Thursday, March 6, 2008

My Waxing Philosophical, Your Waning Interest

I’m going to jump through some existential hoops here. Feel free to join me in my mental masturbation. I want to talk about the difference between fact and opinion in reference to music. Nicole has touched on this in her always-wonderful series, “The Unappreciated Scholar,” particularly in the January 11th edition. She’s addressed some ideas of value and belief that I think about more often than any normal person probably should.

First, let’s establish what an opinion is not. A scientific theory is a type of belief with universally useful and predictive applications. The theory of gravity is a belief that is equally useful for any person to hold. It makes predictions about how objects in the material world will act. Apples fall, moons orbit, and I break my ass on the pavement after ice storms.

A scientific theory is reached through the scientific method. A hypothesis is proposed, experiments are devised, and results are collected as evidence for or against the hypothesis. Other scientists in other labs perform similar experiments, and once sufficient evidence mounts, the hypothesis graduates to a theory. This theory represents a modicum of how things probably are.

We can only use past evidence to project a probability of future states. There’s always the possibility that gravity will suddenly stop working normally tomorrow, and we’ll all be hurled into space. Scientists fuck up, just like the rest of us, but with enough collaboration (and competition), mistakes will hopefully be caught. So far, the scientific method has worked out pretty well for us.

There are a number of aspects of human existence that simply are not commented on by the scientific process. Most systems of morality arise from nonscientific assumptions. (“Unscientific” has taken on a bad connotation lately, so I’ll continue to use “nonscientific”.) That’s a topic for another discussion, though. Let’s get to music.

Art exists in a realm of thought entirely different from Science, though the two do like to flirt. You can do experiments to test the acoustic/musical properties of songs. You will collect data, but you won’t know anything more about how that music will make you (or anyone else) feel. There are trends of relationship, to be sure, but musical taste is unaccountable to musical theory.

Exactly repeating an experiment results in more evidence. Exactly repeating a work of art results only in a copy. The belief that gravity will work tomorrow is fundamentally different from the belief that Radiohead is the greatest band of all time. Why do some opinions feel like undeniable truth? Is there any harm in feeling that way?

Nonscientific belief can be used as a personal tool. A belief that leads to no negative consequences of action or behavior and which is not opposed by material evidence is a personal matter. If that belief yields positive actions or behaviors, it can be logically argued that the belief should be maintained, regardless of its lack of scientific grounding.

If you accept the above as true, then the only real gauge for the personal value of an opinion is its effect on the person with the opinion. Furthermore, that valuation is only true for the opinion holder. This may seem like a long way to go to point out the obvious… our opinions aren’t facts, and we form them as we like. Maybe it is, but I think doing the exercise makes it clearer that both fact and opinion are infinitely if not universally valuable.

Possessing a belief in gravity says very little about a person. It greatly affects behavior, but it does so in a nearly identical way for each person. You try to avoid falling or causing things to fall… usually. Possessing a belief in Radiohead’s superiority says a great deal more about a person, because it’s not a materially required belief. Not everyone holds it, and those that do are affected by it differently.

Opinions are valuable, but how can you tell if a cherished belief is personally helpful or harmful? The answer is simple, but the implementation is not. Observe yourself. People have a notoriously large blind spot when it comes to objective introspection. We’re all spectacularly good at self-deception and cognitive dissonance.

Does hating 311 make me treat a 311 fan poorly, even when there’s no other reason to do so? (It does.) Does that amount to musical bigotry? (I don’t know… I really hate 311.) What benefits does cultivating this hatred of 311 bestow on me? It keeps me from listening to their music, but that could be handled by a simple dislike rather than active spite. How do I weed out this unnecessary vitriol?

One good way to get perspective on our opinions is to keep a regular diary (or blog). In fact, keeping a daily diary of events, dreams, thoughts, and feelings is generally recommended for everyone. You can then go back and read previous entries looking for patterns of behavior or thought that you’d like to cultivate or weed out. I wish I could say I did it, but I’m too lazy to keep that daily habit going. Maybe you have more perseverance!

I didn’t mean for this to turn into a treatise for the virtues of the blogosphere (Gah, I hate that word), but I suppose it’s as good a conclusion to reach as any. If you followed me this far without dozing off, you deserve a better reward than that. Maybe John Popper’s realization of the great farce? I like it, but that's just my opinion.


Femme Fatale said...

You should be a professor.

Seriously, I'd like to comment more on the ideas presented here, but I need time to stew.

Could we come up with an equation or theory that somehow proved Radiohead was the greatest band of all time? Possibly. I will get on that.

Zach said...

There are many bands that are far more deserving of your spite than 311. They're a remarkably autonomous band and their early stuff isn't all bad. It's spotty on a track-by-track basis but it can be thoroughly enjoyable in the right contexts.

But hate their fans all you want.

panopticon said...

Yeah, what Zach said.

Like Panic at the Disco. They're like the Bill O'Reilly of music - like cleaning your ears with a sandpaper q-tip, but also unavoidable.

I'm not even sure where to begin. Generally, I agree.


Mozart > Beatles > Radiohead.


Hackworth Artifex said...

I think my hatred of 311 might have more to do with their fans than their music. But the songs I have heard of theirs (granted, that's like... 4 maybe) I didn't like.

I really should be less adamant about it. It's an illogical hatred, especially when I haven't even listened to a whole album.

I just noticed I've linked to a video with a harmonica player in my last 2 posts. I wonder if I have some unconscious love of harmonica. Hmmm...

Hackworth Artifex said...

Femme, thanks! But proofs were always the hardest part of Geometry for me. Maybe Radiohead would be easier.

Pan, my favorite Mozart song!

The Moon said...

Ha ha, Me and Ryan used to joke around in HS that one day we would open a record store and carry 2 categories...

(Good) Music...

and 311

The Moon said...

"Possessing a belief in Radiohead’s superiority says a great deal more about a person, because it’s not a materially required belief. Not everyone holds it, and those that do are affected by it differently."

This may be better brought to light when thinking of fans of slight less personally accessible but equally categorical music like ICP or Kotton Mouth Kings...

*shudders* at the thought of those fans

Gossip♥Grrl said...

I hate 311 too and sure alot of their fans are douchebags but there are also a few misguided souls that love the 311 and that I am friends with. This is coming from someone from a small town where seriously there was like a 311 gang! I'm talking white shoe polish 311 on the cars and shit. It was madness. If that wasn't enough to make me hate them, their songs were permanently fused into my brain by being played on my favorite radio station over and over and over again. Thank God for ipods and the CD players of today. My poor Ford Fairmont only had a lowly tape deck.
The first time or possibly second time I met SonicRyan I asked him if he liked 311. That was a requirement back in the day if this was a cool person I could hang with. He passed my test. Haha!

Femme Fatale said...

I had a roommate named Ugga. He has tainted all fans of 311 or OAR in my mind.

But maybe this is getting back to my post from a couple weeks ago: "Is It Fair To Judge Someone Based On Their Music Taste?"