so through humanism 2 type activity, we seek to order everything, to tidy ourselves up from the top down. ‘Tidy up’ is a phrasal verb, so nothing’s actually going upwards – but note anyway that conflict between the ‘up’ of tidy and the ‘down’ of top down. We end up constantly at war with ourselves, aiming for a complete, stable, satisfied certainty, which we can never attain but which we are impelled to chase even as it always eludes us.

As for the music of philosophy, it is always a negotiation between the urge to infinite analysis, and the urge to synthesise. Solve et coagula. In western music, the ne plus ultra of ‘analysis’ was Schönberg’s atonality. Pure atonalism was meaningless, however, so a strict system had to be imposed on it to ensure it avoided the tonal while still having structure in order to express music. Serial music could supposedly be read by those with the requisite standard of inner ear (actually really quite rare even amongst classically trained musicians) rather than listening to a recording of it. Everything in the mind in the head, nothing in the outside world. Humanism 2 (apparently) triumphant. Meanwhile, in philosophy the analytical urge bottomed out in logical positivism. And in both cases, although these schools still have some followers, this stuff is so lacking in something vital, so lacking in beauty, that life for the rest of us has moved on into more lively, fertile and vivid realms, realms that are nonetheless relatable.

This matters with life itself. Treating life as mere metabolism is the end result of the analytical (‘solve’) approach. We’re expected to believe that all our arts and sciences, all our social behaviours, are actually evolutionary strategies driven by genes – the tidiness of humanism 2. But life is what gave rise to this tone, or mode, not the other way round. Our human lives are special indeed, to give rise to these scientific ways of thought that tell us we’re valueless.

Meanwhile, philosophy, like music, is emotion and technique united, and it always has an aesthetic. And just as punk used simplicity to blast away old cobwebs of prog noodling and excess, this can be done with philosophy. In practice, this means resisting critiques of any philosophy that seek to isolate its ideas and push them into destructive analyses. A composer may write beautifully simple music with more depth than any rigorously 12-tone composer, and a philosopher may capture something by non-complex philosophical means that nobody else has managed to communicate in that way before. To take the analogy further, punk bands may only have 3 chords, but it’s what they do with them that counts. John Maus has said that he’s seeking a punk kind of philosophy but he’s been having difficulty working out how that could be done (while by the look of it actually doing this quite effectively).

Remember here the idea in The User Illusion, of simplicity that contains complexity within. We surely have heard those Bach compositions for keyboard or cello that are at the same time perfectly simple and yet utterly transcendent. And indeed we must’ve heard Teenage Kicks by the Undertones. What has the most power in art and philosophy is not a matter of bare complexity.

But in the world of academia, where are the philosophical ‘punks’? Where are the writers of ‘cheap music’ that nonetheless is uniquely potent? ‘Cheap’ music is popular because it speaks to people in a way other music doesn’t, and so often includes such feats of cleverness and inspiration. You can indulge in 12-tone music, or logical positivism, if you want, but they’re so remote from human life – they’re up there with the kings of the world of humanism 2. But both philosophy and music are better when intimately arising from and concerned with our human lives (by all means try to argue otherwise, and see where you end up). If people want to study the remote stuff, then obviously they should – but let’s keep it in perspective.

And let’s put it in social context. Philosophy is one of those things that has a particular placement at the centre of life, how we live, how things could be made better, what to do or not do, how to think. The continental stuff is more like prog rock, the analytical stuff is atonal. As with science, the powerful stuff tends to be simple but with hidden depth. Yet again, we refer to The Consciousness Illusion. This is why we want philosophy to be simple but powerful, simple but with hidden depth, simple but shaded with nuance – this is how philosophy gains power in the world, and speaks to people. The more people can relate to it, the more people it reaches, the more it inspires.

Or in other words – bollocks to academic philosophy.

