Friday, August 12, 2011

Can Science Explain Art, Music, and Literature? (Part 2)

Some months ago, I criticized an article by philosopher Roger Scruton that argued science was unable to explain art, music, and literature.

I wrote at the time:
Scruton, as I see it, plots art and beauty on the same continuum with gods, free will, and souls. Defenders tell us we cannot explain the categories on the continuum. The categories are beyond our full comprehension, exceeding our language, and greater than the real things that are otherwise their material substance (e.g., religious writings and commentaries, neurons, cells and organelles).

What's more, Scruton and like-minded thinkers advise us not even to try explaining such categories:
The attempt to explain art, music, literature, and the sense of beauty as adaptations is both trivial as science and empty as a form of understanding. It tells us nothing of importance about its subject matter, and does huge intellectual damage in persuading ignorant people that after all there is nothing about the humanities to understand, since they have all been explained — and explained away.
This argument is deeply flawed. I don't accept Scruton as an authority to tell us what disciplines and methods to take seriously. Ultimately, the test of disciplines and methods is the knowledge they produce. In his given examples on music and sense of beauty, Scruton finds the Darwinist explanations "absurd." Fine. That's his opinion. But we need not accept those explanations fully to understand that they (1) are out in the public domain, (2) have some legitimacy, and (3) will ultimately stand or fall based on the collection of more data and the performance of more work in the area.

Another truly odious charge is that a Darwinist line of art or literary study obliterates any other modes of explaining and interpreting. The charge is simply untrue. Humanities studies can be interested in both biological explanations and cultural ones. The development of singing, to take an example from Scruton, seems to me very interesting. I want to know about the biological impulses and struggles that singing expresses, and I want to know about the arrangement of pitched sounds. Why that arrangement? What makes it as powerful as it is? What are its precursors? How has it spread and changed in culture?
At the time, I had a brief dialogue over at Scruton's site. I'd like to go through one of his rejoinders bit by bit. He says:
It seems clear that the sadness of a piece of music is a property of the music, not of the listener – otherwise why should we take such pleasure in listening to sad music?
Scruton is just wrong here: it's not at all clear and it's not true. We take pleasure in listening to music we find sad because we like to act out and simulate emotions. We are like cubs in a litter: their play simulates fighting and hunting because that's what they need to do "for real." We find ways to simulate emotions and empathy because both serve us in response to the unpredictable vicissitudes of life.

A piece of music is not in itself sad. The quality of sadness is not part of the music but a product of the listener's response to pitch, timbre, rhythm, and structure. If you want to argue that sadness is "in" the music then you need to be able to isolate and measure sadness. If you cannot isolate and measure sadness, then on what basis do you claim it's "in" there?

Let's move on to see how Scruton develops his argument.
Minor keys and minor triads are not necessarily sad – everything depends on the musical context.
Well, this is what I've been saying!
Just to take a well-known instance: ‘My Favourite Things’, from 'The Sound of Music', in E minor, and one of the happiest songs in the American Song Book. Admittedly, in (sic) changes suddenly to G major at the end; but there is nothing in that song remotely reminiscent of the terrifying E flat minor triad that opens the prelude to 'Götterdämmerung'.
All this supports my contention. If Scruton is echoing my points, why on earth would he say that I'm "in deep water here"?
Of course Larry is right that music is something more than the ‘selection and arrangement of pitched sounds’, just as a picture is something more than the selection and arrangement of coloured patches.
Is this a typo? I think Scruton really thinks I'm saying that music is nothing more than 'selection and arrangement of pitched sounds.’

What I am actually saying, however, is that the "something more" of music lies in what we bring to listening. We are never passive listeners. We distinguish music by understanding it as expressive; when we assign expressive power to a sound, it becomes distinguished from background noise.
But is there a scientific theory that enables us to pass from the description of the sounds to a description of the music – in other words, to a description of what a musical listener 'hears' in those sounds? I have tried to show that there can be no such theory, since musical organisation involves irreducible spatial metaphors – see 'The Aesthetics of Music', ch. 2.
Well, there are psychological and cognitive neurological disciplines that may offer such theories as will satisfy Scruton. But I am at a disadvantage because I am unfamiliar with Scruton's longer argument involving music's "irreducible spatial metaphors."

Yet I also think that raising music's "irreducible spatial metaphors" shows the serious flaw in Scruton's thinking, the flaw I identified and criticized in my earlier post here. As soon as we talk about "irreducible spatial metaphors," we are not explaining the music anymore. We have moved from the physical world to the interior world of human subjectivity.

Scruton, we recall, initially was concerned with explaining music and with saying that science could never come up with such an explanation. But if Scruton is correct, then it's because he wants science to explain something it cannot access, how it feels for a person to experience something. It's not unlike demanding to know what it's like for a computer to crunch a new set of numbers. It's not unlike wondering what the sound is of one hand clapping. It's not unlike wondering how many angels can fit on the head of a pin.

Scruton closes:
But the questions here are vast, and not to be solved by local skirmishes.
The questions may be vast, but we should perhaps whittle down the questions to ones that are, at least in principle, answerable.

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