Monthly Archives: November 2010

A Philosophical Rejoinder to Religion’s Radical Intolerance of Science, Reason, and Morality, by Prof. James M. Magrini

A Philosophical Rejoinder to Religion’s Radical Intolerance of Science, Reason, and Morality: Reading “UFOs, Intolerance, and Beliefs: When Religion and Politics Should be Topics at the Dinner Table”
(UFO Magazine, Vol. 24 No.1, Issue #154)

“Authoritarian Church thought has condemned independent philosophy on the ground that it is a worldly temptation which leads man away from God, destroys his soul with vain preoccupations”                              ~ Karl Jaspers

In the article, “UFOs, Intolerance, and Beliefs: When Religion and Politics Should be Topics at the Dinner Table” authors (Drs) Bob and Zoh Hieronimus document Peter Robbins’ quest to examine fundamental Christianity’s disturbing, and what was for him, surprising intolerance to the scientific pursuit of the investigation of UFOs, i.e., a radical intolerance of methods which “attempt at a scientific or historical analysis of this undeniable phenomenon.” Deeply troubled by Evangelist Pat Robertson’s outrageous and immoral proclamation that those who actively pursue the phenomenon of UFOs from a scientific perspective should be stoned to death, Robbins began interviewing fundamental Christians, polling their opinions and compiling a dossier of their views on UFOs in relation to their religious world-view. In the process, Robbins undertakes a ‘philosophical’ and ethical inquiry into self-knowledge, specifically with respect to what he terms “intense feelings of intolerance toward the intolerant.” Robbins, seeking to understand the authentic democratic notions of equity, justice, and equality in the arena of open critical debate as related to UFO studies, is an inspiration to all who cherish the ideals of inclusive, respectful debate, which holds the potential for disagreement among participants without the threat of violence.

However, Robbins grants a sense of charity and ‘tolerance’ toward the fundamental Christian religious view that is, in my estimation, far beyond the bounds of rational and moral civility; it is also, as I demonstrate, beyond the limits of what philosophy terms ‘friendly’ religious-philosophical debate. Absolutism and dogmatism in all of its virulent forms must be confronted, and if necessary, combated and suppressed, especially when there is the potential of serious harm coming to others. Fundamentalist Christian views, as expressed by Robertson, threaten the authentic ‘democratic’ ways that ensure, as Robbins rightly points out, that we might “live together in harmony and ultimately begin to respect the differences that we have.” As a ‘narrow atheist,’ one who denies the existence of the theistic God of Christianity, many issues and concerns that the article brings to light are of interest to me as they relate to the ongoing debate between theology and philosophy of which I am an active participant as a concerned secular thinker. In what follows, I’ll revisit several of the concerns that the article raises with the purpose of attempting to draw out their philosophical implications.

To begin, philosopher and sociologist Jurgen Habermas, writing on the topic of critical, inclusive discourse, outlines a democratic notion of ‘communicative’ ethics that not only structures the processes of dialogic problem solving, it also embodies the virtues, or ideals, of justice, equity, and equality through the unfolding of its critical and respectful discourse. When we gather together with the purpose of redirecting our failed courses of action, i.e., when our claims to knowledge or solutions to ethical problems break down, there is a need to reevaluate our actions, conscious mind-sets, and the knowledge and practices that we are currently adopting. What is unique about Habermas’ conception of authentic discourse is that it literally prefigures, within the participatory nature of its structure and unfolding, the future ideals that we are in the process of envisioning and forming, which are not yet immediately present to our social practices. Authentic discourse, as envisioned by Habermas, is all-inclusive, non-coercive, and ecumenical in nature, based not on the participants’ social position, but on the legitimacy of the arguments that participants bring to the debate.

In short, all people are given an equal voice, yet all voices do not carry equal weight, for arguments grounded in rational principles of ‘sound’ argumentation are clearly more valuable than others in solving our problems, which is why Habermas states that within authentic ethical discourse it is “the force of the argument prevails.” Fundamentalist religious belief excludes itself from the forum of rational discourse as described and endorsed by Habermas, and clearly should be excluded, from such ‘ethical’ considerations because of its propensity to ignore facts and cling dogmatically to positions anchored in faith and the literal interpretation of scripture. Their ‘faith’ precludes the consideration of any and all perspectives outside of their own, their minds are already made up, and no amount of rational discourse will change things. As Robbins points out, “If you don’t take their belief to heart, then at best you’re completely misled, and at worst you’re part of the problem and also leading folks down the wrong path.” Not only will fundamentalist Christians refuse to engage in the type of ‘ethical’ debate I have outlined above, if they oppose your position, they will, as Robertson claims, consider the horrifying possibility of stoning you to death. In the desperate and misguided attempt to play God, enacting His divine will of earth, they assume the roles of Holy judge, jury, and executioner, meting out punishment in a manner they believe is sanctioned by both God and scripture. It is interesting to note that the fundamentalists’ literal interpretation of scripture ignores such passages as the following:

    Judge not, that ye be not judged.  For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.  And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?  (Matthew 7:1-3)

