Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

Answering Dennett’s Question For Him

The philosopher and Darwinist Daniel Dennett is puzzled by the continued existence of religious belief. How, he wonders, does it have survival value? The fundamentalist atheist Richard Dawkins is similarly perplexed by the persistence of religion, 500 years after the beginning of the scientific revolution. I, on the other hand – an ironclad atheist just like D² – am not at all surprised by the persistence of religious belief.

First of all, a few notes on my own stance. I’ve always been an atheist. My novels often have the theme of exposing religion and spirituality for what they are (eg the ‘Factory Girl’ trilogy). I utterly reject any notion of deities, soul or spirit, and the afterlife. I’m also a Darwinist in that I entirely accept Darwin’s wonderful theory of evolution by natural selection. In other words, I’m remarkably like D². Why, then, the difference?

In this blog post I’d like to answer Dennett’s question for him. Why do spirituality (by which I mean belief systems up to 3,000BC or thereabouts) and religion (what came after) continue to exist in societies suffused with and dependent upon the modern evidence based way of thinking? After all, spacefaring nations East and West go to the moon because of science, not prayer. Hospitals work by science, not prayer. Vaccines were discovered by science, not prayer. When you want anything mended you go to a mender, not a priest. In short: prayer obviously doesn’t work in the world. Yet it remains a major focus for the greater proportion of the world’s population.

Spirituality and religion answer four major questions that all human beings must have answered if they are to live coherent, sane lives. Those questions typically revolve around the themes: (i) how did the universe come into existence; (ii) how did I come into existence; (iii) what is the meaning of my life; and (iv) how should I live? No human being can live sane and whole without some basic answer to these four questions. That’s part of being human. In other words, meaning is an unavoidable aspect of the human condition. D² have answered the four questions through science. Others answer them through religion. Science, spirituality and religion are all meaning frameworks.

A better reframing therefore of Dennett’s question is: what is the survival value of meaning frameworks? Now we see where D² have gone wrong. Religion is merely an imaginary subset of human meaning frameworks. Atheism is also a human meaning framework. Science is a non-imaginary subset of human meaning frameworks, working through the scientific method, which spirituality and religion explicitly deny.

In other words, from perhaps as far back as 100,000 years ago, spirituality was an absolutely inevitable invention for all hunter-gatherers, who could not under any circumstances have survived without it. Human beings profoundly live via metaphor. We tell stories. This is what the Darwinist and the fundamentalist atheist don’t understand. They apply Darwinism to social life. Darwinism in fact applies to bodies created by genetics. Applying Darwinism to social life – asking “What is the survival value of religion?” – is like applying the mechanical processes in clockwork to the notion of eleven o’clock. Eleven o’clock is a human concept emerging from the mechanical processes inside a clock. You don’t ask what eleven o’clock is by observing the precise positions of cogs, levers and hands inside a stopwatch. You enquire as to its meaning in human life.

If human beings are to live happy, just, peaceful lives we have to expose the true nature of spirituality and religion. Pretending it’s all just a bunch of fairy stories, although literally true, strips metaphor from human minds, and without metaphor we are destined for insanity. We need stories to survive, and for the vast majority of human existence we had to invent them, because we didn’t know the truth about the real world. But now we do. Scientists accept that we defer to the real world, not the other way around. It is the real world which teaches us, not some book written 2,000 years ago, or some imaginary collection of principles invented in the depths of the last Ice Age. A new story is therefore required.

Yuval Noah Harari recently pointed out that for the first half of the twentieth century there were essentially three human stories: Capitalism, Socialism and Liberalism. After WW2 there was one human story: Liberalism. But now, we have no human story. That observation should send a chill through the hearts and minds of all who care about the future of the human race.


The Isness Of Bands

Are some band line-ups inviolate?

