A Thought Experiment

There will be more experiments like this in future postings.  This particular one has occupied me intermittently for several years — it often helps me to reduce religious disputes, as I reflect on them, to their lowest common denominator.

So we posit two populations of persons: tribe-sized, maybe a couple of hundred apiece including women and children.   Presumptively human: identical in biology, metabolism, and neurological processes.  Like us humans in all the important respects, no matter how we prioritize those.

  • Tribe A’s language consists of, oh let’s say      — 5000 words.
  • Tribe B has the same language, but one more word — 5001 words.
    • the one additional word: “God”.

An immediate consequence of that extra word is that tribe B’s language may have an indefinite number of sentences that do not exist in tribe A’s language.

(For simplicity’s sake, let’s stipulate these two tribes have not yet developed writing.  If they’re capable of keeping written records, it’s a completely different scenario.)

We can pose a number of questions about this situation:

  1. Suppose the tribes to be initially isolated from each other.  Then they meet.  How long might it take for the extra word to pop up in their palaver?  How might a conversation proceed from that point?

  2. Suppose them, on the other hand, to be integrated into a single population.  How will members of each tribe identify themselves to each other in daily activity?   Do they need to?

  3. Suppose we just stipulate that there is no distinction between members of these two tribes other than the single additional word in the language of tribe B.  They observe the same phenomena, have the same science, the same math, the same logic.  But we’ve said nothing about their psychology or social structure.

  4. Then what about cultural norms, mores, institutions, myths, narratives?  Is that single word variance enough to generate divergences in these?  Will we find significant differences in moral codes?  Necessarily?  Or contingently?

Of course there could be many more questions.  These are just the first that occur to me.

Some Questions

Has the fun really gone out of explaining things?

Did the first-generation evangelists use altar calls?

Can you worship without a theologian nearby?

How would a first-generation gentile convert understand references to “The Law”?

Will the neighborhood atheist ever give up his enlightenment-besotted notions of ‘human reason’?

Do scientists ever use parables or myths?  If they do, who would listen to them, and why?

Strange Music

I have had a strange experience with a piece of music.

Surfing YouTube a couple of evenings back, I stumbled onto Beethoven’s Op. 106, the so-called “Hammerklavier” sonata. The pianist was Wilhelm Kempff.

That brought back a lot of memories.  When our family acquired its first record-player in 1957, an Opus 106 LP from Kempff’s 1954-7 set was one of my first purchases.

Well, it’s true that my first love was Bach; the Hammerklavier LP had been preceded by Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations, and Rosalyn Tureck’s WTC II, and a few other things.

But the slow movement of the Hammerklavier began to do things for me that no other music – not even from my beloved Bach – had ever approached. I was in high school, omnivorously literate,  a piano student stoned on Bach, in agonies of ignorance and pain over emotional states and intellectual vistas that my reading had provided no names for.

The adagio spoke to that solitude. It spoke to my spiritual discomfort, my loneliness, to the diffidence and uncertainty that attended my every social undertaking, the endless failures in friendship. Of course, I had read the man’s life, and his own travails, the Heiligenstadt Testament, the deafness; I had read, and wept at, the story of his premier of the ninth symphony. And so I identified myself in that music.

That continued for many years through high school and college.

As time passed though, the angst and the pain of my adolescence subsided.  I cooled, like slow Hawaiian lava.

And so did my connection to Beethoven and the Hammerklavier.  There was folk music to discover, and the Beatles, Janis Joplin, Dylan, all the modalities of popular culture.  I could always depend on friends to tell me about the new music I needed to hear: the guy who introduced me to acid in 1966 brought an LP of Ravi Shankar to accompany our trip; I got hooked on the music but not the acid.

And always my collection of Bach recordings, and scholarly books, grew larger and larger.  In the 90’s I undertook to create synthesized performances of the Bach keyboard and organ works.

And that gets us to two nights ago, hearing the Beethoven slow movement for the first time in thirty, maybe forty years.

It was a devastating experience.  A rare experience.

You know the bit where you reread a book, or see a movie that once affected you deeply, and find it disappointing?   It’s uncommon, upon returning to a work of art you once loved, to find it even better, greater, deeper, richer, than you remembered; but that’s what happened to me with the Beethoven.

Yes, that’s uncommon; but it’s not, in and of itself, strange.

What’s strange with this adagio: since my re-encounter, it has suffused, ennobled, and dignified every kind of music – Joplin, Shankar, assorted Bach fugues, Creedence Clearwater, Billy Joel, childhood hymns – that has crossed my mind.  I experience all of these, now, as though they were episodes in the continuing saga of the Hammerklavier.

I don’t quite know what to make of this.  I hardly know how to describe it with any clarity.  Stay tuned.

Helluva way to begin a new year, right?