We should adopt a ‘zero tolerance’ policy with respect to fundamental Christians such as Robertson who advocate for violence as a solution to enact a ‘totalizing’ effect, through which a religious world-view is constructed where differences are either leveled down, i.e., the unsaved are converted, brought to the light of soteria, or eliminated outright.  The only Christians we should agree to debate, or indeed can debate, are those whose beliefs are not wholly derived from faith, miracle, or revelation, those whose religious beliefs allow for the possibility that our rational capacity for responding to philosophical-theological problems, while necessary, is limited and that we cannot have any type of knowledge with definitive certainty. If such conditions obtain, the potential exists for philosophical debate within an atmosphere that fosters respectful disagreement among the participants. However, it must be noted that in order for the discourse to hold an adequate degree of immediacy, the person holding the Christian position, or theistic view, must espouse a reflective and informed position. As philosopher William Rowe outlines, this position is represented by Christians “who [are] aware of the usual grounds for belief and disbelief and [are] acquainted to some degree with modern science.” For example, a Christian might rationally justify their belief by appealing to the ‘theistic’ arguments for God’s existence, as found in Aquinas, or by examining and analyzing their own experience of God and religion.

Philosophy embracing ‘friendly atheism’ acknowledges that it is certainly possible to be rational and speak logically about one’s belief system without being expected to categorically validate it, i.e., providing necessary and sufficient reasons that are beyond question or revision. For example, Christian philosopher William Lane Craig is one such thinker who provides rational and philosophical grounds for his beliefs. Craig has written extensively on the Kalam Cosmological Argument for God’s existence, and with intelligence, rigor and great decorum, has debated Richard Dawkins. According to Rowe, ‘friendly atheism’ does not advocate tolerance across the board, or what might be termed ‘unconditional tolerance,’ to include those holding outrageous and unsubstantiated religious views, such as fundamentalist Christians, whose beliefs are akin to what humans “believed in the eleventh or thirteenth century.” There is a point at which even the ‘friendly atheist’ must refuse to grant an invitation to discourse, and the type of religious belief to which fundamentalists cling, which defies anything resembling a reflective and informed position, must be excluded from the context of rational philosophical debate on religion.

The marked difference between Robbins and the fundamentalists he seeks to understand might be expressed in the following terms, as related to a fallacy of logic known as the Appeal to Ignorance, which manifests in two distinct forms: Religious thinkers often fall victim to the first form of the argument when attempting to articulate their position; Atheists often fall victim to the second form of the argument when attempting to ground their position. The Appeal to Ignorance works in such a way that a lack of evidence is marshaled in defense of one’s claims. In short, because I am unable to prove something doesn’t exist, you are therefore free, and beyond, fully justified in believing that it does exist. In it’s theistic manifestation, it can be articulated in the following terms: Nobody (science-physics) has shown definitively that God does not exist; Therefore, God exists. In the second version of the argument, which is often mistakenly employed by atheists who believe that it justifies their position in a categorical fashion, the burden of proof is placed on the Christian, and it runs as follows: Nobody (religion-science-physics) has shown definitively that God exists; Therefore, he does not exist. Robbins explicitly avoids falling into the trap of this latter version of the Appeal to Ignorance, and he demonstrates this when he contemplates the possibility of the fundamentalists’ claim that UFOs are in fact minions of Satan, and in what follows, Robbins even goes so far as to consider he (extreme) possibility that fundamentalists might indeed be correct. The quote is worth reproducing in its entirety:

    How can anyone truly know – know, with absolute certainty – that this is the one and only explanations for UFOs? Hey, what do I know? I’ve only been studying this subject for thirty plus years. Perhaps I’m wrong and truly anomalous UFOs are demonic in origin, their crafts manned by the minions of Satan, as Robertson and those who share his beliefs maintain.

This leads into the consideration of the so-called ‘demonic hypothesis’ for UFOs, and unlike Robbins, I refuse to grant any credence to this outrageous, mythological fueled nonsense; I am utterly intolerant of such jejune explanations for phenomena that clearly hold advanced scientific-technological implications. With the ‘demon hypothesis,’ an infantile attempt to explain UFOs, fundamental Christians make Mother Goose appear as a bastion of truth and reason. The hypothesis in short centers around the origin of UFOs, which only appear as if they are from outer space, only appear to be inter-dimensional, for they are actually crafts piloted by demons under the command of Lucifer with the sole purpose to lure people away from the teachings of Jesus, from God and His Word, the Bible. Empirical evidence for UFOs is, not surprisingly, utterly discarded, and further, denounced as the blasphemous ratings of the secular scientific community. As the authors state, when the fundamentalists were interviewed by Robbins all the “radar tracking cases or other physical evidence left behind to support the off-world hypothesis,” were explained away by linking all the empirical evidence to the dastardly shenanigans of Satan. As Robbins discovered, and this is a serious issue that I will discuss below: If various anomalous phenomena do not fit neatly within the literal boundaries of scripture, they are relegated to the realm of Satanic activity.

