Friday, August 02, 2013

Closer to the truth -- part 2

Can Plato's triad –- the Good, the Beautiful, and the True –- be reduced (in principle) to genetically and culturally-conditioned neurological states, or do they exist independently of the perceiving brain? The question is, I suppose, a version of the mind/brain debate, or even a riff on Cartesian soul/body dualism. It is unlikely that I would have anything useful to add to a debate that has exercised greater minds (brains?) than mine, but let me share my personal inclinations.

In the BBC Eroica: The Movie, the aged Josef Haydn shows up on the scene between the 3rd and 4th movements of the performance of the symphony. A sneering Count Dietrichstein opines that what they have been listening to is so much bombast and noise, not a symphony at all according to commonly-received notions of beauty. Hadyn says that the only thing he remembers striving for "is a balance between the emotions and the intellect."

Is Beethoven's music beautiful independently of any particular human auditor, or is beauty the resonance of a created object (including sound vibrations in the air) with human emotions and intellect? And if the latter, then we might expect one person's beauty to be another person's noise, which is pretty much what we see in the movie.

Emotions and intellect are surely properties of the human brain, partly pre-wired by natural selection, partly post-wired by experience, or at least that would be the view of a committed Ockhamist. A love of music seems to be a universal human trait. Favored forms of music would seem to depend on cultural conditioning. Count Dietrichstein hears noise. Prince Logkowitz's wife hears beauty. Josef Haydn, having listened to the 4th movement of the Eroica, is ambiguous; he admits what he has heard is noisy, but he is perceptive enough to know that what he has heard is important. He says: "Everything is different from today."

A commotion of neurons or eternal verities? As an Ockhamist, I'm inclined to the former, although we have much to learn. The fabulous complexity of the human brain renders any attempt at neurological reduction difficult, but -– as Beethoven says in the movie –- difficult gets us closer to the truth.

Not Truth, but "closer to the truth."