A new criticism of science as an exclusive “way of knowing”

August 17, 2015 • 11:00 am

UPDATE: I left a comment after Kolossváry’s piece simply saying that I analyzed his argument in this post, and giving the link. That comment has been removed.

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By now I’m well familiar with arguments that science, like religion, is based on faith. That argument is often made by religionists to try to drag down science’s epistemology to the level of religion’s, and it’s bogus. It’s bogus because, as I’ve argued before, “faith” in science really means “confidence based on experience”—which is not at all the same thing as religion’s “faith” as “belief without evidence.”

Now, however, a religious blogger at Patheos—a guest poster on The Evangelical Pulpit site—has taken the reverse tack, claiming that in fact decisions about good art, good music, and good religion can be made scientifically, on a basis identical to that used to adjudicate scientific fact. He is, of course, wrong.

What makes this claim—that objective truth is equivalent to subjective opinion—so weird is that it’s being made by a scientist, István Kolossváry. Here’s how he’s described (complete with the advantages he sees to faith) at the site:

István Kolossváry is a scientist and professor working in the research field of computer simulations of chemical and biological systems. He holds multiple advanced degrees from the Budapest University of Technology and the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. István has been a researcher at various universities and pharmaceutical research labs in Europe and in the United States including Columbia University and most recently a New York based private research organization. He won the 2006 Hungarian Academy of Sciences Book Award in Chemistry for co-authoring Introduction to Computer Aided Drug Design. Over 25 years in his career as a scientist, István has privately grappled with the chasm between science and theology, two disciplines he holds dear. In his debut work The Fabric of Eternity, István shares results from years of scientific inquiry into the works of divine providence and concludes there is solid scientific evidence to suggest that rejecting God and His loving care is against human nature. www.istvankolossvary.com

And here are some arguments from his piece, “Is the scientific method exclusive to science?” It is an attack on some of the arguments in my latest book, Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible. I’ll try not to spend a lot of time on this; I’m bringing it up only because Kolossváry makes claims one doesn’t see very often. Here’s his thesis:

. . . In this blog post I am not going to argue pro or con [whether “science is based on verifiable facts whereas religion is based on unprovable faith”], I simply want to advocate a straightforward generalization of the scientific method and suggest that it can be used beyond the scope of science, including the arts and religion. The way the scientific method works is quite simple, and it has been amazingly successful for the past five hundred years. Observation of natural phenomena and/or pure theoretical thinking (nowadays aided by computer simulation) lead to ideas that will crystallize in a scientific theory.

Jerry Coyne and the new atheists dismiss religion, because religion is based on faith and not fact. Interestingly, the new atheists, or nobody for that matter dismisses the arts, though. So, how is art tested? What works of art are refuted and what works of art are here to stay? I argue that art is tested by the same scientific method—with people replacing the apparatus in the experiment.

So how does this work? It’s by a consensus of subjective opinion!:

Some would say that the most sensitive experimental device is a pencil standing on its tip; the tiniest push would make it tip over. I would argue, however, that the human person is infinitely more sensitive and is an ideal instrument to experimentally verify artwork. Why do we listen to Mozart and not Salieri, what crystallizes the collection of pieces displayed in the great art museums of the world over time, and what works are delegated to the dungeons of underground storage, once acquired by museum curators as prospective works of art? The masterpieces of art are selected by the same scientific method, by how much they touch the souls of people and the selection  process takes a long time, all too often beyond the years of the artist so he or she can enjoy success. The exact same thing in literature, what will determine which novels or poems people read a hundred years after they had been written? Bad literature, bad music, bad paintings are repudiated by the scientific method using people as the experimental apparatus.

Well, there are a lot of people who prefer Hemingway to Fitzgerald, and vice versa, and few people agree with my opinion that Thomas Wolfe was certainly in that 20th century pantheon as well. (In fact, English professors have told me that Wolfe was simply a bad writer, which I contest strongly!). I and some others thought the movie Tree of Life was pompous and execrable, but many critics deemed it a masterpiece. Who is right? How can we tell?

In truth, there is no consensus of opinion about art nearly as solid as the consensus that a normal water molecule has two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atoms, or that the earth is 4.5 billion years old. And how do you objectively resolve the question of whether Andy Warhol’s paintings were masterpieces, or that Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” was also one? Public opinion on many of these issues vacillates (remember that many of Sinclair Lewis’s novels were once seen as masterpieces, but many find them hackneyed today, though he won a Nobel Prize for Literature). In contrast, many scientific “facts” are unlikely to change: they are as close to absolute truths as we can get. And when scientific consensus does change, it’s not just a shift in opinion, but a shift in opinion that reflects new data, as when we learned, from various methods, that the continents were actually drifting after all. What new data has led to Thomas Wolfe falling out of favor?

Now it is true—even likely—that some things appeal to people aesthetically because they evoke a neuronal reaction based on culture or evolution. E. O. Wilson, for example, has suggested that we prefer grassy landscapes with trees (and a view from a hill) because that was the landscape on which we evolved in Africa (and being on a hill has adaptive advantages). But does this mean that someone who prefers a desert landscape is wrong? We may find that preference for one type of painting versus another, say Rembrandt versus Jackson Pollock, rests on consistent ways the human brain is organized.

This may explain a consensus of opinion about art, but does it make Rembrandt objectively better than Pollock? What about the person who prefers Pollock? Can you say she’s just wrong? Surely not in the sense that the person who says that the Earth is 10,000 years old is wrong! And that is Kolossváry’s error. While subjective opinion may, at bottom, be grounded on objective facts about the brain, this does not mean that, in the absence of that information, we can accept the vagaries of human opinion about art as “true.” For brains differ, and opinions differ, and we all know that even are evolved preferences don’t make those preferences “right.” We may have evolved to be xenophobic, but in today’s world that doesn’t work so well.

Kolossváry then extends the “truth” argument to politics and religion:

Similar in political systems. The ones that people tolerate stay longer and the ones that oppress people will be thrown over, sooner or later. I believe that the same scientific method can be applied to religion. The new atheists don’t seem to understand the difference between God and religion and between faith and religion. We are talking about religion here, the main branches Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism with all their factions, and hundreds of other religions. Religion is a shared human response to God’s calling and it is a unique and precious human experience.

In this sense politics is like morality, which I believe at bottom rests on subjective preferences for what kind of society you want. If you favor democracy (or utilitarianism) because you think it has certain salutary effects, you can certainly test whether those effects really obtain, at least in principle. But in the end your preference for one political system (e.g., a Republican versus a Democratic administration) is based on preferences that cannot be objectively justified.

Religion is even worse, for one’s “preference” is, by and large, based on where you lived, and who your parents were. Which religion is “right” is an unresolvable question, at least by “scientific” methods, and Kolossváry makes it even worse by asserting, without any “scientific” evidence, that “God’s calling” really exists!

So if Kolossváry really thinks that a choice among religions—which one is better or “truer”—can be made on scientific grounds, let him justify that. For his method for “verifying” religions, which seems to mean which ones are “true” in a scientific sense (remember, he’s claiming here that one can “test” the verify of religions in the same way science tests its propositions) is ludicrous:

Religions are in large part man made, especially in their every day manifestations at temples, churches, mosques, congregations, assemblies, etc., and they change over time. What if not people would be best suited to test them? The scientific method can be applied to religions similar to the arts; the more they touch the human soul and the more they make people agents of good the more they are verified but when they do harm, they are repudiated. It is people who test religion through their ultra sensitive souls far more advanced than any man made instrument. The statement so loudly voiced by the new atheists that religions are irrational, simply does not stand to reason.

Well, if you claim—and this again is based on subjective preferences—that the effects of religion on human behavior should be X and Y, then that can n principle be tested as well. But defining what “agents of good” really do may be very different for a Quaker and for a radical Muslim! Many Muslims feel, for instance, that Islam, as the “final” revelation from God, is the right religion, and so it’s okay to call for the execution of gays and apostates.

Well, religion has been “tested” à la Kolossváry , and here are the results (again largely reflecting not people’s cogitation about different faiths and then choice of the “best” one, but simply the vagaries of history and geography). Religion has never been a matter of voting with your feet, but simply where your feet first touched the ground when you were a child.

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Which religions have been “verified”, and which “repudiated”? I would claim that Islam is, at present, more harmful than Buddhism, but neither has been repudiated. Since there are more Muslims than Buddhists, does that mean Islam is a “better” or “truer” religion?

In truth, Kolossváry doesn’t even seem to know the difference between judging something by its effects and judging something as objectively true. His last sentence, saying that religions can’t be irrational, is confused in just that way: it mistakes the actions motivated by religion with whether their epistemic claims have any basis in reality.

h/t: Jeff G.

255 thoughts on “A new criticism of science as an exclusive “way of knowing”

  1. Science is vital to perfecting the craftsmanship essential to great art. And it can certainly be applied to determine where opinions lie with respect to art.

    But only you can decide what you do and don’t like.

    As the Duke so eloquently put it with respect to music, “If it sounds good, it is good!”

    b&

      1. The “most wanted” reminded me of basically everything that ever came out of the ’80s. I’m only a few minutes into “most unwanted”…and I like! I think Zappa would approve, too.

        It should be noted that the tubist is quite good.

        b&

        1. What’s really funny – I only recently found this out… the guitar being mangled in the most wanted tune is none other than Vernon Reid, who you may or may not know is a really, really killer guitarist. He gets really, really silly on that track though, going totally over the top. Another recent gem of a video is of John McLaughlin, who should know, who talks about the piss-poor state of the arts (and jazz especially) in the country that created it, and who finally comes out and says what trite, cliched garbage “smooth jazz” is. So while many like to argue on various subjective merits and demerits, to me it’s like discussions of intelligence. We sure do tie ourselves in knots sometimes trying to define it, like defining artistic excellence. But it sure is easy to identify stupid, or tacky, or hackneyed, etc… at least one has studied the stuff enough.

          1. The scary thing about the “most wanted” one is that, though it’s over the top…you might not actually notice it as being such if played on the radio. There’s lots of “sincere” schlock of equal hyperbole from that era….

            b&

          2. What would be the point of proving that apples taste than bananas?

            Films, music, literature, sports exist to entertain, they do it well.

            It gives you some stuff to talk about and sometimes it can raise your social status.

            Producing art makes you somewhat more attractive to the opposite sex; a similar effect we often get with a couple of beers or some XTC.

      2. To be honest the “worst” song is positively tuneful compared to some of the idiocy that I listen to voluntarily.

        I did, however, walk out of a Merzbow show once because that was just *too much*.

      1. Did Twain’s tongue ever reside anywhere other than glued to the inside of his cheek?
        OK – I read the Mississippi Piloting book. Not a lot of joking in there.

        1. Mark Twain’s biography of Joan of Arc is dead serious. He published under a pseudonym so that people would not view it as a Twain book. I’m uncertain as to whether he eventually spilled the beans or was found out.

          1. Twain also “helped” U.S. Grant with his autobiography. Played it pretty straight there, too.

            Anyway, nothing’s more deadly serious than writing humor.

      2. I understand that, when it came to ranking the best rock-&-roll albums of all time, someone at Rolling Stone made this same better-than-it-sounds argument about The Dead. Only serious-like.

    1. Ben,

      This would be better rephrased as “At this stage of science, only you can decide what you do and don’t like”. In a better state of science we could model the brain and predict with great accuracy what things you would like best.

        1. Im not sure that is quite true. It would be an objective personal fact about Ben. it just would not have reach. Kind of like how it is true that Hitler has a mustache, it is true of him it is an objective fact, but it is about a person.

            1. Yes, there are objective facts about preferences. If i like vanilla, it is a true fact about the universe. If i said I liked it and I didn’t that would be objectively not true.

            2. People are often confused when using the term subjective since it has a double meaning. One is, not true or false, and the other is, a matter of ones preference. These are two very different things.

              1. “One is, not true or false, …”

                I don’t think I’ve come across it in that sense, except as far as it’s implied by the other, which is consistent with the idiomatic senses I’m familiar with [NOAD]:

                1 based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions: his views are highly subjective […]
                • dependent on the mind or on an individual’s perception for its existence.

                /@

              2. I think it is often falsely implied, the idea of subjectivity does not imply that the thing is not right or wrong, but people seem to think this about subjectivity.

      1. But that still doesn’t get you where you think you’re going. Not only is it still up to you to make the ultimate decision of what you do and don’t like, there’s still the question of why your own opinions matter more or less than anybody else’s.

        b&

        1. They wouldn’t, unless they were true of other people, or if people are confused about what they would like the best. Or perhaps if you are an expert and are seeing things that other people aren’t seeing that actually do apply to them.

          1. Let me try an analogy.

            Science can trivially establish that overwhelming numbers of Americans, for example, believe that Jesus loves them. That is a true objective fact.

            But it is not a true objective fact that Jesus loves the overwhelming number of Americans.

            b&

            1. Yes, that is obviously true. The same is not true of mental states or the interaction between events and mental states and objects. Since Mental states are the phenomena which we are discussing, its fine to say they exist, when they exist, because it is not reaching outside of the mental state. Unlike the jesus example where a mental state is reaching externally and claiming something about the world. Notice how in my example i made it clear that the expert was right in their judgements only when saying things that applied to other minds.

              1. Since Mental states are the phenomena which we are discussing

                No.

                Mental states are the phenomenon which you are discussing.

                The rest of us are discussing those paintings hanging on the wall over there. Is the painting on the left better than the painting on the right?

                You’re eager to tell us that some practically-impossible-to-pin-down mental state somehow associated with the painting on the left is better than the one on the right. The rest of us are discussing the paintings themselves.

                b&

              2. Well, studying the object itself is certainly important for knowing what effects it has across people. But the only reason it would ever matter to someone is if it is processed by their brain. So i don’t think the study of art is going to bear much fruit unless they take into account mental states. The objective qualities of both need to be taken into account.