Our reason tells us that philosophies are somehow reified, static, objective – but philosophy itself is never like this (and the attempt to make it so resulted in the tautological sterility of positivism). We’re never like this either. Furthermore, in our lives subjectivity is primal, not objectivity. So the bottom line is actually… music. It works out through time to express a drama. As does film – the other inherently time-based art. Indeed comparing life to the projection on a cinema screen is a common analogy in spiritual circles.

A certain vagueness is important here. The fecund vagueness that gives rise to reason, or indeed all the arts and sciences, contains these things within itself. But it’s only reason that insists on total clarity. And because this vagueness, these intuitions, these hunches are themselves not clear, reason goes off on a precision hunt which will never succeed as the harder you look, the more the clarity chimera heads for the horizon. New vistas always appear to be explored. We’re told that what we take to be solid matter is only 0.0000001% solid and this is always given as something amazing, with an implication that it explains something foundational about reality – but in that case, what’s that tiny solid percentage made of? That bit must be very special indeed seeing as despite being only 0.0000001% of reality it’s responsible for solidity, but this never seems to be addressed. Our attention is always drawn to the tiny percentage, instead of what it’s a tiny percentage of. We’re asked to focus on the emptiness. In due course, of course, attempts will be made to work this out, but what will those attempts lead to – a further reduction in the percentage, or something else that’s more really real?

In the reality of life, science has excellent (but not perfect) predictive power, but only that. It can be mindblowingly accurate beyond our ability to comprehend with measurement, but this has precisely and exactly nothing to do with any sort of meaning other than ‘was the prediction right or not?’. The confusion of measurement for meaning is scientism and it’s everywhere. Some people are so lost in it they even claim that scientism doesn’t exist, that it’s just a neurotic concept dreamt up by the woolly-minded. (Although a quick reference to the genetic fallacy can at least temporarily clear the air.) But the science that creates the treatment resulting in an all-clear for, say, a cancer patient means that the now ex-patient has more life to live – and it’s their life where the meaning is. And that life might include trying to make amends for being a bad parent, or for the effect your alcoholism had on your children, or the way you didn’t live up to your potential and whether you can do anything about that now, and so on.

Even stories such as ‘there is no overarching narrative’, or ‘life is meaningless’, or ‘the very multitude of contradictory knowings of life proves that none of those knowings are true’, represent such a knowing themselves – the result of feeling and intellect working together. So does taking an agnostic stance – and the sort of agnostic stance you take, the way you take it, will also have its own aesthetic. You will live your life in your particular tao, your own way. The way your mind works will create overall flavours, and each person has their own unique overall flavour. Reacting against the flavour will be done in your unique way. There is no escape. It feels that there is, though, but that very looseness of thought, that sense of freedom and space in our minds, is what enables us to then gravitate or work our way towards our individual, deeply-felt (and sometimes deeply-thought) view.

Any attempt at nihilism automatically assumes meaning.

Neither determinism or free will can adequately describe what’s actually happening as they are purely reason-based concepts. To the extent we think they are an adequate explanation, we are trapped in analytical intellect.

What you’re reading here is part of all this, too.


The User Illusion Analogy

The User Illusion by Tor Nørretranders is a high quality pop science book first published in Danish in the early 90s, then in English in the late 90s. It examines consciousness from the perspective of information theory and riffs in an original way on various implications that can (or could perhaps) be drawn from this approach. Despite the book jacket blurb, it doesn’t explain consciousness, but it’s an enjoyable, thought-provoking read, and it includes stuff about information theory that catches something metaphorically very vibey, very fruitful. If you’re interested, I’d recommend it, but read the Amazon reviews first, in particular a critical review on Amazon.com by a Joao Leao which I think is rather good. The two key things for me, my main (and lasting) takes from the book are that in terms of information processing conscious awareness is very low rate – 16 bits/second tops – and therefore something qualitative (subjective awareness) is slipping through the information theory (IT) conceptual net, but more positively, there’s something in IT that makes a nice, fruitful metaphor for pondering mind and creativity.

But what does IT say?

