Can you hear it?

When I wrote about music, I took great care not to mention any music I listen to. I knew the reader might be put off the whole argument by my choice of illustration. Music is just so personal, isn’t it? I am glad people reading the article did provide some examples.

Näckrosdamm, by Gunnar Widforss [Public domain]

Näckrosdamm, by Gunnar Widforss [Public domain]

In one of the first comments, David Yerle wrote about his experience with Jeff Buckley’s “Grace”. He associates it with a ‘primal cry against the existence of time that seems to summarize the whole agony of human experience.’ and goes on to say that he believes that “Grace” is bigger than Buckley himself. And that’s what all artists aspire to.

To me being an artist implies at the very least a personal creative power that can’t be analysed. Then, with effort, the artist may at some point produce a work that transcends himself. So I went to Youtube and saw the clip. I listened to it, three times in a row. I really wanted to hear what David described, but found I couldn’t.

Why is that?

I have always believed there are great works of art that could leave nobody indifferent. They are timeless and they stand alone. I also know that many people would be offended if you called a popular song as a work of art. I don’t agree with them: my concept of art is quite generous. And I think it’s not necessary that everyone should recognise a piece of music to be art before we could call it that. So why can’t I hear it?

“My personal hobbies are reading, listening to music, and silence,” Edith Sitwell

It might depend on the definition of agony: intense pain of mind or body and the struggle that precedes death. Also as a violent struggle or contest. Greek roots: agōnia, struggle, anguish, agōn, gathering, contest for a prize, agein to lead, to celebrate.

Pool in the Woods, by George Inness  [Public domain]

Pool in the Woods, by George Inness
[Public domain]

My personal definition of agony might bar me from recognising it in Buckley’s singing. It’s also possible that my limited knowledge of music makes it harder for me to follow what Buckley does. I know that many people share David’s experience.

Why so sad?

If we associate art with the agony of creation, this does not make for cheerful songs. Could an unpretentious, happy song about love be art in any way? Let’s listen to “Don’t you love her madly?” by the Doors for a minute. When I look at Jim Morrison, strutting about on stage, with his deadly white puffed-up face that speaks of taking way too many pills, I don’t exactly get excited, but to hear him vocally express a relentless upbeat energy is not a bad thing. When I listen to this, there is no evidence of suffering. Could it therefore never be art?

“Men profess to be lovers of music, but for the most part they give no evidence in their opinions and lives that they have heard it.” Henry David Thoreau

I know somebody who can chop down a tree so well it is a pleasure to watch. It’s nice to see certain people cook, or teach, or move gracefully under water. In doing this, a person might approach, or even attain, what we recognise as genius. I think we can all remember seeing this. It makes you happy just to watch. Can work therefore be art? Or does art need something more than genius?

The garden of earthly delights, detail, by Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450–1516) [Public domain]

The garden of earthly delights, detail, by Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450–1516) [Public domain]

I want you 27 times

I have met two people who heard Elvis Costello’s “I want you” and thought it was a love song. In my opinion, this is a big mistake. Elvis Costello would have probably have called it “I love you” in that case. I know, he starts off by saying “I love you” but then we are treated to 27 instances of “I want you” And they are all different.

“If you cannot teach me to fly, teach me to sing.” J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

I would like to propose this mixture of a song, a poem and a complaint as more than a pop song and maybe illustrative of art. I am hindered by the fact that I could not find a decent studio version online. The live ones on Youtube are simply dreadful. You might choose to listen to a sample to get a feel for the song.

This song is explained on the internet, like everything else. It’s about Elvis Costello being sad that his partner had sex with somebody else. I am not interested in any of that: All I want to know is if he managed to transcend his personal situation in this song. In my opinion, art should elevate both the artist and the listener.

One could say that love is from the heart and want is from the belly. The two might go together, but all the wanting person really says is: “I want you to be mine.”

Let’s just listen for a moment. This song is designed to make one feel uncomfortable. The music jars in the background and the lyrics are remotely like a poem, but they are also disjointed images. Still, the voice is strangely measured and almost calm.