              3. But the only reason it would ever matter to someone is if it is processed by their brain.

                That’s true of everything — at least, as far as humans are concerned. The only reason that the mass of the Higgs Boson would ever matter to somebody is if it’s processed by that person’s brain.

                If you want to understand the subjective experiences elicited by works of art, there’s much to be learned from such an endeavor. But it’ll tell you no more about the works of art themselves than a similar study of the subjective experience of watching sunsets would tell you about the sunsets themselves.

                b&

              4. Im in full agreement, the qualities of the work and its interaction with consciousness should both be studied separately and together.

                About the higgs, of course, this is true, so I don’t see why we wouldnt be talking about how our brains perceive them since we are trying to see which art works could plausibly be called better in some way than another. The better is dependent on our experiences.

              5. The better is dependent on our experiences.

                That’s your subjective opinion on the matter. What makes your subjective opinion trump everybody else’s subjective opinions on the matter?

                b&

              6. Its not my opinion, that is how most people use the term better. I said in a different post that the term better is a disaster and that we would be much better off if we said “better on this dimension” or more of this.

  2. And here all this time I thought you were a pretty bright guy, whose opinions I could approach with the mindset of “this is probably more trustworthy than not,” and now you’ve completely shredded your credibility. Come on. Thomas Wolfe sucked. Look Homeward Angel?? Right up there with Jude the Obscure in the “pantheon” of books no person should ever have to struggle through. You probably think Citizen Kane was the best movie ever made.

    1. John Smith, I don’t care if it’s a joke or not, though I doubt it is, but this is about the snarkiest and rudest comment I’ve seen on this site. I’ll ask you to go elsewhere, please. We maintain certain standards of civility here, and you’ve violated them.

      1. I’m truly sorry you took my comment that way. It was not intended to be rude, snarky, offensive or taken seriously. It was offered in jest. I took one tiny observation you made in a long, serious and thoughtful post and made a (failed) attempt at humor. Frankschmidtmissouri got it. For what it’s worth, my wife and I have actually made the “pilgrimage” to Asheville and done all the Ths. Wolfe shrines there. Again, I’m sorry my comments hit you the wrong way.

  3. “Better than” is fine, but I’d emphasize the notion of improvement – if that idea is true, then it should be evident that Beethoven is an improvement upon Bach. Of course nobody can seriously do that.

    1. I don’t think it’s at all unreasonable to suggest that Beethoven is an improvement upon Bach. Beethoven certainly knew Bach’s work and was striving to improve upon it.

      I wouldn’t claim that Beethoven is superior to Bach, but he certainly advanced the art in ways that Bach never dreamed of.

      Or, another perspective…a Tesla is an improvement upon a Rolls Royce from the ’50s. The Tesla is technologically more advanced in pretty much every way…yet the Rolls is in no way diminished by the comparison.

      Cheers,

      b&

      1. To make an analogy with writing, Beethoven certainly used a larger vocabulary than Bach, and thereby achieved effects Bach never did.

        But Bach was still, in many instances, more eloquent than Beethoven.

        I’m not sure either “superior” or “improvement” are words that work well to describe the relationship between these composers’ music.

        1. Completely agree. They were trying to do different things. What JSBach was trying to do fell so out of popular favour that his son (CPE) was regarded as the greater composer until well into the 19th century. When I started getting interested in serious music in the early 60s, Mahler was regarded as an emotionally incontinent mystic. Now he is up there with JSB and LvB. (Not sure this will last).

          There are fashions in the arts as elsewhere, and although long-term survival and reputation may reflect real excellence, this is not guaranteed! Over the past few years I have sung in several concerts of neglected works that I think are at least as good as many in the usual repertoire. But I would not claim to be able to prove it.

          1. And of course the inverse of your last point is also true: many pieces that enjoy a place in the canon for whatever reason perhaps do not deserve it, based strictly on artistic merits.

              1. Well, in response to our host’s kind invitation (below), I will probably put the cat among the pigeons by suggesting, for a start:

                Mahler, since I mentioned him in the first place. Not only emotional incontinence but emotional blackmail;
                Far too much of Mozart;
                Philip Glass and most of the rest of the minimalists;
                Telemann. Reams and reams of all the same stuff.
                Almost all Soviet-approved composers…I could go on.

                You see? All indefensible personal prejudices – as are many of the composers and works that I love.

        2. An important question in any of these discussion has to be the metric being used. Better than what!?

          Many seem to have some sort of Platonic ideal in mind that the good stuff more closely resembles than the bad stuff. But Platonic ideals only exist in the imagination, and everybody’s imagined Platonic ideals are unique — assuming they’re even well enough defined to be described in the first place.

          Beethoven certainly wrote better symphonies than Bach — but Bach didn’t write any symphonies. And Bach wrote much better cantatas than Beethoven for a similar reason. So how are you supposed to compare them?

          Which is better: flan, or a poem?

          b&

          1. Yes, Ben, exactly. Sometimes one can compare how successfully different artists manage a given form (eg Mozart vs Salieri); but mostly it is chalk and cheese. And of course money: it would be hard to argue that (say) Van Gogh, Koons and Bastiat were not all great artists, given the financial value placed on their works today.

          2. Yep. Which is one of the reasons I think it is unreasonable to call Beethoven an improvement on Bach.

            But, as Steve Pollard pointed out, comparisons are not totally out of the question, even in works of differing form. You could compare the way Bach and Beethoven handled similar harmonic or contrapuntal situations in a cantata and a symphony.

            1. And a big part of the reason you can make such a comparison is that Beethoven was drawing inspiration from and building upon Bach (as well as, of course many others). Knowing that can help you understand what Beethoven was trying to accomplish and give you a deeper appreciation of his works. But the only way to know which is better is to decide for yourself which, if either, you personally like more.

              For me, it’d be a tough call. There’s a reason every symphonist after Beethoven was intimidated by him and paid special attention to their own fifth symphonies (if they managed to write that many). Mahler’s Fifth is a giant and explicit homage to Beethoven’s fifth.

              But nobody has ever done counterpoint better than Bach; it’d be fair to say that he perfected the technique, and the best you can do is approximate him.

              b&

              1. Ben, this discussion could go on for a very long time! We could agree that Beethoven set the standard for Romantic and post-Romantic symphonies, but have different views on the relevance of the form today. Ditto for JSB and counterpoint. But I think we do agree that Kolossvary is completely off beam.

              2. “We could agree that Beethoven set the standard for Romantic and post-Romantic symphonies, but have different views on the relevance of the form today.”

                That raises a question – what is this ‘relevance’? Does the quality of a work somehow vary according to current trends? Surely Beethoven’s Fifth is precisely as good (and no more or less) than when it was first performed?

                cr

              3. Surely Beethoven’s Fifth is precisely as good (and no more or less) than when it was first performed?

                To answer that, you’d have to identify what Beethoven’s fifth actually is…and, as the saying goes, “good luck with that.” And be especially wary of Platonism!

                The performing arts don’t lend themselves well to precise definition. In a very real sense, the works only exist when they’re actually being performed — with each performance being its own entity entirely that only happens to bear a similarity to some archetype. And one of the whole points of performing a well-known piece is to create your own new, individual, unique performance of the work.

                I’d have no problem with a statement that Beethoven’s Fifth has aged superbly well, and is much better today than it ever was when he was alive. It damned well should be — we’ve had lots of chances to practice it!

                b&

              4. “To answer that, you’d have to identify what Beethoven’s fifth actually is…and, as the saying goes, “good luck with that.” And be especially wary of Platonism!”

                In that respect I’d say, “Beethoven’s original score”. That’s still the same as he wrote it. (I suspect you’ll bombard me with technicalities about it being transcribed for modern instruments but since – I hope – the aim of the transcribers was to remain as faithful to the original as possible, I’ll demur in advance). That certainly is the only aspect of the Fifth which can be ‘exactly the same’ since obviously and admittedly, the quality of a particular performance depends just as much on the actors and musicians (and conductor / director etc).

                And I’d certainly hope that modern acoustics and instruments were technically better than Beethoven’s day.

                As a practical point, I guess it’s now far easier to judge an orchestral work, now that recording techniques have made it much easier to listen and compare numerous performances of a work.

                cr

              5. That might be another circular argument. What makes a modern instrument technically better? Does that make the sound it produces better? Does that better sound actually improve the performance of the Fifth? Wouldn’t it certainly make it less authentic? (That is, less like Beethoven intended it to sound.)

                Pachelbel’s “Canon” is, these days, usually played more slowly than originally scored. Clearly many people think this is better. Would Pachelbel agree? (Listen to Musica Antiqua Köln’s recording for a more faithful recording.)

                /@

              6. In that respect I’d say, “Beethoven’s original score”.

                Fell square into the trap.

                Beethoven’s original score is a stack of paper. No music there.

                That score was used to make parts for the musicians to read off of. There were copying errors in that process, and revisions made to the score and the parts. The premiere performance we know was not an accurate reflection of the pieces of paper; the musicians didn’t play exactly what was on the page. And the score isn’t enough instruction to perform as Beethoven intended, since there are “performance practices” of various nuances that the musicians would have understood to have done without needing printed instruction.

                You mention the evolution of instruments since that time…but, even for those playing on modern replicas, the musicians have perfected their technique to levels beyond what people could do in Beethoven’s time — just as today’s athletes can run, jump, and swim faster, higher, and farther than back then.

                …and, again…the work really only comes into existence for the brief period of time it’s being performed, and vanishes from existence the instant the last chord has faded. And each performance is significantly different from every other.

                …so…again again…will the real Beethoven’s Fifth please stand up?

                b&

              7. I think it’s over-reaching to say that a piece of music has no existence other than a sonic execution in real time.

                You presumably wouldn’t say Shakespeare’s plays don’t exist except while they’re being performed, or that a novel doesn’t exist except while it’s being read, or that a recipe doesn’t exist except while it’s being eaten.

                A building and its blueprint are, granted, different things, but they both have a real existence and they both can be reasonably described as “architecture”.

                If music couldn’t have an existence as an abstract idea, then composition away from an instrument would be impossible, and composition away from an instrument is obviously possible. I’ve done it myself many times.

              8. You presumably wouldn’t say Shakespeare’s plays don’t exist except while they’re being performed, or that a novel doesn’t exist except while it’s being read, or that a recipe doesn’t exist except while it’s being eaten.

                Actually…I would, with the caveat noted below. Platonism is a very seductive idea, but it falls down, hard, when you try to push it.

                If music couldn’t have an existence as an abstract idea, then composition away from an instrument would be impossible, and composition away from an instrument is obviously possible. I’ve done it myself many times.

                The caveat: I’d acknowledge that a memory (or imagining or whatever) of the work also deserves some recognition as being equal to the work as a performance. But, obviously, with damned few exceptions, your mental copy of the work is even fuzzier than an amateur performance! How many people can sit down for an hour in a silent room and hear, solely in the imagination, a complete and well-executed performance of Beethoven 5, all parts, in tempo, no significant mistrakes, and so on? And, of those capable of such, how many perform such an exercise and how often?

                …that’s actually part of the pleasure of a live performance: the chance to re-discover the piece, or at least parts of it, in real time….

                b&

              9. What about looking at a score for a piece you’ve never heard and experiencing it in your mind’s ear? What about composing a new piece, simply in your head? These are not simply matters of recalling performances you’ve already heard.

                It’s not Platonism. As I already mentioned, a blueprint isn’t a building, but a blueprint does exist and it’s what the architect created. Beethoven’s score is the blueprint and the Berlin Phil’s performance is the building.

                And I’d argue it’s possible to go even further into abstraction than this. A perceptive musician who’s not familiar with Schenker’s graphic analysis of Bach’s C major prelude (WTC bk 1) will look at that analysis and recognize it as the C major prelude even though it would not sound like what Bach wrote if it were to be played. But the analysis does effectively communicate the conceptual content of the piece.

                I don’t think it’s Platonism, or problematic in any way, to say concepts have a kind of existence.

              10. What about looking at a score for a piece you’ve never heard and experiencing it in your mind’s ear? What about composing a new piece, simply in your head?

                Sure, but we again have to be very careful to note that such “performances” are very much different beasts from real performances, which are again different from scores, and from recordings, and so on. As an example:

                A perceptive musician who’s not familiar with Schenker’s graphic analysis of Bach’s C major prelude (WTC bk 1) will look at that analysis and recognize it as the C major prelude even though it would not sound like what Bach wrote if it were to be played.

                I think one minor clarification would put it in perspective. Schencker’s analysis isn’t the Prelude itself, but is a derivative work recognizably derived from the Prelude. It lacks enough information to reconstruct the original score, but it also contains much more information about the original score than, say, a card catalog number. But that number can also be used to locate the score and thus a perfect copy of it.

                Yet, in all of this, the Prelude remains nowhere to be found until it’s actually performed (even if only in the mind’s ear) — and that performance is distinct from all other performances and its own unique entity.

                b&

              11. “…we again have to be very careful to note that such “performances” are very much different beasts from real performances…”

                Agreed. Which is what my architecture analogy is about. My point in all this was never to say that one specific realization (performance) is the same thing as the abstract composition. Only that the abstract composition does exist, can be called “music” and has an *extremely* important relationship with any given performance.

                Beethoven’s 5th can have a kind of existence apart from a performance as a blueprint. In fact, the blueprint is going to much more pure, “uncut” Beethoven than any performance, sine all you’re looking at is the relationships between pitches, harmonies and rhythms that Beethoven set down and stripping away impositions and idiosyncrasies of individual conductors and instrumentalists.

              12. Only that the abstract composition does exist, can be called “music” and has an *extremely* important relationship with any given performance.

