The metaphysics of jazz drumming

I want today to take another tilt at the question just how theory-laden our view of the world is, following a frustrating conversation with an atheist at BioLogos (whose posts were “liked” by a good number of non-atheists there). He just couldn’t see why his naturalist view of a “Nature” containing only the “material” governed by “laws” and “chance” (metaphysical concepts all) is not simply self-evident truth, into which one might somehow be able to fit a God if there were enough evidence.

The “evidence”, of course, would have to be investigated using the methodological naturalism that excludes God a priori, and in the extraordinarily unlikely situation that it jumped that hurdle and found something inexplicable by “natural causes”, it would also be subject to the “God of the Gaps” fallacy. And by such sophistry God’s foot is kept out of the door

The aim of today’s effort is to show that, even accepting the existence of God, the gap between the existence of “the Creator” and the actual phenomena we experience must be bridged by man-made theory, which must always be provisonal. That’s equally true if we place some concept called “Nature” in the place of God.

There follows a sound clip, which I will tell you for free is the drum track I did for the first tune I wrote after I retired to Devonshire. I want to treat it as “a phenomenon” asking for explanation, and maybe that will be easier because it was deliberately quirky and complicated, a bit like the world itself. Have a listen – unless you’re a drum solo aficionado you can stop after the first 30 seconds or so, as you’ll get the idea.

Now, unfortunately you already have too much information for the purpose in hand. My guess is that the first few seconds will make you recognise noodly jazz drumming, love it or hate it. And you also already know it’s recorded, because I’m unlikely to be waiting at the end of a hyperlink with drumsticks in hand. Imagine though, for a moment, that you’re from some isolated tribe and you hear that sound as you walk past a cave. You try to explain it from the phenomenon itself. It’s a bit like drums, but not the log-drums you know – and although there are some regularities, there’s an awful lot of random noises going on. It might just be some odd trick of a waterfall in the cave, or produced by some strange animals rutting.

It’s worth remembering that, to primitive man, the whole world was just such a mass of unexplained phenomena: everything had to be explained by some humanly constructed theory. In point of fact, it’s probable that most primitive non-westerners would at a minimum attribute active agency to the sounds, as they did to the world’s phenomena, because the concept of a “Nature” independent of people, animals or spirits, which might be an overarching entity behind the causes of things is, as I’ve often explained, both recent and a little hard to justify. It fails to explain (or prove) its own existence, or the nature of the laws, matter and energy which are the causal agents befind the phenomena it produces. It’s merely a metaphysical axiom, a peg on which to hang your particular post-Enlightenment way of understanding stuff that happens.

Still, should our savage go down the “Nature” line, he’d be able to discern patterns, like the hi-hat figure at the beginning (tse-da-d’tsee…). He might well notice that the second section has a regular rhythm of three beats behind it: if he studied really hard he might even realise you could just about fit that triple-pattern to the bit at the beginning – and lo and behold, he’d have described Ugg’s First Law of Cave Sounds (“All cave sounds come from the Three”), on which he could build, perhaps, a theoretical explanation or two.

Other patterns would emerge, too, like the rather obvious one (since we know it’s music), that however irregular it is, there’s a minimum, regular, note-value behind it all, which we would call a “16th note” or “semiquaver”, but Ugg, for obscure reasons, calls “the Plank Time”. For the irregularities he invents a concept called “chance”, which rather cuts across the laws already discovered, but begins to be less unintelligible when he discovers that particular kinds of irregularity, such as bass drum patterns, can be described by a probability distribution. And so he is able to construct an entire system of laws and probabilities which he calls the “explanation” of the sounds. But what does he really know?

You, brethren, have received the revelation that I, and I alone, am the true source of the phenomenon! I chose to do it all for deliberate reasons… or did I really do it all, and if so, how? Perhaps I lifted the entire track from a modern jazz album, or used or wrote a computer algorithm to generate it. But maybe that’s self deprecation, and I’m actually just a very good, if quirky, drummer and did the thing live on a Yamaha drum set – not too implausible as my brother was a professional percussionist.

