In the latest installment of our brand-new TGC Talks series, Gavin Ortlund—writer and pastor at First Baptist Church of Ojai (California)—ponders the question, why do we feel a sense of transcendence when we listen to beautiful music? Where does that feeling come from? What’s the best explanation for it? Ortlund compares the naturalistic and theistic answers to these questions, ultimately concluding that music is not a distraction from reality but a window into reality—and that the theistic framework gives a much more satisfying explanation for why it moves us emotionally.
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Gavin Ortlund: Have you ever been listening to music and you feel this sense of transcendence that comes along with it, I think that’s a pretty common experience, whether you believe that there is something transcendent, like God or something like that out there, or you don’t believe that most people can relate to those feelings, you know, think about when you’re watching your favorite movie soundtrack. And the sense of significance that is added because of the music that is playing during the key moments of the movie. Music feels important. It feels like it’s trying to tell us something significant and beautiful. And it’s an interesting question, actually, that philosophers puzzle over? How do we best explain that. So take a second and listen to this music clip. And while you listen to it, think about someone you love, and a happy memory you have with them. Think about that, while you listen to this.
So let’s do two things. In this video, let’s describe that feeling of transcendence just a little bit. And then let’s give two possible explanations for it. And these won’t be exhaustive. These are just two of the options. Nor is this a kind of certain argument. This is what people call an abductive argument, just basically asking what’s the better sort of explanatory framework for this experience of transcendence during music. Charles Taylor, in his acclaimed book, a secular age is basically talking about the process of secularization. And he talks a lot about the arts in that book, which would include music. And he’s basically saying, in pre modern cultures, you had more categories, to make sense of that experience of transcendence in music. But in the modern world, there’s a sense of barrenness, and people still experienced the same feelings, but they’re more mysterious. And people don’t have the same kind of context in which to understand those feelings of transcendence and significance in music. So one example of this would be Julian Barnes, who’s an agnostic, and he wrote a book describing his sense of nostalgia for God. And the context in which he talks about that is in appreciation of the arts and of music. And he talks about missing God in the sense that he basically says, religion is not true. But it gave life a sense of context and significant meaning. And so it’s normal to feel kind of disenchanted and bereft once you no longer believe in it. And he talks about listening to Mozart’s Requiem, which is all about divine judgment. And he says, the experience of listening to that, while no longer believing in divine judgment, leaves you feeling kind of impoverished in the context of that experience. There’s lots of people for whom music has actually led them to God. Albert Einstein famously heard a violin prodigy playing. And his comment afterwards was, now I know that there’s a God in heaven. And I think he’s probably using the word God there and kind of a metaphorical sense, but it’s still an interesting comment. Steve Jobs had a similar comment, he had yo yo Ma, playing his beautiful cello in his home. And afterwards, he said, that’s the best argument for God that I’ve ever heard. And I’ve actually heard a lot of skeptics, you know, I watch a lot of debates between theists and atheists or agnostics. The arguments that I have heard skeptics yield to the most, or it’s kind of say, I don’t believe, but that’s a pretty good argument would be arguments like this aesthetic arguments, and I’ve heard many atheists say, I’m an atheist, but sometimes when I’m listening to music, I have doubts. You know, Peter kreeft, of course, made this famous argument, which I love, he said, there is the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Therefore, there is a God and he’s probably being somewhat tongue in cheek when he says that, and some people want to dismiss this whole Association right away as kind of just an emotional appeal. But I think it’s worth asking, even if it does. Give us a certain answer. Where does this feeling of transcendence come from? What’s the best explanation? What kind of worldview gives you the most satisfying framework for understanding that experience. And let’s just talk about two options. So one would be naturalism and the other would be theism. naturalism is the philosophy that there’s nothing other than physical nature. And on this worldview to explain music, you’re basically talking about evolutionary psychology, which is a way of trying to explain human beings in light of our evolutionary history. So everything about us boils down to natural selection acting on random genetic mutation. Everything about us is hardwired based upon our animal