By John Olson Hammerstad [Public domain]

By John Olson Hammerstad [Public domain]

We might see indications of a relationship that has been good, but since by the 10th line we get:

“Your fingernails go dragging down the wall,”

It should be clear that all is not well. Further on, there are accusations:

“And if you need a second opinion as you seem to do these days: I want you.

You can look in my eyes and you can count the ways

I want you

Did you mean to tell me but seem to forget

I want you

Since when were you so generous and inarticulate

I want you

It’s the stupid details that my heart is breaking for

I’ts the way your shoulders shake and what they’re shaking for”

Just a little hoarseness in the voice. On a tangent, I would like to propose that histrionics can never qualify as art. Here, we can readily imagine how our inconspicuous neighbour, the man who always leaves home with plenty of time to get to work, is on the verge of losing it. He is trying to contain a maelstrom of images and feelings and failing: there is tension. An aspect that might be indispensable to art.

When I listened to this song, I felt myself engage with it, also a necessity for a work of art.

I woke up and one of us was crying — I want you

They are together in a room. Anything might happen. — Good music needs sensitive ears.

With thanks to David Yerle for sharing his views on Jeff Buckley.

Posted in sceptic | Tagged , , , , , | 24 Comments

The rhythm of life

“In Western societies, the arts tend to occupy a special niche of their own, as if they might be a luxury rather than a vital part of human life. This has made it possible for the unenlightened to argue that music and the other arts are some kind of substitute for, or escape from, ‘real’ life. It is a conclusion with which I profoundly disagree.” Storr

By Melozzo da Forli (1438-1494) [Public domain]

By Melozzo da Forli (1438-1494) [Public domain]

I have read Anthony Storr’s book “Music and the Mind.” Storr loves music and can draw on extensive knowledge and experience, not only as a listener but also as an amateur singer and musician. Apart from that, he is an erudite and a conscientious writer.

You talk about music?

I like listening to music at leisure, without distractions. Before I started working on this blog I have put some familiar music on to drown out the sounds of the street and the neighbours. Storr doubts whether music played in the background can aid concentration, but I find it works for me. If you are interested in matters of music, mind and philosophy you are advised to read his book. Regrettably, not all the music Storr mentions to illustrate his points was immediately familiar to me; it would have been nice if book came with a disk or an mp3-file.

From a philosophical viewpoint the problem with language and music lies very deep:

“…it is impossible for language to exhaust the meaning of music’s world-symbolism, because music refers symbolically to the original contradiction and original pain at the heart of the primordial unity, and thus symbolises a sphere which lies above and beyond all appearance. In relation to that primal being every phenomenon is merely a likeness, which is why language, as the organ and symbol of phenomena, can never, under any circumstances, externalise the innermost depths of music; whenever language attempts to imitate music it only touches the outer surface of music, whereas the deepest meaning of music, for all the eloquence of lyric poetry, can never be brought even one step closer to us.” Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy §6 (I have used the Cambridge Text by Geuss instead of Storr’s quotation)

Do I have to be an experienced listener?

It is not a useless endeavour to talk about music, but there are limits to what we can describe in words. One question that hovers over this book is whether you need experience to listen to music. There is a broad range of listeners: from outstanding composers to people who could only relate classical music to fragments of television commercials. Also, listening to a piece of music that one knows intimately is a completely different experience from hearing it for the first time. Still, all listeners have something in common.

“Music can order our muscular system. I believe that it is also able to order our mental contents.” Storr

It is interesting to see that both Plato and Arisotle looked at music as a powerful instrument of education which could alter the characters of those who studied it, inclining them toward inner order and harmony. For that reason, Plato was in favour of strict censorship to ensure that people would not come into contact with music that would have undesired effects.