It’s unlikely you could know for sure from the phenomenon, although no doubt detailed examination of the wave form might provide some clues to narrow the possibilities. But in a real way it doesn’t much matter, once you assume that I invented the part to fit a tune. So what if I wrote it out in notation and got my drummer friend Jim to play it? Or, to make the analogy with God’s use of created secondary causes closer, let’s make the drummer my son, whom I taught to play drums as a teenager: the part, the skills and the son would have come ultimately from me anyway.

The point is that unless I tell you – and God doesn’t tell us exactly how he makes the natural world work – then any theory you have about the way the drums happened is inevitably provisional, as you try to bridge the gap between incomplete revelation, and rather complex phenomenon. But I can tell you, by that “revelation”, that Ugg was entirely wrong about the existence of natural laws, a minimum possible Plank time, and the very existence in the phenomenon of chance. Even the statistics on the irregularities indicate only the way my mind works in an attempt to create musical interest.

If I were reading this, I doubt I’d be concerned enough to develop a theory of how Jondiddit. But you might spend ten seconds having a go – and, I’ll wager, get it largely wrong. As it happens, I do my drum parts in a midi editor, by an idiosyncratic mixture of playing from a keyboard in real time (and tidying up the rhythm later) and entering notes directly in the editor, adjusting them as I go along. Here’s the beginning of what you hear on the recording:

But it’s more complicated than that, because I use a “soundfont” of drum hits I made myself. In fact I use two such fonts, the first being of drum hits closely mic’d, and the other of drums with a live stereo sound, and I mix the two tracks to give the best effect. I then transfer the midi tracks to a set of audio tracks, one for each kind of drum or cymbal, and each one then processed electronically to give the best sound. Finally it’s all combined, and some realistic reverb added to become a jazz drummer noodling away.

In some ways it’s more difficult and time-consuming than actually being the live drummer, but it just happens to be the way I like to do it. And it is all me, with one exception – I never hit a real drum during the whole process, because the actual drum hits came from a recording of some guy in Surrey doing clinically precise hits for sound-sampling purposes. Who would have guessed? Who even cares?

Now, I too have no idea how God is, in detail, involved in the production of the phenomena in the world. How much does he do “live” (as it were) and directly, and how much does he delegate to secondary causes like molecules or angels? Is gravity what God habitually, and faithfully does with massive objects, or is it some kind of algorithmic law built into the creation itself? If the latter, it would be no less God’s work than my setting a metronome to match the tempo I have in my head for the drums.

The funny thing is that, since the patterns and the irregularities in nature are the same for us all, the differential equations of science will be the same whether you take God into account or not. The phenomena alone are the “facts”; the underlying metaphysical axiom of God or Nature is a matter of belief and/or revelation; and the theories in the middle will be more and less right or wrong, and demonstrably so, except when they themselves involve metaphysical concepts derived from the axiom, such as the actual nature of laws (or divine faithfulness), or the existence of randomness (or divine choice).

The least important factor is your investigative methodology – methodological naturalism, for example, simply ties you to the language, and so the thought patterns, of the naturalistic axiom, but doesn’t help the science. And for a Christian, what’s the point of simply ignoring revelation? You might as well start investigating my drum track by ignoring my claim to authorship, and treating it as fortuitous sounds in a cave.

Finally, just as a fitting denouement, here’s the final version of Walking LA with the drum track incorporated. It makes a lot more sense in context, doesn’t it? I lay claim to creating it all, though confess to plagiarising the piano solo from some guy called Chopin. But I will tell you that though most of the instruments were real and were recorded “live”, one of them was, like the drums, done in midi from sound samples. I’m not sure how easy you’ll find it to say which, though, simply by working back from the phenomenon of the music.

Who was it said there’s no evidence for God’s activity in nature? Ugg might say there’s no better evidence for Nature’s activity in nature.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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13 Responses to The metaphysics of jazz drumming

  1. Alan Fox says:

    Hi Jon
    Was mentioning you in a comment elsewhere in a conversation with Vincent Torley and couldn’t remember your denomination. Was it Catholic?

