Response from Adam Gopnik in the “Ways of knowing” discussion

February 20, 2021 • 10:45 am

Adam Gopnik didn’t lose any time replying to my first argument, on the “Letters” site, that the empirical methods used by science are the only way to know the truth about the universe. (When I expressed surprise at how fast he answered, he said that, well, he’s used to working on a deadline. But he beat the deadline by five days: they expect only one letter a week.)

At any rate, you can read the first pair of letters by clicking on the screenshot below, and see Adam’s defense of literature as a “way of knowing.” I’m working on a reply now.

From now on I’m not going to call attention to each bout of our discussion because there will be at least six letters; the next thing you hear from me will be when the discussion is over. You can bookmark the site if you want to follow the interchange.  But I did want to call attention to the first two “letters”, for they contain the gist of our respective arguments.

This is fun. I get to engage someone who knows literature in depth as well as more science than the usual critic, and we are friendly and civil.

37 thoughts on “Response from Adam Gopnik in the “Ways of knowing” discussion

  1. I see Mr. Gopnik opens with an allusion to “the narcissism of small differences,” a phrase coined in Civilization and Its Discontents by your personal bête noire Herr Doktor Freud.

    So I sense at least one potential basis for disagreement percolating in the background. 🙂

  2. I wonder if the study Gopnik quotes, Darwin’s conclusions, and Gopnik’s personal observation had come to different conclusions, what then?

    1. I just came across this quote from Sabine

      I have a general comment about the difference between religion and science. Take an example from Christian faith, like Jesus healing the blind and lame. It’s a religious story, but not because it’s impossible to heal blind and lame people. One day we might well be able to do that. It’s a religious story because it doesn’t explain how the healing supposedly happens. The whole point is that the believers take it on faith. In science, in contrast, we require explanations for how something works

      I suppose this works for art and literature too.

  3. Some of Mr. Gopnik’s claims of theory is no more than a single finding by one study or attempt. The theory that married love endures when it is rooted in X, Y & Z. Now if this same study were tried many times over a period of time and resulted in the same conclusion you might reach a theory about enduring marriage but a theory after one study? This is not science and this is also not knowing.

  4. Gopnik’s letter puts forward some interesting ideas and is, as always, articulate. But it does bear (at least by Gopnikian standards) the hodge-podge quality of having been hastily written.

    But then, Gopnik is a professional writer (and, as he points out in his second paragraph, a freelancer at that). Anyone earning his daily bread in such a manner must parse his time carefully, bearing in mind Dr. Johnson’s dictum that “no one but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” 🙂

      1. I thought he was on The New Yorker staff, too, but in a parenthetical in the second paragraph of his letter-response to you, he makes reference to himself as “me a free-lance writer.” That’s what I was going on in my comment.

  5. Coyne serves up a hearty meal of steak and scalloped potatoes, holding up a piece of quartz describing it as a crystal composed of the following chemical compounds…

    Gopnik serves a tepid cup of weak tea and observes the piece of quartz is “pretty.”

    Sorry, Gopnik. As we say in Texas, “You all hat, no cattle.”

  6. Gopnik wants to raise up his “truth” to the level of scientific truth but fails miserably. Why should we attach much truth to relationships described in novels or poems? After all, the characters are fictitious and the author is usually trying to make the story interesting, not necessarily realistic. At best, such truth is anecdotal. Sometimes such works inspire the reader to reach their own conclusions but, even then, these thoughts are more about the reader’s own life. The truths reached by the reader may have little to do with those of the writer and their work. In short, there is no shared truth as there is with science.

    1. What we might learn about families by reading Dickens is only what we suspect might be true, or is what we already know to be true empirically anyway. If we think we know something from Dickens that we haven’t already figured out scientifically – broadly construed, per PCC(E) – then we don’t really know it.

    2. > Why should we attach much truth to relationships described in novels or poems?

      Entryism. I too doubt that studying the classics or English literature leads to unique insights into human nature. But those who do like to consider it improper that practical skills like understanding elementary statistics could confer a higher social status than literary expertise. Hence it is asserted that less cultured status usurpers are lacking something of immeasurable importance.