Lots. But the bit that’s important here is the idea of randomness, and how we know something even is random. The classic idea that catches unaware people out is tossing a coin. If you ask people not in on IT to imagine tossing a coin to write down a 0 for heads and a 1 for tails, they are very likely to write out a sequence that isn’t actually entirely random. This is because in real life when you toss a coin, sometimes you’ll get a whole load of heads or tails in a row, and if you don’t include sequences like that, your imaginary coin tossing session won’t be properly random after all. Randomness goes with entropy, with noise. Nørretranders gives the example of the information contained in dirty dishes – it’s just not interesting to us. We discard the unwanted information, the noise. (And do the dishes.) In IT the discarded stuff is called exformation.

There’s then the related idea of compressing information. The fraction 3/7 written in full continues forever – 0.428571428571428571… But if you write it as 3/7, that’s a whole lot less information. Note too that 3/7 is exactly right, whereas the decimal fraction can only ever be an approximation as it continues without end. Also, if you toss a coin (imaginary or otherwise) 12 times, that’s more information than 3/7. The coin tossing example reminds me of the more prolix French continental philosophers – lots of verbiage, not so much precision or clarity. It’s not so much that it’s meaningless (although sometimes I do wonder – see the Sokal affair), as the information is quite resistant to compression. It would be like a very lengthy decimal fraction that nonetheless can’t be compressed very much – 1,528,248/2,661,993, say. Or just a load of uncompressible noise. Though to be fair it must be said that precision and clarity don’t feature much in our everyday life, and we often go through life guessing, intuiting, going on hunches – and philosophy really ought to inherently be about our life here on this planet, so let’s not be too hard on those thinkers. But their thinking can all get a bit messy and opaque, and only appealing to other similarly-minded philosophers, which takes it out of our lives and into the halls of academe, which is a shame.

Anyway. Clarity. Another way of looking at this is to consider zipped computer files. The basic idea here is that the zipping software analyses where, say, there’s a load of 0s or 1s in a row and tidies it up into, say “4,536 1s in a row here”, which uses a lot less information. The very way in which huge files can be shrunk so drastically shows how powerful this technique is.

Meanwhile, TUI states “Intelligence is thus not about remembering lots of microstates at once in sequence. Intelligence is being able to see which macrostates combine all the microstates”.

At which point I think it’s fair to ask – what is this ‘seeing’ then? How does that work? This failure to address ‘seeing’ persists in AI, on and on, decade after decade, leading intelligent researchers and philosophers astray. It’s a real blind spot (so to speak).

Which leads to the next point. So far all this has had a certain passivity to it. You discard the exformation and keep the information, it’s all compressed nicely, then you unzip it et voila – there it all is again. But there’s a mystery in how this process can result in new ideas so heavily loaded with new information that they can change whole paradigms, in art or science. To do this requires vast amounts of information and exformation – and an intuitive leap that is an inherent part of the mystery of creation. And that happens in the subjective. No amount of computing, no matter how clever, ever results – and I would say ever can result – in profound new insight on its own. There always needs to be a human mind involved somewhere.

In TUI psychologist David Hargreaves, who has a written extensively on the psychology of music and musicians, is quoted as saying “The theory [of musical preference] has its base in information theory, but the important insight comes from the distinction between this conception of ‘information’ and its psychological counterpoint. Fundamentally, the coding of physical information contained in a musical composition, as in information theory, predicts very little of interest, but coding the information in ‘subjective’ terms predicts quite a lot. Whether a person likes a particular piece or not depends on the information they are able to take out of it, rather than the information that is already ‘in there’.”