Apollo and two Muses, Pompeo Batoni [Public domain]

Apollo and two Muses, Pompeo Batoni [Public domain]

Music and emotional responses

Everyone would probably agree that music can lead to a state of arousal. Please don’t confuse this with sexual arousal: Arousal is a physiological and psychological state of being awake or reactive to stimuli. Some people argue that what you hear when you listen to music is what the composer has skilfully put in. There is of course a method to a piece of music and there is the composer’s technical skill, but:

” … a word does not mean the same thing to one person as to another; only the tune says the same thing, awakens the same feeling, in both – though that feeling may not be expressed in the same words.” Mendelssohn, in a letter

It is interesting how Mendelssohn hints at something underlying words, maybe underlying feelings. Storr says we need to remember that emotional arousal is partly non-specific; emotions overlap and can change from one feeling to another quite easily. Critics don’t agree when it comes to the feelings they experience when listening to the same music. But there might be something much bigger going on.

“Music activates tendencies, inhibits them, and provides meaningful and relevant resolutions.” Leonard Meyer

Schopenhauer and music

Musicians sometimes experience feelings of being ‘taken over’ or ‘possessed’ during a performance. Composer Alexander Goehr describes how:

“There is no longer a composer who pushes the material about, but only its servant, carrying out what the notes themselves imply. This is the exact experience I seek and which justifies all else.”

Schopenhauer writes how music is an independent art (…) the most powerful of all the arts, and therefore attains its ends entirely from its own resources.

As Storr describes it, both Kant and Schopenhauer believed that there is an underlying reality that is inaccessible to us. Schopenhauer says there is a specific kind of experience that can bring us closer to this reality; when we look at our hand, we can see it as a hand that is the same as anybody else’s, but at the same time, we have a private, subjective knowledge of it. This inside knowledge gives us our only glimpse of the true nature of reality. It brings us closer to the driving force behind everything in the universe: the Will.

According to Schopenhauer, the action of the body is nothing but the act of will objectified.

When we look at Schopenhauer and music, it is important to realise that he was a pessimist. Art was a means to be taken out of oneself, to forget oneself as an individual.

“There always lies so near to us a realm in which we have escaped entirely from all our affliction; but who has the strength to remain in it for long?”

In Schopenhauer’s view music is different from all the other arts because it speaks to us direct. It is a copy of the Will itself. Schopenhauer wished to abolish willing and striving, to avoid arousal, to purge oneself of desire. Storr describes this as life-denying rather than life-enhancing.

A lady playing the spinet, Carl Holsøe [Public domain]

A lady playing the spinet, Carl Holsøe [Public domain]

Storr mentions how Schopenhauer finds music has a more direct, profound and immediate effect on us than the other arts, but is not completely satisfied with his explanation of the phenomena.

“Schopenhauer failed to make explicit the relation of music with physical movement, although he perceived both as more directly connected with the Will than other human activities.” Storr

In doing so, Schopenhauer might have missed out on an opportunity to experience music as life-enhancing rather than escapist.


Nietzsche’s more positive attitude to life was reflected in his treatment of music, says Storr.

“Art and nothing but art! It is the great means of making life possible, the great seduction to life, the great stimulant of life.” Nietzsche

For Nietzsche, music was not a transient pleasure. He attributed such significance to music that he was closer to the ancient Greeks than to most modern thinkers.

Storr concludes that: “both Schopenhauer and Nietzsche were profoundly aware of the horrors of existence. But, where Schopenhauer conceived art as being a refuge, a realm into which a man could temporarily escape from the dissatisfactions of life into a state of contemplation, Nietzsche viewed it as something which could reconcile us with life rather than detach us from it. Because of art, we need not negate the will. Nietzsche believed it was the weak who followed Schopenhauer by denying life: the strong affirm it by creating beauty.”

There is much more to be said about music, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. I am not going to do it, right now. I would like to thank [blog since deleted; sorry] for suggesting I read “Music and the Mind”. Readers interested in Nietzsche might look up [blog since deleted; sorry].

Posted in book review, sceptic | Tagged , , , , , , , | 40 Comments


Yesterday, I saw a television documentary about Richard Feynman. At the very end, his sister describes him, lying in a hospital bed, dying of cancer. She saw him gesturing with his hands and the nurse said: “He is making involuntary movements, he is unconscious.”