    Hope you are keeping well

    Best regards

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Alan – how many years is it??

      My best ecclesiastical descriptor is probably “Reformed”. In fact the church I belong to is Baptist, because I live in a small village, but I’d be equally happy in a lot of different flavours (and have been, over the years).

      Incidentally, for some reason the Hump of the Camel is bigger in France than it is in the USA (and far more than here). I’m not sure why that would be!

      • Alan Fox says:

        Sorry, that was a bit of a drive-by, Jon. What triggered it was Vincent raising the issue of the biological possibility of all humans descending from a real Adam and Eve:

        and I recalled asking you the same question (here’s your answer)in a previious thread.

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


          Can’t see that my answer there was anything about Adam – looks like I was just replying to “What use is the OT?” – maybe I missed something on the thread.

          But it’s a good question, and one that I have indeed addressed over the years, and even in the posts immediately surrounding this one, although the immediate context on the SZ – that of Richard Buggs v Dennis Venema, only really interests me at a scientific and culture-wars level. Even then, I’m more interested in highlighting the dangers of over-using models.

          I agree with those who say that a first couple back in the palaeolithic would be irrelevant to the biblical description and role of Adam… but then I don’t see the need at any level to equate “Adam and Eve” with “first Homo sapiens“, still less with “first guys to paint, bury their dead and form trades unions”. I’m not even convinced the Bible paints Adam as the first “man” in its own definitional terms, but I’m developing that thought currently.

          I’ve personally had more interest in Joshua Swamidass’s genealogical Adam model, which I’ve found attractive since 2010 (thus predating him, but I got it from a bloke called David Opderbeck at BioLogos). I’ve done some work on how that might work historically and theologically.

          The bigger question for me is to see whether, and how, theology and/or the Bible require universal descent from Adam whether genetically (Adam as sole common ancestor – the scientifically problematic one) or genealogically (the scientifically pretty easy one, once you think outside the “genetic” box, but more theologically problematic one).

          I’m still the inerrantist Bibliophile I always was, but the very respect I accord the Hebrew Bible (as per the comment you link) makes me wary of the casual interpretations of both Christians and unbelievers. Not only biology and theology, but history, philosophy and anthropology all need to be considered in human origins.

          You have to start, after all, by deciding that there is such a universal as “human”, which evolutionary science can’t get you to alone.

  2. Alan Fox says:

    As I’ve often remarked, scientific endeavour will only, if we’re lucky, give us answers to “how” questions. But I don’t find religious answers to “why” questions satisfactory.

    With regard to temporal dividing lines on species with regard to humanity, of course there can’t be one that makes sense in all circumstances. But who knows what fossil discoveries lie in wait for us?

    Dr Swamidass has contributed to TSZ previously and you’d be very welcome if you wanted to add your thoughts. I admit TSZ can get a little unruly at times, so… up to you. 🙂

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Thanks for the invitation – I get plenty of unruliness in my occasional forays at BioLogos. It’s all tea and cakes here – ideal for an old man.

      My gut instinct is that essentialism will win the day – in other words, that all the fossils we ever find will be identifiably human, or identifiably some other discontinuous type. But I’m not placing bets, except that Neodarwinian gradualism won’t be in the running.

  3. Avatar photo GD says:

    Hi Jon,

    Perhaps a little tangential, but the to-and-fro on Biologos on populations and bottle-necks made me ask, what is known about populations, and community sizes in the period termed Neolithic? From a couple of publications, I get the impression that early Neolithic (or pre-Neolithic) communities are thought to number at 50-200, while late Neolithic were at a few hundred to one or two thousand. There are also dates and estimates of rises and fall in community sizes, with some speculating greater deaths from diseases, but also more frequent births.

    I envisage vast areas in the Middle-east and parts of Europe with small communities scattered over vast expanses – just how do they get bottlenecks from this? If they go back in time, data is sparse but nothing shows communities of 10,000 anywhere.

