Andrew Sullivan bashes scientism

May 22, 2012 • 6:11 am

In yesterday’s Daily Beast column, “A life observed”, Andrew Sullivan takes out after “scientism,” defending “ways of knowing” other than science. He first shows a one-minute video of Richard Feyman explaining the methods of science, then quotes Philip Kitcher’s critique of scientism from The New Republic (see my take here), and then gives NPR correspondent Robert Krulwich’s take on Feynman’s video:

Science is our way of describing — as best we can — how the world works. The world, it is presumed, works perfectly well without us. Our thinking about it makes no important difference. It is out there, being the world. … The world knows. Our minds guess. In any contest between the two, The World Out There wins.

Finally, Sullivan goes after me, quoting from my piece on Kitcher:

[Art and literature] function not to find out new things about our world, but to convey to others in an expressive ways truths that are derived from observation.  Of course the arts have other functions as well: they can enable us to see in new ways, for example.  Who can look at a lily pond the same way if you’ve seen Monet’s renditions?  And many of us are moved by Bach or Coltrane. But those aren’t ways of knowing—they’re ways of feeling.

It is indeed “scientism” to dismiss the real progress that has been made in history, archaeology, and other social sciences (though I’d be a bit hard pressed to identify real advances in economics). But few of us would deny that progress, so Kitcher’s form of “scientism” is in many ways a straw man.

I still maintain that real understanding of our universe can come only from using crude versions of methods that have been so exquisitely refined by science: reason combined with doubt, observation, and replication.  As one of my commenters said last week, “there are not different ways of knowing.  There is only knowing and not knowing.”  I would add that there is also feeling, which is the purview of art.  But none of this gives the slightest credibility to religion as a way of finding truth.

Sullivan then defends ways of feeling as ways of knowing:

Being moved by Monet cannot be about discovering something “true” about our lives? Religion ceases to have “the slightest credibility” with respect to the truth of the human condition because it has no scientific basis? History – a discipline with its own methods and questions – is not a pursuit of the truth of how things happened the way they did? To relegate of all these human modes of understanding to the supremacy of science is, well, to junk the whole of knowledge for a slice of it that can only measure empirical patterns. Science is a critical part of our understanding. It simply isn’t and cannot be the whole. If that is all human knowledge is, it is pretty sad, and limited to the last few centuries out of 20,000. It consigns the human experience for the vast majority of our existence to condescending oblivion.

What we have to understand first and foremost is not what is out there, but who we are, with all the immense complexity that demands.

Well, let me first dispel Sullivan’s misunderstanding of my views of history and the social sciences.  The former, and less so the latter, are indeed ways of knowing, as I’ve said repeatedly. (To quote Sullivan’s words to me back at him, “Has he even read the fucking thing?”) In their best incarnations, these disciplines use empirical investigation, reason, and replication to find out the (provisional) truth.  After all, what is going on in the Jesus kerfuffle than a bunch of historians trying to winnow the truth about the man from existing evidence?  So no, human knowledge is not limited to the last few centuries. If it were, evolution wouldn’t be a discipline.

True, the scientific way of knowing—that is, the practice of science as we know it—is a phenomenon that began in earnest in the 17th century, but the empirically-based way of knowing is far older.  Look at how hunter-gatherers hit on herbal remedies, which still form a large basis for our pharmacopoeia. Through trial, error, and observation, they found that the bark of the cinchona tree was a remedy for malaria. (How many people died in that “experiment”?) Ditto for how the early Greeks decided that the Earth was round.

So let’s leave the science behind and get to Sullivan’s real beef—the arts and religion as ways of knowing.  “Being moved by Monet” is an emotion.  What truth does it express? Sullivan doesn’t say. Only that one can be moved.  Delving further, you might be able to realize that you were moved by something like this, “I never saw light in that way before.”  But only in the wildest sense can that be taken as a truth about the world.  It may be a truth about you, but how do we know that? It can’t be verified by others, nor may we even be consciously aware of why we react as we do. Personal experience is not the same a “truth,” as innumerable religious revelations (or drug-induced visions) testify.

I may be moved by The Death of Ivan Ilyich, or The Dead, but that is because those novellas artistically resonate with our own feelings.  We say, “Yes, yes, that is what it must feel like to die.” Or “Yes, Greta was silently moved her whole life by the death of Michael Furey, and her husband didn’t know.” But the former is based on observation and a feeling that an artist has depicted a common human experience (i.e., observation); while the latter is a feeling unique to one person.

Clearly the entire human experience does not devolve to science, nor have I ever believed that. The human experience includes feelings, emotions, and thoughts.  But let us not forget that one day many of those will be scientifically analyzed and dissected. We will discover the parts of the brain, and the chemicals like endorphins, that engender those feelings. Those won’t provide a full explanation of everything that interests us about our species, but clearly our reactions to phenomena, and to other people, are not immune to scientific study. And I doubt that science can tell us, at least not for several lifetimes hence, why one person is moved by Beethoven while another finds his music boring.  Those differences constitute the world’s rich diversity that makes life worthwhile and endlessly interesting.

When someone tells you, “I am hungry,” that is also a feeling. Is it a truth? Yes it is, if she’s really hungry, but that, too, is subject to empirical testing.  Is her stomach full? When did she last eat? Does she tuck into a huge meal? But again, it’s a personal truth, and tells us little about what is out there in the world beyond the experience of a single person. And we know, scientifically if you will, that deprivation of food brings on hunger.  Even the statement, “Fred loves Sue” can be tested, at least according to one’s definition of love.

In the end, though, I think that Sullivan (an observant Catholic) is more concerned with defending religion—at least that’s the pervasive motivation behind attacks on scientism. When he says, “What we have to understand first and foremost is not what is out there, but who we are, with all the immense complexity that demands,” he’s first of all dismissing the entire basis of Western faith, which of course is deeply concerned with what is out there. Maybe theologians don’t care if there’s a god (he might just be a “ground of being,” whatever that is), or what kind of god he is, but most religious people do. And those people want to know if someone is looking out for them, whether they prayers are answered, and what will happen when they die. Those are things that are out there—or rather not out there, for not a scintilla of good evidence exists for those notions.  It all comes down to revelation.  And of course different people have different revelations.

Given the absence of empirical evidence for a divine being, and the disparate nature of personal revelations and of the tenets of different religions, we’ll never know what is or is not out there, god-wise. That ignorance is what keeps theologians in business. For scientists, we have no need of a god hypothesis, any more than we need an elf or a dragon hypothesis, and so we provisionally reject all of them.

“Who we are” doesn’t have a general answer, except in the empirical sense that evolution built the human genome a certain way and society also gives us certain cultural commonalities. Beyond that there are only personal answers, and who we think we are may differ radically from who we really are. (My own observation: nobody thinks he’s a jerk but yet the world contains many palpable jerks. Ergo many people don’t know who they are.)

And what religion teaches us is how we should behave.  Those aren’t truths, but moral strictures, and, of course, many of them are dreadful.  It also may tell us something about humanity, in the same way that any work of fiction can.  But every religious “truth” or revelation about humanity can be derived, and has been derived, from nonreligious considerations.  Religion is among the worst ways of knowing, for it is wedded to false doctrine. Reading good fiction is a far better way to learn about humanity than is reading the Bible.

And what, exactly, is the “religious truth about the human condition” so touted by Sullivan? That women are second-class citizens? That God will send us to hell if we masturbate? That homosexuality is wrong? (Sullivan should pay attention here.) That’s it’s okay to have slaves, and beat them for their own good? That we should give up our family and possessions and follow Jesus? The “truths” that Sullivan gleans from Scripture are, of course, ones like the Golden Rule that he finds morally palatable, not ones handed down from God.  And whether they’re morally palatable depends entirely on non-religious considerations.

It strikes me that most people who claim that there are other ways of knowing beyond empirical observation and reason never list any of the questions supposedly answered by art, music, or religion.  I have labored through one paper addressing this question, “Truth in music” (J. Levinson, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 1981, 40:131-144), only to find this dispiriting conclusion:

I have also said little about the bearing of musical truth on the possibility of acquiring extramusical knowledge-for example, about emotional life-from a musical composition. I fear that what can be said here is mainly negative. In order to come to know something from listening to a composition which was true in one of our senses one would have to know that the composition was true in that sense. But in general, one will not know that the composition is true unless one already knows precisely that which hearing the composition and knowing it was true would have illuminated one about.

