Musically Speaking of Ethics

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 What gives music its power to soothe the savage beast, to incite the passions, and to lift the heart? Some scientists believe they are now on the verge of explaining just how music produces these responses.  They are searching for biophysical explanations of what makes music musical, and are discovering some fascinating clues as to how the brain responds to music. The key to their research is to quantify and measure the quality of expressiveness which gives music its emotional charge. Their experiments aim to explain how two different performances of the same piece of music can have such very different emotional impacts upon the listener. [Pam Bullock, “To Tug Hearts, Music First Must Tickle the Neurons”, New York Times, April 18, 2011]

These special neurons are called “mirror” neurons, because they seem to be triggered when a person observes the behavior of others, as though one were watching oneself in a mirror. This function correlates to feelings of empathy—the experience of feeling what another person feels, or at least feeling what we imagine the other person is feeling. It’s as if the neurons in our brain mirror the emotions of another person. Neuroscientist Malcolm Jeeves calls these systems of mirror neurons “one of the most significant discoveries in the last decade”, because they suggest the existence of neural substrates which enable the “capacity for personal relatedness”.[1] These specialized neurons seem to suggest the possibility that emotions such as empathy are hard-wired into our brains, and that these emotions can be triggered by music which incites our mirror neuron substrates.

Not only that, but these same mirror neurons have been shown to be activated when people are faced with experiences of ethical conflict also, and again, empathy seems to be the connection. There seems to be a connection between morality and music therefore, even if only at the basal level of neuronal systems. This makes sense because to perceive how another person might feel about an event is the first step toward moral awareness. If I am capable of feeling empathy for how my action might affect you, then I am more likely to frame it in terms of moral responsibility, and to not be so self-centered about it. Evidence comes from brain scans of persons who are watching another person be injured or treated unfairly. The same sorts of responses occur in the brains of persons wrestling with a moral dilemma. Common sense would expect this to be the case; after all, moral dilemmas trigger the same sorts of emotional responses as the experience of seeing another person being injured. We may thus conclude that ethics and empathy are closely linked. This is why some researchers suggest that the best clues to understanding moral behaviors such as altruism will be found by studying the function of mirror neuron systems.

Based on the commonality between feelings of empathy and ethical behavior, it should come as no surprise to learn that mirror neuron systems are active in both experiences. After all, empathy and ethics would seem to be offshoots of the same ability to sense what another person is (or might plausibly be) feeling. Thus we might expect to find mirror neuron systems active in the brains of persons as they deliberate upon moral dilemmas, because in order to imagine the morality of one’s actions, it would help to be able to imagine how one’s actions might affect other people.[2]

Now returning to the question of what makes music musical, why should we expect the same neural substrate which triggers feelings of empathy and ethics to be activated by music? The interesting point is that the more musically expressive the music, the more active the neural substrates.  But why? This is the question being asked by the scientists who seek to understand what makes music musical.  The interesting result of their brain research is that when subjects listen to artistic (i.e. musically expressive) performances, the mirror neurons are not the only specialized areas of the brain to be activated; the areas associated with motor control also become noticeably more energized. These are the same regions which would actively regulate of physical movement, whether dance or walking or raising a glass; these same neural systems which control bodily movements become active also in the appreciation of good music. This is not merely a matter of having a sense of rhythm, or of having an urge to tap one’s foot to the beat. Research suggests there is more to it—much more indeed, because regular music, such as that produced by mechanically (whether by human or machine) with perfect timing and pitch, with every note held for the precisely correct duration and intonation, does not activate the motor control system and mirror neuron system nearly as much as music performed by masterful artists with beautiful expression. The beautifully performed, expressive performances are not the perfectly played ones, it seems. The beautiful performances are the more or less imperfectly played ones, if we are to judge by timing and tonal purity.

What then is beauty? See how quickly brain research leads into philosophy! No sooner do we seem to be on the path toward discovery of the mechanics of human perception and response, by reducing experiences down to the deterministic firing of synapses and structure of neural networks, than we realize that the very thing we are struggling to understand cannot be understood apart from the subjective perspective of a living subject.