The aforementioned explanation for UFOs in terms of Satan’s demonic legion of ‘Hell’s angels’ given by the fundamentalists when attempting to reconcile anomalous phenomena with scripture, is simply one more example of what Christians have been doing for centuries, namely, rationalizing their proposed solutions to problems which cannot be addressed by simply tending to Biblical exegesis. In light of what has been mentioned, consider the seemingly irreconcilable problem of evidential evil, which perhaps receives its most celebrated treatment in Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Stated succinctly, the problem hinges on the notion of a theistic God who is in possession of all-perfections (including existence): Omni-benevolence; Omni-morality, Omnipotence, Omniscience, etc, and the undeniable existence of evil, in the form of human and natural varieties. Hume wondered: How is it possible for God, who is possession of all perfections (Hume really focuses on omnipotence and omnimorality), to allow evil to exist in the world, which manifests in the form of seemingly senseless instances of profuse human and animal suffering? What kind of god is the God of Christianity? In response to these monumentally troubling queries, Hume concluded that God is either (1) not All-powerful, in that he might want to intervene in order to stop the suffering, but simply is incapable due to a lack of power; or (2) not All-moral, in that if he had the power to prevent evil from occurring and refuses to intervene, he cannot be conceived as moral. From this, Hume ultimately concludes that the God of theism, the God of fundamentalist Christianity, does not exist.

Christians have offered a variety of explanations that seek to accomplish the reconciliation of worldly evil with God’s All-perfect nature, and this practice is referred to as theodicy, literally from theos (god) and dike (justice). Although many Christians look to the book of Job as offering the paradigmatic solution to the problem of evil, other and more ‘philosophically’ driven solutions have been proposed, which far better serve the Christian’s purpose. For example, one such solution comes from the Christian philosopher John Hick, which he refers to as ‘soul-making’ theodicy. Hick’s argument is actually a powerful work of Christian apologetics, and it espouses the absolutely horrifying notion that we require a ‘toughening up’ of the soul, which means that God must subject us to pain, misery, and profuse suffering on a frequent and repeated basis in order to assure that our souls develop and evolve. Here is an example of Christians not only attempting to understand God’s reasons for doing the things He does, which appear utterly beyond the limited grasp of the finite human mind and oft times remain ambiguous in scripture, but as well, making excuses for God by contriving solutions to lingering and disturbing problems stemming from the incongruity between God’s Holy nature and the heinous acts He commits.

The argument in its succinct form runs thusly: God’s providence is not a form of all-encompassing determinism, for He does not want automatons or puppets as subjects, rather He desires ‘free children of God,’ who come to Him out of a sense of love and through the exercise of free will. Herein lies the tragic double bind at the heart of Christianity: Because we have free will, the power to deliberate and choose without coercion or threat, we oft times fall into error, we sin and do evil things. With this explanation for ‘moral’ evil (humans perpetrating evil on each other), it is not God who is culpable for evil, but rather it is the human being who is responsible for shouldering the burden of evil. The world, as argued by Hick, with all of its evil occurrences is in fact perfect the way it is, perfect in the way God envisioned and created it: Perfect in that it is conducive to producing and sustaining substantial amounts of ‘evil’ all of which work to strengthen the human’s capacity and capability for behaving morally toward others. Evil, it is argued, instills in us a sense of ‘moral urgency’ that we would not otherwise have. Thus, without evil and suffering the possibility would not exist for courageous acts, compassionate gestures, or virtuous heroics.

It seems to me that it is completely unnecessary for God to require such monumental instances of evil to instill a sense of compassion and fellow feeling in the world. Imagining someone enduring a prolonged toothache is enough to arouse a deep sense of empathy for that person in pain, and in a compassionate gesture, offer to help in any way possible. As one philosopher stated: “Even small amounts of evil would allow that. It is not necessary to destroy innocent lives.” However, there is more to the argument than simply engendering our moral capacities and capabilities, Hick also makes clear that God, in addition to creating a sense of ‘moral urgency’, also wants to keep us humble, assure against our excessive pride getting the best of us by deflating our egos and putting us in our rightful place by constantly reminding us that we are vulnerable, fragile, and severely limited. It is amazing that Hick is still able to work the notion of love, as agape, into this frighteningly disturbing and highly immoral picture he paints of God’s universe in response to ‘evidential evil.’ In response to Hick, I say, as did Dostoevsky through the character of Ivan Karamazov, if God requires the death or suffering of even one innocent to carry out His grand design, then far “too high a price is asked for harmony,” and to Him, I return my ticket for admission.

In conclusion, I return to Robertson’s troubling remark that began these reflections in order to consider what seems a paradoxical and intractable relationship between religion and morality, and this concern relates to tolerance and intolerance within open discourse as we pursue solutions to our most difficult problems. To reiterate, it is impossible to come to a civil and ethical agreement with fundamentalists like Robertson, who would be quick to stone people to death of he opposed their worldview. Nietzsche observed that although we are unwilling to die for the opinions we hold, we would perhaps be prepared to die “for the right to have our opinions and to change them.” Nietzsche’s observation presupposes that there are those who seek to silence and extinguish the opinions of others, by any means necessary, throwing the authentic democratic ideals of decency, morality, justice, and equity to the wind, if those positions don’t mesh with their own. The authors remind us of the violent and immoral actions that are born of and condoned by Christianity and its authoritarian, absolutist readings of scripture. If it is not present to scripture, it therefore must be “evil because any pursuit of the same will distract you from further study of the accepted Word.” This precise sentiment is echoed in John Caputo’s reading of Derrida and the ‘messianic’ aspects of deconstruction when he argues that religion becomes truly dangerous when it mistakenly conflates, through a sense of confusion, its faith with knowledge, which, as Caputo writes,

    results in the dangerous and absolutizing triumphalism of religion, which spills blood. Religion is most dangerous when it conceives itself as a higher knowledge granted a chosen few, a chosen people of God: that is a formula for war.