I started to get interested in music in my mid-teens. A friend at school recorded four Tangerine Dream albums onto cassette tapes for me; I was mesmerised. Then I heard music by ELP and Yes, and my sonic world expanded… then it was The Stranglers, punk, and beyond…

In recent years we’ve lost some remarkable musicians. The ones which have affected me most have been Edgar Froese (2015) and Dave Greenfield (2020), but the loss of Chris Squire, Neil Peart, Daevid Allen and Greg Lake really got to me too. As a consequence, and especially after the loss of Edgar Froese – Tangerine Dream were, and remain a massive part of my musical foundation – I’ve been wondering about a feeling I have that certain band line-up are inviolate. I’m going to call this feeling the isness of bands.

Currently, “Tangerine Dream” (quotation marks to indicate my stance) exist with no original members. One of the present members, Thorsten Quaeschning, worked for a while with Edgar Froese in the band, but Tangerine Dream was Edgar’s creation, and to me it seems absurd that his musical vehicle should continue after his death with exactly the same name. When Peter Baumann and even Chris Franke departed, fair enough – but the demise of Edgar should have indicated the end of Tangerine Dream. He represented the isness of that band.

I think this idea of inviolate line-ups also taps in to my attitude to death. The end is the end: no afterlife. In my opinion, commercial considerations should always defer to artistic ones. That’s idealistic, I know, but I deeply feel it. There is no Tangerine Dream after Edgar Froese.

A more difficult consideration for me is the case of Gong. Before founder Daevid Allen died, he indicated to the current line-up that they should continue as Gong after his death. To me, it seems ludicrous that a band so determined by the character of its founder – like Tangerine Dream – should continue after that founder’s death, but what am I to make of Daevid’s insistence that Gong continue? Clearly he saw Gong as something more than himself. He had spiritual beliefs, of course, and those informed his attitude to all sorts of aspects of life. Probably he imagined the musical manifestation, Gong the band, to be only one part of his overall vision. Perhaps he imagined the isness of Gong rather like a spirit. But a spirit is an imaginary human construction with no basis in reality. If you argue that a band is a human construction, well, yes it is. But a band, for all that it emerges from imagination, has a basis in reality.

I’m taking a profoundly materialistic view here, yet I also profoundly feel the wonder, the uniqueness, and the emotional power of music. I’m a musician myself. Music is a central part of my life. Tangerine Dream were unique, extraordinary, ground-breaking and progressive – their run of albums up to and including 1985s Le Parc remain a testament to their cultural importance. For me, it’s disappointing that musical entities don’t end when the founding member or original “classic” line-up ceases to be.

Neither spirit nor soul exist. I think we should recognise that all things – life itself and the creations of life – have finite duration. Tangerine Dream was born in 1967, and it should have been allowed to die in 2015.

I realise that this attitude is highly idealistic, and even unrealistic. Why shouldn’t Dave Greenfield, Jet Black and Jean-Jacques Burnel have carried on as The Stranglers if they so chose? Well, my attitude is of course particular to me; in my view the only incarnation of The Stranglers with that name is the 1975-1990 one. What came after should perhaps have had a different, but similar name. My attitude says more about me and my feelings for music than about anything else. However, I think it also says something about how we experience music as we age, which is a more generally interesting point. The experiences we have – the bands we discover, the bands we follow, the bands we love – as young people are central to our later experiences. You can tell how roughly old somebody is by which music decade they first mention or are particularly drawn to: ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s… For me, the magic of the ’70s – Tangerine Dream, Yes, Mike Oldfield, Steve Reich, The Stranglers – is a unique, irreplaceable glamour, one linked irrevocably to particular band line-ups. The isness of The Stranglers was represented by Dave Greenfield, Jet Black, Jean-Jacques Burnel and Hugh Cornwell.

I would argue that, after 1990, The Stranglers were merely the sum of their parts. The sum of the parts of “Tangerine Dream” is precisely zero.