I have by no means closed my mind on this issue, but I still await the questions that non-empirical ways of knowing can answer about the world.

h/t: Philip

160 thoughts on “Andrew Sullivan bashes scientism

  1. Defending “other ways of knowing” is, in my mind, an effort to defend the legitimacy of their uninformed, non-rational opinions.

    1. exactly. i don’t know why anyone bothers responding to or taking on sullivan’s views at this point. he hasn’t made sense in years.

  2. “It simply isn’t and cannot be the whole. If that is all human knowledge is, it is pretty sad, and limited to the last few centuries out of 20,000. It consigns the human experience for the vast majority of our existence to condescending oblivion.”

    So if it’s sad and “consigns the human experience for the vast majority of our existence to condescending oblivion” it can’t also be true?

    Tough noogies, Andrew.

    1. Yeah, Sullivan doesn’t seem to recognize that 15 of those 20k have no recorded history to them at all (not to mention all the hundreds of thousands and millions of years prior to them). Just some artifacts, cave paintings, and bones. And even in historical times, most people aren’t leaving a big influence on history other than whether or not they passed down their genes. That’s just how it is… its goodness or badness doesn’t factor into it.

      1. His point seems muddled to me. Confusing knowledge and a method of gaining knowledge. The Egyptians certainly knew how to build pyramids. But I doubt that method was developed through peer reviewed journals 🙂

        He also seems to have missed a digit off the 20,000 years.

        1. 20,000 centuries, I take it.

          i.e. two megayears, approximate age of the Homo erectus + sapiens lineage, an important out-of-Africa event, use of fire etc.

          1. I was going by Homo Spaiens having been around for about 200,000 years, although I could be wrong. But yes you point still remains-he was way off!

  3. In my view there are two ways of knowing, knowing the universe and knowing yourself.

    Knowing the universe is where experiment, observation, and reason tell us how things work, it’s the realm of the empirical and objective (ideally anyway, of course human nature brings in biases).

    Knowing yourself however is the more nebulous area. Of course science can (and should) be part of how we learn about ourselves but it is also where subjective feeling, art, literature, philosophy, etc. comes into play (even religion). What happens in the brains, the shaping of personalities and viewpoints can only be experienced by that individual person which makes it currently impossible to study by anyone external.

    External to us is the domain of evidence, internal to us is where things gets fuzzier. Sullivan is confusing the two.

    1. Knowing oneself is hard, but much as I love music and art I’m not sure how they helped me to know myself. Literature maybe, inasmuch as it provides examples of people’s lives one can sometimes, though not often, relate to one’s own life and take lessons from. Paintings can teach you a bit about history, music really doesn’t teach you about anything but music and the emotions it can elicit.

    2. Knowing yourself and knowing the universe are not two different ways of knowing, they are just two different targets of what you are knowing. In fact, one is just a very small subset of the other. Just because you target your “knowing machine” at yourself does not make it a different machine.

    3. What does it even mean to “know oneself”? It’s tempting to put that phrase in apposition to “knowing the outside world”, but it’s not really a type of *knowledge*. It’s subjective experience, and therefore cannot be *felt* by anyone else, but if we are to really know ourselves in that we understand *how* we think and reason and deceive ourselves, we need the tools of empirical psychology and neuroscience.

      1. Good question. The only way we can determine if our self-knowledge is actually knowledge or fantasy would appear to be along the lines, as Burns put it:

        O would some power the giftie gie us to see ourselves as others see us.

        But rather than appealing to “some power”, one could actually ask other people. And then we are back to the empirical method.

    4. But the individual person can still use an empirical approach to learn more about herself.

  4. I think that an important point here is that our introspection is often deeply wrong.

    For example, see the work of Daniel Simons, famous for the invisible gorilla experiment.

    Polls show 3/4 of people think of memory as a sort of video recording device, when clearly at best we encode some of our impressions, and certainly not the source material itself. These are the shocking results of psychology and neuroscience in the modern day: we’ve found that much of what we think about how we think is just plain wrong.

    If that doesn’t get fed back into your “ways of knowing”, you end up defending many intuitions that are just plain wrong. We are not the rational beings the enlightenment said we are any more than we are the spiritual beings religion said.

    1. But, to qoute the title of one of Ariel’s books, we may well be “predictably irrational” beings.

  5. ” Reading fiction is a far better way to learn about humanity than is reading the Bible.”

    I think you meant to say ‘Reading better fiction is a far better way….’

    1. Yes, but the question remains: What exactly are you “learn[ing] about humanity” from fiction (and, apparently, not from the Bible)?

      If you are learning something about humanity from one form of expression and not from another, is the first form more “true” than the second?

      Can the truths (or facts, or whatever you are learning) from fiction be universalized, tested, disproved, or supported by data?

      It seems to me that if you want to toss out the idea of the “truths of the arts,” you can no longer talk about one kind of artistic expression (fiction, the Bible) have more of this quality than the other.

      1. Well, one differentiator is whether the work of fiction admits to being such. The Bible is (mostly) fiction masquerading as fact — or at least being sold as fact by those with a vested interest. This gives it less credibility as a source of “truth” than a fictional work that makes no such claims but which might still provide deep insights into the human condition.

        1. So the only difference between the non-truth of fiction and the non-truth of religion is that the former admits to being non-truth? But if we think that art is not about truth — that there are no truths in art — then who care about the way they’re packaged? Art’s admission of its fictional status does not, by itself, make its fictions more valuable. Just less deleterious, I suppose.

          It seems that a lot of people what to toss out the idea of art-truths, but retain the idea that art provides some type of insight, some type of knowledge (even self-knowledge). But what are we saying about knowledge that it accurate, or insights that are better, if we don’t want to interact with the word “true”?

          If we want to say that fiction provide deep (or any) insights into the human condition, then by what standard are we measuring the quality of those insights? Are some sources or examples more true — do they provide more insights — than others?

  6. It strikes me that most people who claim that there are other ways of knowing beyond empirical observation and reason never list any of the questions supposedly answered by art, music, or religion.

    It struck me the other day that what seems to be going on here is that folks who are making the “other ways of knowing” claim are mistaking personal revelations/insights/intuitions for universal knowledge.

    Poetry, literature, religious texts, music – these can all give us some intution/insight into our own selves. Poetry might bring us some bit of awareness about our selves that we didn’t have before.

    But do they truly speak in universals about humanity? In some ways – where they can are exactly the ways where empirical analysis will tell us that – sociological investigations of religion, historical investigation, and even literary criticism are all empirical studies and, when done properly, are all going to be something I would call science, or at the very least their claims to “knowing” are empirical claims that can be tested.

    Where people get tripped up is thinking that the insights they receive from a text are universal rather than personal. I might read a selection from the Book of Job and think that it speaks a truth about how there is no God, no universal Justice in the world, but that passage doesn’t mean that there is no God, that there is no Universal Justice – it doesn’t even mean that that’s the intent that the author wanted to convey (for that we’d need to know more history – more about the empirical world of the author). It just means that that’s the personal insight that the text has tickled in my brain.

    And I think a lot of these “different ways of knowing” claims come down to that – confusion of personal revelation with universal truths about the world. Maybe I’m wrong – I haven’t tested this claim at all after all, but it’s an idea that these discussions have brought on in recent days.

  7. “There are not many ways of knowing. There is knowing and not knowing” – Mike Aus

    (might be sloppy – from memory).

    Also, see Sean Carroll’s blogs etc. on

    [1] naturalism
    [2] dysteleological physicalism

    1. There are not many ways of knowing.

      Unless of course you mean knowing in the biblical sense. Thinking biblically also sheds new light in to the maxim “Know thyself”.

      1. Indeed. Knowing myself is something I’ve striven to do regularly, ever since Sister Loyola first told me it would send me blind. I guess for the Church, any knowledge – and especially self-knowledge – is a bad thing!

        Oh wait, you don’t think that’s why Adam’s tempter was a “snake” do you? Damn you Genesis and your visual allusions!

