Saturday, December 11, 2010

emily howell, cont'd: essentialism

Okay then! Before I start rambling on about essentialism, let me just say that I've now listened to a bunch of music composed by David Cope's programs. Most of it is terrible (the older stuff, where EMI is trying to imitate composers of the past). But the newer CD is intriguing to say the least, and certainly worth listening to if you have any interest in the future of music. To argue that the Emily Howell project and artificially composed music isn't at least a worthwhile venture, or that it doesn't have the potential for making beautiful and powerful music, is absurd.

Anyhoo, I've recently made the claim that humans' natural inclination toward essentialism distorts our perception of art, and indeed, lots of stuff.

Essentialism, roughly defined, is the idea that things have intrinsic properties that go beyond their more obvious external, analyzable properties, and that these intrinsic properties are in some sense or another irreducible and essential to the things themselves. The classic example is a species like a tiger: there is some essential "tiger-ness" to every tiger that has nothing to do with the way any individual tiger looks or behaves. Rather, "tiger-ness" is an invisible but necessary property that all tigers share, and that all non-tigers lack.

Psychologists have shown how people--cross-culturally, and from very early in life--believe this idea of species essentialism despite the fact that it is, strictly speaking, false. That is, it's a decent practical way of categorizing the world of living things, but there's no biological truth to it, since all life on earth has a common ancestor and all intermediate forms between species have existed at some point in time. Tigers and humans exist on a continuous spectrum of life on which there are no discrete categories, only discrete organisms. While we can ascribe unique categories to the organisms we call "lions" and "tigers," there is nothing intrinsically different between those two categories; rather, each species is just a bunch of organisms grouped more closely together on the continuous spectrum of organisms.

Psychological essentialism in humans applies to much more than species categories. (Here's a really good discussion on essentialism from my former psych prof at Yale!) As Mr. Bloom argues, our essentialism affects all of our pleasurable experiences. For instance you can systematically manipulate--unconsciously--people's judgments of wine and food by manipulating their knowledge of price or origin. People like expensive wine and more natural food better--or at least they'll tell you they do--even when the wine or the food doesn't change.

The specific mechanisms underlying these findings are unclear, but the general reason for them isn't: people's judgments are affected by what they see as intrinsic, essential differences between categories of products. A food or wine's origins, then, affects people's judgments even when they believe they're merely judging a sensory experience.

Isn't there some sense that these people are wrong and crazy? You can't like two things differently, after all, when they're in fact one and the same. Doesn't it make more sense, then, if you want to assess people's judgments about food and wine themselves, to ask them to taste them blindly, without giving them information about origins?

That's what I would argue about music, at least. Getting back to the issue at hand, then, most people are unduly swayed by the origin of Emily Howell's music. For whatever reason people are predisposed to dislike music composed by a computer. But we can't accurately judge Emily Howell's music unless we do so blindly, or at least attempt to do so blindly.

This raises several new questions (woohoo!). First, can we do so blindly under any conditions that aren't absurdly experimental and far removed from the real world? In other words, is my whole argument extremely naive? The answer to that question depends critically on the answer to the following questions: Where in the process of cognition does the "essentialist interference" take place? That is, does our knowledge of something's origins fundamentally affect our lower-level perception, or does it merely affect our higher-level judgment? Can these two be distinguished? And finally, how flexible are our cognitive biases of this sort? The idea that inexpensive wine and computer-music are less worthy came from somewhere; can these ideas be easily changed?

People will no doubt argue that even to an unbiased listener any computer is still incapable of composing music that is as emotionally rich and powerful as human-composed music. Now that I've argued that there's no intrinsic difference between artificially composed music and human-composed music, what about the actual, external differences? Can a computer ever live up to the human standard, even to an unbiased listener? This is an entirely separate question about computer science and the complexity of music, and I'll address it in time as well.

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