Ard: So another question that you were hinting at a little bit… We might unpack this one step at a time, so we’ll start with music. You’ve written a little bit about animals who do music, like humpback whales or nightingales, and you say they may be discovering music rather than evolution creating it itself. Did I get that right?

SCM: Well, thank you, yes. I need to first of all emphasise that the observations on the convergence of animal music, and potentially some of the metaphysical implications, derive directly from a wonderful essay written by Patricia Gray and colleagues which was published in Science some years ago.

In essence, what we know is many animals can vocalise, and there’s a major question whether our language is simply an extrapolation of that vocalisation. I rather think it’s not, but that’s very, very controversial, of course. But undoubtedly many animals can sing, and of course the songbirds are the most famous; the humpback whale, they too have a music in the males and so forth. And in many cases music is probably linked to sexual selection. In other cases, I believe, even with the humpback whale, it’s not entirely clear why they have this music. But the point about it, which as Patricia Gray and colleagues point out, is first of all this music is alarmingly analogous to our music, in as much as it uses melodies and harmonies, and they can exchange songs between different groups, for instance amongst the whales and so forth.

And what I found so extraordinary about this particular essay is that they then had this wonderful leap of imagination. I mean this in the most positive way. And they said, well, it’s all very well explaining these convergences in terms of vibration of columns of air. That’s fine – a bit like a bassoon or a trumpet. But supposing, as they said, there’s a ‘universal music’ out there, and in a sense the music is discovering this universal music.

And as I’ve said in many other contexts, this is not a universal ‘hmmmm’ – it’s the music of Mozart. And I’m not saying that birds and whales are Mozarts, or on their way to becoming Mozarts, but there’s something deeper about the music and why it’s so essential to us. It’s not just a tune.

David: Are you suggesting that certain kind of ideas, like music or mathematics, that they exist separately from the stuff of the universe.

SCM: That’s a possibility, yes.

David: Well, what do you mean by ‘it’s discovering’? To discover something makes it seem like it was there in some sense before. So here’s evolution blindly doing something, and you’re saying there’s things out there just waiting for evolution to get to, and it goes, ‘Ah ha!’

SCM: Well, I suspect that the processes of mathematics, of which I have no skill at all… the ability to play music, I can’t even manage a kazoo.

David: You and me both.

SCM: Those things are, in reality, realities: they are absolutes which we, in a sense, discover. The problem about describing this is two-fold. First of all, because we’re such spatial creatures, in the same way as ancient theologists thought God was just out there, somewhere behind a cloud, this is dealing with a different set of orthogonal dimensions.

David: You don’t mean it’s just past Australia.

SCM: Exactly, yes. Or it’s not on that carousel in the airport with the last bag going round and round at three in the morning waiting for someone to pick it up – precisely. And the other aspect about it is we may only be scratching the surface of what’s actually there. And that, I think, is very encouraging, because it gives us the sense that we’re dealing with unfinished business. Because the danger in science, too often, is to sort of clap your hands like that and say, ‘All sorted out, nothing to worry about. We got it right, give us the medals.’

Ard: So do you think evolution also discovers minds?

SCM: Perhaps.

Ard: Perhaps, okay. Or are our minds simply created by evolution? Is that it? Or do you think that evolution is discovering something that’s already out there somehow?

SCM: My intuition, again, is that the mind is something which is discovered.

SCM: The general idea, of course, is that the brain and the mind are basically the same thing.

SCM: I mean, it’s pretty clear to all of us that you don’t have a mind without a brain.

Ard: Yeah.

SCM: But is the brain the entire explanation of what is mind? And you could point out, so far as we know, that when you die, then you stop thinking and so on and so forth. But on the other hand, you can regard the explanations of consciousness which depend merely on neurological complexity as woefully inadequate. The analogy which I prefer is rather than brains making mind: brains facilitate minds, brains filter mind. But the idea here is the mind, again, is part of an orthogonal reality.

David: Ah ha.

SCM: And once you’ve got a sufficiently complex nervous system, and once you begin to interrogate it, then it seems to respond to you.

David: So that gets back to your idea that there may be certain kinds of ideas or truths that are out there – that they were true before we came along. So, in other words, the brain is such that it can discover those ideas or those realms of ideas. Is that right? Is that what the mind is?

SCM: I think it is. But there is this danger that the brain may be very good at encountering mind, but it may, and here I speculate completely, only be very good at encountering certain aspects of mind. So our neurological substrate is such that there may be some things about which it is literally impossible to think. Which sounds very paradoxical, but of course as soon as you think about the impossible, then you allow about how you might think your way in to it. And this again gives me encouragement that the nature of mind is something far, far different than merely a secretion of a neuron.

David: Are you saying, getting back to your brain and mind, that evolution may have certainly crafted the mind? Are you saying that beyond that there’s a whole realm of ideas which you have to include in your story of what it is to be human? You can’t just pretend that they don’t have an influence?

SCM: I think first of all that evolution has crafted brain, and brain encounters mind.

David: Encounters mind?

SCM: Yes. And the point about the way in which evolution is understood is that in some circles it’s regarded more or less as a closed argument. And yet that’s actually rather curious, because of course in certain ways it depends on the physics and chemistry. And we know that our understanding of physics, in particular, is incomplete. So if we had a completely water-tight theory of physics, we might have more security that one extension of it, which we call life, is also entirely understood. And I think our problem at the moment is to confuse mechanisms, such as Darwinian mechanisms, versus, if you like, the substrate of possibilities.

To say there’s only one way of thinking would be a ridiculous way of compressing a huge area. But if mind is mind and we encounter mind, then potentially any life form would encounter one area of mind. But, again to stress, what we encounter may be an infinitesimally small fraction of what there is.