brian capleton


zarlino's circles






This is from page 25 of Gioseffo Zarlino’s Le Istitutioni Harmoniche, 1558.

Although Zarlino's book is a treatise on musical harmony, it is a reminder of where we are now at, in our scientfic understanding of nature, and the human brain.

The diagram shows how all musical intervals whose arithmetical ratios are made from the numbers 1 through to 6, “fit together”. In the picture, "Diapason" means octave, "Diapente" means perfect fifth, and so on.

Zarlino’s diagram is an early representation of an incipient understanding of what we now call networks. It's literally a network diagram, a diagram of a network of numbers, and a network of musical intervals, which were once thought to be at the foundation of the structure of the universe. Not that there was any idea at the time, of the thing that we call a network.

People saw such networks, in Zarlino's time, but they didn't realise that's what they were. That's the nature of the awakening of scientific knowledge. You come to see what you already saw, but in a different way. It's sometimes called a paradigm shift. And where we are now, is awaiting the biggest paradigm shift in the history of science. The shift beyond the paradigm that the universe can be understood before understanding the human brain.

There are other such diagrams, related to Zarlino's, for example, the so-called great circle of fifths, of modern music theory:


This next picture shows the whole network, with all the intervals right down to the semitones:


Zarlino’s picture comes from an age in which musical ratios were believed to be the basis of the structure of the universe. It is an early precursor to our modern realisation that nature is about interconnected, causal networks, and that this is the nature of our own brain. But it's true that Zarlino himself wouldn't have been thinking quite in these terms.

This diagram is from an age still immersed in the long tradition of the harmony of the spheres. The idea behind this tradition, is that the universe is one system, in which the principle of harmony and music, permeates throughout, both metaphysically, and mathematically. It is there in the cosmos, and it is there in the human constitution. And in this idea, every human being is a microcosm of the whole universe - the macrocosm.

This wasn't some airy-fairy vague notion detached from scientific observations. It actually led to an astronomical model of the universe (the Ptolemaic model) used by European astronomers for 1400 years or so, in which the motions of the heavens were believed to be based on musical ratios.

Zarlino was more interested in how these ratios fit together in music. But what he was doing was part of a broader idea of universal harmony, which went back to the ancient Greeks. There, it was about what they called the One, and harmonia, which was the power in the universe that brought limited things into harmony with the unlimited (the Infinite).

Throughout this whole tradition there were those who seized more on the mathematical side of the tradition, like astronomers, and those who saw something in it more related to our experience of being as human beings, like astrologers. Except that in those times, astrologers were astronomers, and astronomers were also astrologers.

The mixing of "science" with the endeavour to express truths about our experience of being, and relationship with the universe, was normal, before science began to split away, and treat nature as separate from who we are, and independent of the nature of our own being.

That split began in the 17th century when Isaac Newton showed the old system of understanding the motions of the heavens was incorrect, and revolutionised astronomy through his revelation of what are now called Newton's Laws of motion. Newton's laws aren't based on musical ratios. And so after Newton, the idea of cosmic harmony in science, began to wane. And so too, in the West, did the idea of oneness, that had been around since the ancient Greeks, and earlier.

Until now. Because now, the idea that everything works as a whole, and is connected, is re-emerging through science itself. There are still those around who want to say "No it's not". They'll call the idea of oneness holism. They'll say science doesn't point towards holism.

There are two main pointers in science, towards the idea that everything is connected, or even, that everything is one. Apart from the fact that the whole of this system that science calls life, is already known by science to be one connected network. And to have arisen from one original source, which science calls LUCA. And apart from the fact that science already considers absolutely everything to have arisen from one source, which it calls the Big Bang.

Putting that aside, as if it's not important, the two main pointers are quantum physics and neuroscience. Quantum physics is a good example of how science always, sooner or later, demands a higher level of intelligence from us.

