Pseudo-science and pseudo-art

A theory can be scientific at one time but pseudoscientific at another. [...] Astrology was not simply a perverse sideline for Ptolemy and Kepler, but part of their scientific activity.

-- Paul Thagard, 1978

"Why Astrology is a Pseudoscience" by Paul Thagard is a classic of the philosophy of science, and not just because it's mercifully short and easy to grasp. Rather than go into the depths of epistemological fineries or find characteristics and psychological traits of pseudoscience, he carefully sorts away all sorts of possible criteria and comes up with a simple formula, one that's still a standard widely used today. Well, at least in philosophy departments.

The other day it struck me how similar his defintion of bad science was to the stuff I don't like in music. And that while obviously the fields are very different, maybe it would be possible to extend the idea of pseudo-science into pseudo-art.

After a fair bit of discussion, Thagard comes up with the following criterion of demarcation:
A theory or discipline which purports to be scientific is pseudoscientific if and only if:

1) it has been less progressive than alternative theories over a long period of time, and faces many unsolved problems; but

2) the community of practitioners makes little attempt to develop the theory towards solutions of the problems, shows no concern for attempts to evaluate the theory in relation to others, and is selective in considering confirmations and disconfirmations.
In other words, it's not any qualities of the science itself that decides it's status as a pseudoscience but how it compares to others. If there's another shiny new theory or discipline that is better at explaining the world, and our subject doesn't even attempt to approach or answer it for a long time, then it's pseudoscience. It's lost its touch with the contemporary world and is just recycling its own material without getting anywhere.

There's plenty of music (and other arts) like that too, I think: retro and revivalist movements, "classical" music concerts, jazz or whatever that's been unchanged since the fifties (or the twenties). In my own circles, I usually pull this sort of argument when explaining why I don't like Jill Scott (but do like Lucy Pearl) - I've got huge difficulty with music that doesn't address its contemporary world in any way. Maybe you could even say that trying to progress and engaging your surroundings are kinda what makes something art in the first place, making reactionary material like this some sort of pseudo-art (by analogy of the above).

Of course, art is hardly linear in progress (nor is Science, really) and sometimes a step back is necessary before going forward, but there's plenty of music that has no intention of going forward or catching up in the first place - just as with Thagard's theory above. Another thing I like about this type of theory is that it's linked to history as per the first quote above - Boogaloo was brilliant and forward looking in the sixties, but anyone doing that sort of music now? Crap! Pseudo-art!

I for one can't see the reason why anyone would want to make music that's not trying to be at the forefront. But maybe they're caught up in the mysticism of it all?


Mike said...

Reading this post I was struck that your feelings about music mirror almost exactly Mr_G's feelings about architecture.

Birdseed said...

Actually architecture is probably a better artform to illustrate the point about the sweriving path of the arts. The trend towards new urbanism (and new functionalism here in Scandinavia) is ostensibly a move backwards to an earlier time, but that's okay because they're taking that step in an attempt to ultimately move forward.