                …and that would be where we differ. The proposition that abstractions have real and independent existence is Platonism — it is, if you will, the very essence of Platonism.

                And we know from physics that, as seductive a concept as it very well is, it’s no more true than any other form of dualism.

                Look at from that perspective, of physics. Your description is equivalent to one that you can observe (in the non-visual sense) this idealization of Beethoven’s 5th and interact with it — even create new similar idealizations of other works of music which then might take on similar lives of their own.

                But those actions require exchanges and interactions of matter and energy…and, when we look for the matter and energy, it’s not where it’s claimed to be. It is, in fact, only in the places I’ve identified: the workings of the brains, the paper manuscript, the sound waves of the performance, and so on.

                Did I mention? Platonism is very seductive, as are all forms of dualism. We certainly have the perception of being able to cause all sorts of things to happen and come into existence through the sheer force of will…but we know that that’s merely a very powerful illusion, at least as powerful as the many more famous illusions like the Necker Cube.

                b&

              13. If you’ve imagined it, the neural states corresponding to your cognition of it would exist. In a very similar sense, the opening few bars of Beethoven 5 that you’re hearing in your mind’s ear as you read these words (because I just reminded you of them) exist.

                But not as some sort of idealized abstraction.

                This composition of yours might continue to exist in such a state in your brain for some time. If it never gets performed or transcribed or the like, it will die with you — along with all your other private thoughts and memories.

                b&

              14. I don’t think we’re actually differing, then. My composition can exist in my brain for a while – but this is still existence – then it can exist on paper – which is, again, existence. Then, it might finally get “built”.

                By “abstract”, I only mean “not an actual performance”. The relationships indicated by the score would be the “abstraction” I refer to.

              15. Perhaps it would be helpful at this point, to recall that I am trying to rebut this point:

                “Beethoven’s original score is a stack of paper. No music there.”

                Beethoven’s 5th is there. Music is there. A physical performance is not the only medium that can communicate the conceptual content in Beethoven’s 5th.

              16. But then we come full circle. What is music? Is it the sound itself, the perception of the sound, an abstracted representation of the perception of the sound?

                The tree that falls in the forest is especially apt here. If you define “sound” as “atmospheric pressure waves,” then, of course, it makes a sound. But if a sound is something that a person hears, it makes no sound.

                Considering music is much more than simply a particular type of sound…on the one hand we have to rule out the “atmospheric pressure wave” definition, for it seems absurd to suggest that music can exist where none can hear. But at the same time, music as perception isn’t adequate, either, if for no other reason that, save in very few quite remarkable cases, the perception only ever occurs in conjunction with the atmospheric pressure waves — and, especially, for all but a vanishing minority, a stack of paper can’t even begin to trigger an approximation of the perception.

                As I recall from my original response in this thread…it was a challenge to define music, with a “good luck with that” closing. In the end, I’m not sure music can be defined much better than pr0n: you know it when you hear it.

                b&

              17. But we now, thanks to ‘digital’, can have an exact unchanging copy of the performance. Possibly (if competently mixed) of better acoustic quality than being there, though maybe with less atmosphere.

                cr

              18. Yes; that’s a good visualization. For completeness, it would need to continue on to the action of reading the book (watching the movie) and the recollection of the activity and the mental creation of a new abstraction that parallels’s Rowlings’s own, and so on…but that would get cumbersome to display….

                b&

          3. Can’t get this thread off my mind …

            Take the Christmas Oratorio, say that very first piece with the drums and everything. Then Symphony no. 9- the Chorale one, Ode to Joy.

            Are those fair side-by-side comparisons?

            What are these pieces for? What do they do to you?

            From the listener’s angle – and for me especially the Oratorio – the expression of joy is overwhelming. It’s incredible in fact.

            At that point, with that feeling in the chest, the question of what was improved upon makes no sense to me. The Oratorio and Symphony 9 produce such intense emotion of joy – isn’t that their overt purpose? How can such a phenomenon be evaluated? Isn’t that what all the marks on the paper are for? I’m rambling again… I have to go listen….

            1. You are absolutely right. It is nonsense to say that, artistically, Beethoven’s Ninth is an improvement on Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, or that Ibsen’s ‘The Wild Duck’ is an improvement on Shakespeare’s ‘The Winter’s Tale’, or that Proust’s ‘In Search of Lost Time’ is an improvement on ‘War and Peace’. There can, however, be improvements in certain technical matters – for example, before Monteverdi & J.S. Bach showed them how, composers were mostly not able to create a sustained musical movement. But again there are other factors that need to be taken into account, including the aims of artists: it would be silly to criticise, say, Thomas Campion, who was a master of the brief lyric, by saying that he was unable to create the sustained periods that make Milton’s verse so exciting. Or to regard the intended naivetie of Blake’s wood engravings and paintings as being something that should be grown out of, or progressed beyond. Or to regard Piero della Francesco’s clear vision as being improved upon by Poussin (who is one of my favourite painters).
              There probably still are many people who thought, as so many people did in the 19th & 20th centuries that the modern symphony orchestra was a great improvement on the kinds of orchestras that Purcell, Bach & Handel had to hand, but one thing that the Early Music movement has conclusively shown, I think (though there are aspects of the movement I strongly dislike), is that the music of these composers generally sounds much better when played on instruments that are nearer in quality to the instruments they composed for, and when played by an orchestra of the size the composers of the time envisaged.
              As for the remark that contemporary classical musicians are, like contemporary athletes, getting better all the time – I seem to recall such a remark, but am not going to check, and I suspect that, if there was such a remark, it was made by Ben, since it sounds like the sort of thing he would say (correct me if I am wrong, please) – I think it needs to be taken with a very large pinch of salt. Find out about how German municipalities chose their cantors – it was a gruelling process. J. S. Bach, in particular, was celebrated in his own day as a remarkable keyboard player, and one who could improvise in the most extraordinary way; were he living today, he would certainly be regarded as a great instrumentalist. As would Mozart – and consider how Mozart was trained. Or listen to the Busch Quartet’s recording of Beethoven’s opus 132 – I have listened to many recordings of this piece and have yet to find any quartet that comes near the Busch Quartet. I have yet to find a horn-player who is the musical equal of Dennis Brain. The other day, my wife, who is a pianist, was listening to Dinu Lipatti playing a concerto – probably Mozart – with Ansermet and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, and remarked to me later in the day that she knew of no contemporary conductor who could do with the orchestra what Ansermet was doing. The idea of progress is a pernicious one if it is applied indiscriminately. It simply does not apply to the arts in general except in certain limited, and often contested, respects.

              1. As simply as possible: Beethoven’s 9th does not do better what the Christmas Oratorio was trying to do.

              2. It is nonsense to say that, artistically, Beethoven’s Ninth is an improvement on Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, or that Ibsen’s ‘The Wild Duck’ is an improvement on Shakespeare’s ‘The Winter’s Tale’, or that Proust’s ‘In Search of Lost Time’ is an improvement on ‘War and Peace’. There can, however, be improvements in certain technical matters – for example, before Monteverdi & J.S. Bach showed […]

                Congratulations. You’ve just recapitulated the entire discussion we had.

                the music of these composers generally sounds much better when played on instruments that are nearer in quality to the instruments they composed for

                Quality? No. Period instruments are notorious for being real beasts to play on, with all sorts of technical flaws. I myself own a 1904 Conn “Connqueror” model cornet — a lovely instrument, one I play every excuse I get or otherwise can manufacture…but intonation is a joke ad the high register practically nonexistent. I can make it do what I want, but it’s real work — and, even then, I’m still limited; the limits just don’t tend to apply for the things I use it for. You could make a similar instrument with modern technology…but there’s no market for it. Plus, the instrument itself is a work of art, with the engraving and silver and gold plating and the rest — stuff that would be prohibitively expensive for a modern factory-made instrument.

                The people doing great stuff in the early music scene are, first and foremost, great musicians; they’d be doing great work on kazoos and penny whistles. Many, if not most, first made their mark on modern instruments.

                …and…damned few, if any, of them are actually playing on period instruments. Almost all are playing on modern reconstructions of period instruments…and those modern reconstructions make full use of everything we’ve learned over the centuries about physics, especially acoustics — but also metalworking and other construction techniques.

                For example, the Baroque trumpet had no valves to change notes. Describing the mechanics is beyond the scope of this discussion; I’m sure Wikipedia has a good description. A few trumpets from that era had one or two, maybe three “vent holes” — small holes drilled at key spots in the tubing that would normally be covered by a finger or thumb; when uncovered, it would very slightly alter the pitch of a certain note or, in some cases, make it easier to play some other note. It’s not the same thing as the finger holes on a flute or clarinet, though, of course, some of the same physics is at work. You could still play the same music on a trumpet without vent holes; it’d just be more difficult and you might not be able to play it as well in tune.

                But they didn’t have the math nor other expertise in the Baroque era to get the number and placement of vent holes to their optimal positions. So modern replicas will have any number of vent holes, in the exact right spot — and, thus, be much easier to play and to play well.

                As for the remark that contemporary classical musicians are, like contemporary athletes, getting better all the time – I seem to recall such a remark, but am not going to check, and I suspect that, if there was such a remark, it was made by Ben, since it sounds like the sort of thing he would say (correct me if I am wrong, please) – I think it needs to be taken with a very large pinch of salt.

                …and it’s trivially backed up by hard evidence, now that we have well over a century’s worth of audio recordings to draw upon. Lots of really great stuff from the dawn of the recording era, but it’s also instantly obvious to the trained ear that, for example, their standards for intonation were far below ours.

                And anybody who’s a professional musician can confirm with personal anecdata. My Dad was a professional trumpeter in the freelance scene in New York many moons ago. He’s the one playing the offstage solo in Pines of Rome on the Toscanini recording. In his era, he and his colleagues were known for performing (and performing well) works which were a real struggle for the previous generation. And, though there’s nothing intrinsically superior about me, the same follows. I haven’t had a professional career to match Dad’s, but I’ve performed works that would have been at or beyond his limits. Doesn’t end with me, either, of course; the best of the new crop today is better than anybody who was in my freshman class and already breathing down the necks of my contemporaries with far more experience.

                …though, I suppose that might not comport well with your idealized philosophical interpretation….

                b&

              3. Well, thank you for that, Ben, despite the the final silly remark about philosophy that you couldn’t resist getting in. Re ‘period instruments’ – I am well aware of your point, which is why I took the trouble to write ‘instruments that are nearer in quality to the instruments they composed for’. By ‘quality’, I meant quality of sound, which I think should have been pretty obvious. I was not talking about the qualities of the metals, woods, etc out of which they were manufactured, or about the quality of their appearance, or about whether the holes had been put in the correct historical but wrong musical places.

                No doubt, you are right about certain generational improvements in technical skills, though technical skill is very far indeed from always translating into musical skill, and the world is awash with technically skillful practitioners who seem to have little musically to say. As I said, I have yet to hear a hornist who is the musical equal of Dennis Brain, though Tuckwell ran him a close second – a famous German hornist performed the Mozart concerti here in Japan recently: technically flawless and dull as ditchwater. But since you are a trumpeter, I have a lot of time for Hardenberger, though I don’t see that he is an improvement on George Eskdale who recorded the Bach orchestral suites with the Busch Chamber Players back in the thirties: they are different and very individual players, that is all. And as I said, despite any alleged improvements in technique, I have yet to hear an interpretation of Beethoven’s opus 132 by a contemporary quartet that comes near to that of the Busch quartet; whatever that quartet’s technical deficiencies in comparison with today’s quartets, their understanding and musicianship is incomparably greater.

              4. No doubt, you are right about certain generational improvements in technical skills, though technical skill is very far indeed from always translating into musical skill, and the world is awash with technically skillful practitioners who seem to have little musically to say.

                While true, it is also true that there are many who might have something significant to say musically but who lack the technique to be able to express it. And it’s also true that mastery of technique opens up possibilities for musical exploration and expression simply not possible and often not conceivable for the untalented.

                But since you are a trumpeter, I have a lot of time for Hardenberger, though I don’t see that he is an improvement on George Eskdale who recorded the Bach orchestral suites with the Busch Chamber Players back in the thirties: they are different and very individual players, that is all.

                Check out almost anything Crispian Steele-Perkins has recorded, especially the Christmas Oratorio. It’s as good as it gets, period, and he performs it on a (reconstruction of) a period instrument.

                And he’s far from the only one….

                b&

        3. Rather analogous to how evolutionists now prefer to not use the terms “primitive” and “advanced.”

      2. There are clearly defined reasons that – as a direct product of science – chemotherapy treatments, computer chips, solar panels etc. are improvements on previous generations which at least become obsolete. The improvement is never a regression to previous generation. I don’t mean there are no corner cases, or that drug companies don’t examine old drugs in new settings, etc.

        And I dig what is being said here, but I can’t see how the music of Bach, the art of Michaelangelo, etc. can be rendered obsolete, cheap, useless … harmful?… by the products of musicians/artists who were merely born after them. I can see how e.g. music can be scored so it’s efficient, or how a musician can push the limits, like Ornette Coleman, but that has nothing to do with improvement of the music. I can hear how some Early Music is stark, harmonically narrow, compared to Bach, but the music loses none of its astonishing beauty.

        I can’t find where I read this idea about improvement in science vs. art – it might be in Structure of Scientific Revolutions. but there’s an older book that mentions it that I pulled up just now – History of the Science and Art of Music by Robert Challoner, but it seems he is arguing counter to me.

        1. And I dig what is being said here, but I can’t see how the music of Bach, the art of Michaelangelo, etc. can be rendered obsolete, cheap, useless … harmful?

          The art of the masters of bygone eras is still great.