In order to appreciate a melody, to perceive the beauty in it, we might say, the melody must be perceived holistically, and not merely as the sum of its parts. If we break the music down into individual notes, even perfectly played ones, there is no music, but merely notes; there is no beauty in merely mechanical precision. Kant, the brilliant theoretician of moral philosophy, had this figured out long before the advent of modern neuroscience and the invention of brain scanning technologies.  If there be beauty in a work of art, it will result from the holistic impact of the whole piece, in which each part “exists only through all the others [and] thus as if existing for the sake of the others and on account of the whole.”[3] The same is true for musical performance, as Franco Chiereghin observes in his inquiry into the peculiarly human trait of musicality:

…in a melody, taken as a unitary whole in its temporal articulation, each note exists in view of each of the others and at the same time; as it is embedded in the melodic development, it exists only through all of the others.[4]

Well structured tones and rhythm are not enough to make the music sing; but rather, it’s the small human imperfections, disturbing subtly the orchestrated structure of the music, which imbue a piece with beauty to incite the passion of human persons. It takes the consciousness of one human person to appreciate the beauty and musicality in another’s performance. This is the peculiarly human aspect of beauty—it requires not merely a sophisticated neural network to process the acoustic stimuli, but also a living human person to make sense out of it, and to construct a meaningful, expressive whole from the subtle imperfections of the performance. Those imperfections and deviations from the mathematical precision of music are precisely the ingredients which infuse the performance with meaning and beauty, the beauty of which cannot be appreciated apart from the capacity of a personal intelligence to perceive and make sense of the emotion being communicated through the performance. Of course this process engages the same brain substrates involved in motor control and empathy. How could it be otherwise? After all, rhythm and emotion are essential, basic components of music interpretation.  But the higher gift of musicality requires the mysteriously holistic interpretation of a whole person, one who can transform the notes riding the airwaves into the music of the heart.

The most expressive music rides upon the currents of the subtle imperfections and imprecisions induced by the artist, and the transformational power of a human consciousness turns them into a thing of beauty, and not a string of senseless mistakes. The human person who hears the music and makes sense of it receives it as an expression of a living soul. For this reason alone does music sing of a greater truth and a spiritual reality.

Similarly, ethics also is a function of that same peculiarly human capacity to perceive beauty by making sense of the whole. Like music appreciation, ethics depends upon the capacity of a human person to recognize a greater truth than that which is presented merely by the facts or mechanics of life. We are not surprised therefore that music, empathy and ethics all engage the mirror neuron systems. There is a commonality here among these experiences which pertains to the human capacity to express and discern—to give and receive, we might say—the meaningfulness of another person’s emotional experience.

Music and morality are common to human life. They are beautiful precisely because there is more to life than what can be seen with the eye and heard with the ear. Let those with ears hear.

Anne Sophie Mutter

[1] Malcolm Jeeves, “The Emergence of Human Distinctiveness: The Story from Neuropsychology and Evolutionary Psychology”, in Rethinking Human Nature: a Multidisciplinary Approach, ed. Malcolm Jeeves (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 176-203, 198.

[2] This hypothesis is being actively studied by neuroscientists. V.S. Ramachandran argues that these human capacities emerged as “culture became a significant new source of evolutionary pressure, which helped select for brains that had even better mirror-neuron systems and the imitative learning associated with them. The result was one of the many self-amplifying snowball effects that culminated in Homo sapiens, the ape that looked into its own mind and saw the whole cosmos reflected inside.” Ramachandran, The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human (New York: W.W. Norton,2011), 23.

[3] Immanuel Kant, Kritik der Urteilskraft, Ak. Ausg. V, §65, p. 373 (Critique of the Power of Judgment, ed. P. Guyer, trans. P. Guyer and E. Matthews (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 245. Cf. Chiereghin, p. 97 for this reference.

[4] Franco Chiereghin, “The Peculiarly Human Feature of the Aesthetic Experience: The Teaching of Kant and the Challenge of Neuroscience”, in Rethinking Human Nature: A Multidisciplinary Approach, ed. Malcolm Jeeves (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 82-106, p. 97.

