Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Bach to the future

A few weeks ago, the New York Times Sunday Magazine interviewed philosopher Daniel Dennett regarding his new book on the natural origins of religion. This week a letter writer takes Dennett to task for his reductionist understanding of what it means to be human. "Can he really explain the beauty of Bach's music as merely the right combination of sound waves tickling his eardrums?" asks Andrew Caudal.

I don't think Dennett, or anyone else, would claim to understand the response of the human brain to the music of Bach. But the tickling of the eardrum is surely a part of it.

Why should our response to Bach be off limits to scientific understanding? This will be the century of the brain, when more and more of its secrets are revealed, perhaps even why a tangle of nerve fibers fire in a special way when the eardrums are tickled by Bach.

Caudal's comment adds nothing to our understanding of human nature -- or of music. Dennett's attitude at least holds open the possibility of greater future understanding. Would understanding the human response to beauty make something less beautiful? Does that old reductionist Mr. Dennett get less out of Bach than Mr. Caudal?