NYT: A Festival Where Theory and Research Meet to Jam About the Mind

NYT: A Festival Where Theory and Research Meet to Jam About the Mind


The New York Times


December 9, 2012

A Festival Where Theory and Research Meet to Jam About the Mind


Backed by his Zombie Blues band, David Chalmers is a vision of primordial rock ’n’ roll: a growling, howling menace with wild hair and a leather jacket. But the lyrics he shouts are inside references to debates about the nature of consciousness, and the audience that gathers for the performance is in on all the jokes.

The opportunity to hear Professor Chalmers, one of the most celebrated philosophers of mind and a visiting professor at New York University, will next arise on Monday night at the third annual Qualia Fest, a lineup of seven bands, most of whose members hail from the realms of philosophy and neuroscience.

Those two fields were once miles apart. In recent years, however, and particularly in New York, an area of overlap has emerged among theorists and practical researchers. Someday that overlap may produce clear answers about the human mind. But it has already produced a whole mess of bands. Qualia Fest, which this year will take place at the Bowery Electric starting at 7 p.m., is their Woodstock.

It is the brainchild, if you will, of Richard Brown, a philosopher at the City University of New York. Back when he was a graduate student, he started playing music with some fellow academics in a colleague’s basement. Those jam sessions became the New York Consciousness Collective, and moved to a monthly gig at the Parkside Lounge on the Lower East Side. Along the way, the musicians coalesced into a few discrete bands.

Among them are the Whims, whom Fletcher Maumus, a guitarist and vocalist in the band who teaches philosophy at Brooklyn College, characterizes as Beach Boys by way of the Ramones; and Quiet Karate Reflex, in which Alex Keifer, a doctoral candidate of the CUNY Graduate Center, uses a modified 8-bit Game Boy as a musical instrument.

Many of the musicians play in more than one of the bands; Professor Brown plays in four. (“There’s not a lot of philosophy drummers,” he said. “I get a lot of work.”) That overlap gives the undertaking a friendly, clubby feel.

Erik Nylen, a predoctoral fellow at the Center for Neural Science at N.Y.U. and the keyboardist for the Space Clamps, says the music provides a way for philosophers and neuroscientists to communicate with one another.

“For example, when Richard and I talk about our research, we can’t really go that deep into particulars of the questions we ask — we each speak bits and pieces of each other’s languages, but neither of us are fluent in both.” On stage, however, “we are communicating on a much deeper level than we would ever be able to otherwise.”

Qualia are subjective sensations, and references to the study of consciousness are laced throughout the performances. The Amygdaloids, led by Prof. Joseph E. LeDoux of the Center for Neural Science, use their songs to try to explain various ideas about the mind. The Space Clamps, who call their music “bubble gum funk,” take a more lighthearted approach, as in their song “History of Science.” (“Who invented gravity? Space Clamps! Who invented electricity? Space Clamps!”)

Professor Chalmers says the action is not confined to the stage. “If you get a few philosophers together, they’re never terribly far from arguing about philosophy. Getting a few drinks into them doesn’t hurt. If the music is loud, you might get a bit of shouting.”

Professor Maumus had similar memories. “It’s a fascinating scene,” he said. “ ‘Good set, you guys are good. What’s your take on Kripke’s dualist argument?’ Not the kind of thing you typically expect to hear being discussed between sets at a rock show.”

Sara Steele, the lead singer of Space Clamps, who studies auditory perception at N.Y.U. and has performed wearing a futuristic gold cat suit, said the best part is when the music gets everyone dancing, “in a carefree bouncy sort of way, with lots of oscillation.”

Toward the end of the long night comes the moment the crowd has waited for, when Professor Chalmers takes the stage. The zombie in his band’s name is a hypothetical being that philosophers like to speculate about — a creature that looks just like a human but lacks consciousness. Playing on that theme, and shouting over a Muddy Waters riff, the professor begins: “I act like you act, I do what you do, but I don’t know what it’s like to be you.” He does only one song, but it can last close to an hour as members of the audience come onstage to perform their own verses, about topics like singularity or synesthesia.

“I always thought of it as something that would happen very much in the moment, just for a few of us,” he said, “so I was a little surprised the first time it showed up on YouTube. In the sober light of day it’s pretty atrocious.”

Many of the other performers are, in fact, accomplished musicians. But despite all their credentials, Qualia Fest is a surprisingly unpretentious event. “You’re bound to see a better act if you go to Webster Hall,” Mr. Nylen, the predoctoral fellow, said. “But I think we have a better time than any of them.”