‘Macrostates’ are what you end up with when a great deal of exformation has been discarded and compressed into notions encompassing that vast amount of exformation. The mystery is that this is even possible. How can certain ideas contain so much by way of having discarded so much? And how are we able to ‘see’ the outline of Big Ideas as such in the first place? Big Ideas start out looking simple, but are the result of an enormous amount of discarded information that they still paradoxically somehow contain, or infer, and after those new Big Ideas appear, they are then unpacked at great length by armies of scientists and/or artists, which is only possible because those Ideas contain so much novelty. They resonate. They have a kind of interiority that can be explored, and those explorations uncover all manner of new treasures as we shine our consciousness on them, before which we couldn’t see them. As TUI puts it, what we experience has acquired meaning before we become conscious of it. Perhaps this is connected with how we somehow intuit that there’s something Big there. It’s not necessarily immediately obvious, either – usually when something Big comes along there’s a huge amount of reflexive attack from certain quarters before wider acceptance is found. Which in itself is interesting but perhaps for another article.

The second big take for me from TUI is the small, tiny even, amount of bits per second that are processed consciously. This is a strong comeback to the whole ‘reign of quantity’ idea that measuring and counting is all. The few bits/sec of subjective conscious awareness are utterly, profoundly different to all that incoming raw data. But why should we even be surprised at that low bitrate? Perhaps because we’re not used to putting the qualitative first instead of the quantitative. But it’s not the amount of bits/sec, it’s the fact that those 16 or so bits are processed ‘in’ (whatever that means) or ‘through’ (whatever that means) subjective awareness.

And that’s what (the) TUI metaphor is, for me at any rate. I had to discard a lot of information trying to catch the essence of it, and I hope it hasn’t been too confusing as a result. As ever, I’m trying to be simultaneously clear but also put across an intuition, a vibe, a feel for the idea. But here it has a particular extra level of ‘meta’-ness, so I can only apologise if anybody’s feeling a bit dizzy. Maybe it’s time for a cup of tea.

Things that ought to make you Wonder

In ‘Why Does the World Exist?’, author Jim Holt tackles the biggest question of all – a question so big there are clever people out there that deny it’s even important. And he goes on amusingly-written transatlantic jaunts to ask the really clever people what they think about why something exists rather than nothing. He meets the most intelligent scientists and philosophers out there with respect to this issue. And of course, he gets nowhere, because the intellect is used on its own to tackle this profound mystery, and the intellect isn’t meant to be just there on its own chasing this mystery. Why this mystery of mysteries is to be tackled by the intellect on its own isn’t addressed – it’s taken as a given. But maybe that’s not how it should be done. Perhaps the sheer thoroughness of the book in covering all bases and getting precisely nowhere suggests another approach might be needed. Neither scientists nor philosophers seem to get anywhere at all with this issue. There is another approach, of course, but it’s derided and routinely ignored.  It’s not even that the intellect should be discarded, either – it’s not a matter of ‘just go with the feels’, not at all.  But when the analytical intellect is brought to bear on these issues, these deep issues of what it is to be human, it quickly takes over and cuts itself off from what it regards as a kind of unholy, mysterious murk, a dark forest where the branches are so close together the sunlight can’t get in.  And it’s very defensive about it all, too.  Trying to get consciousness that’s been steeped in one particular type of intellectual activity since infancy to even think about moving its attention somewhere else can be, and often is, met with some pretty fierce resistance, a resistance so aggressive it seems borne of a deep insecurity, an insecurity that results from the very culture in which we live our lives.

We currently live in a time when the light of science is at long last banishing the darkness of superstition in which humankind has lived for countless millennia, apparently.  It’s not long to go now before we’ve got everything somehow sorted, all problems solved – all it will take is more science, more analysis, more thinking, and we’ll be there.

Or so goes the story.  Of course although this view is all-pervasive, it’s not true.  You only need to look at the way that scientific innovation is used for the purposes of warfare – chemical weapons, nuclear weapons, grenades with plastic pellets in them that melt when they explode, making it much harder to remove them from wounds – to realise that a certain ambiguity about science is more appropriate.  Science is about things, life is about life.  When science tries to be about life, it says nothing at all about the essence of what it is to live a human life.  Perhaps it’s because of the death of god, but people are looking to science for matters of meaning, which it’s not qualified to be involved with.  The genetic fallacy – that the more you know about where something’s come from, the more it’s somehow fully explained – appears to be the substitute for the certainty that used to be found in religious faith.  But it’s a fallacy, and nothing in science tells us anything about why it’s all there in the first place.