Perhaps then my attitude to certain line-ups is a manifestation of something that we all feel, albeit that it’s an unusual attitude. The bands we grew up with as young adults are special. They and their names help define us. They are part of our identity.

Isness is a form of identity. It does not last forever.


Dave Greenfield RIP

One day in 1977, when I was about half way through my teen years, I walked past the radio in the kitchen of my house to hear an extraordinary piece of music. I halted, mesmerised. I had to listen to the rest of the song, whose rippling, haunting keyboard sound transfixed me. That song was 5 Minutes by The Stranglers.

Today we learned that Dave Greenfield, The Stranglers’ gifted keyboards and synth player, has died of Covid-19. Alas… for it turned out that 5 Minutes and the two incredible albums it represented – Stranglers IV and No More Heroes – was just the beginning of an extraordinary musical career, whose highlight, Black & White, remains for me one of the ten greatest albums ever recorded – forty two years on and still sounds futuristic. When Andrew Hook asked me to contribute to the punkPunk! anthology, I knew I had to write a story inspired by that unique LP.

Peel was a fan, of course, and supported them even through major sonic changes. I remember him say after playing the track The Raven: “The Stranglers… of course.” As the years went by their style and focus changed, yet they kept their core: great melodic songs, clever lyrics, world concerns. Dave Greenfield remained central to the sound, though his overdriven Rhodes passed into history.

I saw them live at the Rainbow Theatre in London in 1982 on the Meninblack tour. You had to wear black to attend a Stranglers gig, and I had nothing black except jeans and shoes, so I borrowed a leather jacket from my friend Dave Nye. Thus attired, I took the train from Egham to London for one of the highlights of my young life. It was incredibly loud and incredibly exciting. It was just incredible. I stood to the right of the stage about half way back, and, afterwards, getting a bus back to Waterloo Station, I realised I’d gone deaf in my right ear. Ah, great times!

I was unable to listen to anything after Hugh Cornwell departed. Many Stranglers-worshipping fans have recommended newer albums, but for me the original quartet is inviolate. Dave Greenfield somehow represented that futuristic, exotic, hypnotising, almost SF quality of the band, especially with his early keyboard sound. He leaves an amazing legacy.

All things must pass, even, in the end, our own memories. The music however lives on.

dave g

This Is Your Brain On Music review

This Is Your Brain On Music by Daniel Levitin

A couple of months ago I watched Stewart Copeland’s three-part tv series Adventures In Music, which aimed to get to the heart of what music is and why it means so much to us. The series was very enjoyable, and in one of the episodes there were interviews with Daniel Levitin, so I bought his book This Is Your Brain On Music.

I have to say, though it’s not a bad book, it is rather dry, and I did struggle with it. The opening three chapters (as the author observes) can be skipped by anyone reasonably au fait with music, while the rest, which is mostly neurology and brain science, is interesting enough but not terribly engaging. I confess I skipped a few sections.

It could be that a book simply isn’t the right vehicle for this topic. There was nothing specifically wrong here, but I found the continuing descriptions of brain operation to be a case of diminishing returns. Perhaps the book should be televised.

Interesting, then, but arid.


A Mithen Celebration

Recently I’ve been re-reading for research purposes a couple of books by Steven Mithen, so I thought the time was appropriate to write an appreciation of his enormous contribution to research into human evolution.

Professor of Archaeology at Reading University, his career has been decorated with many highlights. I first came across him when I stumbled upon a book entitled The Prehistory Of The Mind (1996), which turned out to be fascinating reading. Actually I didn’t get it at first, but after a second reading I realised what a remarkable description of the evolution of the human mind it was.

