Monday, November 22, 2010

Two Ways of Seeing One Reality

One of my favorite works of music is the Sonata quasi una Fantasia by Ludwig van Beethoven.   The first movement is best known as the Moonlight Sonata.  I’ll give a brief description of it.

The piece begins with three pitches produced simultaneously.  Each pitch is produced by a hammer striking a string.  When the hammer strikes the string it causes it to vibrate.  In the case of the Moonlight Sonata, the first three pitches vibrate at frequencies of 69.2957 Hertz, 138.591 Hertz, and 207.652 Hertz.  The frequencies at which these strings vibrate are determined by their length, thickness, and tension.  These pitches are produced at about 50 decibels.  The strings producing the two lower frequencies remain undamped for the first measure continuing to vibrate while the string at the highest frequency it damped by a damper as another string is struck, vibrating at 277.183 Hertz.  This string is then damped and replaced by another string vibrating at 329.628 Hertz.  The three pitches at 207.652 Hertz, 277.183 Hertz, and 329.628 Hertz are played in succession four times for equal values of time.  Each “triplet” lasts 1.154 seconds.  This is the first “measure” of the piece.

The beginning is hauntingly soft, so soft it is almost imperceptible.  The repeating treble line lulls you into peaceful stillness as the bass notes descend slowly.  The tone is distinctly minor and then shifts briefly into major chords as the intensity increases and falls back into the repeating minor chords.  Finally the slow melody breaks the monotony of the repeating patterns.  The melody is slow and soars over the substructure of the supporting broken triplet chords.  The melody follows the same minor chord pattern but then begins to surge forward into major chords and receding back like a wave.  Each time the melody pushes forward with greater intensity, climbing toward immanent resolution and falling back into the same repeating cadence.

Both descriptions I have presented of this piece of music represent reality.  However, their approaches are markedly different.  The first, objective description was actually easier to write, although more technically rigorous.  Music has measureable, physical properties.  Music is sound and sound has frequency and amplitude.  Sound waves can be measured, quantified, and characterized.  These sound waves can be plotted with respect to time and give a completely accurate demonstration of what the music is.  But the second approach is the subjective relation of the experience of the music.  The physical properties explained in the first description are the same whether or not any person is listening or not.  But the emotional and sensational effects of music depend on the person hearing it.  These effects, while real, are much more difficult to describe.  But it is because of the emotional and sensational effects of music that we even bother to produce and listen to it.

These are two ways of seeing one reality.  Reality is the same regardless of how we choose to look at it.  One definition I like was put forward by Phillip K. Dick: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away.”  If I am listening to the Moonlight Sonata there are real sound waves traveling through the air and entering my ear.  From there, the sounds are interpreted via various chemical processes in my brain.  The emotions produced in my brain are just as real as the sound waves that led up to them.  Emotions can be explained by chemistry but I don’t generally bother to think about them that way.  I just feel them.  All these things comprise the whole sum of reality, which is vastly more complex than we can ever take in at any one time.  There are so many ways to look at a single reality but I group them into two categories. 

The first way I think of looking at reality is the way of science, including logic, mathematics and so forth.  Everything in the universe can be reduced to the particles that make up matter, their vectors of motion, the forces acting on them, and their configuration with each other.  Science is able to explain a great deal, and even with its obvious limitations it is quite probable that those things that cannot now be explained are at least explainable

The second way of looking at reality is to see things as whole things, in entirety.  While a person is indeed a complex configuration of particles organized in a living body, a person can also be viewed as a person as such.  A person can be loved in a way that particles in their body cannot.  Or to use my example of music, the Moonlight Sonata is more than a series of combined sound waves.  It is also a beautiful work of art.

The most interesting description of these two methods I know of was written by Martin Buber (1878-1965).  He said, “The world is twofold for man in accordance with his twofold attitude.”  He described these two attitudes in accordance with two basic words, or word-pairs.

1.  I-It
2.  I-You

The I-It attitude is the way we relate to an object.  These objects can be people or things.  The difference between the I-It and the I-You is not the specific parties involved but the attitude we take toward them.  The I-It view is not bad or wrong.  In fact, the I-It is the way we usually live.  In order to survive we need to understand the general order of things and find our place in that order.  We live in a universe of cause and effect, and the better we can understand this pattern the more successful we will be.  This is the attitude of analysis and in its formal application, science.  The objects we experience in the I-It relationship are seen as the sum of their components rather than as whole entities.  This is the dissection of the sonata into its physical description and it is one way of looking at Beethoven’s music.

The I-You attitude is the way of encounter with our whole being.  The “You” can be a person but can also be inanimate, even a sonata.  If I relate to you as an “I” to a “You” I see you not as the sum total of the particles that make up your body but as “You”, your whole being.  This encounter (Buber describes it as an encounter as opposed to experience) is acutely centered in “You”.  For that moment the entire universe as far as I am concerned is centered in “You”.  Rather than the dissection of the sonata into physical descriptions, The I-You encounter with the Moonlight Sonata is a relationship to the music as a whole.  It is seeing the reality that transcends the sum of its parts.  I believe it is the way Beethoven viewed his music, which is why he was such an exceptional artist.

How is it possible to be spiritual in the wake of the tremendous successes of science?  Science can so accurately describe the universe.  To live in the life of the spirit can almost seem superfluous.  But the two world-views are not different explanations of the universe.  Rather, they are two unique ways of seeing the same universe, two ways of seeing one reality.  Both are correct and both are important. The Moonlight Sonata is a collection of sound waves.  But it is also something more, and to know what that something is you have to encounter it for itself.  The first view is necessary in order to live successfully in the world.  But it is the the second view that really makes life worth living.