Tuesday, March 11, 2014

A Theory of Scientism

One of my favorite things is to debunk articles on music that seem to misapply scientific principles. I call this "scientism", i.e. studies that ape the procedures of science without actually contributing anything worthwhile. Of course, I didn't invent the term "scientism". Roger Scruton, a well-known philosopher of aesthetics, has just published an essay giving an excellent history of the humanities and scientism. In it he links to some of the most important books and papers on the subject, including the new "science" of neuroaesthetics and an excellent critique of it. Scruton summarizes the problem with neuroaesthetics as follows:
For our present purposes, it is also worth noting the way in which science intrudes into Ramachandran’s description of the subject. Instead of a careful and circumspect attempt to define a problem, there is a perfunctory description of a few artistic phenomena, an unwarranted reference to a preferred explanation (“neural mechanisms”), and an anticipation of the result of applying it. This is the sure sign of scientism — that the science precedes the question, and is used to redefine it as a question that the science can solve. But the difficulty of understanding art arises precisely because questions about the nature and meaning of art are not asking for an explanation of something, but for a description.
My usual critique of this kind of research does indeed focus on how the scientists usually create the kind of question that they can answer, ignoring completely what musicians already know or creating the kind of question that is really irrelevant. Then they perform the experiment and declare victory. I'm not so sure that all questions about the nature and meaning of art are to be answered with a description rather than an explanation, though. Scruton offers this explanation of why things having to do with art, music and the human personality are not in the empirical world studied by science:
Science tells us a lot about the ordered sequences of pitched sounds; but it tells us nothing about melodies. A melody is not an acoustical but a musical object. And musical objects belong to the purely intentional realm: they are about something else; they are imbued with meaning; they are sounds as we self-conscious beings experience and relate to them. The concept of the person is like the concept of a melody. It features in our way of perceiving and relating to each other, but it does not “carry over” into the science of what we are. The fact that the person does not carry over into science does not mean that there are no persons, but only that a scientific theory of persons will classify them with other things — for example, with apes or other mammals.
There is a lot more in the essay, which I recommend reading in full. I also recommend reading the critique by John Hyman that I also linked to.

Now, let me see, what piece of music would be appropriate to end with? As I recall, the Wall Street Journal put up an article about how recent research has shown that the emotional effect of Adele comes from, now brace yourself, because this will be a surprise: the use of the appoggiatura!!


Actually, I suspect that a lot of what helps that song is the feeling of inevitability in the well-worn chord progression:


Which is not so terribly different from this chord progression:

Click to enlarge

Both work their magic with a simple arpeggiation in which the bass descends while the upper voices remain the same (for a while). In the second example the chords are C# minor, then with a seventh in the bass (C#4/2), then A major, D major and G# major. The second piece is by Beethoven, his piano sonata known as op. 27, no. 2, or the "Moonlight" Sonata.


4 comments:

Bridge said...

The effect of the "appogiaturas" is so rudimentary that I would not have even registered them as appogiaturas if you hadn't mentioned it. In general I try to listen to as little pop music as I possibly can, and when I cannot avoid listening to it I try to pay as little attention as I possibly can. It gives me a headache, no joke. Is it just me or is Adele a poor vocalist? People praise her but I detect no difference between her and basically everybody else. She has some technical abilities, like being able to sing on pitch and she has a decent range but the expressive part of the singing is so lackluster. It's all sung in the typical slurred style of modern pop music with nearly no inflections or dynamics or subtle change of timbre (apart from the unavoidable change that occurs between the registers). It just makes me feel so empty - why anyone would volunteer their ears for such music I don't understand.

Bryan Townsend said...

The WSJ article could actually have been talking about a different song, I would have to go back and check. I take notice of this song because it has 350 million views on YouTube!!! There must be something about it people like. Pop music these days is a rather mannerist genre. What you hear as lackluster is probably what most listeners interpret as "authentic" emotion.

Joel Lo said...

Oh, Bryan… I swear I had read and listened to some ideas of Scruton before, and I swear I’ve always been a follower. I guess his work on merely Aesthetics on music is the material I love from him. But in this essay you linked, I found him more… I don´t know… not so convincing.
I usually like Scruton thoughts on music, and I usually agree with your remarks on bad science and pseudo science (about music). However, after reading that essay I noticed something: it would be a never ending battle: Whenever a scientist wants to dig into humanities, humanists are going to say “scientist are ignorant” about humanities. But, that works the other way around; whenever a humanist talks about science, trust me… scientists are going to say “humanists” are ignorant about science. In the meanwhile, I’m lost over here, with both sides to support.
Scruton writes very well, I can’t deny it. Explain his ideas magnificently, but he has certain conceptions which can be heavily challenged (especially on the present days). If that essay would have allowed comments, I bet it would have been seriously attacked.
I won’t explain every detail I disagree with; I stay with Scruton in his views on Aesthetic, and of course with you, with your examples of bad science, pseudo science (and some examples that I called “not science or pseudo science at all”). I admit I don´t know exactly what “Neuroaesthetics” means; if it is as Scruton describes, then of course I’m against it. But, I really doubt that. On the other hand, I can’t believe he’s against “memetics”, when actually for me, memetics are the best way to show the importance of humanities; and of course, I know it shouldn’t be the case, but it’s really hard for me to take arguments in an essay which finishes with a phrase appealing God.
Just my opinion.
Greetings!

Bryan Townsend said...

I was hoping you would comment, Joel, as you always add an important perspective in this area. I think I know exactly what you are talking about here. Yes, there does seem to be a gap between science and the humanities that seems difficult to bridge. Actually, the article by John Hyman, critiquing the paper on neuroaesthetics, was the one that I found most interesting and I would love to hear what you thought of it.

The funny thing is that lately I have run into several articles describing research on music that has seemed really interesting and useful. I talked about one study in particular in this post: http://themusicsalon.blogspot.mx/2014/03/say-that-again.html

So there is a wide range of scientific studies going on, some of which seem really good.