The Quest for Truth Amid Tradition

Stuart Lowrie

Sunday, March 2, 1997

I come to this presentation most humbly.

I am not an expert on truth, tradition nor in any of the topics or areas, save science, that I hope to explore in this presentation. Many of you, doubtless, know more about individual areas than I, and if the coherence of this talk suffers because of that, please accept now my apologies. I promise to hold in reserve a few minutes at the end so that other members of this congregation with greater knowledge can elaborate or correct my clumsy observations.

I’d like to start by defining the notion of tradition that I will be critiquing:

The Random House College Dictionary defines tradition as the

  1. handing down of statements, beliefs, legends, customs and the like from generation to generation especially by word of mouth or by practice
  2. that which is so handed down.

This dictionary definition then segues into the observation that such traditional notions and beliefs are often associated with another area: religion, and the practice thereof – – – a topic that I will return to, briefly, later.

For now, I want to focus on kinds of traditions and contrast them with what I, for want of a better vocabulary, will call truth – by which I mean, assumptions based upon testable hypotheses, usually well verified by science.

For example, I accept as true the theory of evolution as proposed by Darwin and Wallace and amended and amplified by later science. I do not accept as true, notions of extraterrestrial visitations or the existence of the tooth fairy. While we may wish that such things were true, so far no evidence has been accumulated to substantiate their existence.

Later science may do so, just as the theory of evolution could conceivably by overturned by later discoveries or a camel could pass through the eye of a needle.

I give approximately equal probability to either the first being demonstrated false or the last being demonstrated true.

Let me start by trying to define a few categories of tradition through some examples or varieties of “received wisdom.” From there I will move on to a discussion and my conclusions about tradition and its relationship to truth and our daily lives.

Since I stand guilty of being a rationalist and a scientist, let me start with examples of tradition in science. What, impossible you say? Science seeks truth through verification or falsification of predictive hypotheses. How can tradition enter into it?

A classic story of tradition versus truth can be found in the struggle of astronomy to emerge from the shadow of cultural and religious dogma – I’m not talking about Galileo here – that was a different struggle.

The Greek astronomer and mathematician, Ptolemy, and his contemporaries were well aware of the long term motions of the planets in the sky. Over a number of months an observer on earth, watching Mars for example, will note a very bizarre motion: at certain points in its gradual movement through the night sky and as observed over the course of several weeks, Mars (and, as it turns out, all the outer planets) will appear to move forward against the background stars, stop, reverse direction and move backwards, stop again, then resume its apparent motion forward. (We call this reversing of the forward motion “retrograde motion.”)

Ptolemy and his contemporaries devised a baroque scheme to explain how this might occur. His conjectures were elaborated upon and refined by astronomers well into the middle ages, resulting in fantastically complex systems including planetary epicycles and countless other mechanisms to explain the observed motion of the planets.

This so-called retrograde motion, we now know is the result of the earth’s motion with respect to Mars.

All this earlier reasoning and effort to explain a simple observation was based on a central and false tradition: the fiercely held belief that the earth, and not the sun, was at the center of the observable universe and that the earth DID NOT MOVE (this was Galileo’s problem with the Roman Catholics… it was only in this decade that Pope J2P2 admitted the church was wrong and Galileo right).

We now accept that our planet does move. And, being closer to the sun, moves more quickly than Mars, and so catches up to Mars and passes it on a regular and predictable basis. Just so, runners on the inside of a track catch up and pass those on the outside of a track, even if both run at the same speed. As our planet catches up to Mars, it appears to slow and stop. As the earth passes Mars, it appears to move backwards. Once the earth is far enough past it, the apparent motion of Mars again reverses to its normal progression against the background of stars.

The important fact here is that the weird retrograde motion of Mars is easily explained IF you recognize that the earth and all the other planets orbit the sun.

What held back the rational pursuit of astronomy for over a 1500 years was the traditional notion that the earth was the center of the universe. Ptolemy did not struggle with Galileo’s problem. He would have agreed with the church hierarchy that the earth was a perfect celestial body and could not move. From one false assumption flow others.

