A new letter to Adam Gopnik

February 28, 2021 • 10:30 am

As I wrote about two weeks ago, Adam Gopnik, a well-known writer who’s on staff at The New Yorker, is engaging me in an Internet discussion about “ways of knowing” on the “Conversation” site of Letter. I was going to post only when the exchange—which will involve either three or four letters each—was complete, but I decided that I’d let readers know as each letter goes up.  I’ve just posted my response to Adam, which is my second letter and #3 in the series at the website below (click on screenshot to read). Each week should see a new letter.

The discussion is mostly about literature, where Adam’s expertise lies, and whether knowledge can be discerned from literature alone. But I won’t go into the specifics, as our thoughts will be laid out for all to see. Feel free to comment below, though, and remember, this is a civil discussion between Adam and me, that we’re friends, and that comments should also be civil—even when critical of either of us.

70 thoughts on “A new letter to Adam Gopnik

  1. Literature is written thought. There is no limit to thinking: I give you Humpty Dumpty. The written word, whether it is scripture, literature or a scientific report, needs to be testable by investigation for a correspondence with observations in the Natural Realm.

  2. Before one gets to the “serious” stuff, a comment must be made about Adam Gopnik’s parenthetical characterization of the male members of his family: “The men in the family are the letdown.”

    I don’t see mention of Alexi Gopnik, proprietor of Augie’s Montreal Deli. No one could call Alexi a letdown. One could even say that his smoke meat dishes, when consumed, constitute a transcendent meeting of scientific truth in the preparation and “other ways of knowing” in the de gustibus recognition of the truth that that Augie’s smoke meats are hella toothsome.

    The two of you ought to make a pilgrimage to Augie’s and chew the fat there.

    Just last week I was quite surprised to learn about Wittgenstein’s beef with scientific truth: he considered the idea that science is the only way of knowing a supreme manifestation of philistinism, though upon reflection I shouldn’t have been surprised. I do not pretend to have the slightest understanding of Wittgenstein — I get stoned and read him as obscure poetry. His lapidary truisms seem almost like mystical revelations. I believe it was Zizek (don’t understand him either) who said that Wittgenstein was a mathematicosexual and masturbated to mathematical formulas. What’s the truth of that? There may be ‘higher truths’ in the speculation.

    1. Are we talkin’ early Tractatus Wittgenstein here, or late Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein?

      ‘Cause I’m not sure those two were even on speakin’ terms. 🙂

    2. Or are you talking about the Wittgenstein who completely misunderstood both of Godel’s incompleteness theorems? It’s all down there in his writing despite strenuous efforts of a few people who should know better to deform Ludwig’s words into something he doesn’t say. John von Neumann realized how little effort Wittgenstein had put into really knowing much mathematics.

      Perhaps Zizek is correct if the implication is something to actually do with sexual arousal, though probably it isn’t. If not, what does it mean?

      There is nothing that gives me more inclination to dismiss a lot of philosophy, likely unfairly at times, than these surveys among philosophers which place Ludwig W. as the wprld’s greatest philosopher of the 20th century. Ray Monk can write a few hundred pages of hagiographic word spinning about the man without including a single intellectual advance W. ever made.

  3. Well, at this point Mr. Gopnik’s task reminds me of a line by one of Philip Roth’s alter-egos in one of Philip Roth’s novels: “Literature got me into this, and literature is gonna have to get me out.”

    Gotta admit, stacked though the deck seems to be, as a Lit lover, part of me is rootin’ for him.

          1. If memory serves, the Roth alter-ego who spoke the words in question wasn’t Alexander Portnoy, but Peter Tarnopol.

            But, in keeping with your Portnoy’s theme, let’s go with the closing line by Dr. Spielvogel, Alexander’s psychoanalyst: “So, now vee are perhaps to begin. Yes?”

            (Seems apropos to our host’s exchange with Mr. Gopnik, no?)

  4. Our host concedes two points to Adam, in a way: “The empirical method for determining truth and knowledge doesn’t rely solely on experiments. Observations, even without experimental manipulation, are critical.” I think literature, whether in the novels of Dickens or the films of Kurosawa, could be thought of as observations by observers who are keener observers and better reporters than most of us. So maybe literature broadly construed is in a sense analogous to natural history in science.

    And what is it that these writers and film-makers observe and report on? Here too, our host mentions it but tends to glide past: it is the ability to enter imaginatively into the minds of other beings. This, which is what autists struggle with and sociopaths (like certain recent public figures) seem to lack entirely, is the arena of literature. It is what
    psychologists call “theory of mind”. As PCC(e) concedes, by offering “insight into other minds, art is doing something that science can’t.”

    What I wonder about is whether music and visual art do something similar, but in forms of message coding that go right past (or perhaps are neurologically deeper?) than the language form.

