October 28, 2013

Cliff’s Edge

Last September as I put my dog on a cable leash, she took off running. At 105 pounds, the hound exerted enough force to break my right ring finger, which, once extracted from the cable, hung painfully crooked. Unfortunately, I had to catch an overseas flight in only four hours, which meant I didn’t have time for a doctor. And because I didn’t want to cancel over a broken finger, my wife taped it up, and off I went on my not-so-merry way.

In the airport I read a New Yorker article by neurologist Oliver Sacks in which he talked about an almost mystical experience he had while listening to a Monteverdi concert. Maybe it was the pain, I don’t know, but suddenly I wanted to try to get into classical music. Me, classical music? For 56 years I’ve had no interest whatsoever in any kind of music, especially classical. Please, I’d rather have toiled in my wife’s garden than have to listen to that sappy racket, which all sounded alike to me anyway.

On a whim (and maybe to distract myself from my aching finger), I downloaded some Beethoven onto my iPhone. Suddenly a switch turned on, and my life hasn’t been the same since. I can’t get enough of it, and anything else now seems so banal. A new realm of existence, like a fifth dimension, has opened up to me. I have no idea how this music works, but who cares? What matters are the emotions these sounds ignite in me.

About a week ago I listened to Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Opus 73. The first movement is performed allegro non troppo. Now, I don’t know an allegro non troppo from a caramel Frappuccino. All I know is that this piece gave me one of the most incredible aesthetic experiences I’ve ever had. This symphony seemed to me the most beautiful of human creations. As I listened, I marveled: How could a human being have thought up something like this? Enraptured, I realized that whatever it meant to be made in the “image of God,” it had to include creativity. Transforming thoughts into the Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 demanded a divine link somewhere along the line.

Then it hit me: An acoustical engineer could explain everything about the sounds, the decibels, the wavelengths, and the pitch of the music; a physiologist could explain everything about the eardrum—the hammer, the anvil, the nerves from the ear to the brain; a neurologist could explain everything about the neurons that fired as I listened, or the neurotransmitters that leapt from cleft to cleft. Yet everything that science could now explain or ever could explain would never get near what really mattered, which was why that music moved me so powerfully. Science’s dogmatic materialism can’t explain that element of reality any more than a flashlight in a dark room could reveal a sleeper’s dream.

“When and if we have found and understood the complete irreducible laws of physics,” wrote physicist Frank Wilczek, “we certainly shall not thereby know the mind of God ([Stephen] Hawking to the contrary). We will not even get much help in understanding the mind of slugs, which is about the current frontier of neuroscience.”

No wonder atheist Thomas Nagel wrote Mind and Cosmos: Why the Material Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. For Nagel the point’s obvious: science’s attempt to explain life, especially human consciousness in purely materialistic and naturalist terms, has failed miserably.  “My skepticism,” he writes, “is not based on religious belief, or on a belief in any definite alternative. It is just a belief that the available scientific evidence, in spite of the consensus of scientific opinion, does not in this matter rationally require us to subordinate the incredulity of common sense” (p. 7).

And though I understood before listening to classical music that reality is so much greater than the narrow parameters of scientific materialism, Brahms’ Second Symphony has helped me see how much greater. And though it might have taken a broken finger to get me there (which, subsequently, had to be rebroken, operated on, and put together with screws), it was well worth it.