Music – a memento mori for the moment

Here, for your delectation or detestation, is a thing that I think: “Music is the art best suited to the depiction of impermanence.”

Making such a thought public may elicit several responses: “What?”; “Who cares!?”; “That’s because you’re a musician.”; etc. Fair enough. I’m going to start by addressing the last of these questions, then move on to the second, and after that should be well on my way to answering the first.

Yes, I am a (hack) musician. I’ve studied music in some depth and am thus inevitably biased in its favour. But, I protest, I also write and have studied writing. I also draw and paint a little bit, and am fortunate enough to be married to an incredibly talented and prolific painter. Thanks to my wife Genevieve, to live in our house is to be on intimate terms with the process of creating visual art. So much for my claims to authority – I have none and make no claims to any (“the only thing that I know is that I know nothing…” blah blah). That music, of all the arts, most effectively depicts impermanence is just a thing I think. There are reasons that I think this particular thing, however, and I am ready to defend them.

So who cares? Why should anyone care about this seemingly most esoteric of claims? Just what on earth do I mean by “impermanence” anyway? I’m so glad I asked me! Impermanence, it seems to me, is a characteristic of all existent things. It is what the Ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus was drawing attention to with his famous claim that one can never step into the same river twice. The river is in flux. By the time you take your second step it has changed. It doesn’t matter if you immediately follow each step with the next, or avoid stepping into that river again for days, months, or years. The river is never at rest. Moreover, the “you” that does the stepping is never at rest, not even for a moment. Like the river, you are always changing, always in flux.

The importance of understanding the impermanent nature of both ourselves and all components of the environments in which we live is also central to Buddhist philosophy. No doubt some scholars of Buddhist thought will take exception to this claim, but I consider insight into the impermanence, as well as the interdependence, of all things, to be not only fundamental to Buddhist thought, but also primary goals of Buddhist meditation practices. Consider the Four Noble Truths (my paraphrasing):

  1. Life is characterised by dukkha (suffering or unsatisfactoriness).
  2. Dukkha is caused by primal confusion.
  3. There is a cure for primal confusion.
  4. The cure is the Noble Eightfold Path.

If you consider the form of this teaching, the first the Buddha gave after he achieved enlightenment, you’ll see that it’s pretty important to know what “primal confusion” is. After all, the claim is being made that it is the source of suffering! The Buddhist literature is voluminous and there are diverse interpretations of these fundamental teachings, but the gist seems to be that primal confusion is a matter of believing the world has a different nature from that which it in fact has. This is pretty obviously confusion, and it’s “primal” not only because it affects everything, but because it’s innate – we are being told that the default worldview possessed by humans is mistaken at the fundamental level. What mistake are we making? We think that things exist (or have the potential to exist) independently and permanently. Basically, we think it’s possible to isolate things (any things) from their contexts and we think things (immortal souls perhaps?) can last for ever. We are dead wrong about this. In fact, Buddha claims, the nature of existence is that it is interdependent and impermanent – to exist is to exist in a context with other existents, and existence is intrinsically ephemeral. If we can truly understand and internalise these facts about the world, we will allegedly be freed from suffering.

Impermanence is therefore kind of a big deal. A fairly obvious example of just how big a deal it is rears its head when we contemplate our own death. Our existence is impermanent. It is going to end. I take it to be fairly obvious that for most of us this is kind of a bummer. One only has to consider the proliferation of death-denying mythologising throughout history, from immortal souls living forever incorporeally in analogue heaven, to uploaded consciousnesses living forever digitally in digital heaven (is there really any difference?), to see how important this issue is for humans in general. Accepting the inevitability of your own death, not to mention the death of everyone you love, is difficult. But maybe accepting that all existence is impermanent, that death is the price of admission, can help. And acceptance of death really does help us to live better (at least I’ve got this on good authority, I’m still terrified of death most of the time). The goal of Buddha’s teachings is always soteriological – it is aimed at achieving “salvation” (or liberation – moksha). Not salvation in the afterlife, but the cessation (or at least diminishment) of suffering in the here and now. (By the way, I’m not going to talk about Buddhist conceptions of reincarnation in this piece, maybe another time.)