ancestry. Now, because appreciation of music doesn’t have any direct survival value. There’s all kinds of theories as to why we evolved this love of music and this sense of transcendence with music. So one of them emphasizes pattern recognition. And there’s a whole Wikipedia page, I think it’s called evolutionary musicology. And you can go read about these. So pattern recognition. This is the idea that music involves patterns. And so our brains are subconsciously looking for those patterns, and we get a dopamine hit. Whenever we guessed correctly. Another theory emphasizes that music mirrors speech. And so we respond to music and the way we respond to speech. And there’s all different kinds of views like this. But they all boil down to this, in that music. And the sense of transcendent significance that we experience in the context of music is basically an accidental byproduct of the evolutionary process. So Steven Pinker, who’s one person who represents a secular interpretation like this, he calls music auditory cheesecake. And he says, it affects us in the way that a rich dessert affects us by basically kind of tricking our brain. And most of us can relate to Julian Barnes feeling of disenchantment and kind of sadness, it kind of feels like a letdown, if such a view is correct, because two things follow on that. One is that the power of music is arbitrary, we could have evolved differently, we could have evolved such that music is nothing more to us than white noise. And secondly, music is in a sense, illusory. It’s tricking our brains basically, that’s that feeling of significance doesn’t map on to anything actually out there. So now consider the alternative perspective, or one of the alternatives a theistic worldview. In a theistic worldview, music can be understood as a kind of language or communication. All beauty is a communication or revelation from the creator in, for example, a Christian worldview. But music in the Christian tradition especially has functioned as a kind of language. Peter kreeft, the great philosopher, spoke of music as the original language. And this is an old Christian instinct, an old Christian imagination to see music as the language by which the world was written. And you can see this in some of the church fathers, people like Thomas Aquinas. This goes back to the verse in the book of Job that says the story hosts sang for joy at creation. And you can see this in some Christian works of literature like jrr Tolkien’s the silmarillion. This is the creation account of the world in which the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit take place. And basically what creates the world in this creation account is music. There’s these Angel light creatures, and they’re making harmony with each other. And in the context of that harmony, it says it goes out into the void, and it was not void. Music actually creates physical reality. And you see the same thing in CS lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, as land the Christ figure in The Magician’s Nephew sings the world into being. And at a certain point, he describes how the stars are joining in with aslin song and that’s how the world comes into existence. Now, there’s a lot more that we could say about kind of the philosophy of music from a theistic standpoint, I’m going to skip over a lot. But if you want to explore that more, Jeremy begbie, has written a number of fascinating books on this topic. But let’s just conclude here by trying to see the contrast and how Stark the contrast is between these two options. Because in a naturalistic worldview, the power of music, the emotional power and significance of music is a distraction from reality. The world is ultimately very chaotic, but music is kind of tricking our brains because of our and our evolutionary ancestry. In a theistic worldview, music is actually a clue about what reality is ultimately like. So think about these two options in terms of a metaphor are really two metaphors. In a naturalistic worldview. Music is like an opiate Or a painkiller to a dying person. Think of someone dying on the battlefield. And he’s, he’s glad to have the painkiller. But he’s glad because it distracts you from what reality is ultimately like, and what’s really happening. In a theistic worldview, you can see music as a window to an imprisoned man. It’s pleasant, and you’re glad you have it, because it’s a clue that there might be something more out there. So imagine a person who has been stuck in a prison for as long as he can remember. And he’s never been outside. He’s never seen waterfalls, he’s never seen forests. He’s never seen the night sky lit up with so many stars. He’s never seen birds flying. He’s never seen a sunset, but he can look out of his window. And he has this sense, there must be something more out there based upon the noises and the things he can see out of his window. In a theistic worldview, music can function like that it can be interpreted like that. music can be interpreted as a language that’s trying to communicate to us. There’s something so much more beyond what you can possibly imagine. The question is, which of these those two worldviews gives you a more satisfying framework, which is a more plausible framework for the experience of music