Mithen is known for his concept of cognitive fluidity, which, in a nutshell, suggests that “modular” aspects of the proto-human mind – in particular the social module, the language module, the technical module and the natural history module – all operated independently of one another during the long evolutionary process leading to homo sapiens. Slowly, these modules merged. Using supplementary ideas suggested by various other evolutionary scientists, Mithen’s book theorises that the language and social modules first merged, allowing the development of consciousness itself, which is a feature of the mind necessary for survival in highly complex social groups (cf Dunbar and Humphrey). The beauty of Mithen’s idea is that it explains the otherwise baffling: why cultural stasis marks hundreds of thousands of years of proto-human existence. This fact has always been difficult to explain. But if the mental modules were separate, no technical knowledge – for example how to sophisticate stone tools – could have been passed on, for example via language, leading to cultural stasis. All such knowledge would have been learned by imitation alone. The book is a brilliant description of the likely path of human mental evolution – an inspirational read.


A second work was the remarkable The Singing Neanderthals (2005). In this work Mithen delves deeper into one of the aspects of life not elaborated upon in his previous book: the evolution of language. This, of course, is a tricky and highly contentious area for debate, so Mithen’s contribution was always going to make fascinating reading. His essential thesis is this: proto-language was holistic, mimetic and musical. It consisted of sounds and gestures, which in one indivisible utterance described something. This was not compositional language like ours, which can be cut up into sections for infinite communicative possibilities. The brilliance of the work though is how Mithen develops this notion into a timeline for the separation of the proto-language into our kind of language and music, the latter of which, separated, became our vehicle for emotional expression. This book is another terrific, thought-provoking read.

singing n

Between the above two books came After The Ice (2003). In it, the impact of alterations in climate owing to the planet’s Milankovitch Cycles was developed into a global description of massive changes in human culture, not least the change from hunter-gatherer societies to those depending on agriculture. Cutting edge research about life during the Ice Age brings veracity to a very well written narrative. (This book would benefit from being read alongside Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs & Steel, I think.) What might be called “eye-witness accounts” bring a vivid feel to much of the book. It’s more of a survey of prehistory than the two theoretical earlier works, and it’s a wonderful read.

after i

None of these three books require any prior knowledge other than that human beings evolved and there needs to be an explanation of the process. What the reader brings is a sense of wonder and the desire to learn about our prehistory.

Highly regarded by his peers, and a terrific writer, Steven Mithen has opened up the possibilities which we have for developing a description of our evolution. All three of these books come highly recommended from me.

(A Prehistory Of The Mind here.)


Death Post Covid

Readers of Woodland Revolution may be interested to check out this article by the outstanding Yuval Noah Harari, in which he speculates about humanity’s reaction to the aftermath of Covid-19 in the context of its millennia-long search for the meaning of death. I particularly liked in the conclusion these lines: “It is up to individuals to do better philosophy.” That is something Wolfy would very much agree with.

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Woodland Revolution review

Really pleased with this review of Woodland Revolution on the Druidlife blog.

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An Aether Egg

I was asked by Penny Blake of the Blake&Wight site to create an Aether Egg for her, so here it is…

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Real Woodland

Quite a few of my novels are inspired by real places. Usually that inspiration (Memory Seed for instance) is one of environment, which then becomes mutated in my imagination, but sometimes places I know appear in my fiction exactly as they are. One such is the pine mound of Woodland Revolution. When I was putting the work together, I happened to be driving past a local Shropshire landmark, quite close in fact to the spot where, a few years previously, I’d seen the roadkill fox which inspired Woodland Revolution.

Harmer Hill pine sandstone

Shropshire has a lot of sandstone. This stone, in drumlins forged by Ice Age glaciers in my home county, leads to quite a limited, even sparse environment: gorse, heathers, silver birch and pine. The combination is distinctive, for example as pictured above near Harmer Hill in north Shropshire.

This was the environment I imagined both for the outcrop set with gnarly, dark green pines and for Professor Owl – the red hill with the single, enormous pine, which is symbolic of the axis of the world…

Environment channels our thought in very many ways. We are scions of what lies around us, whether we know it or not.

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Woodland Revolution, read

In which the author reads from the opening of his book Woodland Revolution

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