On top of this, in that very arena of science that’s supposed to give us ultimate answers, dim adumbrations are appearing of something that’s doesn’t quite fit, something we’re even being asked to ignore while we look the other way.  They’re not disappearing the more we discover, either – they’re becoming just a bit less dim as time goes on.  Ironically, the more brightly that light of science shines, the more it illuminates this… something starting to peep out of the shadows.  As these are outlines of something that doesn’t seem quite right, and that’s an intuitive feel, it’s perhaps worthwhile to list a few of these issues appropriately, in a way that we can ponder them rather than just analysing everything to death.  We could perhaps then catch sight, even if only briefly, of how they all point to the same ‘place’, or the same underlying essential issue involving what it is to be human at our core, this ‘something’ we’re aware of yet are unable to give a clear account of, which we don’t seem to be able to either explain or escape.

Remember that intuition is a key driver of science – the idea of the disinterested scientist dispassionately sorting through data with clinical detachment and somehow thus generating scientific innovation is at best a myth, a comforting archetype, despite what you may read in shouty online comments from people who obviously have no idea how science actually happens.  The real business of science is much messier, much more human, and being human it involves intuition at its heart.  So to be intuitive here is the opposite of escaping reality – it’s sensing deep into it.

So here is the list of things to ponder, not analyse, but ponder in the Jungian sense of mulling over.  Disconnect from online drivenness and let these issues sink in.  Note, too, that perhaps they relate to each other in some way…

The hard problem of consciousness

This is the classic one.  Despite the hype, we haven’t got anywhere at all with explaining exactly how neuronal activity actually creates subjective experience.  No, that theory you’re thinking of just now doesn’t explain it, either.  Go through it carefully and at some point there will be a leap from ‘moving objects around in such-and-such a way’ to ‘subjective experience’, the leap being the bit where it isn’t actually explained.  Science as currently performed has to deal with ‘objects moving in such-and-such a way’, so we have now seen decades of research – some of which has given us some pretty neat technologies, to be fair – that is all to do with moving things around, nothing to do with subjectivity.  And as it is, there’s no real reason to think that the mind’s computable anyway – computers appear to have been picked as they’re cool and modern and sciency but they’re not conscious, and what is consciousness for in the first place if it can all be done with 1s and 0s?  That’s why that issue about zombies keeps irritatingly cropping up and won’t go away – all the creations of AI function without subjectivity, so what’s subjectivity doing there exactly?  Really the whole AI approach looks like a gigantic confusion of metaphor with reality.  As AI researcher Stephen Earle Robbins puts it, to create an alternating electric current you need an AC motor.  If you code everything into a computer language, it doesn’t matter how minutely turned, how sophisticated this language is, it’s still a computer language running, not electricity.  (Could the confusion be at least partly caused by the fact that computers run on electricity?  Who knows.)

The Big Bang

This goes, to some extent, with the previous point to ponder.  Subjectivity appears somehow in our brains, and the universe somehow apparently came from nowhere.  Both of these things are utterly impossible from a scientific point of view, and that very impossibility leads to all manner of delusional, just-so posturing – ‘explanations’ of how the quantum foam spontaneously led to the universe coming into being, in which case miracles are possible after all as the quantum foam allows them, or perhaps ‘explanations’ that the universe came into being from nothingness which rely on mathematical equations but without ever saying why, or in what way, those equations have their being, or why they’re effective, or acknowledging that actually it’s not nothingness after all if equations are involved.  Compare and contrast with the ‘explanations’ of consciousness that leave the important bit out, as mentioned above.  Apart from those two particular pseudo-explanations we have the current favourite, the multiverse theory – the most extravagant violation of Occam’s razor ever devised, and entirely unprovable.  This is where we really see that the ‘objectivity’ of science so often comes with a belief system.