        1. I should think that Sister Loyola out of a sense of modesty and subtlety would have broached the subject rather elliptically. But I know nothing of knuckle-rapping nuns.

          Anyway, I gather that the Widow Thumb was a greater influence on you.

        1. Might it rather have more of the desired effect to tell them that you hope that they don’t get known for at least six months?

  8. “I’m in a position to put forward a hypothesis about the scope and limits of human knowledge. My suggestion is that what I have gone through: the Moorean truisms (with a little trimming to exclude false truisms), the proofs that mathematicians (and logicians) come up with, and, finally, the securer results of the natural sciences, give us the totality of our knowledge. Philosophy, religion, the pronouncements of mystics, other systems of belief, may be fine things to have and engage with. But, I suggest, none of them contain anything beyond belief. Or, to be on the safe side, if they do contain any knowledge, it is not reliable knowledge in the sense that it is not socially identifiable in the way that knowledge in the rational and the empirical sciences is identifiable. For instance, just maybe you know that God exists, or just maybe I know that God does not exist (we can’t both be knowers in this matter of course), but, situated as we are, there is no way to settle the question between us. Neither of us, I think, can rationally claim to have knowledge, even if one of us does have it.”

    (Armstrong, D. M. Lecture on The Scope and Limits of Human Knowledge. 2004.

    As for what Armstrong calls “Moorean truisms” (after G. E. Moore:

    “The term ‘common sense’ must be treated with caution. Many will hasten to point out that the common sense of mankind has been mistaken in the past on particular occasions and will undoubtedly be mistaken again from time to time. It was once part of common sense to think that the world is flat, that the sun literally rises and sets every day, and that simultaneity is an absolute conception, and so on. Here common sense was wrong.
    But I am thinking of what perhaps may be called bedrock common sense. (And I think that is what Moore himself was thinking of.) Human beings have heads on their bodies, and hands and feet. They eat and drink, reproduce and eventually die. They live in a world that contains, besides man-made things, other objects such as trees, rivers, mountains, winds, fires. These are general Moorean truths, and a good rough test for the members of this class is that it is almost embarrassing to mention them outside the context of philosophy. Each person, furthermore, has a stock of particular Moorean truths that do no more than overlap with the Moorean truths of others. It is a Moorean truth, part of my secure knowledge, that as I type these words it is late morning in Australia, in the suburb of Glebe in Sydney to be precise, and there are English words in front of me on a computer screen.
    All Moorean knowledge is in many ways vague and imprecise. From the point of view of scientist or philosopher it is truth that involves extraordinarily little analysis or system. It is surface truth. But it is epistemically fundamental. It is the epistemically basic part of whatever knowlege we happen to have, and at one time, back in the state of nature, it was all that humanity had by way of a reliable epistemic base.”

    (Armstrong, D. M. Truth and Truthmakers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. pp. 26-7)

    1. Other than demonstrating your mastery of copy/paste tools, I’m not seeing that you contribute much with this “comment”.

    2. Armstrong isn’t putting any effort into answering the ‘does doG exist’ question. He could get the same form of answer by asking does ‘can’tamelon exist’. If can’tamelon is defined as pieces of cantaloupe mixed together with pieces of watermelon or, if can’tamelon is defined as the essence of the word ‘can’t’ mixed together with watermelon; those two questions can be answered. The only reason Armstrong isn’t able to state with relative certainty that doG doesn’t exist is because he is silent regarding Its definition.

      If doG believers are allowed to define their doG personally then there is not one doG but many doGs. Those doGs don’t exist external to the person that holds the idea in their mind. One doG cannot order one follower to kill an enemy and at the same time order the follower to be killed to kill the first, without being inconsistent and creating a paradox of error.

    3. “Neither of us, I think, can rationally claim to have knowledge, even if one of us does have it.”

      this is key.

      the problem with religion is that it is entirely based on conjecture, NOT independent, verifiable, evidence.

      thus, the author is correct in stating that there is no knowledge here that can be reliably demonstrated, and no knowledge that would ever contribute to our understanding.

      the point of saying “even if one of us DOES have it” is referring the the simple fact that in a question of existence, only one answer can be correct.

      The fact that there is no way of knowing which one, though, should focus us not on the answer, for it’s superfluous, but on the silliness of asking the question to begin with, since it CAN’T EVER generate any knowledge if there is no verifiable evidence.

      I’m guessing that Myron somehow thinks the purpose of this passage is to promote agnosticism (in the colloquial sense) as a logical response to the question of existence.

      If so, then let me simply say… no, it isn’t.

      the author is very clearly saying there is NO knowledge here at all, nor can there be.

      In fact, one could say it is “agnostic” in the most literal translation of the word:

      without knowledge

      1. David Armstrong is not an agnostic but a (positive) atheist. He doesn’t say that one shouldn’t believe that God doesn’t exist but only that one shouldn’t claim to know that God doesn’t exist.

  9. “There are not many ways of knowing.”

    If this means “There are not different degrees of knowledge”, it is true, because there is no such thing as half-knowledge. And if this means “There are not different sources of knowledge”, it is false.

    1. “And if this means “There are not different sources of knowledge”, it is false under some specific interpretation which I don’t care to share with you.

      FIFY. There’s several interpretations under which “There are not different sources of knowledge” is true. All knowledge is mediated through sense experience, for example. All knowledge resides in brains is defensible. All knowledge is derived from middle-out trial-and-error-based processes is also defensible, but a little more esoteric.

  10. Such profound shallowness from Sullivan.
    “It consigns the human experience for the vast majority of our existence to condescending oblivion.”
    That is what the human experience IS all about Andrew!

    P.S. I am a jerk & I know it.

    1. “I am a jerk & I know it.”

      If yer an asshole and ya know it, clap yer hands!

      profound shallowness

      my mind is torn between seeing this as somehow accurate, and yet an oxymoron.

  11. Epistemological supernaturalists claim that there are also these scientifically inaccessible and inexplicable sources of knowledge:

    * extrasensory perception (clairvoyance, precognition, or telepathy)
    * mystical apprehension or intuition (distinct from rational intuition) or vision
    * (divine) revelation

  12. The way I see it is that there may very well be other ways to SEEK knowledge. However, there is only one way to determine if that knowledge is in fact valid and not simply a result of human bias, wishful thinking or logical fallacies. That is the scientific method.

  13. I whole-heartedly agree with all your points on these issues. I think the arguments put forward by the other side are very deceptive and also very tempting because of the sly metaphors they rely on, but they are nothing more than desperate, unfounded yearnings for mysticism to be elevated alongside scientific inquiry as a respectable path towards understanding. Their initial mis-definitions lead to an absolutely giant non-sequitur where they try to shoe-horn intuition and religion into areas where they have no credibility.

  14. As a twist on Feyman’s mantra in science you make a guess and if the evidence does not result in confirmation you reject your guess. In spiritualism you make a guess refuse to hear evidence and then call your guess gospel.

  15. One problem with trying to shoehorn an emotional response to art — Monet’s lilies, e.g. — as a form of knowing is that different people will “know” the artwork differently, and many people won’t feel a thing. Knowledge is subjective! Haven’t we seen this idiotic conflation already? It’s called Post Modernism, and I think it did enough damage last century.

    1. Haven’t we seen this idiotic conflation already? It’s called Post Modernism…

      No, that’s a different pathology. As I understand it (and I admit that though I studied it in the 90s I never quite “got” it), post-modernism (at least at its extremes) would say that there’s no such thing as universal knowledge at all. That individuals each have their own views of reality, that none of them are actually wrong (since they’re all subjectively created) and that nobody can really say anything at all universal about reality. (That’s taken to an extreme of course, but that’s the general idea as far as I was ever able to get it down).

      This is the opposite – this is saying that you can look at a Monet and that the feeling that you get from the Monet is some kind of universal feeling – that there’s something intrinsic in the Monet that speaks to all of human experience in the same way, and that it isn’t something that you distill out via empirical studies.

