What does David Bowie have to do with Philosophy?

Are we a brain-in-a-vat?

  • Yes
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The following essay is based on this song, it will be carefully dissected.

David Bowie - From the 1999 album ‘hours…’

The Dreamers

Black eyed ravens
They spiral down
They tilt his head back
To the flame filled sunset
Rise their guns high
As the darken falls
These are the days, boys

Shallow man
Shallow man
Eats in the doorways
With his head inclined
And he’s always in decline
No one heals anymore
So he shrinks as they ride
Under vermillion sky

So it goes
Just a searcher
Lonely soul
The last of the dreamers

Shallow man
Shallow man
Speaks to the shadows
Moves his trembling hands
And he’s always a little late
For the dawning of the day

So it goes
Just a searcher
Lonely soul
The last of the dreamers


First, what is the biological explanation for why the black eyed ravens tilt his head back?

If there is something interesting in your visual field, then you will first notice it in your periphery. This is mostly good for detecting movements, such as a spiraling raven. You might also see the flame filled sunset, but not in detail. Peripheral vision is not so good at seeing detail such as color, or even shape. Moving objects capture our attention, we need to decide whether we need to chase it, hide from it, or ignore it.

In response to motion, area MT (V5) and area MST are highly activated. These two areas receive input from both the magnocellular and parvocellular pathways. Magnocellular pathways respond to overall patterns of movement while the parvocellular pathway include cells giving cues to retinal disparity, a very important cue for distance.

After we have decided that we want to see what the moving thing is we need to take a key step, because we can easily be deceived if we do not rotate our head such that the light from the object of interest pierces our cornea, pupil, and lens to project to a small pit on the center of our eye. This pit is known as the fovea, it has a specialized ability for detailed vision, because blood vessels and ganglion cell axons are virtually absent, thus, minimizing light obstruction. It also has a tight packing of photo receptors.

Now that we know it is a raven, or a vermilion colored sky, we can take appropriate action. Maybe it is a particularly dangerous raven, and we should run, hide, or maybe even eat in the hallway (it’s a dream, anything can happen).

The dreamer is probably in a solipsistic mind state. The song gives the notion that the dreamer is all alone, a lonely, shrinking, searching soul, the last of the dreamers.

A solipsist is almost a global skeptic, that is, they place doubt on everything in the world except themselves. The dreamer in this song is correct to feel this way. We forget that people, trees, and buildings are nothing more than products of our own subjective internal experience. This idea is best illustrated in a painting by Rene Magritte, titled The Human Condition I. We have no way to jump outside of our experience to compare the product of our own subjective consciousness with the outside world. This evidence is probably impossible to refute, but whether or not it is practical or adaptive to hold this belief is another issue.

Part of the abstract nature of this song can probably be attributed to the fact that he is dreaming. Why are dreams so weird? The activation-synthesis hypothesis holds that dreams begin with random bursts of PGO waves (originating in the pons) that activate parts of the cortex. The cortex combines this random activity with whatever other activity was already occurring, and then makes an attempt to make some sense of it, a story is constructed. In the case of these lyrics, it is a frightening one.

For example, maybe the dreamer is studying philosophy, perhaps reading about solipsism. Maybe he also saw a movie about an impending apocalypse, involving vermilion skies, and ravens. Maybe in his waking life he feels like a shallow man, maybe in the sense that he lacks knowledge, or emotion. According to the activation-synthesis hypothesis all of these experiences could be constructed such that the dreamer is in an alternate reality in which it seems vividly real that he is the only person in existence.

maybe the shallow man is resigned to his fate or his fear…

perhaps it is about the perspective of the raven instead of the shallow man…

and to your original inquiry, david bowie is no philosopher -

but ziggy stardust certainly is…


perhaps it is about the perspective of the raven instead of the shallow man…

That is a brilliant observation, it makes sense.

Interesting essay and perspective. Derrida’s comments about interpreting texts seems to ring more and more true with every passing year.

Me, I read the above and found it to have a more political slant than a purely philosophical one.