Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Music and the Sciences (2)

I've titled this series music and the sciences, rather than music and science, because it is telling that we speak both of science as a whole and the sciences as individual parts. Science education usually proceeds one part at a time; we study physics, or we study chemistry, or we study biology, or we study one of the social sciences such as sociology or anthropology.

As I've written here, some conceive of ethnomusicology as a science; Alan Merriam, in discussing an anthropology of music, claimed that ethnomusicology was "sciencing about music" -- that is, studying music as a scientist would study a human phenomenon. Merriam's book, The Anthropology of Music (1964), a period piece now, was influential for a generation and remains today a clear manifesto for a particular kind of ethnomusicology.

Obviously, then, there is science and there are sciences; that is, while individual sciences are different, there is evidently something that all sciences have in common. Often it is said that while the various sciences differ in their subject matter, they share a common method. In other words, while physics is concerned with matter and motion, chemistry with substances and how they interact, and biology with the study of living organisms, all three share something called Scientific Method. In any good high school science course, scientific method is taught along with the subjects of the individual sciences. One learns that scientific method, always identified with controlled testing by means of experiments, consists of a cycle involving, roughly in this order, observation, inference, hypothesis, experimental design and procedure, measurement, results, conclusion--and then further observation, inference, modification of hypothesis, another experiment, and so forth.

Identifying scientific method with the experimental (laboratory) sciences places them at the core of "science" and places experiment at the center of scientific method. This is a move with consequences. First, the core or experimental sciences have become models of "real" or "hard" science--what science aspires to be and do. Those sciences in which conrolled laboratory experiments are difficult, if not impossible, move to the scientific periphery, and their conclusions, unable to be experimentally verified, are thought to be less certain. Second, within the culture of science, experiment is elevated.

The effect of this on the social sciences, where laboratory experiments are difficult, is to orient research in the direction of measurement and quantification, if not toward experiments themselves. Despite late twentieth-century attempts to elevate qualitative methods, the culture of "hard" science moves scientists in the direction of what can be observed, quantified, tested, and measured. College students who wish to study psychology in order to understand human behavior soon find themselves doing laboratory experiments with mice. The ordinary language we use to understand human motives and behavior, such as thinking, intending, wanting, feeling, is thought to be imprecise and therefore unscientific. Consciousness itself is reduced to and understood as the product of the actions of neurons and chemicals in the brain.

Elevating the experimental sciences and Scientific Method in this way generates a crude theory of reductionism. Biology is said to be based in chemistry, and chemistry in physics. Because the universe is composed solely of matter, we could understand everything in it if only we could predict the behavior of its smallest particles. Many high school and college students, whose education in science goes no further, and whose worldview is not based in religious faith, believe in some version of this scientific reductionism; and although they aren't aware of it daily, they continue to hold this belief throughout their adult lives.

But this is not the only way to think about science, and the sciences. Histories of science can turn on many more themes than the progress of experiment and reductionism. One interesting place to look is to the study of what used to be called "natural history." Museums of natural history still exist, a testimony to this older and more holistic way of conceiving of something now called biology.

Most important, a careful look at Scientific Method reveals that the scientist is always moving between the simplification of reductionism (in designing experiments) and the complexity of holism (in drawing inferences). In other words, a more accurate view of experimental science indicates that scientists employ comprehensive, or holistic, strategies as well as reductionist ones. In this way of thinking, the experiment is merely the means, the engineering of the idea that derives from the inference that yields the initial hypothesis. A most important question arises: how are scientific ideas, inferences, and hypotheses generated in the first place--that is, before experiments?

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