      This is basically taking post-modernism and instead of saying “all viewpoints are true” it says “there is a single viewpoint that is true and its some variation of my viewpoint – yours is wrong if it isn’t sufficiently similar to mine and I don’t need to do anything to prove it’s wrong”. (Is that unfair to Sullivan and the purveyors of “other ways of knowing” bullshit? Perhaps – but they won’t actually come out and say what they mean when it comes to “other ways of knowing” and this is the best i’ve been able to tease out of it).

      1. Yes to this. I’ve done the conflating so Sullivan wouldn’t have to. He cannot “list any of the questions supposedly answered by art, music, or religion,” because of the subjectivity of both the questions, whatever they are, and the answers, which are perforce non-answers, since there can’t be any “correct” ones.

      2. That’s why post-modernism is a very useful approach to art. Monet’s paintings evoke a different response in each individual. “The Catcher in the Rye” is very moving to some while others (like me) consider it a snoozefest.

        Post-modernism is only nonsense when taken out of the realm of art and applied to the real world.

      3. you can look at a Monet and that the feeling that you get from the Monet is some kind of universal feeling

        And how does one know that the subjective feeling one has is actually universal? One determines this by objectively collating one’s experience with others. We think that Guernica is great art because of its effect on a large number of people, and not because it has an effect on any particular person. Art is not just about its impact on the individual in isolation, since all sorts of experiences can impact a single individual. I presume, for example, that if I said I had a profound insight into the human condition when I ate a Big Mac, that a) he would likely dismiss that experience as idiosyncratic and non-universal, or at least b) not consider a Big Mac to be “art”.

        So then, even with art we cannot dispense with the objective. Indeed, we could argue that art is merely a psychological stimulus for which we currently don’t have a solid theory, even though we have objective evidence of its effects.

  16. I can understand your unwillingness to call the “truths of the arts” truths “about the world.” The former are simply descriptions “about ourselves” — are personal, or subjective, or cannot be universalized — are therefore not really truths at all. I can see what this might be the case.

    But might one give some higher credit to the idea that the arts express — or at least explore — truths about something that all humans have in common: a subjective and emotional experience of that common world? These are the truths of “what is feels like” (or might feel like) to experience such-and-such a thing, to see such-and-such a sight, to have such-and-such a feeling.

    Emily Dickinson’s poetry, for example, might be seen as exploring what it *feels like* to experience despair — and even what it feels like to put that feeling into words. It might expresses and gives a shape to the quality of being inside that experience.

    This might involve the need to try to give that subjective feeling an (illogical) objective form (“This is the Hour of Lead”). It might try to compare it to other unthinkable experiences (“As if my life were shaven / And fitted to a frame”). It might confront the inadequacy of those terms, or even of language and expression overall (“Pain has an Element of Blank”).

    People who love Dickinson do not (re)read her work because it provides a diagnosis (“What is the cause of that feeling”) or even an accurate report of a person’s feelings on such and such a day. (Each of these lyrics’ experiences might be completely of her own invention.) They read it — and respond to it — because, in part, it provides a dense, powerful, evocative vision of what it is “like” to experience the world in that way.

    And for many of her readers, it produces unexpected resonances with what that way of living is “like” for them as well. “Wow,” we say, “I’ve never thought those words, but that’s exactly how it is.” That’s *exactly* what it’s like to … be caught in a spiral of obsessive thoughts or … struggle after a lost memory or … have a moment of clarity or … fall head over heels in love.

    We live in these moments all our lives. We are always subjective personal beings. It seems that powerful ways of expressing and capturing some of those passing moments — ways that give you the feeling that “Yes, it’s *exactly* like that (sort of)” — deserve a language to express that level of adequacy, that power of connection.

    If “truth” isn’t that word, so be it. Maybe it’s wrong to say that that such-and-such a work captures a truth about our inner life, a truth about what it feels like.

    But then we need a better word.

    1. As long as different people have different experiences from exposure to the arts, then there is no “truth” to be had there.

      There is a better word. It is emotion.

      1. I’m saying. Certainly universal truths can’t be derived from subjective experiences that are, as has been pointed out, feelings. And no one feeling can said to be the “correct” one.

        1. Certainly universal truths can’t be derived from subjective experiences that are, as has been pointed out, feelings. And no one feeling can said to be the “correct” one.

          I have to say that Carl Jung certainly gave it his best effort, for many decades.

          Collective unconscious, mandala symbolism, synchronicity…

          He failed, but refused to admit it.

          there’s a lesson in that for us all.

    2. “I’ll tell you things you already know, so you can say ‘I really identify with you so much!'” – Henry Rollins, “Liar”

  17. “It consigns the human experience for the vast majority of our existence to condescending oblivion.”

    No Andrew, that would be antibiotic resistant bacteria.

    “The world knows. Our minds guess.”

    No Robert, the world is indifferent.

  18. By chance I came across this quote that encapsulate my thinking on “other ways of thinking” like literature and music.

    “Fairy tales are more than true; not b/c they tell us that dragons exist, but b/c they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”- G.K. Chesterton

    What we should recognize is the methods of science are the best and I believe only ways to find out truths about the natural world.

    “Other ways of knowing” (what is a good name? Parascientific?) deal with how we approach the facts and what to do about them. In other words entirely psychological.

    1. ““Other ways of knowing” (what is a good name? Parascientific?)”
      Metaphysics would work well, if not already taken.

  19. Being moved by Monet cannot be about discovering something “true” about our lives? … To relegate of all these human modes of understanding to the supremacy of science is, well, to junk the whole of knowledge for a slice of it that can only measure empirical patterns.

    Let’s take Kitcher and Sullivan’s fatuous point to it’s logical conclusion. Richard Wagner and Adolf Hitler were both greatly moved by the truth they found in the arts. Here’s two representative samples relevant to music and theater:

    Throughout an intercourse of two millennia with European nations, Culture has not succeeded in breaking the remarkable stubbornness of the Jewish naturel as regards the peculiarities of Semitic pronunciation. The first thing that strikes our ear as quite outlandish and unpleasant, in the Jew’s production of the voice-sounds, is a creaking, squeaking, buzzing snuffle: add thereto an employment of words in a sense quite foreign to our nation’s tongue, and an arbitrary twisting of the structure of our phrases—and this mode of speaking acquires at once the character of an intolerably jumbled blabber (eines unertraglich verwirrten Geplappers); so that when we hear this Jewish talk, our attention dwells involuntarily on its repulsive how, rather than on any meaning of its intrinsic what —Richard Wagner, Das Judenthum in der Musik

    One of our most important tasks will be to save future generations from a similar political fate and to maintain for ever watchful in them a knowledge of the menace of Jewry. For this reason alone it is vital that the Passion play be continued at Oberammergau; for never has the menace of Jewry been so convincingly portrayed as in this presentation of what happened in the times of the Romans. There one sees in Pontius Pilate a Roman racially and intellectually so superior, that he stands like a firm, clean rock in the middle of the whole muck and mire of Jewry. —Adolf Hitler, 5 July 1942

    Sullivan’s thesis demands an answer which truths are revealed to Wagner and Hitler through the impact of these arts. How else but through “scientism” could Wagner’s Hitler’s “truth” be absolutely dismissed as the hate-filled, murderous poison that it is? After all, both men’s “truth” derives from the “truth” expressed in the New Testament, the very same that Sullivan claims that he learns what is true for him.

  20. Okay, something hit me while reading this that I think explains a lot here. There is an equivocation going on with the word “truth” — call the two definitions “fact-truth” and “art-truth”, which I will explain in a moment — and that equivocation is being exploited to make it seem like religion offers fact-truth, when it, at best, only offers art-truth.

    What I mean by fact-truth is plainly obvious, and it is the definition Jerry uses. (FWIW, it’s also the definition of “truth” that I typically use) By art-truth, I mean the “truths” that Sullivan is speaking of here which are revealed by a Monet painting. I heartily agree with Jerry that “truth” is a poor word choice for describing this phenomenon, but ultimately it’s semantics — if you wanted to call it “foo”, it would still be the same concept, right? — so let’s be charitable for a moment.

    There is undoubtedly a sensation of insight and enlightenment which one experiences from time to time on consuming great art. And it’s undeniable that some people call this phenomenon “truth”, even though this art-truth is clearly not the same thing as fact-truth.