  7. I don’t know, I found Gopnik’s letter interesting and, to a limited extent, persuasive. Specifically:
    “…a full catalogue of all the forces falling on one family are too complex to be captured in a single decisive experiment. Only a novel or book of essays can do that.
    So: Do you want to understand the psychology of large families? Read Salinger. The nature and temptation of adultery? Ignore the psycho-analysts and read Flaubert. Interested in the way that organizations with dispersed power, like American universities, actually function? Read Trollope’s Barchester novels.” I’d only modify this by substituting C.P. Snow and David Lodge for Trollope,
    to bring us up to date. [And I would include “ignore the psycho-analysts” as a general rule, but
    that is another story, having to do with the difference between science and pseudoscience.]

    One might respond to Gopnik that the veracity of novels (and of probing psychological films, like
    Ingmar Bergman’s) brings them adjacent to, if not into, the category of “science broadly construed”.
    It is Gopnik who is emphasizing veracity as a value, rather than such aesthetic features as poetic

    1. Perhaps we should take Ayn Rand’s novels as gospel?

      Also is Kurt Vonnegut’s position on free will, sufficient to persuade us. Should it be?

    2. An author could still be explicit about his intention. I find that Animal Farm, though it reached a wide audience, could have been replaced by an essay explaining Orwell’s views on totalitarianism as practiced in the Soviet Union.

      Over the last few centuries the trend has moved away from expressing ideas in established literary forms like dialogues, poems and plays. Literature may have suffered a similar fate to philosophy in that it got hollowed out by science.

    3. It’s a reasonable point to make – that the humanities provide us with insight into – or knowledge about – complex human social networks and relationships.

      The problem is, in my understanding this isn’t what JAC is talking about since he limits his argument to the subject of “what is true in the universe”. Mr. Gopnick’s reply mostly concedes this point. Instead he argues that subjective understanding can be important and valuable too. However what Gopnick is talking about is what JAC classifies as “procedural knowledge.” How to connect with people in your culture is more like ‘how to play poker’ than ‘what’s the charge of an electron.’

      Is an understanding of the ins and outs of human society and family valuable? Yes. Important? Yes. Is it what Jerry was arguing about? No. It seems the first response mostly talks past JAC’s original post.


      As an aside, I was also annoyed that I had to read about 7 substantial paragraphs before he got to the philosophical point. You could chop everything before the statement “To make art a ‘question of taste’ is to forget that almost all we ever do is argue about taste” and there would be no loss of philosophical or argumentative content. And that statement pretty much encapsulates the problem. Yes, we spend a lot of time arguing about tastes. And such arguments can be very important. But they aren’t the topic Jerry wanted to argue.

      1. I kind of agree that Gopnik is changing the subject, but it’s a potentially legitimate move, because they disagree about what “science” means. Gopnik follows Popper, roughly, about how to demarcate science. Popper would probably agree that certain subjects are “not, to be blunt, as easily susceptible to experimental testing as scientific theories because they are just not as simple as the subjects that science studies.” Which makes it non-scientific, on Popper’s view.

        How broadly construed “science” should be, turns out to be the central difference. A purely verbal disagreement? Maybe, maybe not. There are clusters in thing-space, to use the terminology of a not-so-famous philosopher. (I wouldn’t totally agree with his analysis of how language and reference work, but it’s still very useful and insightful.)

        1. That is a pretty simple issue to deal with though for exchanging essays. If they can’t agree on some single way to define science, you “span the range.” I.e. you talk about how under definition X, plumbing counts but humanities don’t. Under definition Y, neither does. Under definition Z, both do.

          Philosophy uses this spanning approach regularly. i.e. you consider the range of situations, and if some claim or assertion fails in all of them, it’s wrong, even if you don’t definitively know which option you’re in.

    4. What on Earth makes you think that Salinger or Flaubert or Trollope have some sort of handle on the truth? How do we know Salinger teaches us truth about the psychology of large families? The answer is that we don’t. The ideas expressed in his novels are just his opinions. They may chime with your experience, but that doesn’t mean they express any universal truth about the World.

      This is where Gopnik’s whole argument falls apart. How do you know the “truths” expressed in literature really are truths? You have to compare them to the real world, and when you start doing that, you move into the realms of science.

  8. One might respond to Gopnik that the veracity of novels (and of probing psychological films, like Ingmar Bergman’s) brings them adjacent to, if not into, the category of “science broadly construed”.

    That recalls the assertion put forward by Steven Pinker in his controversial piece addressed to novelists and other practitioners of the humanities in The New Republic, “Science Is Not Your Enemy,” that the great thinkers of The Enlightenment — Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Leibniz, Kant, Smith — were “avid theorists in the sciences of human nature,” tantamount to “cognitive neuroscientists” and “evolutionary psychologists” of their time.