Mirror Neurons & the imago Dei

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Natural Theology & Ethics

rembrandt-the-return-of-the-prodigal-son-the-hermitage-st-petersburg-prodig26   The age-old argument goes like this-“Just look around… The glory of god is there for all to see… Nature is speaking… So just pay attention… Reason things out and you can discern what is right and good and true…”  This is the conventional wisdom about nature, right and wrong. The case for natural reason as the source of ethics is gaining support these days from advances in the biological sciences and derivative ideas such as “evolutionary psychology”.  Brain researcher V. S. Ramachandran has predicted that, “mirror neurons will do for psychology what DNA did for biology.”[1]  The evidence of mirror neurons suggests that certain neurons contribute the property which enables higher primates to say “I feel your pain”, because the mirror neurons are “fired” by observing another person suffer.  This could theoretically provide evidence of an evolutionary link to traits like compassion-and hence, ethical behaviors such as altruism.  This new line of inquiry is called “evolutionary psychology.”   

 Is this what it means to be ethical?  Do ethics reduce to deterministic responses to brain wiring?  These are really just new variants of the same old questions regarding “natural theology” that have been around forever (well, at least since persons had enough brain wiring to ask them).  But do we really discover the source of morality in nature? 

The most commonly cited Bible passage with respect to this question is Paul’s meditation in the opening section of Romans-

 …since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.  For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities-his eternal power and divine nature-have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. [Rom. 1:19-20 (NIV)]

 Some interpreters take this as support for “natural theology”, because it might suggest that natural reason is capable of acquiring knowledge of God.  And a few paragraphs later, we find this-

 (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.) [Rom. 2:14-15 (NIV)]

 This can also be used to argue for “natural theology”, because the “Gentiles” are not the God-knowers (those are the Jews), yet they still have the law written on their hearts.

 What are we to make of this?  Is Paul the first Natural Theologian?  No, I don’t think so.  First of all, Paul is saying that nature shines by God’s eternal power and his glorious being.  These things are even self-evident, and plain to anyone who looks for them.  Thus there’s no denying that nature gives evidence of this divine power.  But this is not the same thing as knowing God.  Obviously so, or else there would be no point to Paul’s entire argument. These words immediately precede this passage and thus set the context:

 I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”  The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness  [Rom. 1:16-18]

 Paul states it plainly-God is known by faith, and he is revealed by the Gospel, and this applies to both Jews and Gentiles.  Knowing God is obviously not the same thing as observing his power at work in nature.  As further evidence of the difference between natural theology and faith, Paul explains that one of the natural consequences of not glorifying God  is the following:

 their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. [Rom. 1:21b-23]

This is the peril of natural theology-it leads not to God, but to any and every possible conception of God that human beings have ever been able to conceive.  It leads not then to the God who is known through his self-revelation in Jesus, but rather to the many and various gods who may be argued as reasonable theories based on the human powers of observation, applied to nature.

 Eberhard Jüngel writes insightfully on the effort of natural theology to discern God.  He considers the possibility of knowing God without benefit of the revelation of the Gospel, and comes to this conclusion that while it might be possible to know a lot about God’s creation from natural theology, it is not possible to know God, or what it means to be in relationship with God, through natural theology.  What happens in the attempt to know these things through natural theology, is that

 every such statement thereby changes from a statement of the gospel to a statement of the law, from an unequivocally beneficial statement to one which is ambivalent.[2]

 In other words, whatever knowledge is derived from natural theology fails to convey the significance of the gospel, and thus becomes inevitably a law unto itself.  This would seem to be the same conclusion Paul came to.  We may by nature do the things the law requires, but will amount to nothing more than to make up a law for ourselves.  There’s no grace in it if we do not know and glorify God [cf. Rom. 2:14-15].

 This is the ultimate problem with all natural theology, whether based on mirror neurons or any other naturalistic theory.  Mirror neurons may reflect the glory of the God, and shine by the power of the Gospel, but they are incapable of reflecting the imago Dei as revealed in Christ.