    For many, religion offers art-truth. And I suppose if I am being charitable, that’s not too implausible. There are some dramatic moments in some religious myths. As Dawkins just wrote about in his recent Guardian article, there is some real poetry scattered here and there about the King James Bible. So okay, perhaps there is some art-truth there.

    And thence the switcheroo: As Jerry says, while “sophisticated theologians” may care very little about the fact-truth of religion, the faithful flock cares very much. So the Sullivans and the Eagletons and the like make a reasonably compelling case of the art-truth oh religion, and since we have not bothered to disambiguate the term “truth”, the faithful are satisfied that their coveted fact-truths have been justified.

    Perhaps we should stop saying that “religion is false” and start saying “religion is not factual”, or even “religion is factually false”. Even those who proclaim the Truth they see in a Monet painting would be unlikely to argue that the painting “is factually true” (whatever the hell that would mean). Is there Truth in art and religion? Depends how you define the word, I guess, but can we all agree there are no factual truths in art and religion? Pretty please?

    1. I agree, that’s the distinction that needs to be made. I always broke it down to objective vs. subjective “truths,” but I was never entirely comfortable referring to the latter as truth because of the potential for dishonest conflation you point out.

      …can we all agree there are no factual truths in art and religion?

      There have been so many debates where I wish the theistic side had been forced to unambiguously answer this question.

        1. Not necessarily. I can believe that “mint chocolate chip ice cream is the best flavor” is true for me while not meaning it is true for everyone.

          1. Then “Mint chocolate chip ice cream is the best flavor” simply means “Mint chocolate chip ice cream is my favourite flavor/the flavor I like most”, which statement is an epistemically objective truth about an ontically subjective fact.

    2. Nice way of putting it, clearly emphasizing the two quite different usages of the word “truth”.

      Similarly with words/phrases like “scientism”, “faith” or “free will”, the whole discussion is pointless unless people define their terms.

      I always find that by far the most useful contribution by philosophers is when they explicitly disentangle multiple meanings and usages like this.

      Most theological etc arguments seem to be based almost entirely on the imprecision of language.

    3. +1

      I was thinking along similar lines about the use of “knowledge”/“knowing”, but I couldn’t have articulated it better.

      There is a clear equivocation fallacy here.


    4. I think you hit the nail on the head. It isn’t the idea of ‘learning from art’ that scientists object to. What we object to is theologians using an ambiguous term to claim one thing in the pulpit and something entirely different on the debate floor. In the pulpit, revelation is not just about feelings, its also about real physical events and predictions. Yet on the debate floor, it becomes only about feelings and the human condition and such.

      That sort of switch is wrong. Its hiding a badly reasoned point in between different meanings of the same word.

      [Aside, but I think we have to watch out for the same switcheroo with the term “God.” (Some) Theologians will preach an active, miracle-working God in the pulpit but defend a very deistic entity in their writing.]

  21. Sullivan says:

    What we have to understand first and foremost is not what is out there, but who we are, with all the immense complexity that demands.

    I agree, actually. It’s very close to the ancient Greek aphorism, “Know thyself.” So what do we know about what we are?

    Well, we know our brains evolved over millions of years. We know they aren’t perfect instruments. We know our brains make many common perceptual errors. We know they have a tendency to ascribe agency where none exists. We know our minds can be resistant to evidence when they have already been made up on a subject. We know they find confirming evidence more compelling than discomfirming evidence, which they have a tendency to rationalize away. We know they give disproportionate weight to the assertions of authority figures, even if those people aren’t particularly knowledgeable on the subject. We know our brains respond to narratives and are primed to seek out patterns in nature, a tendency which often results in false positives. We know our intuitions are unreliable and our memories are imperfect.

    In short, we know that all the reasons people are drawn to religion are precisely explainable by our flaws, the limitations of our evolved brains. It is only when we do acknowledge what we are that we can overcome these limitations. Science is the tool which helps us do that. Faith is the defense mechanism our brains erect to prevent arriving at discomfiting realizations.

    So the question then for religious people like Sullivan is, “How can you claim to know who you are when you reject everything we know about what you are?”

    1. So the question then for religious people like Sullivan is, “How can you claim to know who you are when you reject everything we know about what you are?”

      that’s a keeper.

  22. “Organisms are aggregates of cells, cells are dynamic molecular systems, the molecules are composed of atoms, which in their turn decompose into fermions and bosons (or maybe into quarks or even strings)”

    “Maybe” quarks?! Does Kitcher doubt their existence? In an article criticizing science-based epistemology no less?

    1. I’m sure he doesn’t doubt their existence. I took the use of “maybe” here to be synonymous with “rather”.

      Since not all fermions are composites of quarks, the “maybe” would also serve to represent this.

      1. You might want to be generous to him; reality is somewhat more complicated.

        Some atoms decompose into fermions (with half-integer spin*) and bosons (with integer spin), but some only into fermions… Depending on the number of baryons (protons and neutrons, which are fermions) in the nucleus, the nucleus either a fermion (odd number) or a boson (even number). (The other component of atoms, electrons, are leptons, which are fermions.)

        Baryons are composed of an odd number of quarks, which are fermions, which is why they themselves are fermions.

        What quarks and leptons are made of is still anybody’s guess… but “vibrations in ‘strings’” has a lot going for it… except falsifiability. 😮


        * Spin is a kind of rotational symmetry. A coin is spin-1, with heads and tails. A spin-½ coin would have two other faces, but would still be flat; starting with heads, you’d have to turn it over four times to get back to heads.

        1. I know. I was about to write about bosonic nuclei and so on, but then it struck me that Kitcher’s description wasn’t meant to be that rigorous.

  23. We could spend weeks and gallons of ink on whether music or emotions are truth-apt, but it’s irrelevant to the question at hand. It is a very plausible claim (ignoring the puzzle of Mathematical knowledge for the moment) that:

    (*) Truth-apt states are only justified by the empirical, evidence-based methods of science, broadly-conceived.

    Someone claiming (*) doesn’t need to figure out whether any particular state is truth-apt or not. So, if emotions are truth-apt, then they can only get their justificatory status from those empirical, evidence-based methods. If emotions aren’t truth-apt, then they aren’t subject to epistemic justification and so don’t refute (*). If (*) is what someone means by “scientism” then “scientism” is plausibly true. But that isn’t what people mean when they pejoratively accuse someone of “scientism”. They use the term for the absurd claim that the only worthwhile human activity is science, but NO ONE believes that or has ever believed that, so it’s a straw-man position to attack.

  24. ” it is pretty sad, and limited to the last few centuries out of 20,000.”
    So his final justification contra scientism is to use information that we only know about because of science?

    Also, has he seen what happened in those prior 20k centuries? Not pretty stuff, even if the art was pretty.

  25. Maybe Sullivan just needs a science lab kit so that he can know the emotional joys of learning about reality. Maybe he thinks fiction is the only way to experience emotions.

  26. You write, “I still await the questions that non-empirical ways of knowing can answer about the world.”

    I’m not sure what your position is on these, but here are four:

    (Q1) How should we live our lives, morally?

    (Q2) Should we trust or mistrust empirical ways of knowing?

    (Q3) Do abstract objects (potentially numbers, propositions, and some others) exist?

    (Q4) Is it possible for the basic laws of logic to be violated? (Is logic sound?)

    I think that I and many other philosophers have convincingly shown that if we can answer (Q1)-(Q4) at all, those answers will contain substantial non-empirically-derived components. No one can empirically observe normative properties, so (Q1) and (Q2) are non-empirical, and no one can empirically observe abstracta or non-trivial modal truths, so (Q3) and (Q4) are non-empirical.

    1. Great notes, Tom.

      While this may ride a bit roughshod over your use of the word “empirical,” could we add: “What is it like to experience (the conscious state of) X?”

      1. psattler,

        Thanks for your reply.

        I agree that ’empirical’ can be neutral about whether it includes introspection. I tend to think of introspection as empirical, but then again, it’s not clearly scientific, at least.

    2. Tom, I just had a revelation. In my revelation, the answers to your questions were revealed to be exactly these:

      (1) live like Ozzy Osborne, but do more drugs.
      (2) No, don’t trust them at all. Ever. Just listen to me on everything. If I have not yet answered a question, wait patiently for more of my revelations.
      (3) No.
      (4) Yes. Revelation has instructed me not to tell you how, though, so don’t ask.