          But it’s also obsolete in the sense that today’s artists can’t rehash the same stuff. Yes, students will typically copy the greats as part of their education…but, if they want to have a chance of becoming great themselves, they’re going to have to go where nobody has gone before. And, at the same time, they’ll typically have to make mention of those who’ve gone before.

          b&

          1. “Obsolete”? Hardly (except in the slightly skewed sense that it was obsolete as soon as it was completed, since it could not be repeated).

            But not in the sense of being irrelevant. Surely every time Beethoven’s Fifth is performed, or somebody looks at a Canaletto, that re-establishes its relevance.

            And even if obsolete for another artist/performer, it surely isn’t obsolete for the audience.

            cr

      3. Yes, and Bach had advanced the art prior to Beethoven, and Beethoven drew on his discoveries, and doubtless Wagner ‘improved’ on Beethoven… I can see why it might be helpful to think in such a way if one is comparing, say, Bach or Monteverdi in certain limited ways with lesser composers who preceded or lived at the same time – but it doesn’t seem very helpful in comparing good and great composers.

    2. Not exactly what i recall reading, but … :

      Thomas S. Khun
      The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
      Third Edition (there are newer ones)
      pp.160-173
      XIII. Progress through Revolutions

      This section discusses progress, art, science – there’s a bit about evolution too.

      I’m going to go nuts if I can’t find where I picked up the idea from.

    3. Alright, here’s an example off the top of my head to show what I am thinking about re improvement :

      Wallace and Darwin discovered evolution, independently, and Darwin published first, etc. – that’s a clear improvement of our understanding of life, and a good example for this website. There are two scientists but one theory. I wonder about other such improvements like Einstein upon Newton.

      I assert there is no way that Beethoven’s Fifth was merely out there, waiting for someone to produce it at any time, nor was someone else scooped. If Bach was to be improved upon in some way, we would expect Beethoven’s Fifth to be produced by other musicians, not necessarily LvB, but that sounds absurd to expect.

      Of course there are factors such as musicians mingling together, hearing ideas, and scooping one another, example being that Taurus vs. Stairway to Heaven thing, but that still has nothing to do with the notion of improvement.

      1. I assert there is no way that Beethoven’s Fifth was merely out there, waiting for someone to produce it at any time, nor was someone else scooped. If Bach was to be improved upon in some way, we would expect Beethoven’s Fifth to be produced by other musicians, not necessarily LvB, but that sounds absurd to expect.

        That’s quite an interesting thought.

        The actual composition itself is obviously not something that could possibly have been independently discovered.

        However…there might actually be a case to be made that there are compositional techniques whose discovery might be inevitable in a sense.

        An analogy: you wouldn’t expect a man named, “Nikolaus Otto,” to build the first four-cycle internal combustion engine with that particular configuration of pistons and valves and what-not. And you wouldn’t even necessarily expect ground transportation to be dominated by four-cycle internal combustion engines…but you would expect somebody to build a piston-powered reciprocating internal combustion engine and for it to bear a lot of similarities to the ones we’re familiar with.

        It may well be that the progression from monophony (Gregorian chant) to polyphony to tonality to counterpoint to the types of harmony that broadly falls under the classical and romantic labels to post-tonal formulations…well, there certainly could be something broadly universal in that progression or in some of the individual techniques along the way.

        I think the only way we’d really know if that’s the case for music would be if we could compare notes, so to speak, with at least a few other alien civilizations whose members have physiologies that would permit perception of sound in a similar context. Alas, I think we can be overwhelmingly confident that that ain’t gonna happen….

        b&

        1. I still maintain that, for the nice trajectory of music you described, it can’t be called improvement. It could be development, elaboration, synthesis, something new… The suggestion that musical techniques are discoverable sounds interesting though. I think I agreed about things like scoring, as being subject to improvement.

          I used technological examples initially, and you did too. Those work to show improvement upon prior forms, across large enough timeframes. I think engines work only on large enough views – and it gets complicated. The clearest way I can illustrate is with theoretical models such as Newton’s laws and relativity – there can’t be anything missing. Newton went so far and the models for Nature could go no further until Einstein came along. A piece of music can have bits here and there that might or might not really need to be there, but it still works, and engines are designed to work too though they might not all be the same in detail.. However, there can be no such variations in Newton’s laws or in relativity – there can’t be exceptions to masses of objects, ad hoc adjustments for time. There is a clear improvement of our understanding of Nature/physics/etc going from Newton to Einstein, but there can’t be an improvement of our going from Bach to Beethoven.

          … I suppose I’m warming up to the idea that some things in music can be considered improvements….

          1. If there’s significant improvement to be made in the art of the fugue over Bach’s collection of that title, I can’t imagine what it might be. In the same sense that classical-scale mechanics is complete with Newton (even though he didn’t explicitly describe things such as a gasoline engine), I think we can fairly similarly conclude that counterpoint is complete with Bach.

            Considering counterpoint is a wee bit fuzzier than calculus, this analogy is also fuzzier. But I do think there’s an analogy here of some sort to be made.

            b&

          2. I was rambling – one point I forgot to make is that Newton’s laws, relativity, if not discovered by Newton or Einstein, would have eventually been found in the form we know, and no more or less – by someone else. And that is a clear improvement or advancement. Not true for pieces of music, though they might use lower level advancements in techniques, instruments,…

            1. though they might use lower level advancements in techniques, instruments

              Yes, I think that’s the argument I’m making.

              If we simplify and abstract music to its extreme, we’re left with pitch and rhythm. And most musicians make frequent reference to two standard idealizations of each: a tone generator (tuning fork, pitch pipe, or electronic equivalent) and a metronome.

              Western art music has focussed much more on development of tonality than rhythm, so I’ll ignore the metronome for the sake of brevity.

              Absolute pitches don’t have much significance, but relative frequency differences between pitches does. That directly leads to the concept of a palette of intervals to play with…a scale. And all scales are based on small-number ratios of frequencies, with the modern chromatic scale being an optimal equal division of intervals derived just from combinations of 3:2 ratios.

              The simplest melodies are just pitches from a given scale played in sequence with a steady rhythm…and that’s what Gregorian Chant is. The simplest harmony is the melody repeated with an overlapping offset in time; think, “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” That gives us the round, which led to counterpoint and Bach’s perfection of it in Die Kunst der Fuge. By the time you get there, the concept of harmony and harmonic progression also seems to naturally “fall out.” And that also represents something of a pivot point where larger structures can be more effectively developed…the sonata form and the symphony were the main compositional developments after Bach, and then motivic development, and so on.

              Certainly the simplest aspects of all this would be independently redeveloped by any musical culture, though one would also expect other cultures to explore other more advanced techniques than we’ve focussed on. But the general arc is likely to be much the same.

              b&

              1. I have a question. Is the current notion of harmony – i.e. what is a harmonious combination of notes – universal? I _think_ it seems to be used by ‘everyone’ from Bach down to Rod Stewart’s backing band and Pink Floyd. I’m not so sure about other cultures e.g. oriental music though. (And I’m deliberately excluding those ‘modern’ composers who are just trying to be ‘different’).

                The reason I ask is that, if it is universal, then it would seem to be some fixed property of the human ear or brain, just waiting to be discovered, but the same in Bach’s day as now and in AD2500. If however it’s cultural, then I suppose it’s an invention, like, say, car styling, and in a few centuries people won’t be able to listen to Bach without wincing at the discord.

                cr

              2. I have a question. Is the current notion of harmony – i.e. what is a harmonious combination of notes – universal?

                Loosely, yes.

                There’s a lot of cultural heritage when you start to dig deeper…easiest to cite is how major keys in Western music are typically associated with “happy” music and minor keys with “sad,” but lots of very happy Klezmer and other eastern European folk songs are written in minor keys.

                Those sorts of caveats aside…it’s a general rule that, the simpler the ratio the more consonant / pleasant the sound. Every culture I’ve ever heard of considers perfect octaves, fifths, and fourths to be sonorous and tritones and minor seconds to be discordant.

                There’s lots of variation over how much dissonance gets embraced. Premieres of Stravinsky ballets once sparked rioting, but today are almost considered somewhat tame.

                b&

              3. Many thanks for that!

                (You can learn everything on WEIT, sooner or later 🙂

                cr

              4. This is really a response to infinite..’s query. Western harmony is not universal – even in Europe (and though it certainly has a basis in nature, it is an artificial – and wonderful – creation). Certain folk traditions use what is called ‘heterophony’ and the great Romanian musician George Enescu makes use of such heterophony in, for example, his last and greatest work, the Chamber Symphony, op 33. I recall the American pianist Charles Rosen talking of a teacher of his to whom he introduced some dissonant work of Schonberg’s – the teacher was reluctant to listen to it, but having done so, said it made earlier music sound thin and tame harmonically (not her or his exact words, but I can’t lay my hands on Rosen’s article or essay). Japanese music – particularly gagaku or certain kinds of Buddhist music can sound wildly and horribly dissonant to the unused ear – but I have lived in Japan for a long time, and would miss that quality were I to leave. Tibetan music, also, can be splendidly dissonant. Or you might try listening to (Scottish) Gaelic psalm singing.

              5. And I think you will find – pace Ben’s comment on major and minor keys – that if you look at Elizabethan lute songs, you will find that there was in those days at least no necessary correlation between major keys and happiness and minor keys and sadness – something that, in my experience with Japanese singers, causes a certain amount of confusion, since people are now so used to the conventional associations.

              6. How strange, it never occurred to me that that wouldn’t be just instinctual. But now that you mention it I guess it could be purely associative.

              7. I suspect it is not purely associative, but partly natural and partly learned, and, once you have learned it, it becomes difficult to hear things as they might have been before you learned the associations – perhaps there is some change in the brain; rather as those who have been trained to have perfect pitch find transposing between keys far more difficult than those who lack perfect pitch.

  4. Unfortunately, most data indicate that, the more religiosity, the more social pathology. So Kolossváry is arguing from hypothesis contrary to fact.

    And we do recognize bad art by its effects. For example, we don’t display Nazi art except as an illustration of pathology.

  5. Similar in political systems. The ones that people tolerate stay longer and the ones that oppress people will be thrown over, sooner or later.

    Hmm, is he ignoring history? Inherited monarchies and other forms of dictatorships have been far more prevalent throughout human history than liberal democracies/republics. Even if you consider the ‘classic’ example of Rome, the combined number of years it was either a monarchy (first) or empire (last) is like 200 years more than the number of years it was a republic.

    ***

    There are some ‘meta’ methodological rules that may be common to science and art critique (and the like), but I wouldn’t really call them science because they’re more general than that. The rules are: pick the criteria you wish to assess; identify the measures or proxy measures you will use to do the assessment; do the assessment; compare results of your assessment as applied to different objects.

    So for example, one can easily “objectively” assess music if you first pick the criteria ‘length of song,’ or ‘number of high C’s,’ or even ‘number of upvotes it gets from 12-16 year old visitors to my survey site.’ But that doesn’t make it science.

      1. Yup. Kolossvary’s argumentum ad populum doesn’t actually lead to the conclusion he thinks it does…for either politics or religion. Or medicine, for that matter; else we’d still be leeching the excess blood out of people to balance their humors.

      2. If you are being more charitable to the article, you could take the political point as only true under democratic or democratic like systems, in which case its similar to poppers ideas about democracy resembling the scientific method. I think there is more merit to this than you think. It is also one reason to prefer state independence from federal governments, each state runs its own experiment and can be compared to the others.

        1. But that’s not what he says. He says the less repressive systems stay longer. I look at history, and I don’t see that. I see thousands of years of repressive systems and mere hundreds of years of democracy. I see that the two historical cases of democracy – Classic Greece and the Roman Republic – only lasted a few hundred years each. In contrast, the dynastic systems in China and Egypt lasted thousands of years. What he says is just not factually true.

          And I think that’s important because his idea gives some sense or feeling of inevitability to modern liberal democratic systems, and this is dangerous. These systems do not just naturally rise to the top: they must be fought for. They are the product of hard work, of blood, sweat, and tears. If we treat them as historical inevitabilities, we won’t work to develop them throughout the world as hard as we really need to, and they won’t take. We may even see some backsliding into more autocratic systems. I’d say Russia is a pretty good example of how lack of hard work to bring democracy to fruition can lead to it ‘not taking’ or autocratic backsliding. No, the least repressive systems don’t naturally get adopted; people need to work to make them happen.

          And we do allow states to run themselves, but the experiments are controlled, and that control is the Constitution. We tried a looser arrangement; the articles of Confederation lasted a whopping 7 years. By the logic you’re asking me to adopt, that incredibly short historical run must mean that form of government really stunk, eh?

    1. Im not clear as to why, defining things like measuring use of particular rhythms, melodies, harmonies and key changes are not objective measures. If it turns out that what people enjoy are specific features of music, and you can analyze those dimensions and compare one another, and one proves better than the other, how is this not an objective measure of what people tend to prefer? You can use cross-cultural experiments….

        1. No. I don’t know why people dont grasp this concept, science is not always ALL OR NONE, it is statistical. Mate preferences for symmetry and youth occur cross-culturally, the fact that nto every brain has these does not mean that it isnt objectively true to say that most people have these preferences.

      1. Two different questions. Answering what people prefer we can answer today in large part through surveys and similar methods. But that still doesn’t tell you if the preferences reveal anything more significant.

        Or, put another way…is the latest teeniebop heartthrob chart-topping single “better” than a Stravinsky ballet simply because the former gets more airplay this week?

        b&

        1. The word better plagues the study of any human preferences. It has to be along a certain dimension, and comparisons are statistical and probabilistic, not all or none. If you wanted to do an experiment you would have to have controls, simulate the cultural experiences of particular people in particular environments, try out all sorts of environments and compare them. If it turned out that at age 15 teeny bopper music activates pleasurable neurons associated with experiencing music more than stravinsky, then it is fair enough to say that statistically yes, along those dimensions teeny bopper music is better to 15 year olds. Perhaps this would change when they turn 50, and then prefer stravinsky.