This privileging of divine knowledge in the possession of a select few, justifies persecutions of all types, and the authors include Robbins example of the massacre of Native Americans by European Conquers, who ministered for the conversion of these people, and when this failed, sought to starve them out of the colonized territories or slaughter them outright. Here is but one powerful example of Christianity’s utter perversion of ‘morality,’ which, as faith-based and deontological in nature, leaves no room for ethical inquiry and debate because God’s moral code (Divine Command Theory) is in the hands of dogmatic authorities who ‘interpret’ the law and are radically intolerant of opposing views, both religious and secular. Christianity (although it is not alone, here) is a religion steeped in the blood of innocents, and within his philosophical writings, Bertrand Russell has powerfully exposed Christianity’s vile underbelly, its tendency toward and “readiness for persecution.” Religion, in Russell’s view, is in large part responsible for profuse and intense worldly suffering, for inciting and perpetuating ‘evil’ in the world, which conversely it claims to want to eradicate. Christianity, we might say along with Russell, is grounded in the paranoid fear of the unknown and continues to represent the “source of untold misery to the human race.” Thus, in attempting to briefly provide philosophical commentary on the issues discussed by the authors, it was my intent to show why I am advocating a radical ‘intolerance’ toward the fundamental Christians’ ‘intolerance,’ for along with their dogmatic, absolutist views, looms the ever-present threat of persecution and violence. Robbins makes this point eloquently, so I’ll conclude with his thoughts:

    They [fundamentalist Christians] leave no room for doubt in their convictions and are not open to any sort of modulation in their thinking. When applied to the sweeping questions we find ourselves facing in UFO studies, this kind of inflexibility can be problematic, but when religious fundamentalist thinking is involved, it has the potential to be positively dangerous.

I am no longer the avid follower of UFO studies that I once was in my early thirties, at which time I read ceaselessly on the topic. I still recall the frightening and exhilarating experience of reading C. D. B. Bryan’s Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind, a book that changed my perspective on all things ‘extraterrestrial’ so drastically that, as Kant once remarked after reading Hume, “I awoke from my dogmatic slumbers.” I still read UFO Magazine regularly and marvel at the depth and complexity of the phenomenon, and hold those who pursue UFO studies in the highest regard. I remain captivated in a state of ‘wonder’ when contemplating such things as visitors from far off galaxies and intelligences far greater than our own, for such things are both question worthy and awe inspiring. In fact, as Karl Jaspers rightly points out, wonder, or thauma in the Greek, is the origin of all things philosophical: “Wonder impels man to seek knowledge. In my wonderment I become aware of my lack of knowledge.” The phenomenon of UFOs and the possibility of extraterrestrial biological entities inhabiting the universe alongside us are issues that are deeply philosophical in nature (metaphysical, epistemological, axiological). They represent the types of quandaries that elude easy answers and defy complete explanations. These issues push hard against the limits of our understanding and drive us to the periphery of the circle of knowledge, the point at which, as Nietzsche once wrote, human knowledge either expands or annihilates itself.

James Magrini teaches Western philosophy and ethics at College of Dupage in Illinois and publishes on philosophy, art, and education in such journals and periodicals as Philosophy Today, Philosophical Writings, Education, Philosophy, and Theory, and American Atheist.

Culture is Not Commerce

Culture is not commerce, meaning is not made by money…

Our current economic situation is most often characterized by discussions of unemployment, loss of sales and the dissolution of organizations unable to weather the storm. These short term effects, existing on the surface of the issue, provide an easy platoform for pundits on all sides to manipulate the situation to political and personal advantage.

When someone looses their job the immediate shock forces them into a situation where survival becomes their only focus, any thought to the survival of future generations or the long term effects of immediate actions are abandoned. It’s hard to think 100 years ahead when you are hungry now.

In such a situation it’s impossible to expect that a society can have the foresight necessary to assure that what is done in the moment isn’t going to cause drastic harm to future generations. These are times when that oft cited 1% sitting above the economic maelstrom is expected to step forward with reasonable solutions, not gorge themselves on the blood and desperation of the culture that rests in their care.

Making employees out of citizens

Skimming the surface of the issue hides deeper currents that not only affect the immediate social climate, but bear on the continued health of our global society as it moves into the future. Commercial interests have used this opportunity to encourage colleges and universities to focus on programs that provide technical skills, rather than put resources towards the humanities and arts.

This is proposed as a solution to the economic decline by training individuals in things that are useful to the corporations, as these corporations are said to provide the economic viability of our society. Never in this discussion is it mentioned that technical skills, unattended by a deeper understanding of culture, leave people at the whims of corporate interests which have no intent on providing a meaningful existence for their employees or bringing more meaningful dialogue into the culture. Technical skills do not make a citizen, at best they make an able employee, at worse this myopic focus creates a society of slaves.