      Those are THE answers to your questions. Any other answer is wrong.

      …and now the moral of the story. You are going to have a very difficult time coming up with a philosophical argument against my claim without undermining revelation as a method. Any deep argument against my claims can be applied to any other claim of divine revelation.

      So sure, hypothetically there may be other ways of knowing. But revelation is not one of those ways. Not even believers in a particular revelation think its a good ‘way of knowing,’ as they regularly reject 99% of revelation’s conclusions (i.e. – every revelation they don’t agree with).

      1. eric,

        I think we agree that there’s very little reason to trust revelation as a source of knowledge. I meant with my comment to suggest that even if revelation is not a good source of evidence, there might still be other good sources of evidence that are not revelation but are not empirical either.

        1. ..and how would you go about determining the reliability of non empirical sources of evidence?

          1. Ichthyic,

            What is your wholly empirical evidence for the proposition that non-empirical sources of evidence are only justified if they can be verified empirically?


            The most widely accepted is some kind of a priori insight or intuition. The idea would be, for example, that if some proposition is extremely plausible, or obvious, or intuitively undeniable, then that is at least prima facie evidence in its support. Some philosophers have argued that we normally reason this way, so it would at least be special pleading to reject it. In addition, I’d argue that deciding on epistemological principles governing justification at all is something we can’t do purely empirically, either. (How would we?)


            Most people seem to trust their intuitions, at least prima facie. I can’t imagine a wholly empirical argument against doing that. Can you?

            1. An intuition is a hunch, a guess, an hypothesis. If you test it (emperically) and it turns out to be a reasonable representation of some part of reality, then you have a bit of knowledge to pocket.

              Confusing hunches with knowledge can lead to some seriously embarrassing moments.

        2. Yes, the claim without an example strikes me as fairly empty.

          Its right up there with “god’s existence is not logically impossible.” True, but insignificant.

          Same response can be given in both cases: the claim is trivial until you’re willing to hypothesize and give a good arguement for some particular way (or god).

    3. The answers to Q1 aren’t facts; they’re opinions. They’re not really knowledge.

      Q2 is a normative question, but the decision on whether to trust empirical ways of knowing, for most people, would be based on whether empirical ways of knowing reliably give reasonably accurate knowledge, and that’s an empirical question.

      Q3 No. Or to put it another way, they exist as concepts in our head, which we can demonstrate empirically by comparing our concepts with other people’s concepts. The formalism of mathematics lends itself quite well to this.

      Q4 This is self-referential. It’s not knowledge about the outside world.

      1. truthspeaker,

        Re (Q1), what is your evidence for moral anti-realism, and is it wholly empirical evidence?

        Re (Q2), I still don’t see how anyone has observed that reliability confers justification. It’s not as if someone observed reliability itself having the property of conferring justification. (What does the property of conferring justification look like under a microscope? What particles is it made of?) If justification is a normative property, how could empirical observation alone ever teach us about it?

        Re (Q3), what is your evidence for anti-realism about abstract objects, and is it wholly empirical evidence?

        Re (Q4), I don’t yet understand how that’s self-referential. Here’s a concrete case. Take an object that’s far enough away from us for it to be impossible for information about it to reach us, and vice-versa, since that information would have had to travel at faster than the speed of light. Now, is it possible for that object to be non-identical to itself? Is it possible for that object to be simultaneously greater than 1 gram in mass and less than 1 gram in mass? And what is your evidence for your answer, and (pardon the repetition) is it wholly empirical evidence?

    4. You write, “I still await the questions that non-empirical ways of knowing can answer about the world.”

      I’m not sure what your position is on these, but here are four

      And how can those be answered non-empirically? How would we know if any given answer is correct? Jerry’s claim does not commit him to saying that there might not be truths about these questions, merely that any answer that we could know would be obtained empirically. It may very well be that there are no empirical ways to answer them, but that doesn’t mean that there are non-empirical ways of determining their truth.

      Also, your Q1 is especially problematic, because you are presuming that there is indeed an objective answer to moral questions. I think you need to establish that before you argue that such an answer cannot be determined empirically. (And, of course, note that Sam Harris argues that there are empirical ways to address this question. I think he’s wrong, but nonetheless he tries.)

      1. Tulse,

        I agree that Jerry is only committed to there being non-empirical ways of knowing if he is committed to the proposition that we do know the answers to (Q1)-(Q4), and to the proposition that if we do have answers to (Q1)-(Q4), those answers are non-empirical. I think the latter claim is pretty obvious, although of course I can explain further.

        The former claim is more problematic, of course, and I admit that the defenses of them would probably take us very far afield and occupy more space here than Jerry wants to devote. But at the very least I hope you’ll admit that they are open questions, and it’s at least not crazy to think that we really do have justified answers to some of those questions.

        1. Tom, I don’t think that either of the two claims are obvious, or at least as obvious as you seem to assert.

          Certainly in the domain of ethics it has been argued by Sam Harris that moral matters are subject to empirical investigation — I am personally dubious about his argument, but I think a case can potentially be made. And note that Harris is attempting to defend the objectivity of morality, in other words, the first claim you outline, against subjective/relativist accounts of ethics. I have to admit I’m very surprised that you included ethics in your list, because your claims for it are certainly contentious.

          I agree that the other three, while still a mixed bag, have a longer tradition of realism, but anti-realist approaches to them have been put forward with varying degrees of plausibility. I am certainly no expert in those domains, however.

          So no, it may not be “crazy” to argue that the nature of your three latter areas are “open questions”, but I hope you’ll also admit that my statement still stands: “It may very well be that there are no empirical ways to answer them, but that doesn’t mean that there are non-empirical ways of determining their truth.”

          1. Tulse,

            I agree that moral matters are open to some empirical investigation. I do think, however, that they can’t be settled on wholly empirical grounds. At least, I can’t imagine how they could be, and Hume’s Law (according to which (roughly) no set of purely descriptive or scientific premises can logically entail an ethical conclusion) seems not to have any clear exceptions.

            I take it we agree that even if there are no empirical ways to resolve (e.g.) questions about ethics, modality, and abstracta, that doesn’t by itself show that there are non-empirical ways. But I think Jerry was initially asking for the sorts of questions that people sometimes think non-fully-empirical methods are relevant to investigating. To show that realism about metaethics, abstracta, and so on is true would be a large endeavor, and probably not really appropriate for the comments section of a post; at least, especially, a post not about metaethics itself. But if Jerry is committed to the stronger thesis, that there aren’t any non-empirical ways of learning about the world, then he would have to positively defend skepticism about metaethics, abstracta, and modality, which I don’t think he wants to do.

            The epistemological case is particularly tricky. I think that justification exists, that some beliefs are more justified than others. And justification seems to be normative and therefore non-observable. If so, then if you want to affirm that we can tell which beliefs are justified, it seems to me that you must affirm in turn that we have non-empirical ways of learning about the world.

    5. How should we live our lives, morally?

      subjective. not knowledge based, does not contribute to absolute knowlege at all.

      moral decisions are spatio-temporally fickle, and science explains them better than anything else has to date.

      Should we trust or mistrust empirical ways of knowing?

      define “trust”. If you mean, should we rely on them, then the answer lies in purely emipiricle experience of the results.

      science is pragmatic to the nth degree.

      Do abstract objects (potentially numbers, propositions, and some others) exist?

      what is the SOURCE of the abstract concepts.

      Is it possible for the basic laws of logic to be violated? (Is logic sound?)

      again, empiricle feedback gives us our answers, and we adjust our very definition of what logic is accordingly.

      these actually are rather simple questions, and resounding answered in favor of scientific empiricism being the best method to gain knowledge of the answers to them.


      1. Ichthyic,

        How does science explaining the sources of our moral intuitions tell us anything about whether those intuitions are accurate? Or alternatively, if you think there are no objective (mind-independent) ethical truths, what is your wholly empirical evidence for that belief? (Also, do you really think that torturing children for fun isn’t really, mind-independently wrong? What on earth could your argument be for that, and how could it have more plausible premises than the proposition that torturing children for fun is really wrong?)

