A Secular Epiphany

A Beautiful Question

Epiphany is usually thought of as the appearance or utterance of a deity to an earthbound mortal but it can equally be a secular phenomena, where one is suddenly struck by some extreme beauty, truth or revelation.

The beautiful illumination above from Liber Scivias shows Hildegard of Bingen receiving a vision, dictating to her scribe and sketching on a wax tablet.  A classic religious revelation or epiphany.

We modern Brits in 21st Century London don’t tend to get many religious epiphanies these days but secular epiphanies can inspire equal awe. The illustration below shows Archimede’s Eureka moment: a secular epiphany.  My morning was graced by such a moment; I know how he felt.

16th-century illustration of Archimedes in the bath, with Hiero's crown at bottom right
16th-century illustration of Archimedes in the bath, with Hiero’s crown at bottom right

Let me explain. I am engaged in research into the nature of consciousness and have been particularly taken by the approach of the Qualia Research Institute.

Their hypothesis is that qualia (subjective, conscious experiences such as pleasure or anxiety) can be formalised.  That such experiences can be categorised, precisely described, mapped and explained. In particular they are looking at the pain/pleasure valence and believe that pleasure is caused by harmony or symmetry in the state of the brain. Pain is caused by the opposite: dissonance.  They intend to quantify qualia and believe qualia have mathematical isomorphisms.  It’s all part of our homeostatic control mechanism.

They recommend Franc Wilczek’s book A Beautiful Question :

A Nobel laureate and friend of Tegmark, Wilczek asks the question, “Does the world embody beautiful ideas?” and proceeds to explore how looking for beauty & symmetry in the laws of nature has been an extraordinarily successful strategy for physicists. Core takeaway: the Symmetry Theory of Valence is a reasonable extrapolation from the past trajectory of physics.

I dutifully bought the book and was stunned by the lucidity of a chapter headed “Pythagoras II: Number and Harmony”.

I have been engaged in classical choral music since childhood and have tried in vain to gain an academic intuition of harmony as well as an understanding of WHY music gives me such intense pleasure.

Suddenly this morning all appeared to be revealed. It was a Eureka moment.

The book explains the physical processes involved in the production, transmission and reception of harmonic sound and then ventures an explanation as to why such notes sound so good together.

The brain receives a repetitive pattern which is predictable and easy to interpret: accurate prediction is essential for human survival.  Success in prediction of the repeating vibrations of the harmony has to be rewarded by the higher functions of the brain as pleasure so that the lower operative brain functions know they have got the task right.

Discordance and dissonance is not repetitive and predictive and is thus discouraged with a feedback of pain or displeasure.  Its an evolutionary argument: the familiar selfish genes.

And thus argues the Qualia Research Institute: pain is dissonance and disharmony in brain patterns; pleasure is harmony and symmetry in the brain.

It’s a theory.  But the intuitive “rightness” struck a sweet chord in my mammalian brain. I was being rewarded for getting something right perhaps.

So, a secular epiphany. An enjoyable and profound revelation, or thus it seemed.

This Atlanta lightning strike might have inspired awe. By David Selby
This Atlanta lightning strike might have inspired awe. By David Selby – David Selby myself, CC BY-SA 3.0




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