In class today, Sam raised a question about recent advances in neuroscience. Paraphrasing, she asked something like this (Sam please correct me if I am paraphrasing unfairly):

Let’s imagine that the neuroscientists are right, that neuroscience can naturally and materially account for things in the past thought to be purely social phenomena. Let’s posit that some kind of measurable brain activity X (which I’ll call MBAX)  goes off when people are looking at art. So, for example, let’s imagine that 96% of people experience MBAX when looking at a Kandinsky painting, and let’s also imagine that only 12% of people have MBAX when looking at the stones in Hartford (referenced in the Eaton reading). Can we not therefore conclude from that evidence (a) that while Kandinsky’s painting is art, the stones in Hartford are not (or at least are not particularly good art)? And if that is the case, then can we not conclude (b) that there is a scientific “explanation” for aesthetic judgments, because we can account for an observable phenomenon (people’s brains while they look at art) with reference to a law (that art causes the brain to react in way X)?

Now this is a dense and interesting question, and I struggled with it a bit on the spot in class. In fact, it wasn’t easy to paraphrase here. But I have reflected further, and I think I can now articulate my argument a little more clearly.

I would reply that at the heart of Sam’s (hypothetical) argument, there is a circularity. The argument states that MBAX fires off in X% of people when they look at art. Let’s break this argument down into smaller parts, so we can think through it. I’ll start with the fact that Sam is describing a scientific measure. Now, a “measure” is a scientific metric that has been validated, that is, the people who propose the measure must demonstrate that data D is a reasonable measure of phenomenon P. Example: the body-mass index (D) is a reasonable measure of overall physical fitness (P) (actually, that’s controversial, but it’s beside the point for now). To validate a proposed measure, one can create and then replicate experiments in which D really does or does not measure P.

But in order for MBAX to measure a brain activity (D) as an effect of encountering art (P), we must be able to provide evidence of a causal relationship between viewing art and MBAX scores. So, to validate MBAX, we might devise experiments that have subjects look at art, and we measure their brain activity. But how can we do that if we can’t objectively define art to begin with? There is a practical problem here: What will we have them look at during the experiments?

At best, Sam’s proposed hypothetical measure could only measure a correspondence between brain activity (D) and someone’s judgment about what art is (P). But that doesn’t help us solve the problem of what art is! It fails to offer any objective or physical basis for defining art.

Now, it is conceivable that this measure could be validated based on works that there is a strong community consensus are or are not art (e.g., a Kandinsky painting versus a cheap toaster). But if that is the case, all MBAX has done is shown that it is possible to measure a certain form of brain activity as correlating with what a particular community at a particular point in time believes is art. As soon as the artworld and/or the art community changes, then MBAX would become obsolete.

And we know the artworld makes such changes all the time. Duchamp’s art installation, “Fountain,” called into question and helped transform how the community defines and understands art. I suspect that an art student today, studying “Fountain” as an example of Modernism, is likely to have different brain activity than a contemporary of Duchamp would have had. Or, if today this artwork is moved from the main floor of the museum to the men’s room, I am rather confident its corresponding brain activity will change.

Thus, we can reasonably agree that MBAX is measuring something. But there is nothing to justify any scientific claim that what MBAX is measuring is art. It might be measuring, as I have argued, a contemporary consensus view on art, but that doesn’t get us anywhere in terms of offering an “explanation” of why a given work is/is not art. There is no external-to-human basis to make assertions about art, at least not in the same way that there is an external-to-human basis to make claims about tectonic plate movements, the organization and movement of the solar system, and the reason panda “bears” aren’t really bears at all.

Even though Sam’s measure can’t tell us what art is/is not, it doesn’t mean it lacks any value. It might still be useful, e.g., to museum curators, because it may help them understand what some people presently judge to be good art, and that may help them make decisions about what to put on the floor, but the measure doesn’t offer any scientific basis to assert that any given work is/is not art.

Disclaimer: I understand that Sam was not proposing that she subscribes to this position. She was just proposing an argument to see where it would lead. This is a very constructive activity. Sometimes, pursuing strange arguments takes us in worthwhile directions. It is something good cultural critics (and in particular, analytic philosophers) do all the time. So we can, as a class, not confuse a person proposing an argument with a person who really is committed to believing that argument. Thanks, Sam, for raising this!