        What is your wholly empirical evidence for the proposition that we should trust empirically verified ways of knowing?

        If you believe in or disbelieve in mind-independent numbers, what is your wholly empirical evidence for that belief or disbelief?

        Last, more concretely, is it possible for someone to be taller than herself? What is your wholly empirical evidence for your answer? (Have you observed an impossible person who is taller than herself, for example?)

  27. ‘I have by no means closed my mind on this issue…’

    The closed mind tag is merely a pejorative meme.

    If one can claim to know without being able to demonstrate that knowledge, shamanism is better than contemporary western medicine; Astrology is better than Psychology; Intelligent Design is better than Biology; Genesis is more true than the insights of science; and we should all stop talking about it on the Internet and go back to herding goats and stoning to death sabbath breakers.

  28. One Feynman is worth ten million Andrew Sullivans, at the very least.

    The non-scientific “knowing” that Sullivan is salivating over isn’t knowledge at all. If it were, there’d only be one religion. It’s just irrational opinion.

  29. “It strikes me that most people who claim that there are other ways of knowing beyond empirical observation and reason never list any of the questions supposedly answered by art, music, or religion. ”
    What is Justice? Do dogs have buddha natures? What is pornography? Why do scientists participate in genocide? …

    1. Dogs do, in fact, have Buddha natures, as do all sentient beings.

      As for your other questions, some snark answers:

      Justice is what I say it is.

      Pornography is what excites you but merely gives me a warm glow.

      Scientists participate in genocide because, after all, they’re just dirty Jews, or vile Armenians, or treacherous Bosnian or Ubykh Muslims.

    2. 1. Subjective question with no factual answer.

      2. Meaningless question.

      3. Subjective question with no factual answer, although you could certainly test to see how people respond to depictions and descriptions of sex.

      4. If you wanted an answer to this question your best bet would be to use empirical methods. You would look at the psychological factors in those scientists who participated in genocide. I imagine they would be identical to the reasons non-scientists participated in genocide, but we won’t know for sure until you do the research.

      1. That it is better to know some of the questions than have all of the answers should be obvious. That Scientists are not omniscient and just know a lot is not obvious. They tend to do poorly in humanities.

        1. They tend to do poorly in humanities.

          citation needed.

          no, wait, don’t bother, this is just… stupid.

          1. Yes, James Thurber and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe are notably stupid. There is an interesting recent Met Faust production where he is more current as a nuclear scientist. That is no accident as all possible knowledge is one key to the legend. I would have cast modern Faust more as a JC Venter, who could dual as his own Mephistopheles clone, to be even more current. Of course the legend is big enough to have roles for a Richard Dawkins or any number of other atheist archetypes in need of guidance from the powers of darkness.
            That line from Goethe is one I find incredibly funny about the power of the devil, no I am not omniscient but I do know alot. The old no way to test the devil for being different from god or a really smart deceptive Cartesian alien problem.

  30. >>It strikes me that most people who claim that there are other ways of knowing beyond empirical observation and reason never list any of the questions supposedly answered by art, music, or religion.

    Sure they do.

    – Is there life after death?
    – Is there a God?
    – Does God love me?
    – What is the purpose of my life?


    Of course the answers are nothing but wishful thinking and projections, but those are the questions they claim are answered by religion.

  31. A lot of comments suggest that subjectivity is inferior to objectivity… I don’t get it. Is night inferior to day? You just cannot have objectivity without subjectivity. They are co-existing. They are the 2 faces of the same coin.

    The Objective Eden where objectivity would exist by itself exist only in your dreams. Even not since that would imply a subject…

    Of course, they are 2 different states. One deals more with what can be measured and the other less. But to assume that only what can be measured can be called valuable knowledge would means that you choose to ignore what makes a human a human. Subjectivity is a fact. It involves meaning, beauty, emotions, morality, love, all things that are real even if relative, immaterial and subjective. That they are not constant phenomenon doesn’t make them untrue or unreal. Unless you assume that everything real or true is something that can be measured, calculated or be put into words.

    What is ironic then is that it takes a highly developed subjectivity in order to be able to do objective observations.
    Again, one cannot exist without the other.
    Not in a dual state of mind where the world is grasped through opposites.

    1. A lot of comments suggest that subjectivity is inferior to objectivity… I don’t get it. Is night inferior to day?

      right off the top, you present us with a false equivalence.

      there simply is no point to continue.

  32. There’s one certain way to solve this question once and for all. And Jerry has already provided the pathway.

    What question has a non-science “way of knowing” answered that would not have been or could not have been answered via a scientific methodology? What universal truth has been revealed?

    Jerry’s formulation of the challenge is better than my recapitulation, but it still stands firm.

    Religion in particular asks a lot of questions, but answers none of them satisfactorily. Nor are those answers universally applicable in the way that F=mv is.

    That’s the issue. What “truths” are we talking about? When were those “truths” revealed? By whom? Do they hold for everyone everywhere? How do you know what you’re claiming as a “truth” is really true?

    Truth: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

  33. Since my district (or state, not sure which) didn’t pay for any access, we lost our ability to look at jstor and others, so I couldn’t read that when Matzke was crowing about how great that paper was. Did it happen to say anything close to supporting his contentions about popularly-derived “truth” (if anyone could actually make sense of what he was saying, I gave up when Kwok went into his racism-denial and the others dropped out)?

  34. “I have by no means closed my mind on this issue, but I still await the questions that non-empirical ways of knowing can answer about the world.”

    Is it possible that what you call “non-empirical ways of knowing” could be unable to answer questions about the world (in a way akin to science) and still be considered ways of knowing. Or is the word “knowledge” supposed to refer to some thing that answers questions about the world (in which case you wold be begging the question).

    ps: I do believe that evolution is true, as far as I know what truth is, exactly. Which isn’t much.

    1. What kind of knowledge is not about about the world? (reading “world” broadly to mean “universe”)

      1. I do take it as a given that any real thing must be a thing within the world and, therefore, all forms of knowledge must be, in this sense, about the world.

        I do not, however, see where “being about the world” requires that knowledge ANSWER QUESTIONS about said world. That is where my question begins.

        1. Then you need to define what you mean by “answer questions”. Are you being literal about the words, demanding interrogative sentences?

          To me the phrase includes the concept of “reasonably describes something about the universe”.

          1. Good. I agree with your phrase. Which is where I am wondering what counts as a description. Does knowledge that offers a description also have something else, value-added, that it must offer? Thank you for your thoughtful replies.

            1. I don’t understand your question. There seems to be some point you are trying to make. Something that would read like: “An example of a kind of knowledge that is not empirical and is still a legitimate ‘way of knowing’ is X”. Can you fill in “X”?

              1. Sure, thanks for helping me out. An example of X would be something like the following: I know that my widow loved me.

                Another version would be something like what the word ‘understand’ refers to in ordinary language. Empathy, for instance, is a form of understanding that seems to qualify for the kind of knowledge I am referring to.

                Finally, there is intuition. Cognitive studies and neuroscience have some fascinating studies of how intuitions guide us better than deliberative rationality. So, when an athlete “knows” to do something, it is based upon pre-rational intuitions that are firing off in his system, but clearly he can later coach people to have similar dispositions. This, it seems to me, is a way of knowing, in the way I think of the term.

              2. We know that people who say things like “I know my widow loved me” is hallucinating, for the dead don’t speak.

                Empathy is informed by real observations of the real world and some degree of self-awareness achieved by observing oneself. Nothing supernatural is required for empathy to work.

                Intuition is a fancy word for “best guess”. Your intuition will be informed by prior experience and the more experienced your are in the domain, then the more likely your guess is to be found correct when tested against reality. When your athlete “knows” to do something it is based on real world prior experience. It is but his knowledge of some activity gained empirically and made habitual. Again, nothing magic.

              3. Here’s where things come apart.

                1. Saying that my widow loved (past tense) me, is based on having known, in real life, that she loved me. To KNOW love, is hardly soley empirical.

                2. I agree there is nothing supernatural for empathy, but what there is seems to be more (or less) than simply empirical. Unless we are using that word to say different things.