    1. How do you know that these wonderful novelists and film makers were observing and reporting on their observations? How do you know they weren’t just conjuring up ideas out of their imaginations?

      How do you know art really offers an “insight into other minds”? You don’t.

    2. This is a discussion and opportunity for mutual learning, not a debate in which somebody’s supposed to win. What you call “concessions” are simply me expanding on my views in light of what Adam said, not admitting that I was wrong. And when did I ever say that art doesn’t do anything that science couldn’t, as you imply in the second paragraph? Of course it does. Nobody weeps when reading the human genome like they weep when watching “Now, Voyager” or listening to Beethoven.

      As for taking literature as natural history, I disagree. For literature is FICTION. How do you know which bits are made up and which are true? You have to check against nature, i.e. use the empirical method. The same goes for a single person’s observation of an animal behavior. To become “knowledge,” it has to be checked by others and verified.

      1. In fiction, I grant that all the parts are made up. But much of the psychology revealed by the fiction might be “true” in the sense of being a true insight into human character and behavior. And I suggest that we do check and verify this, in a way—that is what the readers do, in their response to the literature. So the general audience response to a work of literature might be sort-of analogous to replicating an experiment. Maybe truth to human nature is what distinguishes serious and great literature from all the dreck that everyone forgets in a short time.

    3. “Our host concedes …..The empirical method for determining truth and knowledge doesn’t rely solely on experiments. Observations…”

      I don’t think regarding astrophysics/astronomy as science is in any way a concession.

      To come down from the clouds, neither is looking both ways to observe before crossing a busy street unusual, compared to a plumber experimenting with the hot versus the cold taps.

    4. To expand on your second point, literature gives us hypotheses that we might never have thought of on our own. As PCC(e) wrote,

      Trollope sketches academic personalities we can still recognize today, people to whom we can relate. Yet relating isn’t knowledge: it’s recognition and crystallization of pre-existing opinion.

      To our host, only the verification step counts as a “way of knowing”. Whereas to Gopnik, I’m pretty sure that discovery, including discovery of fruitful hypotheses, counts as part of our way of knowing.

      Thus, my take: this is a purely verbal dispute, which will last only until the above difference (along with any others that may be in play) is recognized.

      1. I largely agree, but would dispute whether discoveries in science by non-scientists who happen to be great producers of literature, music, etc. have anything to do with their ‘professions’. They, you, I and every eventual scientist did each discover a fact of science (not unconnected to gravity) when at the age of approximately 1 year old and learning to walk, we fell over backwards and gave the back of our skulls a bit of an unpleasant smack. Did Dostoevsky ever obtain his considerable knowledge in any way other than essentially that, or in learning by communicating with other humans, or perhaps even in deliberately experimenting in a minor way?

      2. I apologize for commenting so much on one post but I can no longer resist.

        “… discovery of fruitful hypotheses“

        It appears now the meaning of “discovery” needs to be explained, or is assumed to be a vague definition that might be on the internet, or a quotidian notion of discovery. What I had in mind every time I wrote “discovery” on this website, was the idea of discovery as suggested by the list of Nobel prizes in science, for instance. Hypotheses are not discovered. That would be like claiming anything anyone happens to think of is discovered.

        To add “fruitful” to “hypotheses” is to beg the question how the hypothesis was “fruitful” in the first place. The reason hypotheses are validated as “fruitful” has everything to do with the many, independent ways of knowing what is true in nature made available from the natural sciences, mathematics, measurement, prediction, and problem solving. Discovery with these tools has created knowledge where it did not exist before, and the knowledge can be recombined to solve new problems and uncover new knowledge out of the unknown. While it is true these things are at root generated all in the mind, the mind cannot simply will them into existence the way a story, poetry, or music are, being products of experience.

        In everyday life, a clear example would be the work of every medical professional involved in curing one person’s disease by discovering the unknown disorder, applying technology, and hopefully curing an individual patient, when they might have died otherwise. The personal experience of any one person in that endeavor is a necessary but insufficient condition for the result.

        1. Discovery in the quotidian sense, yes.

          Your second paragraph seems keen to point out that fruitfulness of a hypothesis is only determined after it is posited, and that scientific methods are needed for such verification. You are right of course.

          1. OK,…

            “fruitfulness of a hypothesis is only determined after it is posited”

            Yes,… but usually there are a number of interesting hypotheses… and the number gets reduced… and it is by necessity that a living person is using neurons at some point in there, doing philosophy and cogitation on the whole thing… but that is not sufficient to cross validate a hypothesis which is true.

  5. Nullis in verbia

    The Royal Society’s motto, on no one’s word. If a product of the humanities is true, it is incumbent (?) on the world to identify this as true, by methods independent from the original work.