          1. The word better plagues the study of any human preferences. It has to be along a certain dimension, and comparisons are statistical and probabilistic, not all or none.

            …or, it could be, and in fact is, that “better” has no meaningful absolute value.

            b&

            1. If better means nothing, or changes its meaning each time its used, then scientifically it is a useless word. You think it has no absolute value because its a word used personally and seem to be dogmatically committed to a second sphere in which mental events are not events in the universe. But again subjectivity is a brain state. Brain states are part of the universe. Even if mental events weren’t brain states they would still be parts of the universe.

              1. If better means nothing, or changes its meaning each time its used, then scientifically it is a useless word.

                I think most people would agree that the word, “better,” is, indeed, a largely useless scientific term — which is exactly the point I and others have been trying to get across to you.

                “Better for” might have some scientific value. A screwdriver is demonstrably better for driving screws into wood than a stick of butter — though, of course, a stick of butter is much better for maintaining separation between the layers of a puff pastry than a screwdriver. But is a screwdriver better than a stick of butter?

                Your fixation on brain states is a complete non-sequitur that somehow suggests that the question could be meaningfully answered by, for example, surveying people’s emotional responses to both butter and screwdrivers.

                b&

  6. As for art, Stephen Colbert would have an easy answer: “The market has spoken – whatever sells for the highest price is the best.”

  7. What can be proven is that a piece of artwork by Andy Warhol physically and objectively exists. The opinion of its artistic worth is purely subjective and has nothing to do with it’s existence. God cannot be objectively proven to exist, therefore all religious speculation falls into the category of the purely subjective and likewise has nothing to do with god’s existence.

    1. I disagree. You can standardize criteria for measuring art appreciation. If it turns out people enjoy beautiful art, than pop art, and that this activates more neuronal activity on average, then you have a scientific basis for comparison.

            1. Those of us who know what “begging the question” really means are just going to have to give up. Sigh.

              1. Phrases that have a non-literal meaning are inevitably going to be confusing for people with minimal exposure to them, especially if they have a plausible literal meaning. That is less of a sigh, than still believing that IQ is not a valid measure of anything besides an IQ test.

  8. It depends on what definition of “good” you are working with.

    If by “good” you simply mean that which appeals to your idiosyncratic taste or preference, then yes, you can’t declare any piece of art to be objectively “good” (or “bad”).

    But if by “good” you mean a piece of art or music that clearly demonstrates the skill of the creator by fulfilling or meeting certain pre-established criteria, then of course you can say the piece is either objectively “good” or “bad” according to the degree to which it successfully meets or fulfills those criteria.

      1. That’s true, although there is an extremely high degree of agreement regarding certain criteria that are used to evaluate certain kinds of music. But my main point was to make a distinction between “liking” something and recognizing that something was well-crafted. A critic may not “like” a given Bach fugue, but will still admit that it is well-crafted. I ten make analogies to food. I may like PBJs, but I wouldn’t say that a PBJ is therefore a culinary achievement. Likewise, I may not like duck confit, but I’d still recognize the skill of the chef who made it.

          1. I had to look back to find the typo, at which time I realized I’d read it as “tend to” which worked just as well. 🙂

      2. I suspect that the criteria is less “subjective” than you think. Experts in the study of music are converging on ideas of what makes the emotional component of music powerful, look at David Huron’s work. Since we have a shared human nature, there are definitely going to be things that work for our brains and that do not. If someone is using the wrong criteria to evaluate an art piece, that isnt necessarily subjective, it may be a category error. Like thinking the artist needs to have a good reputation for the piece to be good.

      3. Yes, thank you, Musical Beef: there is a high degree of agreement regarding such criteria, and there is also quite a high level of agreement about which artists from the past are worth considering – though of course there are a number of artists, such as Thomas Middleton, James Hogg, Flann O’Brien and George Enescu, who I think deserve to be better known than they are. What annoys me about Shakespeare’s huge fame (mostly deserved) is that it means that excellent writers of the same era like Marlowe, Jonson & Middleton are too seldom read or performed.

  9. Quite apart from the issue of whether art can be objectively evaluated, his title “Is the scientific method exclusive to science” is poorly chosen. The answer is “yes”. If the scientific method were applicable to art (I’m not claiming it is or isn’t) then you’d simply be doing science on art. If you use the scientific method to obtain knowledge, regardless of the subject matter, you are doing science.

    1. Yes indeed. Along the same lines, what he was describing as applying the methods of science to religion, art and politics is actually some combination of the sciences of psychology and sociology. Or, in other words, a study of human behavior.

      Basically he is committing the same phallacy as many ‘liberal religious’ apologists. Namely, treating religion as if it is in the same category as art. If that were the case I’d have no serious issues with religious belief. But it just ain’t so. It is patently ridiculous, I think, to claim that it is.

          1. I’ve been amazed at the number of homophones I find myself typing online. I don’t remember ever doing so with handwriting or manual/electric typewriters. At any rate, I no longer snigger quite as much at others’ similar typos. (Except funny ones like yours. 😀 )

            1. Ha! Sometimes it is cringe inducing to go back and read something I wrote a day or more ago.

              It really is interesting to see some of the strange things you do without realizing it. For example, sometimes when I am typing away at full speed I’ll type a lower case L (l) instead of the number 1, when my intent is to type the number. How does that work? What does that reveal about what’s going on in my brain? It happen completely unconsciously, the two are nowhere near each other on the keyboard and it is not something that I’ve ever even thought to do. They are two quite different caetgories, letters vs numbers. The only connection is that they look very similar in many common fonts.

              It is very interesting that without my being aware of it that my brain makes the connection between the visible similarity between the two characters and makes that substitution, while I am on autopilot.

              1. For example, sometimes when I am typing away at full speed I’ll type a lower case L (l) instead of the number 1, when my intent is to type the number. How does that work?

                Many mechanical typewriters lack a distinct key for the number “1”; the user was to use the letter “l” in its place. Could it be an habit picked up from such a machine?

                b&

              2. That is interesting! But, I don’t recall ever having been aware of that. I am not sure that I have ever typed on a mechanical type writer. I learned initially on a monstrous electric. Then when I first really started using typing it was on a TI-16 and then a TRS-80.

  10. The last person I recall trying this sort of thing was some followers of Ayn Rand who thought that since HER favorite composer was Rachmaninoff, that made Rachmaninoff in some objective way the best composer ever since Rand was the most truly objective person ever, her mind being so thoroughly uncontaminated. And opponents of Ayn Rand have argued her fondness for SR is an indicator that he isn’t that good!!!

    You could tweak this argument by talking about art that is popular among “smart” people, but how do you decide what constitutes smart?? Likewise, some religions are more widely disseminated among the better-educated than others, and I tend to think such religions are more humane, but I don’t know that really makes them true. (There’s still a plurality of them.)

        1. Thats not a fix, thats a break, and is tautological. Not an improvement. IQ tests are great at predicting numerous things associated with intelligence. Success in school, sat scores, gre scores, mcat scores, levels of edcuation, income and so on. If you really dont think iq tests are valid, I think you have probably not read the literature on IQ.

          1. Well, of course it’s tautological! That’s the point.

            It’s hardly surprising that there’s correlation between IQ, SAT, GRE, and MCAT, as they’re all standardised tests.

            How is “success in school” measured? Tests again? Is “success in school” dependent on only intelligence?

            Levels of education might have something going for it, but again, is that dependent on only intelligence?

            Income I’m far less certain about; I’d expect that to be dependent on many more variables.

            All of these supposed correlates seem to be focused on particular aspects of modern urban society.

            I’ll make the fix more subtle then: “IQ tests are already well established as a measure of intelligence that can be measured by IQ tests.”

            A more open question: How are you defining intelligence that an IQ test becomes a reliable test of it?

            /@

            1. PS. Re the “income” aspect:

              Intelligence
              Volume 35, Issue 5, September–October 2007, Pages 489–501

              “Do you have to be smart to be rich? The impact of IQ on wealth, income and financial distress”

              Jay L. Zagorsky

              Abstract

              How important is intelligence to financial success? Using the NLSY79, which tracks a large group of young U.S. baby boomers, this research shows that each point increase in IQ test scores raises income by between $234 and $616 per year after holding a variety of factors constant. Regression results suggest no statistically distinguishable relationship between IQ scores and wealth. Financial distress, such as problems paying bills, going bankrupt or reaching credit card limits, is related to IQ scores not linearly but instead in a quadratic relationship. This means higher IQ scores sometimes increase the probability of being in financial difficulty.

              So, high IQ means you’re smart enough to earn more money but not smart enough to hold onto it… 

              And this: “each point increase in IQ test scores raises income by between $234 and $616 per year after holding a variety of factors constant”

              That’s a huge range; a genius with an IQ of 145 could be out-earned by someone with an IQ of 117!

              /@

              1. Weird, we both went to the same study, I didn’t see this post before I responded to the other one. I don’t think that wealth finding is typical of most iq studies, but that finding is certainly interesting. And of course someone with an iq of 117 can earn more than 145. It is not the only factor in income, but it is an important one. And someone with a higher iq is more likely to earn more than one with a lower iq.

                The median earned income of young adults (roughly early 30s) at different IQ levels in the mid 1990s:

                Extremely Bright (About IQ 135): $47,500
                Very Bright (About IQ 125): $36,000
                Bright (About IQ 115): $27,000
                Normal (About IQ 100): $21,000
                Dull (About IQ 85): $13,000
                Very Dull (About IQ 75): $7,500

                https://www.aei.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/20040302_book443.pdf

                Another good thing to look up is the APA’s response to the bellcurve intelligence knowns and unknowns.

              2. Well im glad that you now agree that iq is associated with economic outcomes. And yes it is associated with motivation, but its not always clear what the causal direction is. If you are intelligent the chances of you being motivated are high, if you are doing poorly early on the chances are youll be unmotivated. This happens with sports as well. As for the paper, they were criticizing G on account that it tapped into different functional networks, and is not a unitary function. I don’t care either way on this, if what we call intelligence corresponds to multiple abilities and uses many parts of the brain thats fine. And if you want to be more fine grained and use measurements of each ability, thats fine too, but it is less predictive than using G. There is good reason to believe that the specific abilities do actually covary, verbal abilities are correlated with math abilities so G may be related to something like processing speed. Either way separate abilities or not I don’t see how this gets rid of the case that iq measures some elements of intelligence. You have yet to identify some element I omitted. James Thompson has a quote that I think applies to you in his blog post about the basics of iq.

                “I find that most of the hostility about intelligence comes from bright people, who keep up with the broad sweep of newspaper reports and popular books, but have not looked at good quality research. Despite this lack they are surprisingly vehement when they ridicule IQ. It would appear that intelligence is most disparaged by the intelligent. “Define intelligence” they demand, with a knowing smile.”

                http://drjamesthompson.blogspot.com/2013/12/intelligence-in-2000-words.html

              3. “associated with” – yeah, that.

                I never disputed that IQ measures some elements of intelligence. It doesn’t take much effort to find elements cited by researchers in the field; creativity and emotional intelligence, for example.

                Thompson’s quotation is essentially an ad hominem. There are many smart academics /doing/ quality research that criticise it.

                /@

              4. Creativity, I think is a legitimate criticism of iq as not having all the features of intelligence. Although The idea of an uncreative intelligent person does not strike me as an oxymoron. Emotional intelligence is not what most people would think of as intelligence.

                It is true that many scientists criticize IQ. Many also endorse the blank slate, and many believe in free will, and many are accommodationists. It seems like wherever something insulting to humanity is brought up, everyone is desperate to argue it out of existence. IQ is not a perfect measurement, but at the moment it is the best measurement of intelligence that exists, and its predictive power is much greater than almost all those of social science.

            2. They are not supposed correlates, they are extremely well documented correlates, with very high correlation coefficients. Often around .4-.5 In each of those categories.

              About income you are wrong, and there is an extensive literature, this is the first article that came up when i searched.

              “each point increase in IQ test scores raises income by between $234 and $616 per year after
              holding a variety of factors constant. ”
              http://www.researchgate.net/profile/Jay_Zagorsky/publication/222681959_Do_you_have_to_be_smart_to_be_rich_The_impact_of_IQ_on_wealth_income_and_financial_distress/links/547f21d60cf2de80e7cc7641.pdf

              There are a ton of studies showing this link, feel free to take a look. Since you dont seem to want to believe that iq matters i doubt you will, but if you care about the truth you should. IQ tests have been studied cross culturally and the results hold up.

              Yes sat, gre, and education use tests. So? Should we just give grades for no good reason? I never said that school, income etc all depend only on intelligence. Obviously there are other factors, but intelligence is one of them (and seems also to be correlated with important things like motivation)

              Iq tests measure things which are thought to indicate intelligence like puzzle solving abilities, working memory, long term memory, mathematical abilities, spatial abilities, etc.

              1. Thanks, Jason. But since what I’m disputing is the reliability of IQ as a measure of intelligence, I think we need to take care distinguish between correlation of X with IQ and X with intelligence (which I should have stated more carefully in my previous comment). Treating correlation with IQ as equivalent to correlation with intelligence begs the question (petitio principii).

                You make two revealing points, I think.

                Firstly: “I never said that school, income etc all depend only on intelligence. Obviously there are other factors, but intelligence is one of them (and seems also to be correlated with important things like motivation)”

                This was not something I’d considered when I made my “FIFY” comment, but I found this (without explicitly searching on “motivation”):

                What Does IQ Really Measure?” referencing research led by Angela Lee Duckworth, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, and reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: “the Duckworth team concludes that IQ tests are measuring much more than just raw intelligence–they also measure how badly subjects want to succeed both on the test and later in life. Yet Duckworth and her colleagues caution that motivation isn’t everything: The lower role for motivation in academic achievement, they write, suggests that ‘earning a high IQ score requires high intelligence in addition to high motivation.’”