Human hands, by Luisfi [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (]

Human hands, by Luisfi [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (

But his sister knew him very well and she described how he made the movements of a magician, preparing for a trick. He was looking upon the moment of his own death with curiosity.

So, who was this guy?

Feynman has said so many quotable things that it would be easy to refer the reader to those and leave it at that. But I am the one blogging here, so I have made some choices. I will let him introduce himself:

“On the infrequent occasions when I have been called upon in a formal place to play the bongo drums, the introducer never seems to find it necessary to mention that I also do theoretical physics.”

Statement after an introduction mentioning that he played bongo drums, when lecturing at Cornell University.

Feynman diagrams

Feynman was a physicist, he worked at Los Alamos when he was very young and he worked on quantum electrodynamics (QED) and many other questions when he was older. He received a physics Nobel in 1965. I remember seeing a picture of a Feynman diagram on David Yerle’s excellent science blog. Please go there at once before you even think I am going to tell you anything interesting about physics! (And then you may come back here to look at the stars.)

Feynman Diagram, by Persino [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (]

Feynman Diagram, by Persino [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (

In the documentary, Feynman’s daughter recalls how they had the diagrams painted on the family car. People used to interpret the images as examples of Indian art, until one guy stopped them at Mac Donald’s and asked: “Why is your car covered in Feynman diagrams?” Feynman’s wife said: “Because we are the Feynmans.”

science and art

Feynman was genuinely interested in visual arts and music. He traded physics lessons for art lessons with an artist he knew and he was seen in a strip bar drawing naked ladies and scribbling mathematical equations on a napkin.

He asked: “Can a scientist really enjoy the beauty of a flower?” and answered in the affirmative.

“Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars — mere globs of gas atoms. Nothing is “mere”. I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination — stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern — of which I am a part. What is the pattern or the meaning or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little more about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artist of the past imagined it. Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?”

NASA, ESA, and Erich Karkoschka (University of Arizona) (NASA)

NASA, ESA, and Erich Karkoschka (University of Arizona) (NASA)

I have looked at this quote and I wholeheartedly agree with the question that is asked of today’s poets. Still, I cannot help but think the Ancients knew the stars in ways that were more intimate than we do now, and not only because to them they seemed to be much closer.

I have been to the Atacama desert (Chile) and looked at the stars from my sleeping bag and I have sat on a wooden fishing boat in Thailand and seen the stars come out in the darkening sky. And though I am amazed by NASA’s pictures, I would sooner equate my personal experience on those occasions to Van Gogh’s Starry Night.

Vincent van Gogh, Starry Night [public domain]

Vincent van Gogh, Starry Night [public domain]

However, it may be possible that I think of this particular painting because it is so close to what I see when I look at the stars with naked eyes: that is, without my glasses. On a more serious note: I do believe it is possible that an artist translates, rephrases the mysteries of nature in a way that we can understand on an emotional level. Bridging the lightyears-wide gap that science has put between the stars and ourselves.

“For far more marvelous is the truth than any artist of the past imagined it.”

Feynman said this, but should we believe it? What is the nature of scientific truth? What do you think?

Maybe the most important thing Feynman did was pointing out again and again that we are never far removed from the great mysteries of life when we do science. And that science resembles art in that respect.

“What I cannot create, I do not understand.”

Written on his blackboard at the time of his death in 1988.


Posted in sceptic, science | Tagged , , , , , | 23 Comments

Jump into the river

In this blog, I want to explore the difference between meditating on the river bank and jumping into the river of life.

Jonathan's Run Falls, by Hubert Stoffels from Pittsburgh, USA

Jonathan’s Run Falls, by Hubert Stoffels from Pittsburgh, USA

an old friend

I went for a walk with an old friend. Actually she has not been my friend for very long, but no one can deny she is an older woman. When we first met, the look in her eyes made quite an impression on me. I told myself she had perfected this inquisitive look because she was a doctor, but I have found there is more to it than that. Her eyes spoke of a perfect willingness to see what is there, however ugly it might be.