                3. I think we all know that some people have a better sense of this or that from the get go. Athletes just have better dispositions and muscle twiches for doing sports than others. What they “know” — when the prodigy child excels at sports for the first — seem like more than something empirical, pure and simple — unless that word, again, means something I am not intending.

              4. 1) What Ant said.

                2) What “seems” to you, I cannot assess. There is no evidence for something more (or less?) than what can be assessed empirically. If I’m wrong, please provide it.

                3) A prodigy is someone who excels at something very quickly. They learn something far faster than average and use what they have learned to do amazing (to the rest of us) things. Mozart did not know how to write great opera when he was born. He had tremendous raw material supplied to him by biology and a strong musical training. I just saw Ideomeneo. Believe me, it is nowhere as good as his late masterpieces. He hadn’t learned enough at the time he wrote it and didn’t yet know how.

                Nothing mystical is required.

              5. 1) Sorry about being an idiot about the term ‘widow.’ But the way I meant it was that knowing that someone loved you (or loves you) is hardly an empirical question pure and simple.

                2) What I am saying is that when I experience empathy for someone, I am not simply doing so based on a rational calculation. I just seem to react that way, even when it might not be so clear to others. The point of course is that empathetic understand is a way of knowing something that doesn’t rely on empiricism in the narrow sense, but does require a certain empirical sensibility is we take empiricism to be sensory experience in the widest sense.

                3) To carry your example further: do we “know” things when we are born. We seem to know how to behave, but not for empirical reason at all — how could we?!

                Nothing I am saying requires some mystical or magical prerequisite. It simply require an expanded understanding of what kind of sensory beings we are and what those senses can render in terms of “knowledge.”

                This also inevitably gets to a question of the brain. In my view it is not only a productive thing (ie a thing that produces things, like thoughts) but also a transmissive thing, like a prism (ie a thing that recieves inputs that pass through it to create outputs. The inputs and the outputs would both be what I would call “knowledge.” In this sense it is ALL empirical, in the widest sense. But it seems like what counts as empirical here is more limited than that.

              6. 1) If you have no empirical evidence that your loved one loves you, then you are fantasizing. I have always had empirical evidence in my relationships. Kind words, kind behaviors, other actual things-in-the-universe.

                2) Your comment is muddled. I am not able to parse it into something meaningful.

                3) I suppose one can reasonably include innate behaviors (breathing, suckling, etc.) as “knowledge” in some sense. But it is only “known” as a set of behaviors that have been empirically tested by evolution and deemed successful.

                3-ish) Referring to inputs and outputs of a system as knowledge seems kind of wacko to me. My food and my excrement are knowledge?

      2. “What kind of knowledge is not about about the world? (reading “world” broadly to mean “universe”)”
        Most of the ignoramus et ignorabimus. Most of it because there is plenty of it left in this universe as we know it. That becomes knowledge once humans discover that it is not unknowable of course. A boundary case would be the destiny of Voltaire, the alien fly. In the worldly case that is interesting because it was used as an inductive example for how to become more powerful than god. If you could control the destiny of a single fly nothing would prevent you from proceeding to become more powerful than both nature and god. Since we are now able to control some of this biological destiny, at least as they understood it in the enlightenment, think in terms of the soul of a fly rather than destiny. Make it an alien fly if you really want to nit pick about knowledge.

        1. The question was whether one can have knowledge about something that is not about the world/universe. The existence of things that are not yet known and may never be known is not support for the “yes, you can” answer. The absence of knowledge about alien flies is not knowledge about something “out of this world”.

          And control of an asserted fly’s destiny is not relevant to the question.

            1. I’m not a mathematician, but please feel free to explain yourself directly. Nice gravestone, though.

  35. Even if there are “other ways of knowing” it doesn’t follow in the slightest that religion (or anything else currently wanted to be such) actually *is* such.

  36. When science seeks to explain how things are it does so with evidence gained so far. As more evidence becomes available which either enforces or disproves then the science community openly proclaims. Not so with religion. As things become apparent that allow myths to be dispelled then the mythicists change the phraseology. “Oh yes! What we really mean is”. This kind of obvious attempt at modifying belief through the use of language is nothing more than a scam. Yet, so many seemingly smart people buy into it.
    Hands up all those who like my new term “mythicist”? I came up with it whilst writing this comment. I have already started work on a new cheeky verse called ‘The Mythiscist’ obviously there will other evolutionary embellishments coming from this. How about Mythisism?  The study of codswallop.

    1. Not a new term, I’m afraid:

      mythicize |ˈmɪθɪsʌɪz|
      verb [ trans. ]
      turn into myth; interpret mythically.
      mythicism |-sɪz(ə)m| noun
      mythicist |-sɪst| noun
      — NOAD


  37. If you insist on more examples of other forms of knowledge. From the domain of religion, art and poetry Hakuin has some fine examples. Blind monks crossing a bridge with the emphasis on Kokoro. If you don’t gain any knowledge looking at the works of Hakuin then you are in complete spiritual darkness I think is fair to say. Kokoro alone is enough for a single word refutation for all these stupid statements about scientific knowledge, theology and philosophy.

      1. “Both the health of our bodies / and the fleeting world outside us / are like the blind men’s / round log bridge – a mind/heart / that can cross over is the best guide.”
        Kokoro, meaning heart/mind or heart/eyes, literally if you look at the Kanji. You will see that motif repeated all over the asian arts. The Daruma is often depicted that way as one big example. I think it is fair to say that the Oeuvre of most Zen geniuses like Hakuin are based outside the bounds of empirical knowledge. Of course according to Christopher Hitchens Zen zombies, like Hakuin for example, were repsonsible for WWII atrocities in China as well as the many wars in Asia.

        1. Your thinking something is “fair to say” is not much of an argument. I think it is fair to say that pigs live in trees. Does that make is so?

          What may be reasonable to say is that this or that Zen poet had a brilliant way to express himself, that his writing resonates with you, that it makes you feel good (or bad) in some way.

          It is not reasonable to assert that art appreciation is a way of knowing something beyond the art itself.

          Ant asked you for an example of knowledge that Kokoro provided that could not be gained empirically. You came back with “my heart is like a red, red rose”. You didn’t answer him.

          1. What James WROTE is ” I think it is fair to say that pigs live in trees. Does that make is so?”
            Which is nonsense. What I WROTE is: “the oeuvre of most Zen geniuses like Hakuin are based outside the bounds of empirical knowledge” which is true, and false if you want to be logically accurate. In Zen terms James certainly does not have it, is not in, and is void of any insights.

            1. What you SAID remains an unsupported assertion (and ungrammatical: you should’ve SAID, “the oeuvre … IS based”), no more the case than James’s “pigs live in trees”.

              And what you just SAID in no way answers the direct question that I asked.


              1. Yes, it is clear that “pigs live in trees” is an assertion just like “the works of most Zen geniuses like Hakuin are based outside the bounds of empirical knowledge.”
                I’m sure any number of people on this blog will agree with you.

              2. Indeed, they are both propositions equally unsupported (so far) by any evidence.

                However, you still haven’t answered my earlier direct question.


            2. What I said about pigs and what you wrote about “the Oeuvre of most Zen geniuses” are equally well supported. There is no more support for your assertion than mine. “Fair to say” is nothing but an appeal to have your assertion accepted at face value. There is no reason to grant your appeal.

              1. Well, your comments are “on trial” here, just as all comments are. I’ll not respond to your juvenile slur, though.

    1. In answer to the demand for an example of some non-emperical form of knowledge you point to a novel? Srsly?

      I’m sure it is a very moving novel. Myself, I prefer Verdi’s Requiem, my “desert island” music choice. But I wouldn’t for a moment claim that it provides any knowledge to me or anyone else. (beyond the knowledge I gain of it)

  38. By the way, if you want the three letter refutation for “religon poisons everything” that would be MLK.

  39. With a little help from the much-maligned philosophy department, we could very easily settle this non-issue: what Sullivan talks about as “knowledge”, isn’t; or rather, it shouldn’t be called that for clarity’s sake, because by that we should more profitably mean objective knowledge, on which topic at least one interesting book has been written, which I shall recommend here in lieu of more expansive elaboration.

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