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Saturday, September 15, 2012

A Framework for Studying Human Experience


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.

Some clarifications about the terminology in this figure:
  • "Psychology" is meant to refer to common human psychological properties, not necessarily every subject within the academic field of psychology.
  • "Innate personality" is outside of culture because this framework is for describing an individual's subjective experiences. Cultures as a whole have arguably larger scope than personalities, but the innate aspects of one's personality are not defined by culture. There are biologically-determined congenital traits which have notable influence. Again, this influence is unidirectional. Considering only hereditary personality traits, we can acknowledge that these affect the way we relate to our surrounding culture, but culture cannot change our genes. (Well, in principle, it is possible for cultures to influence genetics by influencing who pairs up to become parents, and maybe cultural factors influence hormones and gene activation/deactivation, especially in today's world with medical hormone treatments and with chemicals polluting drinking water and so on…).
  • "Habitus" is a term from sociology which refers to something like an individual's dispositions which come from surrounding cultural influences. I intend here a slightly broader interpretation which acknowledges that one's dispositions are influenced by all of one's particular life experiences.
  • Finally, "mood" generally refers to temporary subjective mental state, but I am considering this level as including all aspects of short-term situational context that impact our subjective experiences.
The problem I see with the humanities in academia is that it lives primarily at the cultural level and so develops cultural theories for experiences that may be more defined by the other factors. I usually find entirely-cultural explanations unsatisfying. Cultural theorists may assume that outside factors are a given and need not be mentioned, but unless these factors are actively considered, we risk attributing things to culture that don't make sense; or we might ignore profound influences that may be more relevant to explaining a given experience; or we may color our own perspectives by over-emphasizing the cultural elements.

On the other hand, I understand some of why culture gets so much focus (aside from being truly interesting). In our diverse globalized world, it is relatively easy to notice when someone is being ethnocentric. And the the answer to ethnocentrism is to give respectful attention to cultural differences. The fact that we can recognize ethnocentrism is actually evidence of substantial universal human biological and psychological similarities. It is because of common human factors that we have capacity to empathize with those in other cultures, and it is through such empathy that we come to recognize our cultural biases. It is harder to recognize our species-centrism because we don't communicate as well with other creatures, and we have less in common, so it is more difficult to relate our experiences.

Overall, I don't want to diminish cultural concerns. On the contrary, I think culture studies are strengthened by clarifying the boundaries of what is and isn't cultural.

Similar issues occur when physicists and mathematicians reduce human experience to measurable physical phenomena. There is a long history of prescriptive theories that try to make the world fit nice, clean mathematical formulas. Yet even when nuance and deviation are acknowledged, descriptions of physical states are still not the same as descriptions of subjective experience.

Consider the classical philosophical question: if a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound? Well, this question simply highlights a linguistic/semantic problem with the word "sound." If "sound" refers to the outer physical level of my framework, i.e. certain types of waves in air, then yes, hypothetical falling trees make physical waves in the hypothetical surrounding air. If "sound" refers to the biological level, i.e. our perceptual experience, then no, a perceptual experience does not occur if nobody is there to have it. So the question turns out to be mundane instead of profound (we can make this even more mundane by pointing out in any hypothetical situation, the person positing the situation could simply decide anything they want about what is true in their imagined fantasy world). We could instead ask an actually profound question: if someone is there to hear the tree fall, how will they react? What will they experience overall? To answer those questions, we have to work our way through the rest of the levels of my framework.

If we word our questions better, with full respect to all these levels of inquiry, we can go about finding useful and insightful answers. Otherwise, we risk fooling ourselves into thinking that things are simpler or are more complex or more ineffable than they really are. I propose that all our claims, theories, and hypotheses be clarified as to where they fit within my framework. Effort should be made consider all the levels because we may make mistakes or miss important insights if our focus is too narrow.

The framework applied to the study of music