Monday 18 July 2016

The Object of Music - The Object of Learning

Following on from my last post on Ashby's distinction between 'System' and 'Object', I want to consider the two objects which hold the deepest fascination for me (and I know that this connection between music and learning is shared by many of my colleagues in educational technology). Ashby says that we cannot talk about an object; we can only identify variables which relate to an object, where this list of variables configures itself into what he calls a 'System'. However, one might then say, does this mean that any definition of a "system" is reductive?

In addressing this question, we have to consider what 'reductive' means. An approach is reductive if in its categorisation of variables in the environment, it deliberately overlooks some variables. In essence, the reductive approach overlooks the difficult problem in an attempt to find a solution to the easy problem. Reductionism is a process of omission.

It is not that leaving things out is a bad thing. Indeed, omission is a fundamental activity of all scientific discovery. The pathology of reduction occurs when what is left out is forgotten, and its critical inspection becomes increasingly difficult in a discourse delimited by the reduction itself. But this is not the fault of reduction itself. It is the fault of the way our discourse works, our universities teach, our journals publish, and so on: it is a fault of our epistemology that we lose sight of the negative context within which ideas are expressed. More precisely, it is the fault of a science which confuses description with explanation.

Music is a powerful corrective. Whatever analytical statements are made about it quickly reveal the explanatory gaps, and the bracketed-off variables. Statements of analysis are descriptions, and each analysis sparks a critical discussion. In learning, the same thing applies - except that the pathology of reduction becomes more embedded, and what is left out is forgotten. The result is a miserable educational experience. However, there is a homology between music and learning - what might be loosely called a 'similarity of phenomenological function' -  a kind of aesthetic sense.

Ashby points out that there are many many possible descriptions of a system and that they cannot all be considered. Where a system for Ashby is the interaction of variables, might it also be the overlap of possible descriptions? As such, one does not have to delimit the number of descriptions to a rigid array of variables. One may be free to continually add new descriptions into the mix. Each description is constrained in one way or another - each misses something out. In essence, with both music and learning, we can use descriptions to come to identify new things which we have left out.

If human understanding amounts to the extent to which we know each other's constraints, then the identification of what we all miss is a way to increasing knowledge.

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