Levity and Gravity

Plato and Aristotle in Raphael’s “The School of Athens”

Not quite my next post as I mentioned here, but I’ve been particularly busy the past couple of days.

But getting back to Levity and Gravity, this description of that old Aristotelian theory of the essential nature of objects summarizes the idea fairly well:

Aristotle explained the behavior of an object, such as a rock, in terms of the “essential nature” of that object.  For Aristotle, a non-measurable force existed within an object that compelled it to behave in a certain manner.  A stone, for example, was classified by Aristotle as a heavy object, while fire was defined as a light object.  Since heavy objects, likes stones, tend to fall downwards and light objects, such as fire, tend to move upwards, these behaviors –gravity and levity respectively– were deemed by Aristotle to be part of the essential nature of those objects. The significant point here is that the factors determining the behavior of an object, according to Aristotle, all originate within the object to be explained, and depend upon the unobservable nature of that object.

Of course, nowadays, we have a much simpler explanation (relatively speaking–no pun intended) for the behavior of objects with respects to their mass and weight.  Take a balloon for instance.  If it’s filled with the air out of our lungs, it [barring any air currents] will not float in the way it will when filled with, say, helium.

We might be tempted to say that the balloon filled with helium is lighter (has “levity”) than the one filled with air from our own lungs and that is precisely what determines it’s ability to float.  But that’s not exactly right, is it?  It’s the balloon and what fills it as well as the atmospheric pressure that creates the conditions within which the balloon will float.  If the atmosphere were all helium or hydrogen the balloon would not float at all and might even sink (fall) to the ground.

Most of the time humans make pronouncements about behavior and phenomenon that are similar to the levity and gravity issue.  Most everything is determined by the causal agent itself.  “The balloon has levity, that’s why it floats” or “the balloon has gravity, that’s why it sinks”–we tend to not take into account the external conditions which create an environment that allows a balloon to either float or sink.  It’s the conjunctive conditions of the properties of the balloon and the environment within which the balloon is released that determines its behavior.  Not one or the other.  And we humans tend to attribute behavior to the disposition of the balloon at the expense of the external conditions.

This is, as I mentioned in the post linked above, the fundamental attribution error  (or correspondence bias)when it is applied to the causes of human behavior and is one of the most robust psychological biases that we know about.  The classic experiment which first documented this proclivity was the one in the post I linked but will quote it again here for convenience:

Subjects read pro- and anti-Fidel Castro essays. Subjects were asked to rate the pro-Castro attitudes of the writers. When the subjects believed that the writers freely chose the positions they took (for or against Castro), they naturally rated the people who spoke in favor of Castro as having a more positive attitude towards Castro. However, contradicting Jones and Harris’ initial hypothesis, when the subjects were told that the writer’s positions were determined by a coin toss, they still rated writers who spoke in favor of Castro as having, on average, a more positive attitude towards Castro than those who spoke against him. In other words, the subjects were unable to see the influence of the situational constraints placed upon the writers; they could not refrain from attributing sincere belief to the writers.

And as the old Aristotelian theory shows, it is something that we tend to use when explaining non-human behavior as well and is probably the root of so many causal explanatory lay theories that we can be sure that practically any non-statistical analysis of a phenomenon is very likely to be committed with a healthy dose of the fundamental attribution error/correspondence bias.

This is one of the reasons why I think the analysis I summarized in the previous installment of the “Economics of Local Music” series is important as it actually does discuss the situational or environmental conditions within which music may emerge or develop.

I feel that so much of the Pop vs Classical discussion falls along the lines of the bias that few explanations of the causal conditions (much less the solutions to them) really don’t do much to give us information about how we might actually be able to alter the outcomes of the [perceived] decline of classical music (which itself might actually also be an attitude prone to the bias).

One of the consequences of the bias is having a faulty understanding of ‘reality’ (I know– a loaded word, but indulge) which no amount of vision can overcome (except with ‘luck’).  This is something Peter Senge discusses at length in his Systems thinking approach to organizations–a strong vision is important, but without an understanding of current reality you just won’t know how to shape what is now into what you want in the the future [vision].

3 thoughts on “Levity and Gravity

  1. A great point! I think a lot of times people think that ‘classical’ music in and of itself just isn’t ‘speaking’ to people nowadays. Whereas I see, in many situations, the throwing away of classical styles because its not ‘cool’ to like it. So much of what we choose in life is determined by how we think others will react to it (there’s that context environment again!). I’d love to be able to just play some of the music that they think they don’t like, and show that in all probability, they can find something to enjoy about any music.


    1. Right! Once we get into peer groups and in-group/out-group behavior we start to realize the influence (or constraints) that our communities can put on us. That ‘coolness’ factor has so much more to do with why folks [especially younger audiences] will choose to avoid some things and if forced into a situation will do everything in their power to not enjoy it!

      In its own way the refusal to enjoy a concert has as much to do with ignoring a particular external environment in favor of enjoying other external environments–selective bias, in a way, and that is very much shaped by in-group/out-group behavior!


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