One more example from science, and them I’ll feel free to lob brick bats at other disciplines:

The February 1997 Natural History magazine holds an illustration of a common type of scientific hubris that I equate with tradition or the unexamined acceptance of received wisdom.

The article in question tells the story of the controversy that once existed regarding the antiquity of humans in the New World. In the early 20th century one scientist, Ales Hrdlicka, a curator at the Smithsonian Institute, essentially controlled the “truth” about human arrival in the New World. Based on his assessments of skull morphology, he estimated that humans could not have arrived on this continent any earlier than 1000 BCE. In his position of great power at the Smithsonian, he was able to literally destroy the careers of any who dared to dispute him.

Even so, occasional researchers would dispute him, often with regrettable results for them. A spectacular fossil find of the 1920’s near Folsom, Texas, showed indisputably the bones of animals, known to have been extinct for 10,000 years, mixed in with human artifacts: arrow heads, the so-called Folsom points, found between the fossilized ribs of long-extinct Pleistocene buffalo. This clearly signified that humans had been in Texas at least 10,000 years ago; 7000 years more than Hrdlicka would admit possible.

Even so, the power of Hrdlicka was such in the scientific community, that respected scientific organizations and publications were reluctant to present this kind of discovery without a “disclaimer.” The Scientific American, for example, began its article on the fossils discovered in Texas by stating that “the editor disclaims all responsibility… for … the claims concerning the proof of antiquity of man in America.”

Once released from this confining and non-scientific dogma, the field of New World Anthropology blossomed. Even older sites were found, and the fluted Folsom arrow heads, that anthropologists had known about for years, were finally recognized for what they were. In an unsurprising post script, Hrdlicka rationalized and disputed the age of these fossils until he died, never accepting the antiquity of humans in America.

The power of a belief of one individual, shared even tenuously by others, had remarkable ability to stymie and warp a clear inquiry into the truth. Needless to say, science is replete with similar, if less egregious, examples.

My one article of faith, where science is concerned: ultimately these kinds of traditions and unscientific notions get routed out by more rigorous work. Science, at least, is self-correcting.

A completely different area of dogma and tradition, now. And one where I am on much shakier ground – is music and its history.

One of my pet peeves, especially when I was younger and less moderated by accumulated wisdom and tolerance, was musical transcription.

Now, you may wonder how I can turn this into an example of truth versus tradition – but be patient.

My first realization that the classical music that I was buying might not be kosher appeared when I was still in my twenties. I had become enamored of Moussorsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition – you know the piece. Some of this music went on the become thematic background for the 1960’s science fiction TV show (to which I was devoted) Lost in Space.

MUSIC INSERT Pictures at an exhibition, Orchestral Excerpt from “The Gnome.”

Of course the version that I heard and believed to be the original and only version was the orchestrated one so familiar to all of us. Imagine my surprise when I heard this familiar music one night being played on, of all things, a PIANO! I was shocked.

MUSIC INSERT Pictures at an Exhibition, Piano Excerpt from “The Gnome” Alfred Brendel, Pianist.

It didn’t take me long to figure out that the familiar orchestration was, in fact, an impostor. Mussorgsky only wrote the piano version. Later, Ravel orchestrated that piano piece and the rest is history.

Now, to be fair, most orchestral recordings of this work clearly state “orchestrated by Ravel.” And the orchestration is lush, brilliant and compelling. But how often do radio announcers tell us that it’s a transcription as they play snippets of this piece?

I slowly increased my sophistication wth respect to music over the years and gradually realized that there is an even greater fraud being perpetrated on us by music mavens around the world.

