Thursday, July 30, 2009

Music and the Sciences (3)

In her article seeking a rapprochement between ethnomusicologists and brain scientists, my colleague noted that the brain scientist practices reductionism when seeking explanations of human behavior in the chemical and physical activities in the brain, changes in brain states that take place in response to stimuli such as music. These can, to some degree, be measured: this musical sound produces this chemical and physical change in this part of the brain, and may lead to this kind of behavior. In principle it may someday be possible to determine with great accuracy how the matter that makes up human brains both produce and respond to music.

The discovery of the DNA double helix, and the subsequent research on the human genome, is of course an example of the great explanatory power of scientific reductionism, one that has great practical consequences for human life and health. But, as I wrote in my last post, a combination of reductionism and holism seems to be the best strategy for understanding how things work. Here is what I wrote in my response to my colleague’s article: “Consider something as common as driving an automobile. If you notice a strange sound coming from your car, it’s good to know how an automobile works because sometimes you can guess—or test—and figure out what’s wrong. (You wouldn’t take a super-natural explanation seriously here, but you can imagine a group of people who would.) Yet in order to drive we also need to know how to operate the car, we need to know the rules of the road, and at a higher level of organization we need to anticipate what other drivers may do and adjust our driving accordingly. We move among similar strategies when we “do” ethnomusicology. Transcribing and analyzing, we are reductive; in reasoning inductively from ethnographic evidence to arrive at questions about people making music we seek to be comprehensive.”*

How would one formulate holistic questions about music and the brain? These questions would be addressed to the relationship between music, one's consciousness, and one's embodied consciousness (i.e., the body). They take us into questions about the nature of subjectivity and consciousness. We feel as if we have consciousness, we act as if we do, and we have a name for actors who do not have consciousness: zombies. But what is consciousness? Can it be accounted for by explanations at the chemical and physical levels of the brain, or isn’t it rather something that operates at a higher level of organization? The philosopher Thomas Nagel is identified with this viewpoint. His clearest exposition of it came more than 20 years ago: “The subjective features of conscious mental processes—as opposed to their physical causes and effects—cannot be captured by the purified form of thought suitable for dealing with the physical world that underlies the appearances. Not only raw feels [sensations] but also intentional mental states—however objective their content—must be capable of manifesting themselves in subjective form to be in the mind it all.”**

Musical consciousness, in other words, or musicality, as it is sometimes called, cannot be understood fully through a reductionist strategy alone. But scientists are not bound to such a simplistic strategy. As I hinted at the end of my last post, holistic, higher-level organization thinking is what usually generates scientific inferences, ideas, and hypotheses in the first place; and a combination of the two characterizes conservation ecology, which has such profound implications for music and sustainability.


*Jeff Todd Titon, "Ecology, Phenomenology, and Biocultural Thinking," Ethnomusicology, Vol. 53, No. 3 (Fall, 2009), pp. 502-509.

**Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere. New York, Oxford University Press, 1986, p. 16.