Neuroscience, Consciousness, Music

A comment on a blog post by Steve Ramirez, a neuroscientist (

The main difference between Matt Segall and myself, is that he may, as you say, labor under a misunderstanding of the current accomplishments of neuroscience, while I must admit, not just to misunderstanding, but to ignorance. I do not grasp neuroscience, therefore I am an ignoramus (Latin, actually first-person plural, meaning “we are unaware”). Yet I know a few things, enough to know my ignorance and to question convictions and certitudes, mine and your own, which, pardon my bluntness, are more dogmatic than scientific.

You, Steve, set out to “convince” Matt and your other readers “that neuroscientist’s [sic] are actually doing a fantastic job at figuring out the nitty gritty of consciousness, that it resides solely in the brain, and that it can be explained solely through brain activity.”

I shall indeed take the time to read some of the sources that you indicate, and perhaps they will dispel some of the clouds of ignorance that obfuscate my awareness. In the meantime, I do perceive, in this trying to “convince” people, the evangelical posture of an ardent believer in the fantastic job and the current doing of it. But were I a scientist, I should not be so confident that the job has already been done, and that neuroscience has reached the point at which one can employ the most unscientific of adverbs, “solely”: solely in the brain, solely through brain activity.

Science, in my modest understanding, speaks the language of mathematics; scientific knowledge gives us quantities, not qualities. I only ask the scientist not to deny to the knowledge of qualities the title of true knowledge, especially in three areas that are of particular interest to me: music, love, and mysticism. Set aside the third, if you wish, but leave me at least music.

A developing area of study is that of musical cognition, and here neuroscience and evolutionary biology can shed amazing light on the musical experience. Human musical expression has evolved enormously, alongside science and often in dialogue with it. I cannot say that the music of Bach and Mozart is “better” than that of Toru Takemitsu and Sofia Gubaidulina (two favorites of mine), but certainly the music of the latter two has “evolved” in complexity/consciousness from the earlier maestros.

Gubaidulina’s concertos show their debt to Mozart’s perfection of musical form; she sometimes quotes Bach. Yet she speaks a musical language that addresses my membership in twenty-first-century humanity, although I cannot tell how this is so. I can analyze her forms and her counterpoint (music has, after all, strong affinities with mathematics); you could analyze the firing of my neurons with her music in my ears. But a way of knowing is there for me, which neither my formal analysis nor your brain scans can pin down.

There is an endless excess in human knowing to which scientific measurement can never mark an end-point. All knowledge is approximate; scientists elude this messiness of human knowing and the fuzziness of human logic by reducing observed data to number. I know that “fuzzy logic” is being studied by computer scientists; I am vaguely aware of chaos theory. But both disciplines still need the math.

Music has its math side, like all knowing, but it has another and ultimately inexplicable side that will never be reduced to numbers because it is constantly expanding (I don’t say, “progressing”). Gubaidulina’s struggle with the interactions of tempered and non-tempered tuning (e.g., her recent orchestral work “Light at the End”) starts with Herz-numbers (cycles per second) but takes us into a realm that is numberless and that corresponds with the “potential infinity” of human consciousness, while suggesting that another music, now being written or yet to be written, will go beyond hers, great as it is.

About ashramdiary

Thomas Matus, who blogs this Ashram Diary, was born 1940 in Hollywood, California. Academics: A.B. in music from Occidental College (Los Angeles); S.T.L. in ecumenical theology from Athenaeum Anselmianum (Rome, Italy); Ph.D. in comparative mysticism from Fordham University (New York). Initiated into Kriya Yoga (by direct disciples of Paramahansa Yogananda) in 1958. Became a Catholic in 1960 and entered New Camaldoli Hermitage (Big Sur, California) as a novice monk in 1962. Lived for more than 30 years at the Monastery of Camaldoli in Italy. Traveled to India some 20 times; made frequent retreats at Saccidananda Ashram (Shantivanam) in southern India. Was in Brazil, off and on, from 1999 to 2006. Now back in California, he lives at the Hermitage in Big Sur and Incarnation Monastery in Berkeley, California. See:
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2 Responses to Neuroscience, Consciousness, Music

  1. Scientists are moving into the cutting-edge of
    Consciousness Studies–people like Henry Stapp who is
    a member of the Theoretical Physics Group, Lawrence
    Berkeley Laboratory, the University of California (Berkeley).
    Stapp’s website is utterly fascinating! The man works
    on the “edge,” so to speak.

    There’s also Roger Penrose, the Rouse Ball Professor of
    Mathematics at the University of Oxford, who has written
    books “concerning computers, minds, and the laws of physics.”

    And annually the University of Arizona has hosted a major
    conference on Consciousness where not only scientists
    but also philosophers, theologians, psychologists, and
    scholars representing other disciplines come together,
    trying to piece together their studies about Consciousness.
    These days the issue of Consciousness is steadily rising to
    the forefront of pioneer research, and would seem to involve
    interdisciplinary perspectives.

    Might also want to take a look at Stuart Hameroff’s work.
    He currently is the Director of the Center for Consciousness
    Studies at the University of Arizona. His web-interview with
    Deepak Chopra is quite fascinating, pretty open-minded

    And, of course there are proponents of “non-local” mind,
    i.e. Sheldrake.

    We have barely begun to approach the mystery of
    Consciousness. Consequently, it probably isn’t very
    profitable closing one’s mind (to offer a pun) on the
    subject. Could be we have barely begun to count the
    avenues we need take to understand why we know.

  2. ashramdiary says:

    Thank you, Beatrix, for these references, especially Sheldrake, whom I have met personally and whose books I have read with great interest. Of course, the neuroscience community have no “place” for the “non-local mind” in their scheme of things.

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