While finishing my graduate degree at the University of Michigan, I was introduced to musical recordings made using the instruments of the period when the music was composed. That first revelatory recording was Monteverdi’s soaring Vespers of the Blessed Virgin:

MUSICAL EXCERPT – Opening to Verpers of the Blessed Virgin

The sound was totally different from anything I had heard up until then. Given that Monteverdi composed at the end of the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th, if you thought about it, you would expect dramatic differences not only in the playing style and instrumentation of orchestral works between then and now, but dramatic differences in the instruments themselves. And there ae vast differences:

Monteverdi did not have access to trumpets, flutes, and oboes with valves (those little clacking keys that run along the length of modern trumpets, flutes and oboes). All the notes were made through the use of finger holes and the tension of lips or pressure of breath. In the case of trumpets, not even holes were available to help create the instrument’s tone.

Monteverdi’s orchestra was set to a pitch noticeably lower than that now commonly in place (A = 440 cps). If you listen carefully to another of the recorded examples in a moment, you’ll hear the difference in pitch.

His stringed instruments used gut for strings; some, like the cello, used a different bowing technique from what is now standard. String players used little or no vibrato in their playing.

His choruses did not use women (instead they probably used either children or castrati). And the singers used little or no vibrato in their voices.

Yet, despite what must be huge differences in what Monteverdi heard and what we usually now hear, we consider it unremarkable when a Monteverdi work is played on modern instruments. But how unlike the original it sounds!

This difference between orchestral instruments used during the baroque and their linear descendants used in a modern orchestra began to interest me and before I even knew it, I had become a rigid “original instruments” purist.

I turned up my nose at Herbert Van Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic playing Handel. I shuddered at Glenn Gould’s playing Bach on a Steinway grand piano. Stokowski’s Bach transcriptions for the Disney film Fantasia were simply beyond the pale (and I might add, they still are).

I avoided the “old” played on the “modern” and sought out the arcane groups and spaces where original instruments played age-appropriate music.

But compare for yourself: Here are two versions of the same phrase from a popular Mozart piano sonata:


MOZART – Piano sonata by Mitsuko Uchida on Piano

MOZART – Piano Sonata by Malcolm Bilson on Forte Piano

You can tell the difference?

Over the years, I have had something of a change of heart: I enjoy the big orchestra, romantic transcriptions of the baroque and classical period. But don’t think I enjoy music on original instruments any less.

And I still believe that there is an injustice here that cries out for correction, even though I have come full circuit and again appreciate the Berlin Philharmonic recreating a Bach Cantata.

The injustice is this: that now most of us accept what are essentially transcriptions of baroque and classical period music as though they were the actual thing. It is the Moussorsky/Ravel problem though vastly more insidious. Listen to how BIG the difference can be:


Bach: Wachet auf, ruf uns die Stimme; Excerpt from the final chorus. MODERN Version

Bach: Same excerpt, on ORIGINAL INSTRUMENTS, Joshua Rifkin and Bach Ensemble.

Without a significant recasting and transcribing of Bach’s original music, a modern orchestra could not play it. It is recast at a higher pitch (with sometimes disastrous results for the human voice…) Valves on brass and woodwind remove the smoother, less homogenized and more penetrating sounds of a transverse flute and oboe d’amore from the mix. It is radical surgery and the resultant product is just as much a transcription as Ravel’s was of Moussorsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Yet you NEVER hear anyone refer to a piece as the Leonard Bernstein’s orchestral transcription of a Bach Cantata.

The music world is guilty of a conspiracy to deny evolution of musical performance practices and of the very instruments themselves! There are other interesting, stimulating and appropriate – dare I say it? ORIGINAL ways to listen to music.

A body of tradition (a tradition barely 150 years old) stands between us and a greater understanding of where our western musical heritage really came from. The received interpretations now are largely limited to modern orchestras and the vision of modern conductors who firmly believe that a romantic orchestra (reaching its full fruition in the late 19th century) is an entirely appropriate, indeed the only appropriate, way to play Monteverdi, Purcell, Bach, Mozart or Vivaldi. Indeed, for the most part (certainly until the early 70’s) we ourselves did not IMAGINE another way to appreciate this canon.