Now, it’s no coincidence that I’m a fan of philosophers and teachers like Heraclitus and Buddha (and their exegetes). I’m an evolutionary biologist and it is also absolutely central to evolutionary thinking that all things are interdependent and impermanent. I want this to be a short piece, so I’m not going to go into details here, but to consider interdependence just think about the concept of an ecosystem. By definition, “systems” are composed of many elements that interact and “work together”. Sometimes, this coalition really does work together to achieve some tangible goal, but not always. The parts of an ecosystem don’t necessarily cooperate, but they do depend upon each other to achieve stability. In fact, the evolutionary “game” is all about achieving stability in the face of the constant flux which characterises, well, everything. Stability can only be achieved through the formation of coalitions (a solitary quark, for example, is extremely unstable), i.e. through interdependence. Stability is only relative, however, ecosystems change and eventually disappear, mountains crumble to the sea (did I steal that from somewhere?) – everything is impermanent, nothing lasts forever, all things must pass (insert song lyrics ad nauseum).

If as a musician I am biased towards music, as an evolutionist I am biased towards impermanence. Why is music so good at depicting impermanence? Because music is the most obviously ephemeral art form. More than any other art form, music draws our attention to the passage of time. It’s not the only art form to do this of course (narrative would be another obvious example), it’s just the most direct. Music only exists in the moment of hearing. Sure, you can write a score for a piece of music, but the score is not the music. It is map, not territory. The same is true of a recording – the grooves in a vinyl record, the 0s and 1s in an MP3; these are not music, they are media through which music may be realised….by pressing “play”.

When music is existing, the fact of its passing, its being in time, is impossible (for anyone paying attention) to ignore. Paintings are impermanent too. Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia is impermanent too (hopefully I’ll see it before one of us expires). But these works of art do not wear their ephemerality on their sleeves. To experience them is not to experience their transience directly. In this, music is unparalleled. It makes impermanence explicit. In so doing, it draws our attention to the constant flux of the present moment. Perhaps we are able to forget or ignore this aspect of music these days because we are so constantly bombarded by recorded music wherever we go. Music is assaulting our ears from every angle as we move through the world (and indeed we’re often using it to block out the world with our earphones), and most of it is thus relegated to the status of background noise. Listening is different from simply hearing. As Igor Stravinsky remarked, “a duck hears also”. When you really listen to music, its flux, its temporality, is undeniable. You are either with it you aren’t. If your attention waivers, you’ve missed it. That part is now gone. If you were trying to listen to one of Anton Webern’s “5 Pieces for Orchestra”, you just missed the whole piece. Perhaps you heard a few plinks and plonks, but had you been listening you might have had one of the most profound experiences available to human consciousness. (Am I overselling Webern? No.)

Okay, what’s important about this? Music makes explicit something that is fundamental to the human experience. We exist in time and all our experiences are transitory. To get the most out of experience, to get the most out of life, we must be paying attention. All experiences are like Webern’s pieces, both in their potential profundity and in their undeniable transience – blink and they are gone forever. This is pretty obvious, right? But have you accepted it? Have you started to conquer primal confusion? I haven’t. Not really. I still want the good times to last forever and I still think the suffering will never end. I often need to be reminded that pleasure and suffering are equally impermanent, and music is one of the best memento moris for the moment.


Painting by Genevieve Jackson, used without permission from artist (she’ll forgive me). 

Physicalism and consciousness

A: You’re always banging on about “physicalism” and “physicalist monism”. Frankly it all sounds like “goo goo ga joob” to me…..

B: Monism is just the belief that there is only one kind of “stuff” in the universe, and physicalism is the belief that that stuff is physical stuff.

A: Right. But what about consciousness? That doesn’t seem very physical to me.

B: Fair enough, there is definitely a sense in which it will always seem like there is more than just the physical. As you say, the contents of our consciousness, our “qualia“, seem profoundly non-physical….and in a sense they are, but not in any sense that requires there to be more “stuff” than the physical.

But I agree – this question of how qualia can exist in a physical universe still needs to be dealt with, it’s a BIG question. You can say “they are just illusions”, and that’s true, but it doesn’t answer the question, it just dodges it. Illusions are things that aren’t what they seem, not things that don’t exist. No one can deny the existence of qualia, not even the most ardent behaviourist, not BF Skinner himself.

A: Uh huh… with it then please.

B: I’ll try. To be honest, I’m not sure anyone has really dealt with it yet, but the way we move forward with all tricky questions is to throw out conjectures which can be critically interrogated, both by others and ourselves. They can be interrogated experimentally, or purely through rational criticism. It’s all part of the process….

A: Righto, conjecture away.