    But that will never happen in the humanities because music is music, literature is literature. That which is expressed in Beethoven’s 9th is not verified as true by any piece of literature – two completely independent activities.

    Darwin’s evolution by natural selection is observed and expanded upon at all biological scales, from molecular to zoological – genuine, independent ways of knowing and verifying observations of Nature.

    Science already has other ways of knowing, and will still be there after we are not. The humanities never will have other ways of knowing because they are products of our experience and disappear without us.

  6. I have thought that one can learn everything one needs to know about human behavior and psychology by reading Shakespeare’s plays. No need for textbooks or courses.
    OTOH, I don’t believe could learn immunology (my speciality) by reading Camus.

  7. The correspondence between our host and Gopnik is fascinating, although I find PCC(E)’s arguments more compelling. I loved the “Let me add that on his wedding night, Darwin was writing notes about turnips” remark; although I can’t help wondering what Freud might have made of that using his own “way of knowing”.

  8. An interesting exchange. Perhaps some of the confusion arises because there is but one way to establish knowledge (science—meaning experiment, observation and logic) but several ways to disseminate and communicate knowledge. As an individual, I did not gain knowledge by doing experiments, but by learning about the discoveries of others. (Standing on the shoulders of giants.) Most of us do not get our knowledge directly by doing science or by reading scientific papers, but by schooling, popular science articles, and even fiction. Some of us even got knowledge (and some erroneous knowledge) by watching Star Trek. Often, great literature illuminates the human condition as well, if not better, than a textbook on psychology. Dostoevsky was a great observer of human nature. So collectively, the only way of knowing is science, but individually there are many ways of knowing.

    I know I am being Captain Obvious here.

    1. “So collectively, the only way of knowing is science, but individually there are many ways of knowing.”

      How have the findings of Dostoevsky been verified by methods independent from those used by Dostoevsky?

      What precisely did Dostoevsky discover, and what predictions has it made?

      1. Dostoevsky has been described as “the greatest psychologist in literature.” He was an astute observer of human behavior and it informed his writing. He was not a scientist, but he did not have to be. One can certainly learn something about the darker side of the human psyche by reading his work. You can google dostoevsky and psychology to find examples. Do not forget there were no psychologists at the time except Wundt. IMO, Dostoevsky had a better understanding of human nature than Freud, who came much later.

        1. That is interesting to know – many great writers have been likened to psychologists, but what are the discoveries or predictions of the writing? What problems did the writing solve?

          If Dostoevsky had not been born, would anyone else have written Crime and Punishment? Not in the way that the structure of DNA would have been discovered eventually, independent of the personalities who discovered it, using a number of independent methodologies.

          1. I doubt that Dostoevsky solved any problems. That wasn’t his thing. But if he learned about human behavior by observing, that would be a type of knowledge which he conveyed through the behavior of the subjects in his novels. He may well have had original insights, which he communicated to his readers. His observations of human nature probably led him to form some sort of informal “theory” about how humans are. This is the same as PCC’s claim that plumbers do science.

            Yes, I agree that artistic creations are intimately tied to the artists. Had Dostoevsky never lived, Crime and Punishment or anything like it would not exist either. But if Watson and Crick never lived, DNA would most certainly have been discovered.

  9. I’ve said this before, but it deserves repeating. According to that great American philosopher, Will Rogers, “There are three kinds of men. There’s a few who can learn something by reading or being told about it, There’s a few more who can learn by watching somebody else do something. And then there’s all the rest of us, who just have to p!ss on the electric fence ourselves to figure out that it’s a bad idea.”

  10. Or you could try this… use ‘knowledge’ for scientific knowledge and ‘enlightenment’ for those insights and/or wisdom arising from other means. ‘Enlightenment’ may, of course, not be factual but it can be satisfying and even useful.

    Of course there are a lot of people who produce or consume literature / poems / scripture / films who value their ‘enlightenment’ more than mundane facts.

  11. A very interesting discussion. I find the characterisation of art as a ‘way of knowing’ a bit odd. It seems to imply that people would turn to Tolstoy’s War and Peace to learn about the Napoleonic Wars rather than to enjoy a great work of literature. What I find a more conductive way of thinking about art is to see it as a way of playing. To stick to literature, I love it when historical novels get the facts right but what makes me want to read them is that the story is well crafted, imaginative and therefore inherently counterfactual. And that is very liberating (and, as has happened to PCC(E), gets one to think and reassess things). I am ready to stick my neck out and claim that this playfulness is what makes art. And of course, once one starts playing with ideas and putting in observations from real life, one may come up with testable hypotheses – but those still need to be verified to become knowledge.