I told her about my experiences with Nietzsche. She was familiar with the concept of amor fati and she thought it was great news. “I can see you doing that,” she said. “I would urge you to go on with it.” But of herself, she said: “I think I can find the things you mention in zen.”


So we explored zen, together. She told me that she could easily relate to the Asian vocabulary that is used by zen practitioners. And to the Asian cultural outlook. (I will not specify what I mean by that. As many of you know Zen has Chinese and Japanese roots and if you compare it to Western philosophy, you will notice an all-pervading Asian flavour.)

By 松岡明芳 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (]

By 松岡明芳 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (

I have lived in Asia with an Asian partner and at the time I totally immersed myself in that. Ever since, there is this occasional Heimweh related to Asian foods and smells. I learned a lot about good manners, I became more dignified in a way, but I never managed to become anything like an Asian woman.


Looking back at my adventures, I would say my sanguine temperament was my main problem.

“You have a lot of feelings, don’t you?” my old friend asked.

“Yes,” I said. “I do.”

Ever since being very young, I have somehow felt there was too much of me. Too many feelings, too much energy and way too many questions.

I told my friend how I had struggled with my intense experiences. First by trying to wear myself out to reach a state of relaxation. I even stayed up nights just to feel the joys of being tired instead of being ravenously hungry for knowledge and sensations. Next, I tried to hide my feelings because I thought that was needed to become a stable person. I found they festered and soured me. I then looked for other people to provide the discipline I seemed to lack. Living with my army-sergeant partner sapped my energy so much that I started to feel positively meek. It was not a happy feeling.


In the end, meditation was helpful in finding a new way to deal with the turmoil in my head. For the first time, I realised I could experience feelings as bodily sensations. Nothing more.

I realised I still had a choice on whether I should act on them.

This was a very important insight for me. I still use it on a daily basis.

I went to live in a zen monastery to find out more. And I adapted. My being there was appreciated by the other women. They were genuinely surprised about me having all these thoughts and feelings. My experience of life was not at all familiar to them.

By SeaWiFS Project, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, and ORBIMAGE

By SeaWiFS Project, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, and ORBIMAGE

I picture the nuns sitting on a riverbank, in a half-lotus. They are forever practicing zen, sitting straight but still, letting their breath flow and the sensations go right through them. The gurgling and bubbling of the water, the gentle wind on their cheeks, the shriek of a passing bird. To sit there, not even being a sounding board. Patiently working to take the self out of the equation.

a memory

One of my schoolteachers has this fond memory of me. We were going on a school camp and we got lost. We were all on our bikes, riding on the beach, when the wind started blowing and the rain came gushing down. The combination of the leaden sky in a sulphur yellow light and the foaming sea waters got some children scared. Others complained they were cold and hungry. Some wanted their mothers. The teacher did his best to keep us all together and hurry us along because he knew things would get worse after dark. He finally reached the front of the group and there I was, pedalling away. Tangled wet hair blowing in all directions, leaning back on the saddle and throwing one arm into the air from sheer enthusiasm. I was completely in the moment. Never noticed him at all. Right before that, there had been a little voice in my head that said:

“I never knew you could do this! I am riding my bike on the beach in a thunderstorm. Wind is raging so much I could not shout if I tried. Getting completely soaked. It’s like flying!”

I can easily accept zen being the answer for my friend. In fact, I can see how it makes a difference for her. But I tried zen as a means to get to know reality. Zen promised me the moon, instead of fingers pointing at it. These days, I think the moon, as seen by me, from the earth, is really all that matters. So I have come to the end of my personal path in zen.

In answer to a question asked by bloggingisaspresponsibility.

Comments are invited and there is no need to agree with me on anything I said.

Posted in atheism, sceptic, zen | Tagged , , , , | 32 Comments

On hot and wistful regrets

I have posted 45 articles so far. One every two days. I believe in self-discipline. So here I am, thinking about tomorrow’s blog. Will it be up to standard? Or will I want to retract it about an hour after pressing ‘Publish’? The worst of it is, I already know I am going to press the button, regardless.