B: We actually have plenty of examples of things that are real, physical phenomena, but seem not to be – rainbows, holograms etc. We also know about things that exist in different states – recordings of any kind, digital storage of information, etc. But any of these analogies can still only get you part of the way to consciousness, because these are things that are experienced, not things that experience.

From a physicalist perspective, consciousness is literally the experience of being part of the physical universe. That sounds like panpsychism….

A: Pan- what now….?

B: “Panpsychism” – the belief that consciousness is fundamental, and thus suffuses everything in the universe.

A: Is that like the Hindu concept of “Brahman”?

B: Something like that yes, I’m no expert on Hinduism, but I think that the concept of “oneness”, of an “ultimate reality”, can be either physicalist or “psychist”. Either way these are forms of monism, it’s just that the psychist form considers consciousness to be fundamental, and believes that the physical somehow emanates from that unified field of consciousness. Theoretical physicists also believe in a oneness and a “unified field”, quite literally – unified field theory is an attempt to unite all fundamental forces and particles in a single field…..which really is a pretty similar idea to Brahman, as I understand it, at least in monist forms of Hinduism.

A: Yeah, sounds kinda similar to me….physicists often use a sort of mystical terminology when they get excited too. They might even start talking about the “mind of God”, and then hastily point out that they mean the “God” of Spinoza, not some man in the sky…

B: Well, yeah, Spinoza was also a monist. Doesn’t he say something like “There is only one substance in the world, and that substance is God,”?

A: Sounds familiar, I never really paid attention in philosophy lectures to be honest – “talk talk talk drone drone drone yawn yawn yawn”. Anyway, get back to your droning about panpsychism, or whatever….

B: I’m not going to rise to that. Come to think of it, a panpsychist could probably either believe that consciousness is fundamental, or that the physical is but that all physical entities are imbued with consciousness, even fundamental particles.

A: Conscious particles?

B: Well, sort of. It’s a bit of a convoluted argument….

A: Can we skip it then?

B: I think it’s important, because it concerns a very deep divide in human thought. If you are a monist, you are committed to the idea that every fundamental building block of reality has a little bit of what it takes to make consciousness. For a physicalist that much should be uncontroversial, because we believe that consciousness is part of the physical universe along with everything else. The disagreement seems to be about whether we should call those building blocks “conscious”, or if we should reserve that term for organisms that are more obviously “aware”, but which are nevertheless built of those blocks. In some traditions, and I think this might apply to monist Hinduism, “consciousness” really seems to mean something like “that from which all other things are constructed”, so it’s sort of built into that definition that consciousness will always be fundamental, no matter what physics has to say….

A: Sheesh….do you ever wonder why people think that philosophy is all just arguing about the number of angels that can fit on a pinhead?

B: It’s true that a lot of the deepest schisms in philosophy are the result of semantic disagreements. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t important, or that they don’t have a massive causal impact in our world – people will fight and die over their semantic distinctions, and they guide the way we think about and interact with the world in general. This is true of all of us, even scientists. Once we have the fairly basic philosophical insight that words are not entirely precise, and don’t really map onto reality in the same way for everybody, we develop this anxiety about the influence of words and try to escape it altogether. I think this is why some scientists claim philosophy is unimportant – because they think it’s “just” words, and words are unreliable as descriptions of reality. The thing is we can’t escape words – they have been central to human evolution and all our world views are necessarily built from them….which is exactly why philosophy is so important!!

A: Yep yep, off your high horse and on with the story please.

B: Personally, I’m no panpsychist. I feel there is every reason to believe that only very special parts of the physical universe, parts that perform a particular kind and rate of “information processing”, give rise to experience. And it’s not as if there’s this kind of information processing that just happens to give rise to experience, like it’s a coincidence or something. No, that’s epiphenomenalism, which is incoherent. There is…

A: Hang on, hang on….you and your “isms”….

B: “Epiphenomenalism” is the idea that consciousness is non-functional, that it’s just there, we’re experiencing it, but actually it has no influence on “reality”……whatever reality is supposed to be….

A: That sounds pretty stupid.

B: It is. There is an evolutionary context for consciousness. It’s not that our brains perform a particular kind of information processing and so we have experiences; it’s that our brains perform a particular kind of information processing because it gives rise to experience. Consciousness is functional. It is the solution to a design problem – that of how to integrate diverse sources of sensory input so that an organism can act effectively in the world. And consciousness is also about predicting the future…

A: Huh? Like clairvoyance? Now you sound like a mystic.

