Saturday, February 21, 2009

The orchestra of life

“I am looking at my baby son, as he thrashes around in his crib, two arms flailing, hands grasping randomly, legs kicking the air, head and eyes turning this way and that, a smile followed by a grimace crossing his face. . . And I’m wondering: what is it like to be him? What is he feeling now? What kind of experience is he having of himself?”

“Then a strong image comes to me. I am standing now, not at the rail of a crib, but in a concert hall at the rail of the gallery, watching as the orchestra assembles. The players are arriving, one by one – strings, percussion, woodwind – taking their separate places on the stage. They pay little if any attention to each other. Each adjusts his chair, smooths his clothes, arranges the score on the rack in front of him. One by one they start to tune their instruments.The cellist draws his bow darkly across the strings, cocks his head as if savouring the resonance, and slightly twists the screw. The harpist leans into the body of her harp, runs her fingers trippingly along a scale, relaxes and looks satisfied. The oboist pipes a few liquid notes, stops, fiddles with the reed and tries again. The tympanist beats a brief rally on his drum. Each is, for the moment, entirely in his own world, playing only to and for himself, oblivious to anything but his own action and his own sound. The noise from the stage is a medley of single notes and snatches of melody, out of time, out of harmony. Who would believe that all these independent voices will soon be working in concert under one conductor to create a single symphony…”

That’s an extract from an essay, “One Self: A meditation on the unity of consciousness” by Nicholas Humphrey. While comparing the baby with an orchestra, Humphrey realizes that the conductor in an orchestra actually plays a minor role. What truly binds them into one organic unit and creates the flow between them is something much deeper and more magical: namely, the very act of making music; that they are together creating a single work of art…

Parts come to belong to a whole just in so far as they are participants in a common project? Try the definition where you like: What makes the parts of an oak tree belong together – the branches, roots, leaves, acorns ? They share a common interest in the tree’s survival.What makes the parts of a complex machine like an aerorplane belong to the aeroplane – the wings, the jet engines, the radar? They participate in the common enterprise of flying.

Then, here’s the question: What makes the parts of a person belong together – if and when they do? The clear answer has to be that the parts will and do belong together just in so far as they are involved in the common project of creating that person’s life.

Humphrey concludes that the baby he was watching was the coming together of several mini projects to achieve the miracle of unification, through the power inherent in all his sub-selves for, literally, their own self-organisation.

I read this in Richard Dawkin’s collection of science writing, brought out by Oxford University Press. Dawkins clarifies that it is a collection of good writing by professional scientists, not excursions into science by professional writers. It makes for great reading.

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