  9. How representative is Madam Bovary of adultery in society, and how would we know?

    It’s so long since I read MB, I no longer recall it, but, as Paul Topping observes @#6, art at best is anecdotal evidence. We still need to test the general ‘truth’ of individual works, either against our own individual, subjective experience with all its limitations or more objective sources. How else can we know the truthfulness or otherwise of Birth of a Nation or The Sound and the Fury?

    1. I recall reading a book years ago that advanced a Darwinian theory of literary interpretation (analyzing Othello, for example, in terms of jealousy driven by males’ differentia reproductive strategy) by the title Madam Bovary’s Ovaries.

      A clever title, I thought, setting out some provocative ideas, but somewhat strained as theory.

  10. I wouldn’t argue there are “different ways of knowing”. I think I would argue there are different kinds of knowledge,with different methods. In the Social Sciences, Weber argued for understanding human social action in terms of the values and goals of the actors themselves. That still calls for empirical investigation, but Weber contrasted his method with Durkheim’s Positivist approach to Sociology. I have always thought that Weber’s “verstehen” and Durkheim’s “Positivism” were two sides of the same coin. Then I think that knowing or understanding something about a poem or a work of art is different from understanding social or physical causation. All that noted, I always have to stifle an eye roll when someone mentions “different ways of knowing.”

  11. I haven’t read any of the Gopnik – Coyne exchanges, nonetheless, I think I have a definitive argument on the controversy.

    The methods used by science are the only ways of knowing, because anytime a method of knowing shows up, scientists pounce on it like a cheetah on an antelope.

    That is it. Nothing needs to be added, the debate ends with that sentence.


    Now, being who I am, I will add something nonetheless.

    In the truth arena, science fights no holds barred, she fights like a rabid bitch and and she takes no prisoners.

    Anything goes.

    Likewise, adepts of alternative medicines always tell you that mainstream medicine is close minded. The truth is : doctors have used aspirin for decades, perhaps even more than a century, before it was understood how it works. Doesn’t matter, if it works, they’ll use it.

    Anything goes.

    Whenever science is attacked, I may become emotional.

    1. I notice that no one has commented or elaborated on what I thought was a defintive answer.

      I take it as striking evidence that not only is no one convinced by it, but that it is so weak it should not even be dignified with an antagonist argument.

      Oh, well. So be it. I guess there’s a lesson for me there.

  12. Gopnik’s response reminded me of a pushback from Feynman:

    “…we get into that paralysis of thought that comes to philosophers, who sit opposite each other, one saying to the other, ‘You don’t know what you are talking about!’.

    “The second one says, ‘What do you mean by know? What do you mean by talking? What do you mean by you?’

    Toward the end, Gopnik wrote, “…we judge the ideas as we judge the books”, and there’s the vapid rub.

    Such “judgement” isn’t a method, as outlined in the professor’s opening letter: “[It] is a way of reflecting, not knowing.”

    1. A favored argument of philosophers is to declare their opposing views dead. “We have overcome post-structuralism. It’s dead (German: tooot)! As dead as anything can be.”

      Confusing language is also great, as it add to a certain mystique associated with great gurus. Make sure never to speak like a normal person, cultivate extravagant mannerisms and an unusual appearance. That will convince the critics that your ideas are important.

      1. Philosophers can call philosophies “dead” because they are dealing with the same human condition, regardless of the era. Only how they parse it changes. I’m not saying it has no value though.

  13. *Snicker* When it comes to Ways Of Knowing, I defer to that great American philosopher, Will Rogers: “There are three kinds of men. There’s a few who can learn by hearing or reading about something. And there’s them who can learn by seeing something happen to somebody else. Then there’s the rest of us who just have to p!ss on the electric fence for ourselves to learn that it’s a bad idea.”

  14. I’m looking forward to this exchange. Now that Gopnik has posted his riposte, I think it would a bit unfair for me to pile on him with refutations of his points because more letters are forthcoming and that would be Prof. Coyne’s job.

    All I will say is: $5 on Jerry!

