Saturday 15 February 2014

More on Art and Science: Sheldrake, Dawkins and Musical Creativity

I had a discussion yesterday about my previous post on the difference between the arts and the sciences. Basically, the question was "aren't scientists creative?"

Of course, they are. At least, good scientists are creative - and they're the only scientists we should take notice of. But science suffers from a disease inflicted on it by education where creativity and curiosity can get shunned in favour of a kind of 'scientific fundamentalism', when the 'cannon' of established practices, experiments, equations, evidence, "established facts" and rigid thinking take hold in exam questions and research council awards - all of which is attenuative of reality. The deep problem is that science cannot afford to attenuate reality - the consequence is disastrous policy. That it often does so is because of its own discourse, the power relations within academia and the egos of academics. So much of science is delusional for precisely the reasons that Rupert Sheldrake got into so much trouble for saying recently:

The question for society is "which science do you want?" - the science of Sheldrake - a creative, curious, critical science which is always pushing the boundaries of explanatory frameworks, or the science of Richard Dawkins? Who is more scientific? Who is more critical? The criticism of the scientific community is that Sheldrake isn't scientific. What does that mean, exactly? (I don't really want to elevate Dawkins to the status of 'scientist' because even by the standards of normal science, his scientific achievements are actually rather modest - but he represents, along with people like Ben Goldacre, a dominant view within science)

Of course, Sheldrake is a showman. But he knows a thing or two about religious fundamentalism, and he's right to spot it in the scientific establishment.

The show that Sheldrake puts on is interesting. His target scientists will no doubt complain that his critique doesn't go anyway - it's not practical. "This stuff works, damn it! - we don't need to think about it" - and (frankly) it's too hard. Sheldrake is not inventing new concepts. He is delineating a space of critique - a ground for inquiry. It is in critical activity like this that we can see the connection between artistic thinking and scientific thinking.

The problem that Sheldrake's got is that the religious zeal and dominance of dogmatic science is as real as the things he is suggesting are not explained by it.  He can be an artist and delineate the form of absence left in the shadow of science, but unless he embraces the semantic codification, the egos (which he himself possesses in abundance!) that sits at the heart of dogmatic science and the industrious technological and empirical activity that follows from it, he will remain on the fringes. Here perhaps we can see how the question of the relationship between the arts and the sciences tells us about the difference between politics, knowledge, power structures and individual human experience.

"Do ideas have form?" was another question I was asked, when I made the distinction between science articulating ideas, where art articulates form. Yes, behind an idea is a form - much like the critical form that is exposed by Sheldrake. At some point, however, the form is codified and is semantically represented. At least, this happens to part of the form. It is impossible to articulate a form with an idea, and semantic representations take on their own life as they are interpreted in different ways. The form of an idea has to be experienced: this is what we try to do in teaching. If a concept comes to represent a form, it eventually becomes detached from it. Then dogmatic science will grasp it. (There's probably something to say about Kuhn, Popper, Lakatos and Feyerabend here - but that's for another post!!)

Codification is an interesting thing. Art needs codification as well as science - particularly performance art, where there is a necessity to coordinate performers. Musical notation does this job. The concretising of the expression of form is the hard part in composition. Getting the notes down takes such a long time. Why bother? Why not just improvise? Because the articulation of deeply coherent and complex musical structures is not possible within the flow of an improvised performance. Improvisation (however good the improviser - and some are remarkable) is a slide, not a ladder. I have always struggled to create ladders: how to stay focused, how to make decisions, how to coherently articulate what I want and stick to it.

It's recently occurred to me that the arts are not different from one another. To me, everything is music. So my latest strategy for "sticking to the task of codifying and articulating my form" is to create pictures of my notes of notes for my pieces...

With this I can focus, and work out the parts of what I want to say. There is a process whereby I can discover my form. But this is situated against the backdrop of the world in which I live. I have struggled to focus simply because of the sheer range of things that grapple for my attention. My solution is a response to the attentional problem. It may be that the techniques of artists are not eternal. They are situated within their social context. Which makes me think about the techniques of scientists...
In trying to coordinate myself in the articulation of a musical form, am I being scientific? Possibly - but perhaps in a similar way in which Sheldrake is being scientific in articulating his critique - which to "normal" science isn't scientific!

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