By Leon Brooks [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

As you may have guessed by now: today’s blog is about regret.

what is regret?

In his article Within the margin of error, [blog since deleted; sorry] describes how you could ask people: “What matters most to you?” But you could also ask them: “If you could live your life over, what would you do differently?” He finds that nearly everyone can give an answer.

“I’d like to define a regret as an emotion that connects to realizing that a past decision could have been better and that a past outcome could have been superior to what actually happened.” [blog since deleted; sorry]

One thing I would like to mention is that this post is not about guilt, it’s not about remorse, it’s not about things you might be ashamed of. I have asked a few people about their regrets and got some surprising answers. Everyone has regrets. It doesn’t matter at all if you find regret a useful emotion or not.

“If I’m sincere today, what does it matter if I regret it tomorrow?” José Saramago

So, what do we regret?

According to [blog since deleted; sorry] article, people most often have regrets about relationships, education and work. Regrets about relationships are felt more intensely.

By Dirk Ingo Franke (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (]

By Dirk Ingo Franke (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (

On the internet, pop-psychologists will tell you the whole idea of taking some time to ponder your regrets is definitely out of fashion: “Now, I have come to realise that regrets are a total waste of time,” one of them cheerfully writes. And he goes on to give us the usual 13 things you can do right now to avoid a lifetime of regrets.

“My one regret in life is that I am not someone else.” Woody Allen

Wistful regrets

Many people believe that regrets about things we didn’t do are somehow worse. In quotes, we are frequently warned against them. I wonder if this is down to wistful thinking: The things we didn’t do can hardly disappoint us, so they will always be on our minds as opportunities we missed.

“When looking back, people experience most regret over the paths not taken.”

M. Zeelenberg, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2002

In recent years, social psychologists like Gilovich and Medvec found two different types of regrets: hot regret, which is the direct emotional outcome of a decision, and wistful regret. This is the less intense emotion associated with pleasantly sad fantasies of what might have been. That sounds like the perfect type of regret to have a wallow in, if you’re so inclined.

Hot regret

The first thing that springs to my mind are the many things I impulsively said. There is no way to unsay them, so regret is the default option. But this is not the area that research on regret concentrates on. Here, people are confronted with different scenarios and different outcomes and they are asked to grade their emotions. When it comes to hot regret, recent research shows that people feel more regret about decisions not to act that are followed by a negative outcome. If they had decided to act and the outcome is exactly the same, they feel less regret.

So in this case, our gut feelings are probably true. However, refusing to take the time to think about regrets might not be a great strategy:

“Regret is an emotion that is functional in mastering skills and learning and in attaining a better grasp over decisions. It is especially salient in situations where people should have known better, and not so much when this is not the case.” Zeelenberg et al.

You will regret this!

Looking back at the writing of this article, I notice that I found it a bit of a struggle. I wish I had saved up some half-finished drafts for a rainy day like this. But then I found a quote by Kierkegaard that cheered me up no end:

“Hang yourself, you will regret it; do not hang yourself and you will regret that too; hang yourself or don’t hang yourself, you will regret it either way; whether you hang yourself or do not hang yourself, you will regret both.

This, gentlemen, is the essence of all philosophy.”

Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or: A Fragment of Life

Moi? Je ne regrette rien…

Posted in sceptic, science | Tagged , , , , | 25 Comments

Scent of a woman

I was staying in a bungalow with some friends when one of them picked up my deodorant and asked me: “Is this yours?” “Yes,” I said.

“But it says ‘for men’,” she persisted.

“I like how it smells,” I answered. “And that’s why I bought it.”

“That makes a lot of sense,” my girlfriend added. “If you would design a deodorant for men, you might want to choose a smell that appeals to women.”

I smiled, because I never looked at it that way. But I must admit it has crossed my mind that our sense of smell is the most direct way to access the parts of our brain that are the oldest, in an evolutionary sense. Right above our noses, we find the olfactory lobe and this part of our brains controls many animal activities that involve the sense of smell: gathering food, courtship, mating and warning of predators. We often aren’t conscious of what we smell, but these subliminal processes can have subtle effects on our thoughts, preferences and behaviours. I would not be surprised if it was possible to subtly warn people that I am not to be trifled with, just by choosing my deodorant wisely.