Unfortunately this is simply how corporations are run. There is no need for them to focus on anything other than revenue, and the excuse is made, that while there is no prime focus on social needs, this focus comes about by market drivers forcing corporations to provide products suited to their society.

The weakness in this argument is revealed with even a cursory glance at neuroscience and marketing. Any mass of individuals fed enough well crafted information can be forced to assume positions that in the long run are detrimental.

Why worry about Wikileaks when the banks have looser lips?

We hear constant messages regarding terrorism and the dangers we face as a society from extremist elements. However, this danger is not only found in lingering fundamentalism, it also exists in the cold calculation of profit. The outcry over Wikileaks ignores the fact that in this  instance there are individuals who can be held responsible for the security breach. What is not discussed is that the actions of the banks have also caused the dissolution of numerous independent organizations that have been contracted for services by national intelligence. We needn’t worry about lone gunmen when the organizations that provide social cohesion are dropping bombs our continued survival.

Official pundits are shocked that individuals would be so bold as to release secure information to the public, however they don’t bat an eye when commercial interests force companies deeply embedded in the intelligence community into bankruptcy. As these companies are dissolved the information that they have access to is left vulnerable, the normal safeguards abandoned as an necessity of abstract fiscal manueverings.

And then there’s the libraries…

This week it was announced that the Ritman Library, which houses the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica, is in danger of being put up for auction. The irony in this is that the very same social forces at play today caused the destruction of the Hermetic social experiment in Bohemia nearly 400 years ago. The egalitarian dreams that Frederick V envisioned for Europe was left to hang by economic interests resulting in the 30 Years War, and continued tension into the 20th century.

Hermetic science is not something that we are, as a society, especially familiar with, however it represents the very cultural heritage of the West. For all our truth seeking in Eastern mysteries, we’ve ignored a rich tradition that is directly related to our culture. In recent years more focused study has been given to these subjects and the Ritman Library stands at the center of this effort.

When the Taliban destroyed centuries old Buddhist statues the media went into a frenzy, now as banking interests are tearing apart our own cultural heritage the media stands mute. Professor Woulter Hanegraaff of the University of Amsterdam has created a petition to stop the destruction of the Ritman Library. As one signer put it, the idea that a library housing one of the largest collections of rare manuscripts from our collective cultural heritage would be put up for auction at the decision of a bank is not fit for a society that calls itself civilized.  Please consider signing the petition: Petition to Save the Ritman Library.  It’s a small act of social conscience, but every step towards peace and social sanity is a step worth taking.

To Chase the White Deer

Raise a glass this evening, Peter’s with Jhonn, both gone along to chase the white deer beyond the sun.  Peace and blessings to all who seek truth; giving thanks to those who walk before us, however dark their masque may be.

As We See Sound – Exploring Audible Color

“Color provokes a psychic vibration. Color hides a power still unknown but real, which acts on every part of the human body.” – Wassily Kandinsky

Musicians, philosophers, and artists have sought, for centuries, the ultimate translation of sound and vision, the ability to translate one sensual experience into another, from hearing to seeing and back again. This search for “audible color” has taken many forms, from early Pythagorean theories on the harmony of the celestial spheres to contemporary experiments with electronic music, rituals, and coordinated visual effects. Running through it all is a fascination with how existence is interwoven with relationships that often defy our understanding.

At a basic level, there is timbre, a term used by musicians and music theorists to denote the “color” of sound. Timbre is a specific nuance of sound coming from the vibrational frequency of a note. This effect of sound is specific to the instrument or voice that sounds a note. For example, a guitar has a different timbre than a bass, even when playing the same note in the same register. Two different guitars may play in unison, but a trained listener can pick up the unique timbre of each instrument. Where the instrument is played, the level of humidity in the air, and the ability of the player are all important factors in determining timbre.

Professor William A. Sethares of the University of Wisconsin at Madison has brought some understanding to the amorphous idea of timbre. In his book Tuning, Timbre, Spectrum, Scale, he explores the relationship of consonance and dissonance through his specialty in sound engineering.

According to Sethares, timbre is best described in terms of color by understanding it as a relationship of harmonic overtones layered to create a sound. The process can be understood in the same way that one might mix yellow and blue to make green. Russian abstract painter Wassily Kandinsky was very aware of this comparison, and although he wasn’t a musician, he conversed on equal terms with Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg and developed his own painterly theories of sound and color. Sethares points out that other theorists such as Pierre Schaeffer, who was a major proponent of musique concrète, explained timbre in terms of the material that made the sound. In this sense, one would say that a sound was wooden, metallic, or wet depending on its source.

Sethares uses a thought experiment with his students, asking them to imagine a visual interface to show music to someone who can’t hear. His students have returned a number of solutions, ranging from the use of a spectroscope to demonstrate the sound waves to employing a visual representation of a figure moving to the music. When students’ solutions turn to color, they tend to use color relationships as demonstrated by painting.