Lest you believe that musicians are incapable of mean-spirited narrow-mindedness, along the lines of Hrdlicka, I remind you that the dawn and commercial success of original instrument recordings was met with catcalls by the entrenched standard bearers of current musical traditionalism (many of whom still wield a baton at a national orchestral podium).

Their view was: “What reason to return to the raucous and unhomogenized orchestras of that bygone day? If Monteverdi or Mozart or Beethoven had had a modern orchestra, this is the way they would have written their music…”

Modern musical traditionalists smugly point out that Beethoven composed his first piano sonatas for a piano with a reduced keyboard. Only his later sonatas took advantage of the full 88 keyed instrument when it was introduced later in his life.

But what they fail to note is that Beethoven never went back and recomposed or “transcribed” his earlier piano sonatas for the extended keyboard… Ironically, that recomposition or transcription of Beethoven’s work (that he never did), is exactly what modern musical traditionalists do to fit his music to their modern orchestras.

Had Beethoven been confronted with a new, modern orchestra full-blown, I for one, doubt he would have recomposed or transcribed any of his earlier works for that medium. He would simply have written new and more magnificent compositions for the new and modern orchestra, just as he wrote new sonatas for the new 88 key piano.

Amidst much agonizing and mudslinging, the world of music has gradually been forced to admit into its ranks the, admittedly imprecise, interpretations of ancient music as the ancients themselves might have heard it. Surely this can only be a good and enriching thing for all of us who love music?

My last example of a tradition draws in the religious angle that I promised at the start. I warn you that my interpretation of the events I am about to describe runs differs from that of the original article that appeared in the NY Times at the beginning of this month.

On the Queen Charlottes Islands, 60 miles off of Canada’s Pacific Coast live a tribe of Haida native Americans. Central to their myth and tradition was a sacred tree, a rare golden sitka spruce named kiidk’yaas – “the ancient one” – in the language of the Haida. This tree, 160 feet tall, had its origins in the following story which I have shamelessly and freely embellished, as the NY Times version was rather dry:

“The creator was angry with the Haida of the village because they had mistreated each other. To punish them he sent deep snows that covered and crushed the entire village. An old man and a boy hid under a cedar plank till they heard a bird call, signaling that they might safely flee the ruins of their village. They ran up a nearby river and the old man, who was wise in the ways of his people and the creator, warned the boy not to look back at the desolate scene of their now-destroyed village. But the boy looked back anyway and was turned into a tree. (I hope this resonates of Sodom and Gomorrah to you). The old man carried the news of his village’s fate to his kin upriver and informed them that his grandson had become a tree for all to marvel at and admire until the last generation.”

This very tree, center of this creation myth of the Haida, was felled by a vandal last January. After lamentations and grieving, the Haida elders began to worry that the loss of the tree signaled the end of the Haida according to the prophecy.

Enter Science. Decades earlier, a botanist had secretly snipped a few trimmings from this tree and brought them back to a specialized nursery where they were cultivated and sent on to the UBC Botanical Garden. Staff of the Botanical garden, learning of the loss of this rare tree, offered to return one of their specimens to replace it.

Here the story becomes strange. The Haida were reluctant to take one of these specimens, fearing that it would not be the same tree as the one they had lost. This in itself is unremarkable. Despite the unequivocal genetic unity of the lost tree with its externally cultivated branchlet. The odd part, to me, is how the scientists at the Botanical garden reacted.

In a manner uncharacteristic for a scientist, the question of “meaning” was raised. Could this tree, removed from the original and grown elsewhere ever have the same significance for the Haida as the lost original did? How interesting for a scientist to concern himself with that essential bit of tradition!

Actually, the story does end happily:

Ultimately, the Haida did elect to accept the donation of the juvenile golden sitka spruce.

My conjecture is that, given the rapidity with which the original legend grew up (less than 160 years) and formed a fable to guide the Haida, a new part of the fable will appear.