Olfactory nerve, by Patrick J. Lynch [CC-BY-2.5 (]

Olfactory nerve, by Patrick J. Lynch [CC-BY-2.5 (

Sex change

I think my brain would feel perfectly at home in a male body. I cannot know this, because I never tried. (I would do so in a heartbeat if it could be done painless, temporary and perfectly convincing!) I recently read an article by Dutch writer and philosopher Marjolein Februari. She had a sex change and now calls himself Maxim. In the newspaper, he says it will be business as usual:

“I would like to announce a small increase in price, though. A man would expect to make at least 18% more than a woman makes when doing the exact same work.”

Maxim felt herself to be a man inside a woman’s body. It makes perfect sense that he decided that from now on he wants to look the way he feels.

Unidentified woman, by Hans Holbein the Younger [Public domain]

Unidentified woman, by Hans Holbein the Younger [Public domain]

Apart from that, Februari struggled being a woman, a lesbian and a writer. She recalls how a publisher contacted her and mentioned:

“For the next issue, we have invited some women writers and some normal writers.”

Just like I assume it ‘helps’ to be a Jew to develop a personal radar for the more subtle expressions of anti-Semitism, I think you have to be a woman to really feel the many ways in which we are not considered equals. Not in Western Europe and nowhere else. Sexchange or not, Maxim Februari knows he will never be a normal writer. In addition, he now has to turn down lots of invitations to appear on television and tell us all how it feels to grow a beard.

double standards

There is a difference between not receiving equal pay and being the subject of outright misogyny.

“When a woman has scholarly inclinations there is usually something wrong with her sexuality.” Nietzsche

This is a perfect example of double standards; a biased, morally unfair suspension of the principle that all are equal in their freedoms. It’s fine to be a scholar if you are a man, but if a woman is so inclined, there must be something wrong with her. I would say in this particular instance, there is an implicit warning: “If you do express such inclinations, remember we (the people that matter) will know there is something wrong with you.”

Woman reading, by Kuroda Seiki [Public domain]

Woman reading, by Kuroda Seiki [Public domain]

We all know that scholarly women are sexless. They have outdated hairstyles and wear frumpy clothes. Or they are old-style lesbians hidden in the attics of academe, where they are condemned to forever drink sherry in the company of more than one cat. The deeply disturbing part is, that you could say this to any woman and thus entice her to wear something different tomorrow. Double standards are a great way to make people feel insecure. Let me quote a man on that:

“It’s not all bad. Heightened self-consciousness, apartness, an inability to join in, physical shame and self-loathing – they are not all bad. Those devils have been my angels. Without them I would never have disappeared into language, literature, the mind, laughter and all the mad intensities that made and unmade me.”

This is a quote from the first part of Stephen Fry’s autobiography, called “Moab is my washpot.” It’s an entertaining read, but at times I found it chilling to experience the desperate loneliness of an eight-year old boy at boarding school, being forever different from everyone else and feeling different, in the most shameful, unhealthy way. You really don’t have to be a woman to be unhappy!

You might have already spotted where I’m going with this. Fry was lonely, but not as lonely as Nietzsche. Maybe I should spend some time thinking up an aphorism on that.

Posted in LBGT issues, sceptic, science | Tagged , , , , | 26 Comments

Bottom-up morality

Many christians still argue that we can’t be good without god, even though there is a variety of secular moral frameworks. Primatologist De Waal turns this debate on its head by saying we invented god to help us live the way we already felt we had to.

By Ikiwaner (Own work) [GFDL 1.2 (]

By Ikiwaner (Own work) [GFDL 1.2 (

When humans developed greater powers of abstraction they felt a need for systems of justification, monitoring and punishment. De Waal argues that a need for religion only came in at this very late stage. Our morality is inbuilt by evolution.

morality and evolution

Has our morality developed during evolution? Darwin thought any animal would eventually acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become well developed. However, according to Darwin the animal would have become human at that stage.