Like so many things that threaten to upset the applecart of established beliefs, quantum theory came in for some resistance when it first arose. A lot of people - including Albert Einstein himself - fought hard against quantum theory as it started to emerge, claiming that it didn't really mean what it meant. Others simply thought they understood it when they didn't, and misrepresented it.

But you'll remember that this happened too, as science began to establish that it is actually the Earth, and not the Sun, that is at the centre of the solar system. You'll remember that Galileo was threatened with torture for daring to suggest such a thing, and Copernicus could only publish the idea with a preface in his book stating that it was a good idea, but was of course, not true.

Whenever science demands a shift upwards in our intelligence, it meets resistance. Do we need to remind ourselves of the vitriolic reaction to the emerging idea that smoking is bad for your health? Or that the human body has evolved from an animal past?

There will always be groups of collective self-interest and personal beliefs who will resist what science begins to show. And even when it becomes established science, some still resist it. This is still happening right now, with quantum physics. I can't go further on that, in this article, but you can find something about it in The Nature Equation.

What we should really be interested in is human psychology, and what it is about it that makes it so resistant to the awakening of scientific knowledge.The future of psychology, in which one day, this will be understood, is in neuroscience. And that's the second pointer that I mentioned.

Anyone who really thinks that science doesn't now point to everything being connected, isn't really paying attention to neuroscience. Because we already know that the human brain works as one, connected network. And anyone who thinks that we know anything at all, or experience anything at all, without the human brain, is out of touch with modern neuroscience.

What modern neuroscience reveals about our situation, as human beings, looks like it's going to be the latest thing that will attract resistance, and misinterpretation. But as yet, most people are not even aware that there's anything to resist. It's only a certain faction that can even hear it, and comprehend it, at present.

There are some things, that although they are very simple, are so alien to the way the mind, the brain, already works, that they simply cannot be heard. So the mind reconstitutes what it is hearing into something that is compatible with its existing level of understanding. Human minds always do this, because it is part of the way the brain works. That's cognitive pareidolia.

How the brain works, is of course the business of modern neuroscience. Now, in what modern neuroscience is saying, the same thing - the revelation of science, and the resistance to it - is happening again. To appreciate what modern neuroscience is actually saying, to realise what it really reveals about our situation as human beings, it is necessary to go beyond the way our brain works, by default, into a level of intelligence beyond it.

We can only approach a scientific knowledge of the brain now, because we can now approach the study of the brain as a network. And as any modern scientist will know, if you are studying networks, you are studying networks of mathematical relationships. Zarlino’s circles are part of an early attempt at representing our relationship with the universe, through a network of mathematical relationships. That's what that picture, essentially, is. And that's why it connects with our modern situation.

It was part of the tradition of the harmony of the spheres, even though Zarlino wasn't an astronomer. He was a music theorist and composer, with an interest in the science of harmonics, as it was once called. But in that age, the science of harmonics was part of the established way of understanding the universe. This network that Zarlino drew, was being expressed, before the explicit idea of the network, as we now conceive it, had even emerged.

It was being done long before the scientific knowledge we now have, that the greatest of all networks is the one through which we have our experience of being, and our experience of the universe, our experience of self, our thought, our knowledge of love, our knowledge of beauty, and when it comes down to it, our fear of death. That network is of course, the human brain.

We’ll never truly understand the universe, in science, before truly understanding the human brain. And to do that, we’ll have to realise that all these structures that we are coming to understand in nature, in science, have nothing absolute about them, at all. Because they are just emerging from the principle of the brain, and its complexity.

The new equivalent of Zarlino's diagram begins with the the map of the connectivity of the brain, that the Human Brain Project and the Human Connectome Project are aiming to acquire. And it won't lead to understandng something separate from who we are. We'll be back into the same arena as Zarlino. Where the truth we are seeking is not about nature as something separate from who we are. But is about nature as our nature, and the discovery of who we really are, beyond it.

© Brian Capleton 2016
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