    Also the notion that Adam and Eve may have been surrounded by thousands of (other) humans(?) and they would leave traces of Eden somehow, strikes me as fanciful.

    Just some “head scratching” from this part of the world.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Hi GD

      The Hump’s crawling with posts on Adam at the moment, but everyone’s commenting on the jazz-drumming metaphysics thread! I’ll have to post more recordings.

      As far as I can see, the bottleneck suggestions actually related to the “Out of Africa” theory, where it’s plausible to envisage some small population of H sapiens having a bungle in the jungle somewhere in the early stages of the species.

      I can’t see how it would possibly have a bearing on a Neolithic sitiuation, by which time not only, as you say, were there many centres of population in the ANE, including early “cities” like Jericho, but plenty of evidence for thriving communities worldwide – China, Africa, Australia, both Americas and all points in between, including a thriving civilisation in Britain. It’s widely believed that agriculture was a response to rising populations.

      That said, glancing at Alan’s Skeptical Zone to see where Vincent Torley had asked about my denominational ties (couldn’t find it, but didn’t look too hard!) I came across a graphic showing the that the estimated world population began to take off a few thousand years BC, so in theory any time before that is possible… but then many other graphics are possible too, depending on the assumptions of your model.

      But however low the Neolithic populations, I agree it’s hard to square humans spread across the world with a “bottleneck” – one suspects the assumptions of the model may be misleading again. And recent evidence seems to be calling into question the whole “Out of Africa” hypothesis that gives the opportunity for such a bottleneck – and that would include Adam and Eve as sole biological progenitors.

      So it would seem, if we want to place an historical Adam and Eve into context, either they’ve got to be way in the past, with little connection to the Genesis narrative (so Ann Gauger’s or Richard Buggs’ remodelling of the genetic data), or we have to view a more recent Adam as a representative of existing man, or as a new kind of man – the difference not being genetic, but spiritual.

      As for non-adamic man, you’ll see that the most recent post here (the most recent two, if I get the next one up today) starts to address that from the biblical end, suggesting that new understandings of the authorial intent of the writer of Pentateuch may also lead to new understandings of how he/they saw mankind’s origins.

      The cool thing is that since that authorial intent appears to be even closer to the New Testament message than has usually been recognised (cf references to John Sailhamer), any conclusions will tend towards orthodoxy rather than accommodating doctrine to supposed science. But we may well find that some of the traditional interpretations cut across history unnecessarily.

      • Avatar photo GD says:

        I was not clear – I am concerned with methods used to estimate population numbers during pre-historic times. Neolithic pops are available, and they indicate that even during that recent period, communities were small, so if we go further back, I would expect even smaller communities, suggesting that a grouping of 10,000 (or such) as the bottleneck, may be unlikely.

        The question is, how can a concentration of many thousands (of whatever variety of pre-humans) be estimated from geological and anthropological data. I am avoiding discussions on Adam for the time being.

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

          Ah, I see. Well, I’m not the person to push on the genetics, so Joshua, or Preston Garrison, might have a better handle among those who post here.

          But I guess the population under consideration is an interbreeding population, so it would work with small groups of hunter gatherers scattered across a decent region who met up and intermarried. You don’t need a palaeolithic metropolis.

          The figures are all ballpark anyway, because what Venema et al. deal with is the population genetics abstraction of “effective population”:

          The effective population size is the number of individuals that an idealised population would need to have, in order for some specified quantity of interest to be the same in the idealised population as in the real population.

          Personally I think that population genetics is so full of deliberate and known assumptions, over-simplifications and idealisations that to use it as an historical tool is close to useless – as the current controversy may show. After all, it’s all about what the population genetics models really predict, not about whether those models have ever been demonstrated to concur with what happens in the real world.

  4. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    On the subject of the OP, the blog I linked GD to refers to this classic in-depth philosophical treatment. Well worth wading through (and skipping the equations if they get too much!). This is early eighties – amazing how little background in PoS many who pitch science against theology, as knowldege against woo, are,

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