The framing problem

A biggie in AI, this one.  This goes with the first point, too.  It’s quite technical, which in itself displays (or shows in a Wittgensteinian sense if you’re into that sort of thing) the problem itself, because it’s a foundational problem with the entire way that the AI project is conceptualised, constructed and performed in the first place.  Because of this problem, inherently linked with basic features of science itself, AI comes up hard against a brick wall known as ‘common sense intelligence’.  Common sense intelligence!  What’s that doing in the analytical, objective world of rational science?  But there it is. Dennett, the great denier of the very existence of consciousness, gives the example of a robot which needs to move its spare battery out of a room because a bomb is going to explode. It plans to move the battery out of a room on a cart, but the bomb is on the cart. Even if the robot knows this, it might still move the cart out of the room. If you try sorting out the robot’s algorithms to let it ‘know’ (lol) what it needs to do to avoid being blown up, i.e. to select what possible things it needs to do that are actually relevant out of the list of possibilities of anything that it might do, you need to include so many possibilities it’s impossible.  (And remember – this is Dennett admitting this.)  Trying to program an algorithm for making the selection of relevant/not-relevant makes the problem even worse. Yet somehow us wetware biological beings frame effortlessly, without even thinking about it. There’s a related issue where programmers need to put relevant context in to get AI to work, and this is then presented as somehow a kind of triumph. But that’s just hype – if the context needs to be added by the programmers, that’s cheating.  An actual conscious being doesn’t need to do this – it knows how to frame the context already.  And no progress at all has been made on this matter.  Whatsoever.  It’s another brick wall. And again, as with consciousness itself, many researchers seem honestly convinced that actually progress is being made, and are happy to say as much, in public even.  (For an extremely thorough demolition of this idea with associated suggestions for at least the beginnings of a possible way out, see Time and Memory by Stephen Earle Robbins.) AI researchers are turning to phenomenological philosophers to try to find a way through the impasse (and SE Robbins feels Bergson may be key here) – but whether that’s true or not, it’s kind of wonderful to see AI researchers turning to the discipline that so many scientists, especially of the more reductionist physicalist variety, disdain so greatly for its woolliness. Could that turning to philosophy have something to do with consciousness, and more specifically human consciousness? If it isn’t, why are AI scientists turning to the likes of Heidegger, Gibson or Merleau-Ponty? There’s a whole field of phenomenological cognitive science out there.  But nowhere in the field of AI is there even a hint of an explanation of how things are recognised, or ‘got’, or understood, or felt.  There’s all those 1s and 0s, interwoven in the most ingenious ways – but where do they become ‘I fancy a sandwich’?  Or the sudden realisation with a groan that the answer to 7 down is ‘shoe’?  With a computable model of mind, there’s nothing there at all that sees what’s going on.  It would appear that subjectivity, and along with that, philosophy, are getting their revenge, but let us continue with our list of boiled sweets for the mind, things to suck on and see what flavours appear.

Inside and Out

According to Dennett, the concept of subjective consciousness is a category error – everything’s external (although we then ask ‘How is even the illusion of illusion possible’?).  But that’s not what it feels like – we have our inner worlds, and nobody from the outside can feel what we feel.

From H Chris Ransford’s book God and the Mathematics of Infinity:

  • By definition an all-knowing God can answer any meaningful question (so no stuff like ‘how long is a piece of string?’).
  • You, a mere mortal, write out the sentence ‘God will never say that this sentence is true’. Call that sentence S. S can be equivalently rephrased as ‘God will never say that S is true’.
  • Ask God if S is true or not.
  • If God says yes, then S is actually true after all – which means that God will never say that S is true.
  • If God says yes, S is true, then God is being self-contradicting, having just said S is true even though S states the opposite.

