A Music Metaphor — Consonance and Dissonance

Perhaps you have heard someone practicing the piano or some other instrument. It may be going well but all of a sudden, a note is struck that doesn’t seem right.  Depending on how out of place it is, it may even make us cringe.  In music, this is called a dissonance.

“a combination of notes which are in harmony with each other.”

“a tension or clash resulting from the combination of two disharmonious or unsuitable elements.”

In a consonant piece of music, things fit together well. There may be many variations in timbre, intensity, tempo, and the like, but everything fits together so well it may even seem inevitable. I am particularly fond of the Rachmaninoff piano concerto 3.  It has all the elements of great music where we experience the full range of emotions. It’s a long piece with many variations but in the end, it all works. In great music, there are periodic cycles of rising and falling tension, variations on a theme, and often many voices at work but taken together as a whole it can be a satisfying experience. The same is true for other forms of art.

Dissonance is quite different. There is something that seems out of place and disjointed from the rest. At some point, there is a level of discomfort that arises and a tension created that begs for some resolution. Now, this dissonance need not be by accident. One example of this can be seen in jazz. A dissonance is introduced to create tension but eventually, there is a resolution such that, in total, it makes sense. We feel relieved that it wasn’t just left hanging there.

Evaluating a metaphysical system is an extremely complex process.  It may include evaluating the system based on logic, coherence, completeness, science-friendliness, explanatory power, and so on.  However, it may also be evaluated based on its ability to address our existential concerns like meaning, purpose, morality, free-will, consciousness, etc. 

Now, all this evaluation is occurring throughout our mind.  Certain aspects of the process may be a primary focus, at the time, but as we know there is a vast network of connections within the brain so nothing occurs in complete isolation.  Eventually, there is an evaluative gestalt: “an organized whole that is perceived as more than the sum of its parts”. It’s a whole that has a certain feel to it. To use the music metaphor, there may be a consonant or dissonant feel to it. We may feel comfortable with the result or have some level of discomfort. If there is a dissonance, there is a sense of something wrong in the mix. It can create a nagging discomfort that something needs to be addressed better. Now, it is important to think of this, to use another metaphor, like a symphony with many parts to it.  If a wrong note is struck somewhere in the orchestra at some point, it may not be significant enough to be terribly concerning but it still seems out of place in the grand scheme of things.  The symphony goes on and the mistake may be forgotten. So, in metaphysics, there may be many parts of the system that feel right. However, there may also be certain elements that do persist and just don’t seem correct. They create a dissonance that keeps nagging at us. This is, in essence, why those interested in metaphysics keep tackling the same problems for millennia. Something doesn’t seem right about the answers offered or they seem incomplete.

Why the Consonance or Dissonance?
Obviously, I think metaphors can be helpful, so here’s another. I’m old enough to have gone to County Fairs where there is a House of Mirrors. Within those, there are mazes but also mirrors that distort the image.  If you look at yourself in one, you are distorted — too tall, too short, too fat, too skinny, or just odd looking. You recognize there is a distortion from what you really look like. There is a dissonance with your sense of self.

In the ontology offered on this site, we are all aspects of the One (God) in the Mind of God. As such, we are part of God and participate in God as living aspects. As philosophers have said, “to know is to participate in”.  Since we participate in God, we can also have some knowledge of God. Theologian John Calvin called this “sensus divinitatis” (a sense of the divine) and Paul Tillich called it “the mystical a priori”. Now, although our knowledge of ourselves and the divine within is conditioned by our finitude, it is there and can make itself known to us.  A glimpse of it may be fleeting or somewhat ambiguous, but it still makes an impression.

So, like the distorted mirrors in the house of mirrors, when we seek to evaluate a metaphysical system the question is whether or not that system creates an image that seems distorted or not. Is it consonant or dissonant with the divine within? If it is dissonant then perhaps there is something wrong with it and bears further questioning and investigation.

Seeking some sort of resolution to the dissonance can take many forms. Perhaps the dissonance stems from our expanding empirical knowledge of how the universe is constituted. If the inferences and interpretations of empirical knowledge don’t seem consonant, then perhaps there are alternative inferences and interpretations that are compatible with observations but also reasonable and more consonant.

Or, perhaps the dissonance is more on a personal/existential level. Something doesn’t seem right with a metaphysical system in relation to our intuitive sense of reality and our place in it. This might not be as explicated as empirical explorations, but the gestalt of that intuition has a force that cannot be easily dismissed. That can prompt further questioning both of our internal intuitions and the elements that seem dissonant with them.

Now, it is important to remember that as living creatures we are a mixture of many competing and sometimes conflicting images of reality and ourselves. So, if we had a dissonance and feel we have resolved it, we should also be somewhat skeptical and humble about our evaluations and results.  If we accept a resolution that is not true, in the long run, another uncomfortable dissonance may arise. Finding a consonance with our divine depth is a lifelong process.

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