After 30 years of studying non-human primates, Frans de Waal says:

“I have argued that many of what philosophers call moral sentiments can be seen in other species. In chimpanzees and other animals, you see examples of sympathy, empathy, reciprocity, a willingness to follow social rules. (…)”

He designs experiments to research the innate capacity for empathy in primates. If you give chimpanzees a free choice between helping only themselves to food or helping themselves plus a partner, they prefer the latter. Interestingly, when this partner demands attention by making noises and spitting, the motivation to feed it quickly diminishes.

In this short fragment on youtube, De Waal shows us how capuchin monkeys reject unequal pay. They are not happy with a piece of cucumber when another gets a grape.

In the past, ethologists often focused on competition between animals. I suppose we could recognise that as just another example of anthropomorphism. After all, we usually associate only our bad behaviour with the animal in us. Instead De Waal has spent many years looking at reciprocity, empathy and conflict resolution.

veneer theory

In his book: “Primates and philosophers”, De Waal argues against what he calls the ‘veneer theory’ of morality.

“It assumes that deep down we are not truly moral. It views morality as a cultural overlay, a thin veneer hiding an otherwise selfish and brutish nature.”

In doing so, veneer theory denies that our moral tendencies are natural. It assumes that we are fundamentally asocial and selfish. As socio-biologist Ghiselin said:

“Scratch an ‘altruist’ and watch a ‘hypocrite’ bleed.”

According to De Waal, we descended from highly social ancestors and have been living in groups forever. Our survival has therefore depended on cooperation and coordination.

Baby Ginger Monkey, by Rob from Cambridge, MA [CC-BY-2.0 (]

Baby Ginger Monkey, by Rob from Cambridge, MA [CC-BY-2.0 (

He recorded behaviour in chimpanzees that could be interpreted as helpful, consoling or expressing gratitude. And he thinks that this behaviour is not accidental or reducible to indirect self-interest. He thinks it is indicative of empathy. Like when:

After an aggressive conflict between two chimps, a bystander will often console the ‘loser’ of the conflict, for example by putting an arm around him. In such cases of consolation, there is no clear benefit for the consoling party.

According to De Waal, there is a Perception-Action-Mechanism (PAM) at work. Here, the observer has access to the emotional state of its object through its own neural and bodily representations. The closer and the more similar the two animals are, the easier it is for the subject to ‘get under the skin’ of the object, sharing its feelings and needs. This in turn fosters sympathy, compassion and helping.

The existence of PAM is evolutionary explicable and natural selection of the PAM could have brought on a concern for others that transcends self-preservation: a moral concern.


A few commentators react to De Waal’s findings. Some of them do not agree on the extent of altruistic tendencies in primates, but all agree that he revealed an empathic response in non-human primates that merits serious attention. I’ve found one historian who mentions that we should not forget that it’s 5.5 million years ago that hominids branched off from their ancestor. If people have since evolved, so have apes.

Others argue that the observations do not prove that what De Waal observed in animals are in fact the fundamental capacities, the building blocks underlying moral agency. It also does not prove chimpanzees make moral judgments, that they actually have a notion of right and wrong. Philip Kitcher, for example, will only concede that non-human primates can be motivated by involuntary, empathic emotional impulses. They cannot reflect on these impulses and therefore don’t demonstrate moral agency.

Bonobos adoring baby, by Magnus Manske[CC-BY-SA-2.0 (]

Bonobos adoring baby, by Magnus Manske[CC-BY-SA-2.0 (

I would not think it weird if an ethologist ascribed a deeper meaning to animal behaviour that could not easily be recognised by other observers. After all, none of us knows what really goes on in a chimpanzee’s brain. Or in our own, for that matter. And it’s very easy to recognise our own behaviour in non-human primates. That’s what makes them so attractive to us. Still, as usual, Dawkins sounds completely convinced when he claims:

“We alone, on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.”

It is possible that this rebellion started earlier than he expected.

Posted in atheism, book review, science | Tagged , , , , , | 63 Comments