[1] Malcolm Jeeves quotes Ramachandran as an example of the “current excitement [over] the discovery of so-called mirror neurons, since they form a natural link between neuroscience and an aspect of evolutionary biology-namely, evolutionary psychology.” Jeeves, “Mind Reading and Soul Searching in the Twenty-first Century”, in What About the Soul? Neuroscience and Christian Anthropology, ed. by Joel Green (Abingdon, 2004), p. 24.

[2] Eberhard Jüngel, “Extra Christum Nulla Salus-a principle of natural theology?”, in Jüngel, Theological Essays, translated by J. B. Webster, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1989), p. 186.

Humus Sapiens, Part III

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Do-it-yourself DNA kit Whence telos?

We have seen (previous essays on this page) that a sufficiently complex and highly ordered arrangement of elements and molecules, gathered into pattern-carrying structures of proteins, enzymes, genes, DNA, cells and so on, can display the properties of consciousness and thoughtfulness.  “Thinking dust”, we called it-humus sapiens.

Our abilities to think, reflect and be conscious of ourselves and others would seem to be distinctive capacities which make us “human”.  According to evolutionary theory, these complex capacities and behaviors have emerged over time, as biological organisms became more and more highly ordered.  Through countless iterations of mutation and adaption, the biological structure of humus sapiens eventually became sufficiently highly organized to support emergent properties like consciousness, thought, and even “soulishness”.[1]

 Neurobiology and theology agree that this “soulishness”, whatever its origins–whether derived from divine inspiration or emergent from chance mechanistic mutations–is a trait of humans, a property of this being we call humus sapiens.

 And from experience we know that this “soulishness” gives us the ability to discern meaning in the world around us.  We discern patterns and purpose in our surroundings, both in the impersonal realm of nature, as well in our behaviour and relationships.  Order is there to be seen.  We can think about it, describe it, study it, measure it, admire it, paint it, even write a poem or sonata to display it.  But toward what end?  Toward what direction?  Toward what purpose?

 This is the “teleological” question–the question of “ends” (telos).   This is also a fundamental question of ethics–by what ultimate purpose, goal or end (telos)  shall we evaluate the choices and direction of life?

 Since the order seems to be built into the creation, we may sensibly look at the “orders of creation”, and ask what we find there.  There are patterns to be seen.  Sometimes the patterns seem obvious, like the crytalline structure of a snowflake, and sometimes they seem hidden, like the problem of innocent suffering.  Our inclination however, is to look for patterns wherever can find them.  This pattern-seeking exercise seems to be the motivation underlying scientific pursuits of knowledge in every category of exploration, from physics to sociology. 

We proceed in intellectual pursuits by recognizing and analyzing patterns (order) in our natural surroundings and our personal experiences. But what gives those patterns meaning?   Meaning and prupose (telos) seem to lie outside the realm of the pattern itself.  Meaning demands a context within which to interpret the pattern. 

Whence meaning?  Whence telos?  Here is where religion comes in, again, as a distinctively human behaviour.  What has religion got to do with it? Michael Polyani answers this question well:

The representative element in all religious orientations portrays the world as meaningful; that is, it portrays the world as something more than a conglomeration of physical and chemical interactions issuing, to no purpose whatsoever, in whatever ephemeral globs the equilibration of forces renders necessary or probable.[2]

 Religion gives meaning because it explains the world as more than a chance happening, a collision of atomic particles without purpose.  More on this in the next essay…

 (Did you spot a pattern or find meaning in the photo above?  It’s a do-it-yourself DNA kit.)

[1] Neuroscientist Warren Brown describes these as “emergent levels of causal efficacy.”  In other words, the soul does not really exist as an entity; but rather, the property of “soulishness” emerges as a trait of the highly organized biological entity. W. Brown, “Neurobiological Embodiment of Spirituality and Soul”, in From Cells to Souls-and Beyond: Changing Portraits of Human Nature, ed. by Malcolm Jeeves (Eerdmans, 2004), pp. 58-76, esp. 65-7.  Brown attempts, with questionable success, to show that his understanding of human “soulishness” is a theologically tenable idea because it is compatible with “the potential of an embodied physical person to be cognizant of a nonmaterial world and to experience relatedness to the divine”, p. 76.

[2] Michael Polanyi & Harry Prosch, Meaning (University of Chicago, 1975) p. 161.