So God’s never going to say S is true, even though we know it is and everybody knows that. So we know something God doesn’t, which means that God isn’t all-knowing after all – silly old God. Unless, of course, God’s in us, looking out…

Our consciousness of the unlikeliness of existence

… and with us in it aware of this unlikeliness.  But we have our human concept of chance, which looks suspiciously as if it’s ‘real’ in the same way that seconds, minutes and hours are real, i.e. a concept we seem unable to escape from but which we’ve invented.  But the chance involved, either with having the universe there in the first place, or in respect of our individual lives, is beyond comprehension, and perhaps calculation.  But if it can’t be calculated at all then we can’t use chance to explain anything, and if the odds can be calculated, they’re immensely far beyond what we’ve ever encountered anywhere else, and our lives have occurred in the only universe we know exists, which given its sample size of 1 undermines the very concept of chance itself.  Worse still, if it is all meaningless we’re left with the problem of how a meaningless reality gave rise to creatures with a sense of meaning, which if everything is meaningless and the universe is a closed system, isn’t possible.  Physicalist types like to say that actually it is all deterministic and meaningless and our sense of meaning is an illusion created by not being aware of all the deterministic ins-and-outs, but apart from the fact that this destroys the value of meaning, which is quite a biggie for us humans, it doesn’t explain why lack of awareness should allow ‘meaning’ to appear instead of just ignorance, or in what aspect of consciousness this even happens in the first place.   This goes with…

That we have a sense of living authentically or otherwise

All that stuff about office drudgery and how that’s not really who we are.  Animals just do what they do – where is the clearly-obvious line between, say, a tiger hunting and a tiger relaxing?  It’s all of a piece, all of a tigerness.  Which brings us to the next (more telling) thing to ponder…

We work for a living

… and use money to buy stuff with what we earn (apart from a relatively small number of individuals who have so much money they’re excused from the whole setup and who generally seem no happier than the rest of us). This is referenced in Genesis, when God gets really very cross indeed with Adam and Eve and kicks them out of the Garden of Eden – from now on they’re going to need to work. Meanwhile, in the New Testament, Jesus’ sermon on the mount includes this passage:

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

Matthew 6:28


That we have language which is capable of being written down if we want to, i.e. it’s symbolic

It doesn’t matter if we write it down as such – we’re capable of writing it down. We have words with definitions, but forget that all the definitions ultimately refer to each other.

That we have all the different arts

So very many ways of expressing what it is to be human, and the sense that this is where the real stuff is. As Wittgenstein put it, “We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all”.

That we have a sense of morality

Why do we even need this?  In The Cosmic Game, psychologist Stanislav Grof does a little riffing on how widely moral codes vary, referring in one telling example how in one tribe in New Caledonia if a woman gave birth to one twin of each gender they were both killed because they’d committed incest in the womb, while in Egypt and Peru the law required that in royal families the brother had to marry the sister.  Supposedly this means that morality doesn’t exist, but that’s lazy, unexamined thought.  The point is actually that we always have moral codes.  Philosophers tie themselves in knots and attack each other with gusto over what morality is, but there somehow it is in the first place to argue about.  As Doris Day put it ‘I’ve met plenty of nasty people, but I’ve never met a nasty animal’.

That we cook our food

Indeed, quite apart from the myriad of different cuisines found throughout the world, we uniquely have a moral sense there too.  The whole point of vegetarianism and veganism is that while other animals may eat each other, we have the choice of whether to eat them or not.  No other animal is like this.  This one’s really worth pondering.  What exactly is that choice?  Where does it come from?  How is it even possible in our minds?

That we wear clothes

Which, going via the Garden of Eden again, leads to…

That we’re messed up about sex

If we’re just like the animals, why don’t we just have sex in the streets when it’s time?  Even if people were to have sex in the streets as and when, it’d be because they got off on exhibitionism, which kink would be a sign of our distinctive humanness anyway.  Furthermore, when animals attain adulthood, they keep their innocence, whereas humans don’t, and we know this.  The naivety of your pet cat or dog will remain even when adulthood comes along.  My utterly beautiful and much-missed cat Jess came in one night smelling of sex (not a smell I’d be eager to encounter again, it must be said).  She was 16 at the time, and had a boyfriend from a few doors down, a lovely white tom who she clearly was attracted to – growing old disgracefully indeed.  But she never lost her adorable innocence.  That innocence is the reason (most of) us have pets in the first place.  The very reason paedophilia is so vile is that for humans – and only humans – sex is such a corrupting force.  For all other animals, it’s just something they do as part of their particular animalness.  Meanwhile, unlike other animals we are permanently sexually ‘on’ – does this perhaps go with in the creation of so many moralities of sex, so many restrictions and rules and regulations of this basic aspect of humanity?  Who knows.  Let’s not digress though, and move on to matters more cosmic…