Sethares makes clear, in his estimation, that these answers are one of the reasons that a direct correspondence between sound and color might not be possible. “From an artistic point of view, this idea can create interesting results,” he says. “From actual investigation, though, it doesn’t hold water.” Sethares points out that wave forms of color and sound are different. The range of frequencies that the ear can perceive is much greater than the range of light frequencies that the eye is capable of seeing. If the human organism were truly able to perceive correspondences between color and sound, this deviation wouldn’t be so great.

Common color theory describes “warm and cool colors,” where blues are cool and reds are warm. Sethares notes that in actual wavelength, however, the opposite is true. Blue light is more energetic than red. Even in cases of synesthesia—the stimulation of multiple senses when exposed to something that would normally only affect one—there is no defined pattern of correspondences. “Essentially, every synesthete perceives these correspondences differently,” Sethares says.

It was all in the mind…

The famed Grecian philosopher Pythagoras is credited with formalizing a theory of correspondences that brought the entire universe into a single harmonious relationship. The seven known planets of ancient cosmology, the seven colors of the spectrum, and the seven notes that make up the octave before the first note is repeated at a different pitch—for Pythagoras, these formed an integral relationship that was the basis, in fact the whole, of existence. Using mathematical correlations, Pythagoras and other early chromato-acoustic truth seekers cemented these relationships in their minds.

This theory can be found in many cultures throughout the ancient world, expressed in the architecture of ancient temples and palaces. Manly P. Hall, in his classic Secret Teachings of All Ages, describes temple complexes from a number of different cultures that included a seven-step, color-coordinated building pattern. Such examples further demonstrate the interplay that the ancients saw between music, mathematics, and the physical world.

With the European Renaissance, this relationship gained the lofty title musica universalis—universal music, or music of the spheres. The theorists of this time were still left to purely acoustic or architectural representations of these ideas. Through the influence of Neo-Platonic theosophy, Renaissance thinkers continued to explore the Pythagorean ideal of a harmonious celestial correspondence explained through mathematics and music.

An English philosopher, Robert Fludd, drew one of the most succinct examples of this idea with his illustration of the celestial monochord. The illustration would later be used by ethnomusicologist and filmmaker Harry Everett Smith for the cover of his pivotal compilation of American roots music, a compilation that would spark the fires of the folk revival of the 1950s and ’60s and inspire musicians like The Fugs, Grateful Dead, and Bob Dylan to reach back into the past for those secret correspondences of sound and vision.
Through the influence of Helena Blavatsky’s theosophy and the esoteric revival of the late 19th Century, these ideas began to gain renewed attention by Western composers. Unfortunately, even with a basis in philosophy, those working to express their ideas of sound and color have never fully agreed on the direct correspondences. Composers Richard Wagner, Arnold Schoenberg, Alexander Scriabin, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and a number of others created music whose elaborate performance design was crafted to expose these relationships, yet some of their most heated disagreements came from their attempts to express these notions in a systematized way.

Jazz, blues, and psychedelia

Neo-Platonic influences were not limited to European composers. These influences stand strong in the work of American jazz greats John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, and even Quincy Jones. Coltrane’s classic A Love Supreme moves through the Kabbalistic harmonic sequence—a ten-step sound theory to unify man with divinity—following the ten Sephirot of Kabbalah’s Tree of Life. Each Sephirah has a corresponding color; what Pythagoras outlined in seven is here demonstrated in ten. Hancock credits his understanding of math with his success as a jazz pianist and music theorist, and Jones is very open about his use of Pythagorean intervals to organize his musical ideas.

Jazz has its own relationship with color outside of Coltrane’s complex organizational experimentation and the meanderings into mathematics and tonal coloring of Hancock and Jones. The “blue” note gives an unmistakable voice to jazz and blues. Just a semitone move below a major chord provides a distinctive accent that colors blues, jazz, and a number of traditional music styles.

Although the invention of jazz and blues came long after Pythagoras and Plato, their understanding of the effects of this coloring wouldn’t surprise anyone who has fallen on the blues to crutch his or her hard-time feelings. Plato, in The Republic, discusses the effect of semitone changes and the use of the minor key, going so far as to recommend that playing in a minor key be discouraged or banned due to its deleterious effect on morale.
For many, however, the blue notes of jazz and blues aren’t so depressing. Some, in fact, find it exhilarating. Jack Kerouac’s writings often rattle through descriptions of the physicality of jazz that he experienced while spinning on a cocktail of alcohol, Benzedrine, and marijuana. The drug culture, which exploded in the 1960s and ’70s, opened up paths for many to experience the colors of music in a more direct sense.

Upon the introduction of stronger entheogens—psychoactive substances used to awaken spiritual sensations—many took increasingly abstract explorations of harmonic coloring. The subsequent psychedelic era was identified in part by the strong visual elements tied to musical experience. Experiments by a few lone psychonauts such as Henri Michaux, Albert Hoffman, Aldous Huxley, and Antonin Artaud in the 1920s through to the ’50s had seeped into the music culture through boundary breakers like Harry Everett Smith. Not only did his studies provide a solid foundation for the folk revival, but his work in experimental film provided the basis for the Grateful Dead’s light show. Furthermore, he represented connections to the literary and arts scenes that brought the influences of entheogenic explorers to the burgeoning psychedelic scene.