                Secondly: “Iq [sic] tests measure things which are thought to indicate intelligence like puzzle solving abilities, working memory, long term memory, mathematical abilities, spatial abilities, etc.”

                This reveals more what I had in mind when I made my “FIFY” comment. Yes, IQ measures all those things, but do all those things comprise “intelligence” or is there more to intelligence; are there things that IQ tests don’t measure?

                This might have been the research I had in mind when I made my first comment; it was widely reported at the time:

                Neuron
                Fractionating Human Intelligence
                Adam Hampshire, Roger R. Highfield, Beth L. Parkin, Adrian M. Owen
                DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2012.06.022

                Dana Dovey in Medical Daily comments:

                the IQ test is “fundamentally flawed,” seeing that its questions “grossly oversimplify the abilities of the human brain.” The report identified three indications of human intelligence: short term memory, reasoning skills, and verbal ability. None of these skills are at all accurately measured in the traditional IQ test.

                And from The Independent:

                “For a century or more many people have thought that we can distinguish between people, or indeed populations, based on the idea of general intelligence which is often talked about in terms of a single number: IQ. We have shown here that’s just wrong,” [Dr. Highfield] said.

                TL;DR: IQ test results depend on motivation as well as intelligence. IQ tests measure only some cognitive abilities, not intelligence in the round.

                /@

  11. So, how is art tested? What works of art are refuted and what works of art are here to stay?

    Okay, right off the bat this gentleman’s gone astray. “Refuted?” A work of art which is now neglected is not an example of refutation AS a work of art. The claim “people will enjoy this forever” is refuted — but that’s not the issue if we’re talking about ‘refuting’ a work of art as a work of art.

    So what would that look like? I don’t know. Maybe a work of art is potentially refuted if we discover that it’s only the stepladder used to hang up the actual piece of art. Oops. Move the little plaque.

    And even then someone who sees it as emblematic of the working life of the average man or evocative of the beauty in the mundane can still claim it’s “art” in that it inspired a response. In which case the entire world is art and none of it refutable. My life is my art, etc.

    This is just silly.

    The masterpieces of art are selected by the same scientific method, by how much they touch the souls of people and the selection process takes a long time, all too often beyond the years of the artist so he or she can enjoy success.

    Again, he’s not talking about truth, he’s talking about utility. No atheist argues that religion has never been useful for doing something or other, or that it pleases no one. What is popular is not only not necessarily true, it’s not even necessarily good. This is so confused.

    Besides, if a work of art which now leaves us cold once moved people to tears, does that not “count?”

    The ones that people tolerate stay longer and the ones that oppress people will be thrown over, sooner or later. I believe that the same scientific method can be applied to religion. The new atheists don’t seem to understand the difference between God and religion and between faith and religion.

    AH — HA! Hoisted with his own petard.

    The gnu atheist criticism of religion directed at its truth is an aspect of the “application of the scientific method” Kolossváry is so very eager to apply to his faith. Genuine atheist critiques have only been applied to religion for a few hundred years — and what have we seen? The melancholy, long withdrawing roar which brings up so much seawater and froth.

    Religion can’t be a “shared human response to God’s calling” if God does not exist. And you can’t use the feelings about the value of religion to establish the credibility of religion any more than an emotion about a book means the events and people in it must be real.

    The best Kolossváry is likely to do with this novel approach is bring religion even further into the category of art, poetry, and music. And contra Karen Armstrong, this will NOT help his case in the long run.

  12. Recently, the Athiest Camel blogger has shown photos of objects his wife sold on EBay (Etsy?) that she bought for a few dollars long ago and sold for hundreds of dollars.

    It is a wonderful example of “one mans garbage is another man’s” treasure. Art is certainly subjective to each brain.

  13. There are measurable and somewhat quantifiable observations one can make of art and design. I teach in a visual communication sequence, and what I tell my classes is that whereas fine art is mostly about personal expression, its success is dependent on human psychology. Commercial design is entirely about psychology—how people react to visual stimuli.

    Design is most successful when it elicits similar subjective reactions from most people. And what works can be quantified—certain color combinations and shapes work better than others. We can study this objectively, and some have done so, through brain scans, eye tracking, and other experiments. There is also a field called Q Methodology, which attempts to objectively measure subjective reactions to either images or statements. Q Method has been used to great effect in advertising, which was its original intention.

    All of this is based on traits common to most humans, that are undoubtedly shaped by natural selection. Of course, we also have a lot of variation in other traits, a lot of which are not genetic but environmental, which is why opinion and tastes in art vary in different cultures and in different eras. Thomas Wolfe was indeed highly regarded decades ago; he didn’t change, our culture did.

    All of this is to simply point out that art is not an argument for religion. It’s just another human behavior.

  14. How does someone who is a scientist come up with this. We spend a lot of time getting it right and well understood from many actual scientist and then this comes along. So now we can look for science to tell us all about religion, for which there is no evidence. We sure have been wasting our time.

  15. I wonder if Kolossváry is an Anthroposophist. I’ve heard this idea that “the soul is more sensitive than any scientific instrument” often from them, and it makes a similar amount of sense when they use it too.

    The “soul” is certainly more sensitive to all those things which the soul is more sensitive to….. but it isn’t more sensitive to radio waves, or x-rays, or atoms. Is it?

    It’s probably of some benefit to individual scientists in some areas to develop an artist’s eye (or ear etc) for things, but only in the most general sense. Maybe they can communicate their ideas better, or conceive of things more clearly sometimes, but that is far removed from “sink or swim” situations which drive scientific progress. Progress — the thing that forms the basis for scientific work — seems to be invisible to some people. They take it for granted, and treat science as a branch of speculative philosophy, run by a cabal of corrupt materialists.

  16. “Religion is a shared human response to God’s calling”
    Wow, this is the dumbest definition of religion I’ve ever seen. And yet they say atheists need to be more humble…

      1. Well, according to Alvin Plantinga, our sensus divinitatis was broken by original sin, so it stands to reason that the response is divisive – we can’t properly perceive God, but thankfully that doesn’t infringe on God being a properly basic belief.

        So a shared calling would be divisive if theism were true. The conflict really lies, according to Plantinga, in naturalism explaining why it is we yearn for God at all.

        1. I don’t know that I ever yearned for God so much as I was terrified of burning in a pit of flames. Platinga might say it’s properly basic to fear God too but I don’t recall God ever being the one telling me I’d be burning…it was humans, maybe this is part of the “man made” religion that Kolossváry is so sure he can separate from the God part? Here we go in a circle again…

              1. Hey, let’s keep the profit in the family, eh? I’ll sell kelskye a first-rate sensus divinatus at a steep discount over what the televangelists are charging….

                b&

              2. You have yourself a deal, so long as I can get preferred shares on the sensus derivitatus, an area the regulators haven’t yet thought to address. Don’t worry, even if valuations are way off, the problem will be fully contained, no one who paid into the system will lose their sensus.

  17. I read strange thinks. Does the man knows that Buddhism has no eternal god(s) at all? Human hearing is really crappy for metaphysical things: Sometimes it hears that there are many gods and polytheism is true. Then it hears of henotheism (one main god that creates the others sons of god) and finally that there is only one. But here there are no discernible true one: Yahweh is turned later on in the trinity (3 in 1) and after seven hundred years back to the strict monotheism.
    The man should read more about certain religions and see that ” when they do harm, they are repudiated.” is not remotely true in general. Just ask the dead apostates of islam or of any other religion that get some kind of mafia working way…

  18. Whenever the subject arises, I say the following (though few people ever notice the Malapropism):
    “I don’t know what I like, but I know art.”

  19. He says that the more a religion makes someone do good it is verified, while one that makes someone do harm is repudiated. We can all come up with countless examples where religion has made someone do the most horrific things imaginable throughout history, but they haven’t made those religions go away. Members of the religions concerned in general either deny them (the horrific things), make excuses for them, or say it was okay because it was a different time (conveniently forgetting it was the same god).

    Using his criteria, it could be argued that atheistic humanism has been most confirmed as it has lead to the most good.

    1. Similar to the point I was going to make (but much more detailed and wide-reaching!).

      If what he claims is true, why is the currently most violent religion also the fastest growing?

  20. Religion is a shared human response to God’s calling and it is a unique and precious human experience.

    He’s not going to argue pro or con, but he is going to assume that God exists. I hate when people equivocate, and move from metaphor to synonym to conclusion. Can we really say a piece of art is “true”? “Beauty is truth, and truth is beauty”, but “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, so truth is in the eye of the beholder? Haven’t we been here before?

  21. > Why do we listen to Mozart and not Salieri, what crystallizes the collection of pieces displayed in the great art museums of the world over time, and what works are delegated to the dungeons of underground storage, once acquired by museum curators as prospective works of art?

    Why did people stop playing Bach for 80 years? Why did people stop reading Sappho? He’s effectively arguing that what constitutes art is decided by popular opinion. But as the proverb goes: “Eat shit. Billions of flies can’t be in error.”

  22. His argument is fallacious from the outset; he says that:

    Jerry Coyne and the new atheists dismiss religion, because religion is based on faith and not fact. Interestingly, the new atheists, or nobody for that matter dismisses the arts, though.

    First of all, the new atheists dismiss religion because it FAILS scientific tests for being true. No in is making the claim that artistic figures are true. No one is saying, “Behold, Frankenstein’s monster exists!” or “Behold, the forms in Pablo Picasso’s Guernica are real!”

  23. Dear Professor Coyne,

    I think you’ve already given this gentleman way to much time and space.

    Respectfully, Damien McLeod {Radial Atheist, Anti-Capitalist, denouncer of Sky-fairy faithers, dislike-er of sky-fairy apologists} Both faithers and apologists give me the creepy-crawlies. Sorry.

  24. The arts are contingent upon human culture(s), not only in the common sense of the word (‘products of’) but more particularly in that of ‘enabled by.’ And, of course, there are many human cultures around the world. We in the West too often assume that our art is universal: everybody, everywhere, all the time admires Shakespeare (or would if all humans read or saw performed his dramas). There is no objective reason for this judgment, or any other concerning aesthetics.

    I would speculate that the novels of Thomas Wolfe have never have been popular in, say, China. But they might come to be one day, just as Wolfe’s 1930s vogue might return in the West (or at least the U.S.)in the 2030s. Another way of saying this is that the ‘canon’ of artistic worthies is not a sealed temple on far Parnassus but a permeable, human-built dome that lets artists and works in and kicks them out and lets them back in again. For instance, the lyric and dramatic poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was in its mid-19th century day not only among the most popular American literature: it was also deemed by many critics the best. Then he went out of favor and dropped out of the curriculum and the canon. But it’s easy to imagine Longfellow’s return–he’s plenty worthy of a place.

    What IS universal in Homo sapiens is our evolutionaryly-determined need for STORY and all its myriad affects/effects. Which stories? That is a mystery of the memetic structures of human culture.

  25. “test religion through their ultra sensitive souls…”

    I’m an atheist, does that mean my soul is malfunctioning? Can mr. Kolossváry tell me where I can get my soul properly calibrated?

      1. I expected a more – dare I say it – ‘spiritual’ establishment, but this will do just fine! 🙂

  26. “the soul is more sensitive than any scientific instrument” ultra sensitive soul? hmm, would this apply to ISIS thugs? yes I believe it does, they are ‘ultra sensitive’ to infidels.. albeit with a very blunt instrument.
    But that’s Ok the other sensitive souls that is Islam will popularise them out of existence and they will become ‘agents of good’ well I’m for that but in the meantime..
    Blackadder, “put a tail on your augument Mr István Kolossváry and call it a weasel”

  27. Thats not a fix, thats a break, and is tautological. Not an improvement. IQ tests are great at predicting numerous things associated with intelligence. Success in school, sat scores, gre scores, mcat scores, levels of edcuation, income and so on. If you really dont think iq tests are valid, I think you have probably not read the literature on IQ.

    1. Read my book, in which I quote theologians saying the same thing (or the Oxford English Dictionary, for that matter). But let me refer you to the unimpeachable authority on faith: the Bible, namely Hebrews 11:1:

      Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

      So seriously, I’m arguing against a straw man? 🙂

      1. The Oxford English dictionary I would bet also mentions trust. And I also see the word, “evidence” in your quote. You might also find that if you look up the greek word for faith, pistis more than this. Look at the examples in the bible, it is often used as trust. You can, for example, trust your wife based on your knowledge of your wife and this be a rational decision even if the thing you are trusting her about is something you know nothing about.

        1. All the more pity, then, that we have no evidence for God, nor no “knowledge” of him/her/it. Every religion’s faith tells them that God (or, if you’re a Hindu, gods) is different from that of all other religions. There are thousands of religions, all making different truth claims based on faith, and no way to resolve which is right. In contrast, there’s only one science.

          Sorry, but I don’t trust any existence claim without evidence. It’s just stupid to do that.

        2. The difference between the definition of faith as “belief without evidence” and “confidence in” is also covered in Faith vs Fact.

          Confidence has to be earned though. If my clock regularly malfunctions and doesn’t wake me up for my teacher’s lectures, I lose confidence in my clock. Same thing with the God-concept: if God needs to be redefined every century because the previous God-concept has been proven unsustainable, I lose confidence that the God-concept will ever yield results. And I throw God away, just like my clock.

          A good example of the difference between religion and science is the evolution from a theist God to a deist God in the 18th century, when people realized miracles were nonsense. However, when Lavoisier proved phlogiston was nonsense, scientists didn’t redefine phlogiston. They tossed it into the dustbin of history.