We’ve discovered that the universe began with the Big Bang billions of years ago, and indeed with our science can now consciously alter our DNA

… although we can and do often use that same science to tell ourselves that we’re nothing special.  And so we start arguing amongst ourselves over whether there’s something different about us compared to the other animals.  And we argue, too, about what we should do with our DNA-altering technology – curing inherited illnesses: good, selecting for gender: bad.  Why’s that then?  Why not just do what we feel like with our DNA?  But events of the 20th century weigh on our minds and our consciences very heavily, and it is right that they should do so.  It’s that morality thing again.  In any event, long before we invented CRISPR we had a concept of ‘breeding’, whereby we tried combining different plants, or animals, in various ways to create new hybrids for whatever reasons with few ethical problems (such as pedigree dogs with eyes that can pop out if they bump into a chair leg, for example).  If we try the idea with ourselves, though, the idea becomes enormously problematic.

We have the concept of Progress

Meanwhile, that science that tells us we’re not special is intimately linked with our notion of some kind of progress.  No other animal has this idea.  If we examine animal species, the only changes we see are the changes of evolution, which happen over geological timespans.  Perhaps, for example, corvids may have different ‘cultures’ with regard to the way they use tools, for example, or dogs may bark with a different accent in France, but nothing is left behind to show this.  But if we look at, say, the last 2,000 years, we see the record of the immense changes that have happened in the world of the human.  We don’t just pass on our genes, we want our children’s lives to be better, and we use our unique minds to at least try to ensure this.  The further back in time you go, generally the dirtier everything looks compared to now.  Everything is getting cleaner and brighter and shinier. Just to take a mundane example, anybody who remembers shops from the 70s and even early 80s will remember how cruddy they were, how dingy and muted.  This also goes for films, sound recording, clothes, and so on.  Everybody’s getting cleaner, too, which has led to an upsurge in asthma due to lack of contact with dirt in early life.

That we measure time

Why do we do this?  How are we able to conceptualise time such a way?   Our minds are all of a piece with time, but once we start artificially dividing time up, big problems appear for AI apart from anything else. (Again, SE Robbins’ book Time and Memory goes into exhaustive, and sometimes exhausting, detail on this.) It’s the issue of dividing that which is in reality undivided – it’s useful for practical stuff, but reality isn’t practical stuff. For all the brilliance of our science, it rapidly becomes ultracrepidarian  when it takes on this most fundamental aspect of our lives.

That we are able to wonder what we’re doing here, or why anything at all exists in the first place

And we can witter on about it on blogs like this with our written language.

That we argue about whether we’ve got free will or not

The argument never ends. No point in getting into it here (or anywhere, perhaps).

That we’re conscious, and know this, yet are unable to define to ourselves what consciousness is, or why it’s even there.

Why aren’t we able to define consciousness, then? We see, or sense, something qualitatively different about our minds, while we also sense that some aspects of our minds commonly known as ‘science’ are somehow very useful yet are now coming up against seemingly intractable problems, problems qualitatively different from any encountered before, problems that challenge the whole ‘carry on as before’ approach that’s currently popular (and which, to be fair, has taken us quite a long way).  And we are intimately part of nature as well.  The same order and disorder, destruction and creation, beauty and ugliness, strangeness and familiarity, uniqueness and repetition – all are within our apparently uniquely self-reflective consciousness, and all are found in our thoughts, our behaviours as well as in nature.  But only we have the knowledge of good and evil.