If the Haida still survive as a distinct culture 50 years from now, perhaps there will be a second chapter to the tale of the old man and the boy fleeing the snowy destruction of their inhospitable village. Perhaps it will have to do with the consequences of poor stewardship of nature, its effect cultural continuity, and our responsibility to do better if we get second chance.

This long and rambling discussion boils down to a few observations, really:

Tradition plays a very large role in the way we view our world. Without realizing it, we accept as fact myriad things that are fancy, and sometimes worse.

Many traditions are the cornerstones upon which we base civil society. The myth of the Haida is such a tradition. It instructs us, in metaphor, that we must be kind to others or risk the collapse of all that sustains us. Solstice traditions in the northern hemisphere similarly bind us together socially, encouraging us to take stock of our community and it’s importance to us. We need other people to survive through the darkest parts of the year. A wonderful metaphor for our lives as a whole.

Many traditions are harmless, if annoying. Accepting modern orchestral transcriptions as if they were the original baroque compositions is probably not life-threatening. It may cause purists such as me to wince every now and then, but most of us, when confronted with the truth do not deny it (even if the meaning of the differences between baroque and modern orchestration is still a topic of great academic debate).

Some traditions are harmful, but with a limited impact. In Science, we have seen that bad assumptions and misguided prejudice ultimately fall to the light of constant inquiry and challenge. Faced with real physical evidence, it is difficult to maintain for long that somehow their skull shape means Native Americans have only been here for 3000 years. Science is (I believe) self-correcting.

Some traditions are life-threatening and diabolical. In the realm of tradition the most insidious “truths” have always been those that force us all into a particular faith or practice without recourse. Notions held uniformly by nearly all are particularly difficult to uproot – witness the supremacy of the earth-centered universe for literally millennia.

We have many of these dangerous traditions among us still:

The arcane notion that somehow belief in one god is superior to belief in many different gods or no gods at all.

The belief among certain African tribes that women of a certain age should have their lips cut open for the insertion of plates, or their necks bound up in ever increasing numbers of brass rings or their external genitalia mutilated at puberty (We have always done it that way, it is good…).

The American medical/religious belief that male children should have their external genitalia mutilated at birth for hygienic or other reasons.

The notion that skin color is a useful indicator of something other than skin color.

The fervent belief that god or gods have a plan for us that we cannot understand and that its outlines have been written down, by these same god or gods, into a book or books that we must follow exactly or risk eternal torment.

The belief that one of these books gives us license to oppress homosexuals.

The acceptance that our nations’ Pledge of Allegiance has always contained the words, “under God” after “one nation, indivisible” (added only in the mid-1950’s when “In God We Trust” was also added to our paper currency).

The belief that only people of the opposite sex should be allowed to marry and receive state-sanctioned benefits in that union.

We have few tools by which to grasp constructively at meaning and reality. I believe that one of those tools is to actively question everything, to say, “What is the evidence for that belief?” And “What is the history of that belief?” Otherwise we are no better than Hrdlicka or countless others who have inflated their egos and arrogance behind a falsehood. This is the basis of good science and it is (I believe) the basis of a good life.

I also believe we must use our good sense to realize that some stories, even though they manifestly are NOT true, nevertheless carry messages to us that we can consider and learn from. We enter into dangerous ground when we come to believe the literal truth of a good story and forget the history and metaphor from which that story sprang.

Finally, we should pause to consider: “What cherished truths do we hold now that in fact are hurtful traditions and that should one day fall to a more careful analysis of the belief that sustains our conviction?”

I hope many of those on the list I just read are in that category. We can only hope. But far-reaching challenges to traditional values have had profound effects on our lives in the latter decades of this century: think of equal rights for women, the emergence of equal rights for gays and lesbians. I know it is the responsibility of all thoughtful and introspective people everywhere to let these transitions happen. I add that it is also our duty to embrace them because we do not exist to serve and perpetuate tradition, rather traditions exist to serve us and to enhance our lives.

Closing Words:

People occasionally stumble across the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened.

Sir Winston Churchill

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