        3. Religion can’t build trust, because there is no experiential magic outcome to come to trust.

          You can experience warm feelings when contemplating religion, but I hear that is what happens when you wet yourself too. Come to think of it, religion and incontinence is very alike…

  28. “It is people who test religion through their ultra sensitive souls far more advanced than any man made instrument.”

    That begs the question. How can we “test” religion? Why, use our souls! Everyone knows we have souls, of course!

    Also, what is this baloney about people being a better, more sensitive truth-detecting instrument than mechanical instruments? A huge part of science is trying to *get rid* of human biases and unreliable perception.

    1. Alvin Plantinga has said that our “Sensus Divinitatis” doesn’t always work properly due to sin. How he knows all this, I have no idea. Kolossváry uses the word soul in the same way as the ‘sense of divinity’.

  29. When it comes to permanent collections of artwork, much of what makes the cut is not necessarily good per se, but it is creative; that is, it broke out of the mold of the time, to present something different. That, in itself, makes it noteworthy, and appropriate for a collection, but we show those sorts of works right alongside technically masterful works, which are measured against different criteria. A similar observation applies to music, writing, and the artists who created the works.

  30. I don’t think art can be ‘scientifically’ evaluated (and I’m excluding the ‘statistical analysis of opinions’ approach here), it’s too complex.

    I do think there are elements of design – certain proportions, shapes, colour combinations (or in music, chords) – which are inherently pleasing to our brains.

    For example the Parthenon is well known as an example of ‘classic’ and hence pleasing proportions. (I’m assuming architecture counts as ‘art’, here). I have a book, “Bridges – Aesthetics and Design” by the noted German designer Fritz Leonhardt, in which he goes into his theories of aesthetics and illustrates them with numerous examples of good (and a few ugly) bridges.

    To what extent aesthetics are universal, and what extent cultural, I don’t know. But certainly I think that _some_ aesthetic criteria can be applied to art, even if only to judge ‘how well it’s been executed’. The emotional effect on the viewer, though, is an additional attribute.

    cr

  31. Looking at that graph, the only consensus I can see is that whichever religion or non-religion you choose, the majority of the world’s population will think you’re wrong.

  32. Good judges of the arts argue, and provide reasons why they think J.S. Bach, say, a greater composer than Andrew Lloyd-Webber. One might read, for example, Joseph Kerman’s ‘Opera as Drama’, in which serious arguments are advanced as to why Mozart, Verdi & Berg are greater composers of opera than Puccini. It really is no good not to address such arguments, throw up your hands, and say that it’s all subjective and anyway I prefer ‘Cats’. (This recourse to the word ‘subjective’ is really merely a refusal to think seriously.) A personal preference can certainly not be wrong, but an aesthetic judgement can be, and the two should not be confused. There is Artur Schnabel’s famous remark about his thinking that Wagner was the greater composer, but that he preferred Brahms (and before Musical Beef repeats what he said last time I mentioned this remark, I shall only say that I think Brahms quite as great a composer as Wagner, and so think Schnabel’s judgement not altogether correct, but very understandable – I think Yeats is probably a greater poet than Thomas Hardy, but I prefer the latter – though with artists of such clear eminence as Wagner and Brahms or Yeats and Hardy, I am not greatly interested in putting them in a scale against each other). But just look at Rubens’ pencil portrait of his little son Philip, with the quality of its attention and lack of sentimentality, and compare it with, say, some bit of Victorian kitsch showing a child blowing bubbles. I am sure there will be people who prefer the latter, but I have not come across anybody arguing seriously for the great artistic value of such paintings. The onus is really on those who like declaring that the arts are ‘subjective’ (unlike the splendid objectivity of science) to show why all those many intelligent and perceptive people who have argued that Shakespeare is a great playwright, that Sesshu and Rembrandt are great painters, that Michelangelo is a great sculptor, that Sotatsu is a great calligrapher and that Monteverdi is a great musician – to show why their arguments amount to nothing more than the expression of arbitrary preferences or prejudices and cannot therefore be taken seriously by the objectively minded. But I rather doubt that the challenge will be taken up. It seems to be simpler and less work to stay in the same comfortable position, with the world divided neatly between the objective on the one hand and the subjective (that is to say, arbitrary) on the other. There’s an odd correlation between the prejudice that value in the arts is an arbitrary matter of taste and certain pernicious strands of post-modernism.

    1. Or a little exercise: compare Shakespeare’s Sonnet 20, say, with Richard Barnfield’s first sonnet, or WS’s sonnet 43 with RB’s fourth sonnet. I think a serious addressing of the reasons why Shakespeare’s sonnets are so much better than Barnfield’s really rather insipid stuff would teach a lot to those who keep suggesting that value in the arts is subjective and arbitrary and who refrain from genuinely addressing any aesthetic issues by assuming that everything that is not science must be subjective and arbitrary.

      1. Mr. Harris, I mean no disrespect to your extraordinarily thoughtful and authoritative post when I say, regarding your addendum, that the logic of read, compare, judge and then find the reasons for preferring Shakespeare over Barnfield is dubious. Upon reading, you FELT a discrepancy in quality between the two poet’s sonnets much, much in favor of Shakespeare (and of course I agree with your judgment). But the inquiry into the WHY of your preference, then, is bound to be one of confirmation bias. And in your larger post there are appeals to (critical) authority. Even taken together, these are not SUFFICIENT reasons for an aesthetic conclusion.

        Let me only further say that the problem of aesthetic value is one of the most gnarly thickets in philosophy. And while I want, as you do, objectivity, I do not think we have yet earned it through reason and analysis of texts and contexts.

        1. Then I shall simply say, look at those sonnets, try to determine which is the better of each pair, and give reasons for doing so.

        2. Also, it is not so much that I want any absolute ‘objectivity’, whatever that may be, as a recognition that there are good reasons (as well as some bad ones – e.g. chauvinism: the English & Shakespeare, the Germans & Bach)for certain artists holding the position they do.

    2. The onus is really on those who like declaring that the arts are ‘subjective’ (unlike the splendid objectivity of science) to show why all those many intelligent and perceptive people who have argued that Shakespeare is a great playwright, that Sesshu and Rembrandt are great painters, that Michelangelo is a great sculptor, that Sotatsu is a great calligrapher and that Monteverdi is a great musician – to show why their arguments amount to nothing more than the expression of arbitrary preferences or prejudices and cannot therefore be taken seriously by the objectively minded.

      I think the problem is that subjective can mean several different things. It can mean “not an external trait or property.” Art is subjective in that way: a painting or opera does not have artistic quality the way an electron has spin. It would be silly and pointless to try and create an artvalueometer to measure whether Cats has +1/2 Value or -1/2 value because there is simply no external value-trait that is equivalent or analogous to spin to be found. Doesn’t exist. The value of a piece of art lies in the human judgment of – and reaction to – it, not in some external, physical, objective property that good art has and bad art doesn’t.

      Subjective can also mean, as you say, “nothing more than the expression of arbitrary preferences or prejudices.” And I think you are right much of art, music, etc. evaluation is not this. As you and others have pointed out, the criteria used are not arbitrary, they’re usually pretty well thought out. There is often convergence, with the vast majority of critics agreeing at least on the types of criteria one should look at. An assessment can lead to a difference between assessed value and personal preference – a result that would be impossible if the art critique merely reflected personal preferences.

      Kolossváry seems to want to argue that since art critique can be systematic, can converge, can reference testable criteria, etc… that its science. But I don’t think so. Those are certainly methodological factors that science also strives to achieve, so there are points of commonality, but ultimately science is focused on studying non-subjective traits in my first sense of the word ‘subjective’: spin. Mass. What the DNA sequence of an organism is and what it does during development.

      Scientists are often (IMO wrongly) accused of scientism by liberal arts folks, but scientism is kinda what Kolossvary is doing here; he’s broadening the definition so wide that basically any well thought out and agreed upon assessment methodology is considered “science.” I think that’s a bit too broad. Identifying criteria you want to measure, measuring them, and then comparing the results of measure A vs. B is certainly part of what science does, but not everyone who does that is doing science.

      1. “There is often convergence, with the vast majority of critics agreeing at least on the types of criteria one should look at.”

        I think this is accurate. It also is interesting, though, that there are major exceptions. One major rift that has resulted in endless knock-down drag-out fights and some truly hideous art, not to mention some truly coma inducing art critics, is the rift between the “Concept Is Everything” school of thought and everyone else who disagrees with that.

        Which helps illustrate your overall point, I think.

        1. It sometimes seems there’s an element of The Emperor’s New Clothes about some art worthiness discussions…

            1. Oh, I can’t think of an example offhand, and I certainly wasn’t referring to anything in particular in the discussion here. Just reflecting on some people’s tendency to think pronouncements from (sometimes self-declared) authorities must be true because–authority. Some godawful fashion gets promoted that way.

              1. Yes, the Turner Prize most of the time. And I largely agree with Musical Beef about ‘conceptual art’ because the concepts employed are, as he points out, all too often banal.

                Yes, I have mixed feelings about Cage’s 4.33, as I do about Duchamp’s famous urinal. Both ‘works’ make a point, but the point having been made, as Ben says, there’s small point in listening to, or viewing, them again.

        2. I’ve written here at WEIT before about my contempt for the “concept is everything” school. I think it has taken off primarily because it’s easy. No need to spend grueling hours perfecting a skill. As long as you slap a slick post-facto rationalization onto your macaroni-and-pipe-cleaner “sculpture” you’re golden! This is unfortunate because imo demonstrating skill is at least 50% of what art is about: producing something that posterity can point at and say “look what humans at the top of their game are cable of”. Additionally, many of these “concepts” turn out to be utterly banal when you strip away all the jargon, bafflegab, and irrelevant references usually contained in the slick post-facto rationalizations. Things like “sexism is bad”.

          All that writ, I really wouldn’t be against primarily conceptual art if the concepts were impressive. It’s just that, mostly, they aren’t.

          1. Sturgeon’s Law would seem to apply to the conceptual artists, as well. John Cage and Andy Warhol could pull it off…in no small part because they had excellent technical chops and a good filter. (By “filter” I mean, it’s pretty clear that they were prolific in churning out concepts but also discarded most of what they churned out.)

            But now that Cage has written a four-and-an-half-minute musical work of silence and Warhol has made silkscreens of soup cans…well, if you’re going to do the same sort of thing, you have to do it one better and make it your own, the same way that Mahler took the famous opening motif from Beethoven’s 5th symphony and used it as the primary motif for his own 5th symphony — but Mahler’s 5th otherwise has very little in common with Beethoven’s. And how’re you supposed to do that for something already as distilled as silence and soup cans?

            Indeed, I’d go so far as to suggest that the whole point of the conceptualists was to show us the beauty of the banal. And they did that, and those of us who “get” what they did now do, in fact, see the beauty of the banal. So that story has already been told…and you either need to tell it in some way that is radically different from how anybody else has ever told it or tell some other story — or content yourself with being an inferior knockoff.

            b&

            1. Yeah, I think 4’33” is one of those canonical pieces I mentioned upthread that has no business being in the canon.

              I don’t think the idea that any sound can be musically useful rises to the level of being a piece of art itself. It’s rather like saying the claim “this shade of blue would look great in a painting” is art in and of itself. I’d say “hey, you could be right, but let’s see your claim in action. Show me what you can paint with that shade of blue. That’s where the art comes in”.

              I do worry that my opinions tend toward the crank side of the spectrum, and that I’m too inclined to pooh-pooh things, but at the same time I also worry that too many people are too willing to uncritically accept the canon they’re handed.

              1. The reason that 4’33” works for me is that it really does make very viscerally clear, in a way that few are likely to really encounter or think about until they go to a performance, that the world really is filled with sound, even in the quietest of places. Nobody before had truly demonstrated the significance of silence or the lack thereof.

                But, again, it’s an one-shot deal. Everybody should go to a performance of 4’33”, but there’s not necessarily any advantage to attending a second performance. In stark contrast, there’s likely to be something new to discover in most performances of a Stravinsky ballet or Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra or a Strauss opera or….

                b&

              1. Okay…I’ll grant you that…but you also prove my point! It’s a new and original take, and less about Cage and more about the comedy team’s expression of the absurdity of postmodernism….

                b&

      2. Thank you, Eric. A good and thoughtful response. I warmly agree about Kolossvary, who is a sentimentalist, fundamentally. I like your distinguishing of different meanings of ‘subjective’, and largely agree with it, but the trouble, of course, is that it is generally used in a highly ambiguous way, and all too often with the suggestion that the arts (by which I not mean academic disciplines) are arbitrary indulgences and things of no real importance that happen to make us feel good and that may be looked on with a condescending eye.

        1. One of the reasons that apologetics survives is due to words having multiple meanings. It’s telling that the apologists tend to avoid committing to strict definitions!

          Plus ça change!

            1. I am unsure who it is you interpret as dismissing the arts. Seriously, not being snarky at all. So that I can understand this conversation better could you please say who it is that is dismissing the arts?

