Of Music and Materialism

A materialist confronts sehnsucht and can't explain it.

By Anika Smith Published on February 1, 2015

Sarah Grant at Wondering Sound has a stimulating interview with Alessandro Brustenghi, a Franciscan friar and gifted tenor, where she makes the story about her own discomfort with the tie between religion and music.

Rather than helping us understand Friar Brustenghi or his music, Grant goes off on a brief investigation that gets curtailed by evolutionary neuroscience laden with unexamined materialist philosophy.

Along the way we “learn” that always and everywhere we perceive only models “of our own creation,” and that Friar Alessandro sounds “hokey” when he claims that music is a gift from Heaven to share with all people.

Grant seems to have a grudging admiration for the friar, but she translates his references to God as simply feeling awe in music — at which point, she reduces awe to a neurological state. This is accomplished through a quick phone consultation with a neuroscientist, Dr. Michael Graziano, who leads her to the “nothing-buttery” fallacy in about two seconds:

This is the same kind of conversation people have in their spiritual lives, which is partly why music and religion share so many intangible qualities. According to Graziano, “Our relationship with music is fundamentally similar to our relationship with religion.” Everything we perceive in the world and in the spiritual world, that is real or imagined, is a model of our own creation.

Better to come at the matter differently. The richness, the complexity of things outstrips our perceptual capacities. We are not God, omniscient. But at the same time, when you wake in the morning, you perceive things, not models of things. When you go into the kitchen and get a cup of coffee, you taste real coffee on your tongue — the actual taste,  not a model of coffee taste. When you shuffle outside to meet the new day, you are not in that moment perceiving a model of a sunrise. You are perceiving a sunrise, even if your perception and appreciation of it is less than complete.

Also, there is a difference between perceiving a sunset and imagining one. Graziano’s phrasing goes a long way toward flattening this basic distinction.

The same holds for the experience of the transcendent. The ability to marvel, to experience awe and wonder — to feel what the Germans call sehnsucht — is a way beauty — be it in art, nature, music or a child’s perfect ear – may lead to thoughts of God. Openness to the one may lead to the other, as was the case with C. S. Lewis, whom God brought to Himself through numinous experiences as well as through appeals to his reason.

Your brain is involved, of course, but your experience — whether it’s of music or of God or of holding your beloved — is not engaged with mere models.

Nor is the experience reducible to synapses firing in your brain. Neuroscience backs this up: your thoughts are not reducible to your brain activity. Your experience of love or pain, in other words, is simply not the same thing as some electro-chemical firing of a spot in your brain.

So go ahead and talk about music like Friar Alessandro and Bono. Matter is involved. But materialism’s got nothing on it.


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