  15. Adam Gopnik wrote a very quick response to Jerry’s initial letter. Because the response was so quick I am hoping the next may be better argued. I am looking forward to the back and forth. When someone proposes there is “another way of knowing” my reaction is to go look for something useful to occupy my time. This usually comes from a religious viewpoint or a ‘spiritual’ viewpoint. But since Jerry noted that some may claim that literature, art, and music can be “another way of knowing” I am curious to see if a reasonable argument in favor of this is possible. If there is no reasonable argument does that mean literature, art, and music are devoid of knowledge? In this case would reading a novel like Huckleberry Finn is just a good read, a funny and entertaining read? Or could there be something more to the story such as developing a different point of view? Could that be a kind of knowledge? Can the arts contain or express knowledge? If that is possible how would it come to be contained by the arts? I am not going to close off those possibilities until the exchange is done.

    Here is an example from my own reading. In high school I started reading Kafka, Gogol, Dostoyevsky, and similar authors. In Notes from the Underground, Dostoyevsky has a nameless character speaking from under the floorboards say, “…that man everywhere and at all times, whoever he may be, has preferred to act as he chose and not in the least as his reason and advantage dictated.” I lived in an exceptionally conformist society. The vast majority were LDS (something like 90% in 1964). Many of my neighbors were BYU professors. The pressure to conform seemed oppressive and it gnawed at me. The quote from Dostoyevsky set me on a course that felt like freedom. I was expelled from high school that year.

    Now I would say Dostoyevsky’s character was wrong about choosing but the idea still set me free. It was an insight, perhaps a nudge, perhaps a new neural connection, and my life started to change. Fifty six years later I call myself an independently impoverished man of leisure. Of course this is just an anecdote but I have heard others tell similar stories.

  16. In this “ways of knowing” controversy, it might be good to try to nail down exactly what constitutes knowledge by describing individual bits of it. I’m thinking science already does a pretty good job of this but perhaps not as much as scientists think. Perhaps non-science knowledge items will be a lot harder to nail down. When someone claims that a novel tells us about a certain kind of human relationship, what does a single bit of truth really say? In short, give us some examples.

  17. The prose is quite enjoyable, but Gopnik seems to be presenting either case studies or different ways of presenting knowledge, rather than different ways to knowledge. Case studies are valuable, certainly, but hardly non-science.

  18. Gopnik seems pretty much off point:
    The question is not about how humans communicate human knowledge, but where they get it from. Dickens, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Beethoven, and indeed Einstein and Darwin all had knowledge about humans. But it came because they had sight, hearing, etc., some direct, much from other humans, not because of some mystical nonsense about pure thinking or emoting.

    But surely Godel produced knowledge, as much as or more than the above list. It is far more than simply a language for science, a shallow but popular trope. In particular I’m referring to pure mathematical knowledge and pure logic, perhaps more generally. It is not merely some species of language.

    And so maybe Jerry Coyne’s definition of the activity called human science fails to be quite comprehensive enough, a matter of definition only, until one comes to this present debate.

  19. 1. Is there a single place we can all discuss this on this website? Since it will no longer be updated.

    2. ”… the profundity of the sciences.”

    At some point, the whole profundity thing gets in the way of accomplishing anything. While the products of the natural sciences might impress us as “far out” at first, at some point a decision has to be made : stare at it in a sort of daze, or think and ask what does this do, where do we go from here with it, what can we discover now?

    3. “The humanities are that part of human inquiry where the subjects are too complex and self-willed to be susceptible to strict experimental test. But they still remain rational … […] Most phenomenon that interest humanists are not, to be blunt, as easily susceptible to experimental testing as scientific theories because they are just not as simple as the subjects that science studies…”

    The notion that everything at any point in time is equally amenable to “experiment” is simply a gross confusion. And while some sort of experiment might be possible, the critical question is whether such an experiment should be done in the first place. And the assertion above begs the question (I think) of precisely which “experimental test” is proposed? How is that known? It isn’t, and there might be an experiment that a skilled scientist could propose to unravel the Gordian Knot which is apparently being sliced in two by “the humanities”, but how anyone is supposed to know and communicate what the problem or predictions are is unclear. Further, a robust way to know anything is separate, independent methods producing the same results. If there are more than one method proposed here, it is not clear what they are besides just more reading.

    And another thing : volume is not precision – just trying to compose an explanation of what is going on in this essay is taking too much writing. Likewise, defending Other Ways of Knowing by simply producing More Writings is a weak defense of OWoK or anything else.

    1. I just realized that science already meets the notion of “Other Ways of Knowing”, in what I mentioned above : that the independent methods of molecular biology, geology, and zoology (?), notably at different scales, produce the same conclusion of evolution by natural selection. That is a great example in any event, but there are more such agreements to be found.

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