Science As Music And Poetry

A common perspective held by many modern scientists is the notion of reductionism. For example, according to reductionism, economic patterns can be explained by psychology, which in turn can be attributed to biology and chemistry, all of which can be understood by understanding the underlying physics, all the way down to learning about the most fundamental particles. This is essentially the approach taught at most respected western scientific institutions.

There are several known problems to this approach. Due to the complexity of the problems that scientists deal with these days, specialists tend to focus very narrowly on their subject. For example, I study the magnetic properties of electrons, namely their spin, in various materials and their interactions with light. The instrumentation I deal with are typically sensitive detectors of current and voltage, as well as detectors of light, leading to counts in a spectrometer or an image on a computer screen. So if I am good at my job I can learn about new effects regarding electron motion and interaction with light in a magnetic field, which can lead to useful technology. However, my investigations don’t make me any wiser about how cells reproduce, or how embryos develop according to genetic code in DNA molecules, and much less about how the economy works.

This reductionist approach of chipping away at the boundaries of knowledge has other problems. For example, it is so expensive to do cutting edge research, and requires so much specialization, that only a small percentage of the population end up doing it. Therefore most people have to rely on what the scientists say. This is why, unlike political journalism that plays a crucial role in politics and elections and forming popular opinion, scientific journalism mainly just consists of translating research publications to a non-technical language and advertising their importance to the general public, who in turn have to accept this information as the last word as they have no means to challenge it. Therefore, a reductionist has no choice but to say: I don’t know the answer to any of the major philosophical questions about my existence in the universe, but I am confident that one day the scientists will figure it all out. This is not only extremely passive, but may prove to be ultimately disappointing. Given the trajectory of science over the past several hundred years, these answers don’t seem likely to pop out of a laboratory during our lifetimes.

This brings us to the next difficulty in reductionism. Scientists of the twentieth century found that the ancient concept of ‘atoms’ as indivisible, fundamental building blocks of nature was not true, and that atoms themselves were composed of electrons, protons, and neutrons. We now think electrons are fundamental particles because we can’t seem to divide them or see any smaller constituents. However, protons and neutrons are composed of smaller particles called quarks. Quarks are varied and ‘colorful’, and come in various flavors with crazy names like ‘strange’, ‘beauty’, and ‘truth’ quarks, which are held together by other particles known as ‘gluons’. Scientists are hoping to find a quantum particle of gravity, or the ‘graviton’ for decades. We don’t know if any of these particles will be the end of the line in reductionism, or just the beginning of all sorts of new phenomena like strings in string theory that run into new complexities. Therefore, this approach to understanding nature, although definitely worth pursuing, is not likely to satisfy our existential concerns or lead to harmonious societies.

Most people recognize these problems and aren’t holding their breaths for science to deliver them ready-packaged answers to their big questions. They look to science to deliver medical and technological advances, as well as information about our planet and outer space, but for their existential concerns they turn to religion, mysticism, literature, film, music, dance, yoga, and other spiritual activities. This is true even in the cases of the most prominent reductionist scientists, such as Newton, Tesla, Descartes, and Einstein.

Eastern philosophies, particularly Buddhism and Hinduism, have offered a more holistic view of the universe where intense scrutiny of the details of nature are discouraged, in favor of a general understanding of our inner selves and how we relate to our surroundings as a whole. These viewpoints favor an abandonment of materialistic reductionism, considering it a distraction from the important truths. The associated practices, such as meditation and yoga, are very appealing to the general public, because they don’t require expensive equipment or fancy laboratories. However, given the ‘intuitive’ versus ‘pedagogical’ nature of these methods, they are very difficult to teach and even more difficult to master, especially for people living in the west and brought up on a materialistic reductionist school of thought. Also, unlike materialistic science that leads to technological and medical advances that drive the economy, the eastern practices mentioned above do not advance economies. This often leads people to live dual lives, as materialists when at work and non-materialists in their personal time.

A major development for mankind would be a third way that bridges the holistic perspective of the east with the scientific rigor and reproducibility of the west. Ideally, such an approach would allow participants to contribute to knowledge in their own homes or at least at a low cost, and without having to follow the teachings of a guru blindly. Music is an example of this, which has developed independently over the years in many parts of the world, embodies scientific technicality and reproducibility as well as addressing our deepest spiritual conflicts, and usually does not cost a fortune to pursue. In many cases (Robert Johnson, Keith Richards, Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana, Kurt Cobain, John Frusciante, …) instruction is not even necessary. Language is another example of this marriage of technicality and rigor with spirituality and emotion. A modification of the current materialistic reductionist approach to embody relationships between different fields, which considers the universe more than just the sum of its parts, the way a song is so much more than a sum of its notes and a novel is more than combinations of words, may culminate in a renaissance in science unlike any we have seen before.


Jimi Hendrix, considered by many to be the greatest electric guitarist in history, was self-taught.



4 thoughts on “Science As Music And Poetry

  1. Hello Rouin, Congratulations on your propensity for ‘lateral’ thinking. The Western cult of Reason has hit a dead end and increasingly Westerners are looking to Eastern and mystical traditions (and vice versa) for ways forward. At the same time brain science is progressing. These 3 currents are being drawn/are coming increasingly together. We have only begun to tap into the potential of the human brain in knowing the world. Phil Stanfield

  2. Arman Esmaili says:

    This reductionism vs emergentism conflict reminds me of the Weinberg vs Anderson debate in 90’s on the construction of SSC in US. However, I do not understand what you mean by “embody relationship between different fields …” ? As I understand this is again a reductionist point of view! that is explaining concepts in one field by the well-stablished and supposedly correct paradigm of another field. Give me some more clues!

    • I think the Weinberg/Anderson debate is very relevant here, however the question is not so much whether high energy particle accelerators are worthy of government spending, but rather how much more they will teach us and how it would affect society and quality of life. On the other hand, there may be experiments on more accessible scales that could make a huge impact on the quality of life. For example, research in brain science and understanding how our minds work, as Phil pointed out, can be carried out holistically in terms of tying together many seemingly disparate phenomena, such as studying the effects of meditation and relating them to how we perceive and process information, or how we store and recall memories. Such research would more directly benefit the public and satisfy our existential curiosities. However these phenomena are commonly treated as occurring in totally different spheres of neuroscience and spirituality. I think the same can be said for art, which is considered to lie outside the realm of science, resulting in very little interaction between the two.

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