“I dream of color music, and the machines that make it possible…” – Jhonn Balance, “Sex With Sun Ra”

One of the more interesting sidetracks to this color-based exploration began during the Enlightenment era. Up until the 18th Century, the expression of Pythagorean and Neo-Platonic color theory existed in an idealized state. It wasn’t until the Enlightenment that it was possible to show these correspondences through the use of technology.

In the 18th Century, the Jesuit monk Louis Bertrand Castel designed a harpsichord that revealed different colored glass panes depending on the note played. This somewhat quaint invention would provide the basis for the next 200 years of experimentation with what are known as “color organs.” His experiments in further illuminating his invention using candles were met with consternation, though that was more from fear of engulfing a cathedral or court in flames than exposing the greater mysteries of universal harmony.

In the early 20th Century, Alexander Scriabin created a color organ that he called the Luce (Italian for light), which was to play an integral part in the performance of his composition Prometheus: The Poem of Fire, although it was never used. Around the same time, inventor Thomas Wilfred created an instrument that abandoned the idea of sound all together, creating compositions of pure color. He postulated an entire art form based on his invention, which he called Lumia. As with Scriabin’s abandoned Luce, Wilfred’s Lumia had a very limited time before drifting into obscurity, but other inventions followed to realize the “color” of music. The Luxatone Color Organ, invented by Harvey Spencer Lewis, was used to show the Pythagorean correspondences. Lewis, who founded the ancient mystical order Rosae Crucis, ultimately built a number of devices to show various hidden relationships.

Lewis’ Color Organ was among the first to utilize technology that allowed it to receive an input, whether voice or sound, that then would be translated into a synchronous display of color. Its triangular display screen would even show differences of intensity in the color dependant on the loudness of the sound.

Another invention, by Charles Henry Allan Bennett, went even further in an attempt to directly connect sound and color. According to Khem Caigan, director of the Harry Everett Smith Memorial Library and a one-time associate of Smith, “the Bennett device is interesting, because light from a lamp passes through colored filters and is directed upon mirrors attached to tuning forks that are excited by a series of solenoids.” This version of the color organ, however, was meant for direct use in ritual. “The light would jiggle around on the diagrams upon the wall, in a manner similar to the old laser light shows,” Caigan says, “while the practitioners intoned the holy names during the course of a ritual. The ‘vision and the voice,’ indeed!”

Harry Everett Smith, meanwhile, explored these correspondences through his hand-painted films, often using multiple projectors to achieve a fully immersive effect. Abstract shapes of color and potent alchemical symbolism mixed together in Smith’s expressive masterpieces. The experience was stimulating for the viewer, combining all the elements of light and sound to create a quasi-synesthetic experience.

Others such as composer Harry Partch probed the tonal and spatial possibilities of color, rather than the directly visible. Dissatisfied with the equal-tempered chromatic scale, Partch created his own instruments to explore the possibilities of subtle sound colorings. The goal was to encompass what Partch called “corporeality,” a body-centric, existentialist view of artistic creation. Partch used color to achieve this as well as to organize his ideas. For his retuned reed organ, which he called the Chromalodeon, he used color-coded keys to structure his compositions in a 43-note scale.

“The new art materials of a new age…are most certainly to be accepted, but with a reexamined philosophy of use.” – Harry Partch, Thoughts After and Before the Bewitched

Color and sound in the 21st Century

Coming out of the commingling color play of the psychedelic era, our contemporary senses are blurred and immersed in an ambiance of noise and light. The traditions of Harvey Spencer Lewis and Harry Everett Smith, of technology and psychonautics, have become enmeshed in our culture. A concert overturns our senses with colored patterns; animated billboards appear above us on the highway; computer monitors flicker with constant movement. Even the cheapest audio apps integrate visual accompaniment to sync to music in ways reminiscent of Lewis’ Luxatone Color Organ.

Augmented by technological advances, the quest for a union of color and sound has become the playground of video artists and electronic musicians. Brian Michael, also known as electronica musician Alka, is quite familiar with this territory. Having performed with visual artists in clubs and in galleries for exhibitions, the interplay of color and sound is important to his art. “It heightens the experience for the audience and adds a much-needed missing element,” he says. But even with the aid of technology, the problem of correspondences still exists. “There always seem to be the moments that don’t work and then moments that seem serendipitous,” Michael says. These challenges remain an attraction for artists and musicians.

The problems that William A. Sethares notes about the frequency range and color/sound correspondence is something that Michael acknowledges and hopes to one day explore. “I would love to work with an algorithm that directly translates the rhythmic elements, tonal frequencies, and harmonics produced from their various combinations into the corresponding color-spectrum frequencies in real time,” he says. “Similar to an oscilloscope but with a full dimensional range of colors in a multidimensional field—a holograph of sorts.”

Retaining tonal color using digital instruments is another obstacle that many contemporary musicians are overcoming. A common element in today’s production is the flattening or standardizing of timbre; in the quest for an ideal sound, the unique qualities are sacrificed for efficiency. Michael, however, takes care to overcome these drawbacks of the digital medium. “I do think that many laptop show-goers may miss the experience of watching musicians physically interact with their instruments to produce tones,” he says, “as in a guitar player strumming and plucking strings.” He envisions a way to make the actual working process of the computer visible to the audience.

