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Saturday, September 15, 2012

A Framework for Studying Human Experience

Intro

I've always felt in-touch with both holistic and analytical ways of seeing the world. Breaking things down into distinct parts can be a valuable way to make sense of reality. But human cognition does not have the capacity to deal with great numbers of broken parts all at once — let alone the capacity to recognize how the parts could fit back together again. Sometimes, we need to step back and try to take in the whole picture. When we then return to analyze separate parts, we may not be able to comprehend all the connections, but we can at least try to keep context in mind while looking at any particular item.

I have always been interested in music, but as a student, I was uncomfortable with the degree to which music study seemed divorced from broader context. In the years since finishing my Bachelor of Music, I've grappled with cross-disciplinary questions that led me to study physics, biology, psychology, sociology, philosophy, anthropology, linguistics, and other fields. I can't claim expertise in these areas, but I've learned a lot. And through my studies, I have gained insights into music which seem more profound and valuable than the things I learned in my music courses.

Recently, I've been considering a return to academia, but I've struggled with choosing the right direction. I now recognize that there are many angles to get at the same questions, and I want to be sure that any program I pursue has a good perspective on how different fields of inquiry fit together.

One of my main concerns is the apparently persistent divide between science and humanities. I appreciate much of what I've seen at conferences and such, but I often feel that the bias for certain angles of study is greater than what would be expected just because people have their particular specialties. Humanities folks (a group which includes the majority of music-related researchers) seem to make everything about culture. Of course, there have been countless debates about universals versus cultural differences, debates about different approaches to scholarly inquiry, debates about nature versus nurture, and so on. There is enough material for scholars to make entire careers out of just studying the history of these debates as a meta-topic. Trying to make sense of all of this, I've developed my own framework to address the different angles of inquiry, and that's what I going to describe here.

My interdisciplinary framework

The deep questions most of us have are basically about understanding the nature of our own experience. We will never be able to know or explain everything, of course. But while our abstract models are imperfect, they may still be useful.

The figure to the right is a diagram of an intellectual framework which I find useful for contextualizing understanding, research, and experience. I don't think any element here is overall more or less important than the others. To reasonably explain any of our experiences, all these levels need to all be acknowledged.
The figure represents a hierarchy of unidirectional restrictions. We live in the inner circle and only experience the outer levels indirectly. We necessarily experience and understand physics through our subjective and culturally-influenced perspectives. Yet while culture influences physicists, culture cannot alter the basic physical laws of the universe. Physical reality imposes absolute restrictions on the possibilities within all the lower levels, not vice versa.