I had the great pleasure last week to visit the Most Serene Republic of San Marino, to address a small international symposium of scientists on the subject of rock 'n' roll.
San Marino is the oldest surviving constitutional republic in the world, a tiny state of some 30,000 citizens, surrounded by Italy, slightly inland of the north-east Adriatic coast. Its capital, also San Marino, is a walled town with the external appearance of a castle, set in the most spectacular of countrysides. It has no national debt and one of the lowest unemployment rates in Europe. Its economy depends on tourism and financial services and it has one of the highest GDP per capita rates in the world.
The invitation came from some friends among a group of Italian scientists, who every summer invite some of the most eminent of their peers from the international scientific community to come to San Marino and talk about their work. They expressed a particular interest in the nature of the creative process as explained by artists in the medium of pop and rock 'n' roll, and the potential for comparison between such approaches and the scientific method.
It was a scary prospect, not least because this topic seemed about as far from science as can be imagined. I gave them a provocative title - 'Searching For the Voice of God' - borrowed from the great (atheist) music writer Paul Morley, who in his book, 'Words and Music: A History of Pop in the Shape of a City', says that pop music at its best amounts to the human voice "copying the voice of God".
I had in mind to be provocative since, increasingly, science is claimed to be decreasingly concerned with mystery and more and more about what is called 'fact'. But both artists and scientists must remain conscious that, behind the tradition or body of knowledge they operate from, there is an infinity of mystery embracing the great questions of existence.
We suffered a potentially disastrous beginning when the projector failed to work (scientists, hah!). Still, the response to my presentation was encouraging, with many of the scientists identifying strong connections between their approaches and the artistic method I described.
More interesting was observing the scientists in discussion. The group included a leading palaeontologist, several astrophysicists, a neuroscientist, biologists, physicists and mathematicians.
Each branch of science has its own lingo, constructed to ensure that scientific exploration remains as immune as possible to the vagaries of everyday speech. I have trouble half-understanding most of the articles in the 'New Scientist', but I noticed that, when the scientists spoke with colleagues from a different discipline, their language moderated, moving closer to everyday exchange.
I was drawn to two connected themes of the proceedings. One related to the direction of progress in neuroscience, which often appears to be moving towards the conclusion that human subjectivity is an illusion arising from brain functions. This is a tricky thing for an entity I think of as 'I' to relate to someone I presume to be 'you', but the implication of many reported statements of neuroscientists is that such entities as 'I' and 'you' are a mere chimera of the mechanistic human mind.
As for the historical sense I have of myself - the 'memories' of my childhood - a simple trick of memory loops! What I think I 'remember' is not actual events but the nth generation re-recording of earlier 'memories', as it were, digitally enhanced.
This is scary stuff, not least for the questions it raises about the capacity of human societies to impose moral strictures upon citizens of some future state who, since they will have no subjective selves to bear responsibility, cannot be held accountable for anything. Judging from the popular prints, a majority of neuroscientists seem to accept that science will discover that there is no soul, no 'ghost in the machine'.
I was therefore astonished to discover that, behind closed doors, most of the scientists expressed grave disquiet about the increasing ideological inclinations of some of their colleagues. Several pointed out that all progress in science is tentative and that major strides in this area are unlikely to be made within current human lifespans. For this reason, they appeared to agree, it behoves scientists to be cautious. There was agreement that some scientists are inclined to deliver unscientific speculation in the guise of research, which is jumped upon by uninitiated journalists and reported as gospel.
Near the end, a mathematician from France soberingly reminded the group that a study of speculations about the future in the novels of the past century shows these stand up far better than the predictions of scientists. He delivered no judgment on the prophetic record of rock'n'roll.