Von Uexkull’s music box analogy

We can give two accounts of the relation between a music box and its melody: (1) the placement of the reeds and cylinder pins explains everything about the melody, and (2) the melody explains everything about the placement of the reeds and cylinder pins. On (1) we see that the melody is nothing but an effect of antecedent arrangement of parts, on (2) we see that it was the melody that dictated the genesis and placement of the parts, e.g. why is that pin there as opposed to somewhere else?

-We have a pretty good sense of what a (1) account would look like, though even then it is an extremely time-intensive and difficult process to give one. It would be the work of many centuries’ of interested, intelligent, and well-funded observers to give anything like a filled-in (1) account of nature. But the (2) account is much more difficult to fill in. One we notice that there is a (2) account of natural mechanisms, is there even anything more to say?

-One of the tools that Uexkull uses to fill in the (2) account is just this idea of the plan of nature as a melody. These melodies are capable of forming intersecting structures (symphonies, concertos, etc.). We can use this to explain, for example, how spiders can design webs that are fitted to the flied they catch with them, though the spider may never have even seen a fly. The spider melody is a counterpoint to the fly melody. Universal nature, in this sense, is the symphony that is composed of all the various melody lines of the natures that compose it.

-If we change the metaphor from a symphony to a concerto, we open up the possibility that nature was written not just to harmonize the melody lines of the species, but also to showcase a single species. The same, BTW is possible even in a Darwinian account of things. The “tree of life” might have first been suggested by descent charts, but it is a mistake to take the whole organism as homogeneous. The whole tree in in some important sense an engine for producing its seed or fruit, so why not take one species as analogous to that? Perhaps the one species that, like the fruit, is capable of carrying the information about the whole within itself?

– Freedom, on this account, is rather like the place that the score leaves for improvisation, which is an illuminating metaphor of why freedom is essentially moral. It takes a good deal of skill, talent, knowledge of music, and other skills to improvise well, even while there is an undeniable element of pure, personalized creativity. In fact, it’s the unskilled players who all tend to sound discordant or repetitive – personality, true creativity, character etc. only shine through in the skillful.

-Nature is first understood in its opposition to reason, i.e. nature as opposed to art, natural powers as opposed to rational/volitional ones. It’s therefore fitting that we take our most fruitful analogy for nature from that art that is capable of shortcutting reason or working on us without having to rely on reason.

-In his best account of soul, and therefore of form, Aristotle said “if the eye were an animal, vision would b his soul.” Von Uexkull does one better: if the music box were an animal, the melody would be its soul. Bear in mind that there is both a melody in the (1) sense and the (2) sense.

-So what is “the body” or “matter” on this account? In sense (1) it is the entirely determined structure. It is the music box and nothing else, and “the soul” is a mere result or effect of the body and of the properties of matter. But in sense (2) the body is whatever one can play the melody on – and in this sense it is so indeterminate as to be nothing at all: it can be wood and strings, zeroes and ones on a CD, reeds and pins on a music box cylinder, vocal chords, a set of brass tubes one blows through, a wax cylinder, etc. The matter that is entirely determined in (1) becomes entirely indeterminate in (2).

-Plato’s refutation of the soul as a melody has an irreplaceable value as a defense of the role of (2) and of the ways in which the score allows for improvisation. But this doesn’t mean that (1) doesn’t deserve several centuries of dedicated research.

-Science gives “natural” accounts, by which one means it gives (1) accounts, and has no interest in (2) accounts, especially when they involve what we’ve called improvised melodies (freedom, a space for reason, etc.) Here again we see the folly of confusing “giving a natural account” (i.e. giving only 1 accounts, for whatever reason) with “giving a naturalist account” (claiming that only 1 accounts can be validly given)

-Panda’s thumbs are melodies played on things that weren’t designed to play melodies. But it’s important to note that it’s purely accidental if the thumb isn’t particularly good at it’s activity. All sorts of things are adaptations to things that were designed for another purpose, and yet might be done better than things that were designed. No one designed the binary system of numbers with microchips or electronic computing in mind; and waves in elastic media existed for billions of years before birdsong or speech.

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