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The challenge for physicalism of J.S. Bach's Vollbracht aria


To: Reiner L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: The challenge for physicalism of J.S. Bach's Vollbracht aria
Date: 17 January 2007 12:05

Dear Reiner,

Thank you for your email of 4 January, with your essay for the Associate Award on J.S. Bach's Vollbracht aria.

I was helped in understanding the issues around the 'well tempered scale' by this web page:

I found this essay gripping. My initial scepticism over whether emotional states produced by musical experience can be used to raise problems for physicalism - or certain varieties of physicalism - has eroded to some extent.

I very much liked your remark, 'Dennett tries to rescue those who might be tempted to tread that dangerous path before even setting out on his own journey of discovery'. The idea of philosophy as an open-ended journey of discovery, immersing ourselves in the problematic facts rather than taking a principled stand against the direction in which they seem to point, is very attractive.

Brillat-Savarin, in his 1796 work, 'La Physiologie du gout', describes in exquisite and tempting detail the ecstasy that can be induced by a great work of culinary art. An exhibition of Don McCullin's Vietnam War photos, or Rothko's canvases, or reading Anna Karenina (see the excellent paper by Colin Radford ('How Can We Be Moved by the Fate of Anna Karenina?' Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supp. Vol. 49, 67-80), can induce similar profound reactions. Yet in each case, one wants to say, the intrinsic character of the experience is fundamentally different, sui generis.

You might object to my inclusion of cooking on the ground that while a great dish can bring joy, it makes no sense to suppose that a dish might be created which induced deep feelings of sorrow (I suppose, the very last roast Dodo but that induces sorrow for reasons extrinsic to the quality of the cooking). But then, the 'joy', 'sorrow' or other deep emotions induced by the music, the photographs, paintings or the text are mere labels for something which, as you argue, is beyond words.

Suppose we put forward the hypothesis, which is consistent with what you say about the experience of the foetus in the womb, that the experience of certain kinds of sound is intrinsically pleasurable. This arguably puts listening music somewhere in between eating and reading. Perhaps in between these two come the pleasures of sight, such as are aroused by a blue sky or colourful flowers. Such a crude arrangement of the data does not take one very far to understanding but it does suggest, for all its crudity, that more than one thing is going on.

As the copious words spilled in literary or art criticism testify, what makes a work sufficiently 'good' or 'great' to be capable of moving us are complex. A competent musician reading the score of the Vollbracht aria must surely feel something, a sense of powerful aesthetic pleasure, admiration for the composition and so on, but something is still missing - perhaps not as much as those who have to rest content with reading 'La Physiologie du gout' rather than tasting the wonderful dishes that Brillat-Savarin describes - but nevertheless a vital component has been left out; the human emotional and physical reaction to musical sounds assembled in a particular way for a particular purpose.

Why does Segovia's rendition of Rodrigo sound so much better than that of amateur musician Joe Bloggs, who plays all the right notes with no mistakes, taking care to give the correct dynamics? Segovia's version is the only one which fully grasps the 'sense' of the music, while Joe's version is like a book read out by a child who doesn't quite understand what he is reading. But then again, that is only the blank form for an explanation.

This is all a preliminary to what I take to be the central argument of your essay. You put forward the following hypothesis: consider the Vollbracht aria played on the modern 'well-tempered' scale and one of the earlier scales. When played with the 'right feeling', the emotional effect is the same. Yet at the same time, as we have seen, different scales in themselves produce different physical effects. How can this be accounted for, on the assumption that the end result of the process is a physical state of the brain?

This is where one has to be careful to distinguish physicalism as a pure ontological claim, and the question of explanation. Explanations collect together phenomena. Depending on the explanation that one is seeking, the very same phenomena can be collected together in different ways. Functionalism is a program which, as its proponents fully accept, has a long way to go before any really interesting explanations emerge. We can only speculate, in the way that Dennett does, one what might be achieved through diligent research.

The explanation of how we perceive musical scales, or how the combinations of frequencies in a single note have different phenomenal characters, how one performance sounds better than another, or how a piece makes us weep may all be different. Perhaps it is absurdly optimistic to suppose that will ever find the answers to their questions; but those questions are worth asking anyway.

As a philosopher, I am unhappy with the idea that there is anything in this wide universe that *in principle* evades explanation - however things may be in practice. That is why I would not go along with McGinn's line about the mind-body problem. But I am also suspicious of programs and quests which sally forth seeking this or that holy grail.

It is difficult for me to judge where you stand on the question of physicalism and qualia. Nothing that you say seems to me inconsistent with a minimalist, ontological physicalism, yet I gain the impression that you have bigger ambitions. If there was any criticism I would make of this essay it is that I am left feeling unclear about what it is that you are arguing for. If Dennett begs the question, then it is still an open question. If we do not yet understand of how the Vollbracht aria moves the mind, I see no argument in principle why such understanding cannot be achieved. But maybe you see things differently.

I noticed a couple of typos, although I wasn't looking for them:

Your spell checker substituted 'conical' for 'canonical'; and it is 'most teenagers' not 'most teenager'.

Also, there is a published reference to my point about the bat. It can be found in 'Naive Metaphysics' on p. 66 ('It is conceivable that I could periodically change into a bat; then I would know what it was like!'). The context is my argument that what is important is not the general quality of the experience, as Nagel wants to say, but its particularity or thisness, 'the very for-itself of this particular cat'.

Thank you for such a stimulating work.

All the best,