B: There’s nothing mystical about it, although it might be the source of some of our mystical beliefs. I can make it sound really dry if you want – consciousness is an “affordance-seeking predictive engine”.

A: Yeah, that’s dry. And boring. Stick to the mysticism, it’s more fun.

B: It’s not at all boring! It’s just a way of saying that consciousness allows us to imagine future scenarios, to envision the way the world around us is likely to change over a given time period, so that we can be best placed to either get the things we want, or avoid the things we don’t want to interact with, like predators or other hazards. When you stand on the edge of something tall, it’s not uncommon to have a vision of yourself falling off it – that’s one of the functions of consciousness, to warn us about dangerous things in our environment by predicting what might happen if we get too close…..

A: Hold on, how do you differ between “consciousness” and just “awareness”? Couldn’t I be aware of dangerous things in the environment without actually having visions of them, or without any kind of prediction of the future?

B: It’s difficult to disentangle awareness and consciousness in either an evolutionary context or in terms of the words themselves. I mean, to be “conscious” of something is to be aware of it, right? And if you consider human consciousness as some sort of end point of an evolutionary series that stretches all the way back to our distant single-celled ancestors, it’s going to be pretty hard to draw a line with consciousness on one side of it and “mere awareness” on the other side of it. Single-celled organisms are aware of their environments; they can sense them in a number of ways. Our consciousness, whatever it is, is descended from that awareness. I don’t really know to what extent the sensorium of an amoeba is integrated, but as organisms become more complex and their ability to sense the world becomes more refined, I imagine there is a greater need to integrate sensory inputs to create a unified picture of the world, and that is consciousness.

A: That sounds pretty straight-forward, but I’m not getting the “prediction” part, and I don’t get how all this leads to dreams and imagination and all the things that fill our consciousness and seem completely un-physical.

B: Yeah, it’s really hard to connect all those dots and articulate a simple explanation that really nails human consciousness. It’s hard to even do that for oneself, let alone put it into words that can give someone else that “Ah-ha!” moment…

A: Aw, life’s so hard to understand, isn’t it? Anyway, your “Ah-ha!” moments don’t mean you really understand, do they? They could just be the standard illusion of certainty everybody suffers from….

B: That’s very true. Regardless, I think it’s something like this: the integration of sensory inputs serves to create a sort of coherent “model” of the world, full of relevant affordances…

A: What are those again?

B: “Affordances” are basically things we can interact with. The thing is, the brain doesn’t create this model from scratch every moment of the day, that would be way too inefficient. It builds a model and then updates it only as new and unexpected things are detected. So the model is always a sort of expectation of how the world is going to be, which is only really updated whenever something that wasn’t included in that prediction occurs. That’s called “prediction error”. And since the brain has this capacity to actually build this integrated model based on sensory inputs, when those sensory inputs stop, the modelling capacity doesn’t just switch off. That’s essentially what dreams are – the brain continuing its task of model-building, but now unconstrained by sensory input. So really, the brain is always making predictions, and as predictive abilities become more sophisticated, organisms can benefit from anticipating potential future occurrences by ensuring they are in the right place at the right time to take advantage of, or avoid, anything that might come their way. When some organisms actually became “meta-aware”, of this…

A: What? You’re going off the deep-end now….

B: Aware of being aware. Like we are. Being aware of this predictive process means being able to control it to some degree, to actually plan for the future. But there’s a bit of a danger there I think, because obviously our predictions aren’t always accurate and a lot of our modern neuroses come from us doing too much predicting – we get caught up in our fantasies and can no longer tell which of the threats in our environment are actual, and which are the products of our own minds.

A: Right, like paranoia.

B: Exactly. It’s important for us to stop paying attention to that stuff from time to time, to take a break from all the self-generated predictive activity that usually fills up consciousness. It’s basically taking a break from our “selves” and directing our attention outwards and just enjoying the sensation of being a conscious part of the physical universe…..

A: That kinda makes sense, but now you’re starting to sound like a mystic of the self-help guru variety. I’m not sure I entirely got your explanation of consciousness as predictive though, and none of this is really convincing me about physicalism, either.

B: It’s a tough sell. Anyway, I’m tired, you’re tired – let’s talk about this again another time….



Painting by Genevieve Camille Jackson – Cadeau de la Terre-Mere (A gift from Mother Earth), 2017 Acrylic on canvas 100×80