Seemingly, artists like Alexander Scriabin would have benefited from these technologies. But their unique achievements reflect a humanity that can be lost in a technological translation. This sentiment is echoed by Charles A. Riley II, a professor at Baruch College at CUNY and the author of Color Codes: Modern Theories of Color in Philosophy, Painting and Architecture, Literature, Music, and Psychology. “While I agree that computers might have enticed Scriabin,” Riley says, “my strong feeling is that as in the visual arts as well as film, the computer is imposing a mechanical lack of feeling upon what used to be the realm of very direct feeling as expressed through color.” Organic details that often illustrate color, he feels, are not necessarily realized through digital production techniques.

War and harmony of ideas

But with digitalism aside, Riley contrasts contemporary musicians and artists with their chromato-acoustic forebears, noting the varying intent either to establish a link between sound and color or disprove one. “One thinks, of course, of John Cage taking the place of Alexander Scriabin or Arnold Schoenberg,” he says, “much as Donald Judd and Gerhard Richter are pushing out the loaded symbolic and psychological chromaticism of Wassily Kandinsky or Henri Matisse. When it comes to modernism, I feel that the Pythagorean and Neo-Platonic elements remain dynamic forces in the compositional and performance strategies of many musicians, but there is also a postmodern trend toward devaluing the ‘meaning’ of color, something that music shares with the visual arts.” As an example of the latter, Riley points to a 2008 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, called Color Chart, where unmixed industrial tones and compositional techniques relied heavily on random factors.

Yet there are others who are continuing closer to the traditions of Harry Everett Smith and Harry Partch. In Manhattan, New York, the Musicka Mystica Maxima festival mixes music, visual arts, and esotericism to explore sound on a holistic level. Held on the autumnal equinox, the event is structured to express the universal harmonies explored by Pythagoras and the Neo-Platonists. The 2009 festival featured John Zorn, Bill Laswell, Daniel Higgs, and Genesis P-Orridge (of Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV), centering less on experimentalism and more on the intersection of ideas. As with the ritual color and sound device created by Charles Henry Allan Bennett, these artists survey the mathematical, psychological, intellectual, and physical characteristics of sound. Here the experiment finds a result in a fully integrated experience.

Peter Seals, who curates Musicka, Mystica, Maxima, was inspired by Harry Everett Smith to create an event where diverse traditions could come together and explore these issues. According to Seals, he saw many different groups of creatives in New York who were working along similar lines, but not necessarily aware of each other’s work. The festival provided a space for what Bryan Michael envisioned while discussing his attempts at translating sounds and visuals, a place where visual artists, environmental artists and musicians can come together under the goal of unifying their arts.

Over the centuries, many have sought to combine these elements to achieve the ultimate translation of sound and vision. And for each explorer, his or her failures and successes were enhanced by the knowledge picked up during the search. When successfully integrated into a performance, whether direct correspondences can be shown or not, the results are undeniably powerful. Even when left in the seed of a theory, the twining roots and subtle sprouts continue to grow toward a final translation of senses—and a discovery of the harmony that inspired the musical universe of Pythagoras and his successors.


The rules of the field, the pasture and prairie…

By Vincent Starrett

First Published in The International – Vol XI, Issue 11


In a dim grotto of the wood, they said,
Great Pan lies dead;
And then they flew
Laughing across the sand, but paused anew,
Clad in white chastity, upon the brink —
Shy fawns at drink,
Half-frightened by
The murmuring treetops and the water’s sigh —
Viewing the wood with half-alarmed grimace
For a strange face.
The goat-eared Pan,
They said in bravado, is not a man
But a dead god; an antique legend sung
To charm the young.
And then the sea
Robed them in living jewels lavishly;
Clasped his wet arms about them — ah, so slim! —
Drew them to him.
Beware, old sea!
Dost thou not fear Pan’s maddened jealousy?
Dost thou think, too, that Pan is dead and cold,
Deep in the gold
Dead leaves of fall,
Leaving all this to thee as seneschal?
Long since thou heard the cloven hoof resound
Upon the ground;
Since thy pale glass
Gave back his image. Ah, the years may pass
But Pan lives yet, for love is more than death.
Hear’st thou a breath
Hot in the wood,
Where in thy youth the shaggy lover stood.


The rules of the field, the pasture and the prairie, the laws of the deep wood, have been usurped by the civilizing forces of human law. Gentle pastoral moments of reflection, the raw release of energy  between predator and prey, the procreative force, all fit poorly in a society organized for commerce and progress. Pan, god of panic, nature unbound, seems to have no place in our new world.

Our visions of life’s potential, filtered through the lens of law, fail to capture the living mythology the surrounds us, the truths that lie undying in the depths of our stories.

There are some, however, who sense the faint stirring of rebirth, a green face in the field, a word in the wind. Divine madness stirs the leaves where it will.

“Hear’st thou a breath hot in the wood….”

*Commentary originally posted in a slightly different form at [ open myth source ]. Special thanks to John G. Bell, Chief Librarian and Curator, of The Hermetic Library at for putting Vince Starrett’s poem up online and drawing attention to it. If you have some time I highly recommend checking out the rest of the wonderful jewels that lie hidden on the site.