              1. Well, all right. I am afraid that I cannot help but be irritated by, for example, Stephen Pinker’s views on music and literature (as was made clear in a battle over them in the comments on this blog some time ago), as well as by E.O.Wilson’s suggestion that the arts are ’emotion’ and nothing else, and by Jerry’s recent blanket assertion that the arts are a ‘palliative’, which suggests to me – perhaps I am wrong (I should like to think that I am) – that Jerry regards the arts in their entirety as nice in their place but really not very important, that is to say, as mere entertainment, nothing to make us think or do something to change society, whereas science, on the other hand…(if I am wrong, Jerry, please correct me). What interests me (and interested their contemporaries) about, for example, Elizabethan & Jacobean dramatists, and in particular Marlowe, Shakespeare & Thomas Middleton,is their extraordinary political daring – the way they explored in their theatre, in a time of censorship (Shakespeare wrote in one of his sonnets of art being ‘tongue-tied by authority’), all sorts of political, and religious, ideas and constantly raised questions about political authority. Foreign observers of English theatre at the time were shocked by what those playwrights were doing – there was nothing of this kind going on elsewhere in Europe at the time. I have seen an educated British audience, in Oxford, left aghast, and unsure whether they should laugh, at the stream of anti-christian jokes in Marlowe’s ‘The Jew of Malta’ (in which the only honourable people are the Muslims, and the Christians come off worst). Marlowe, incidentally, had been trained in the latest (Calvinist) theology at Cambridge, and the scholar & critic R.G. Hunter remarks of ‘Dr Faustus’ that rather than terrifying its audience into ‘faith and godliness’, as certain devout and not very thoughtful earlier critics had supposed, the play would have been more likely ‘to terrify the more intelligent and informed of its beholders out of their beliefs or at least into an examination of them.’ Look at what Shakespeare does in ‘Lear’. Look at William Blake’s ‘London’. Read Solzhenitsyn. Read some of Yeats’s political poems. Read Kafka, who said that if a book is not like an axe that breaks the frozen sea in our hearts, then it is worthless. Last March, I put on a double-bill pf two short plays, here in Tokyo (directing both and acting in one), by Harold Pinter, ‘Ashes to Ashes’ (which concerns the Shoah – it seemed apt at a time when synagogues in the Ukraine – site of the most terrible massacres of Jewish people in World War II – were being defaced) and ‘One for the Road’, which is about torture – a subject that is not entirely irrelevant at a time when the United States of America has permitted torture and is not irrelevant now, when every Republican candidate for the presidency thinks that torture is a splendid idea. Audiences were shocked and stunned into silence at the end of every performance. There really is more to the arts than Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stuff and Tim Burton’s and Danny Elfman’s ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’, for the recent world premiere of a concert version of which in Tokyo, I had the misfortune to train the chorus (and had Elfman’s silly tunes buzzing about in my head for days after every rehearsal). I have a great deal of respect for the natural sciences, and certainly respect genuinely illuminating scientific works on the arts, like Patel’s splendid ‘Music, Language & the Brain’, but I am not fond of the rather too frequent knocking of the arts by scientists – or the knocking of the discipline of history by Alex Rosenberg, who I see has just published a novel – one that I hope is better than E.O. Wilson’s ‘Anthill’ (I think that was the title). Sorry for the length of this, but you asked…

              2. I shouldn’t have been so dismissive of ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ in the previous comment. Tim Burton is a very accomplished and amusing illustrator, and Elfman is certainly competent at what he does. I have no doubt that the ‘Nightmare’ will appeal to young audiences, but it really cannot be put on the level of Mozart’s, Verdi’s or Wagner’s operas, and, perhaps more importantly, they cannot be put on its level.

              3. Maybe it’s not so much about things being “on the same level” as “in the same loci”? TNBC is certainly *better* family entertainment than DZF.

                /@

              4. And, Christ!, I’ve just noticed that I said ‘blog’ instead of ‘website’. And, yes, Ant, you are right, I was typing with such fervour that I buggered up my ‘enter’ key, and it refused to work.

              5. Tim,

                I did ask :), and I am glad I did! Thank you for answering so thoroughly. It was a pleasure to read your comments.

                You know how Feynman said that a detailed scientific understanding of something, he used a flower as an example, greatly added to his awe of it? Similarly, I think that in art when a persons intellect is engaged by the art, as opposed to only their emotions, that only adds to the impact that it has on people.

                Art is communication. Even when the artist’s only intent is to create something aesthetically pleasing, that is communication. And it is the most versatile way of communicating humans have. That is a pretty powerful and useful thing. And to do it well certainly takes intellect.

              6. And I should also add that the chorus, who I had worked with previously for the fairly recent Rolling Stones tour of Japan (‘You can’t always get what you want’), did very well – it was good to work with them, and I should not have used the word ‘misfortune’.

              7. Yes, Ant – that’s a good point (by the way, it’s just occurred to me, but are you really E.O. Wilson, perhaps, writing under a suitable pseudonym?). But there is of course family entertainment and family entertainment, and we in Japan have been spoiled by the extraordinarily good anime movies produced by Miyazaki Hayao & Studio Ghibli – works that are actually very adult in what they address and the way they address it, and quite without the sentimentality and giggling cliches that vitiate all that Disney does. From the little I have seen, during rehearsals, of the Disney ‘Alice’ (I again trained the chorus for a concert version here), all the intelligence and biting wit has been as it were surgically removed to be replaced by a banal boy’s adventure story (with Alice in armour killing jabberwocks).

      3. You’re right abou the different connotations of the word “subjective”. I think many people use the word without thinking about that distinction and wind up unintentionally equivocating their way to the position that artistic merit is totally arbitrary and indiosyncratic and that therefore absolutely anything could unassailable be judged to be great art.

        Regarding the criteria that have come to be used to evaluate certain kinds of art: I make no claim that this moves art evaluation any closer to being objective, but an interesting point to consider is that any discipline must take on some axioms in order to get off the ground.

      4. Eric: ‘Scientists are often (IMO wrongly) accused of scientism by liberal arts folks, but scientism is kinda what Kolossvary is doing here; he’s broadening the definition so wide that basically any well thought out and agreed upon assessment methodology is considered “science.”’ Another and less responsible version of ‘science broadly conceived’, it seems.

      5. Regarding Eric’s excellent remark that ‘(i)t would be silly and pointless to try and create an artvalueometer to measure whether Cats has +1/2 Value or -1/2 value because there is simply no external value-trait that is equivalent or analogous to spin to be found’: I think this hits a large nail squarely on the head. There is no such thing as an ‘artvaluemeter’, and – more importantly – there never can be. But what comes across a little too often for comfort is the perhaps unacknowledged assumption that because there can be no ‘artvalueometer’, value in the arts is an arbitrary matter of taste; that is to say, the idea of the possible existence of some such ‘objective’ method for valuing works of art underlies the suggestion that value in the arts is a mere matter of taste. The assumption seems mainly to be made by those who may have a liking for certain works of art, but who are not fundamentally interested in the arts and in the question of why particular works are held in high esteem. The reach of logical positivism is long, as is the damage it does.

          1. Sorry – I don’t know why that came to as ‘Anonymous’ except that I was away from home for a funeral and sent the above from a computer at the hotel.

      6. Regarding Eric’s excellent remark that ‘(i)t would be silly and pointless to try and create an artvalueometer to measure whether Cats has +1/2 Value or -1/2 value because there is simply no external value-trait that is equivalent or analogous to spin to be found’: I think this hits a large nail squarely on the head. There is no such thing as an ‘artvaluemeter’, and – more importantly – there never can be. But what comes across a little too often for comfort is the perhaps unacknowledged assumption that because there can be no ‘artvalueometer’, value in the arts is an arbitrary matter of taste; that is to say, the idea of the possible existence of some such ‘objective’ method for valuing works of art underlies the suggestion that value in the arts is a mere matter of taste. The assumption seems mainly to be made by those who may have a liking for certain works of art, but who are not fundamentally interested in the arts and in the question of why particular works are held in high esteem. The reach of logical positivism is long, as is the damage it does.

      7. This is late in the day, but I shall go ahead, since I think it is important:

        Eric:’Art is subjective in that way: a painting or opera does not have artistic quality the way an electron has spin. It would be silly and pointless to try and create an artvalueometer to measure whether Cats has +1/2 Value or -1/2 value because there is simply no external value-trait that is equivalent or analogous to spin to be found. Doesn’t exist.’

        But I do not think that anyone – except perhaps from some few Kantian stragglers who haven’t really thought about what Kant said – seriously claims that there is something called ‘artistic value’ that inheres in good works of art. An judgement in the arts is typically made by pointing out that Shakespeare’s sonnets, let us say, are extremely inventive formally, very expressive in their exploitation of rhythm and syntax to create constantly interesting movement, witty and often funny, very imaginative and sometimes shocking in their exploration of a great range of emotions (including some very unpleasant ones) associated with love within a strict form – in ways that go far beyond what Richard Barnfield is capable of, and beyond what other better sonnet-writers than Barnfield, such as Spenser, Daniel and Sidney, were capable of (though certain individual sonnets of the latter three are certainly very fine). This really does not seem much different from pointing out that Jerry’s argument above is better-written, more cogent and coherent than is Kolossvary’s, even though I am far from agreeing with him that everything that is not scientific ‘knowledge’ is mere arbitrary opinion.

        I bring up Shakespeare’s sonnets in particular, because I hadn’t known them so well, though I had always liked certain of them, but was asked to teach a course on them recently to adult students here in Japan whose English is excellent, which means analysing very carefully what Shakespeare is doing in every way (formally, imaginatively, expressively) – and it has been something of a revelation – both for myself and for the students. Now, though it is of course true to say that ‘artistic value’ is not something that inheres ‘objectively’ in particular works of art (to suppose that it did would be mystical and silly), the qualities that I have drawn attention to in Shakespeare’s sonnets are there for anybody to see them. I suppose that just as there are people who are tone-deaf and so cannot understand music, and people who, lacking mathematical gifts or training, cannot understand even simple mathematical equations, so there are those who lack perhaps the intelligence or sensitivity, or perhaps the interest in poetry, to be able to appreciate what Shakespeare is doing. But that does not mean that the qualities I have described are not there.

        1. I say this at the risk of drawing the ire of Professor Ceiling Cat, but of course Cats can’t be said to have 1/2 or -1/2 spin. It is obviously much less. 😉 If someone made a Broadway production of dogs on the other hand…

        2. And I should also like to add that it seems to me that the supposition that anything that is not ‘objective knowledge’ (i.e., science) is ‘subjective opinion’ is a dangerous one, since it entails that, among other things, there can be no real discrimination between responsible political thought and the kind of irresponsibility that is exemplified by Donald Trump. Which means that the only important thing in human affairs is the possession of power. Scientific knowledge is not the only kind of knowledge we have, and I think that the distinction between ‘knowledge’ and ‘opinion’ that was adumbrated in Athens in the 4th or 5th century BCE might, in the twenty first century, at last be dropped.

  33. I think science can certainly inform aesthetics and moral judgments; whether it will ever be able to make ultimate judgments in these fields need await a comprehensive understanding of human consciousness — or rather a comprehensive understanding of the human brain/mind, including its conscious and unconscious processes (if, indeed, such a comprehensive understanding is possible at all).

    Scientific insight into aesthetics has been complicated by the advent of modern, conceptual art (what the playwright Tom Stoppard refers to as “imagination without skill”). Current science may well have insights to offer regarding the skill and technique (and maybe even musical judgment) of Mozart vs. Salieri — or of Coltrane vs. Parker vs. Getz — but science is a long way, I think, from offering much on the relative merits of, say, a Laurie Anderson vs. a Marina Abramović.

    BTW, I agree with you on the merits of Thomas Wolfe’s writing. Although he left a substantial body of work behind, Wolfe died young, at 37 — seven years younger than Fitzgerald, whose talent seemed dissipated, and whose best work may have been behind him, owing to his profligate lifestyle. Not so Wolfe, whose best work, and a fully mature style, probably still lay ahead. Even with his inchoate corpus, Wolfe compares favorably with Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway and others of that generation. Time will ultimately tell whose critical judgments of his work get to go home again.

  34. I don’t know what this Kolossváry guy is on or what his motive is, but he seems an accomodationist of the worst sort. He admits that religion is man-made but finds it such a “unique and precious human experience” that he just has to go after these damned new atheists who are trying to take this precious experience away from everyone.
    His arguments for “testing” art and religion don’t make any sense at all.

    “Jerry Coyne and the new atheists dismiss religion, because religion is based on faith and not fact. Interestingly, the new atheists, or nobody for that matter dismisses the arts, though.”

    No of course not, because nobody is arguing that “the arts” are “true” or are telling us anything about the reality of the cosmos, like religion claims to do. The arts can comment on that reality and give us various interesting insights for sure, but if somebody were to claim the “the arts” could cure disease, or bring eternal life, of are the basis of morality, than those claims would be rightfully dismissed by new atheists (and anyone with a brain).

    The whole idea of the human individual as a sensitive instrument in the scientific way doesn’t make any sense either. Because every individual is different, all measurements are subjective, which seems to me to be the opposite of the scientific method. Sure there will be some overlap, in that a majority of people will agree that for instance Rembrandt was a great painter, but only a small fraction of the arts will have clear outcomes like that.

    This just goes to show that even for an accomplished scientist, the love of religion can wreak havoc on their logical faculties.

    1. Exactly. If someone used Van Gogh’s Starry Night to claim that there is a canvas in the sky and the stars on it are painted on it with oil, then I can assure Kolossváry that we’d have a problem with it.

  35. Kolossváry’s arguments seems to be special pleading, for common sense in science and for religion in society.

    First, good luck using common sense opinion in science! Quantum mechanics and relativity are famous for being classically non-intuitive, with non-local effects (correlations between particles – entanglement – respectively time – time dilation). Even if you would try to constrain common sense when objectivity fails (but why) it is suspect and fully unsupported. The latter is the point of course.

    Second, Kolossváry’s religious special pleading doesn’t pass the smell test as per usual: ‘Democracy is a shared human response to society’s calling and it is a unique and precious human experience.’

    I wish religious apologists stopped using special pleading, it is so childish and so transparently self-defeating! So in summary: Kolossváry is yet another potentially good mind badly on religion, showing how absolute faith corrupts absolutely.

  36. Religions are in large part man made, especially in their every day manifestations at temples, churches, mosques, congregations, assemblies, etc.

    In large part man made? Which parts aren’t man made and how does Kolossváry know? Maybe if he reveals this information we can finally ascertain what the One True Religion is!

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