    1. Science as we know it is relatively new. The Enlightenment developed natural sciences (natural philosophy) in important ways. And of course there was knowledge and natural sciences in antiquity – there wouldn’t have been an agricultural revolution, for one thibg.

      https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Science

        1. What is your point?

          Science already demonstrates other ways of knowing. Molecular biology and zoology are independent modes of inquiry by which the rules of evolution natural selection are not only known but used to make discoveries.

          Which obvious discoveries and independent methods are you trying to describe?

          1. I was just answering the main question of this topic. That’s rather obvious. What is your point?

            So you say, science demonstrates that there are other ways of knowing, but if science didn’t demonstrate that, there would be no other ways of knowing? So science determines what is knowing and what is not?

            Is that your point?

            Knowledge theory is a branch of philosophy rather than science. So this kind of reasoning easily falls flat on its face.

            1. “It’s rather obvious that the methods of science are not the only way of knowing.

              ….

              Knowledge theory is a branch of philosophy rather than science. So this kind of reasoning easily falls flat on its face.”

              Is that the obvious discovery that was made independent of empirical scientific inquiry? Knowledge theory?

              1. What is knowledge and what is not is a philosophical question rather than a scientific one. For instance, falsification is a philosophical concept used to identify scientific theories. It implies that you can never prove a scientific theory to be true, but that you might be able disprove it, and in this way knowledge increases.

            2. I wouldn’t say knowledge theory (epistemology) is philosophy rather than science. Rather, when done well, it’s philosophy and it’s science broadly conceived. And yes, science broadly conceived is a thing, about which Jerry is, broadly speaking, right. (Don’t pardon the pun, it was intentional, and I’m a repeat offender.)

              1. If epistemology is science then what are the measurements it uses, problems it has solved, independent methods used to cross validate them, discoveries it has made, and how are they independent of any one person’s experience?

                I’m not sure “broadly construed” was meant to include pure philosophical explorations which do not have tangible counterparts outside the mind. It was for plumbers, electricians, or mechanics, for instance.

              2. Psychology, math (especially probability theory), and history of science all bear strongly on epistemology. For the methods and discoveries, turn to those fields.

              3. Right, Bayes’ Theorem, likelihood, and disease. Great stuff. I know about that. Never saw an example of … whatever is being pointing at here, precisely. I only ever saw numerous examples of using observation to update prior probabilities to make decisions on disease, locations of lost sea ships, molecular modeling, maybe locations of fossils. Unless, if I gather, epistemology already was doing that before Bayes theorem and likelihood was developed and applied, and then computers could apply even more extensively after they became powerful enough.

              4. If you use probability theory and psychology to figure out how human beings can better approximate perfect Bayesian reasoning, you’re doing epistemology. If you research the history of science, such as the replication crisis in the social sciences and the research protocols that were put in place to tame the problems, and you ask how effective those are and how they can be improved, you’re doing epistemology.

              5. “If you use probability theory and psychology to figure out how human beings can better approximate perfect Bayesian reasoning, you’re doing epistemology.“

                I see. Fair enough.

              6. If I may follow up – in general, but I reply just here:

                The way the philosophy and science in this discussion is settling in my mind suggested a metaphor – please feel free to destroy it (it is also a run-on sentence but please bear with):

                Philosophy – and perhaps philosophy broadly construed with literature/written language – by necessity developing before science and mathematics ( not exactly sure about that ), is analogous to the BIOS or firmware (assembly I guess) running on the chips in the computer, at the most fundamental level, while layers above that – operating system (linux, in C), then the interpreted languages like python, that perform the work a user wants to do in the tangible world, are analogous to science and mathematics (at least).

                Everything has to be running simultaneously, integrated, or nothing works. However, there are important demarcations between these layers, whereby it is impossible for the user languages to do the work of the operating system or BIOS. Likewise the other way. The metaphor breaks with some things though. The point is that philosophy is the BIOS. I don’t know where writing or literature would go unless construed as perhaps a top-down science or medicine before psychiatry was developed.

              7. Broadly speaking, we have ideas and experience and use them to understand reality and to make predictions. For instance, it would be unwise to approach a pack of hungry wolves. Based on past experience one might infer this. Science is a specific formal method established in the realm of knowledge theory. And it is really stupid to say, that beyond science, there is no way of knowing. That was my argument to begin with.

        2. “It’s rather obvious that the methods of science are not the only way of knowing.”

          Equally obvious is that the earth does not rotate on its axis; and that humans have no common ancestor with maple trees.

          Actually, I guess a new way of knowing X is to say or write ‘It’s rather obvious that X’, for any X whatsoever. One minor problem for you to work on is that ‘X’ could be replaced by ‘not X’.

  12. “What I see as “knowing” or “knowledge” is simply the justified belief of rational, independent observers about what is true in the universe.” – J. Coyne

    1. Truth is an essential condition of knowledge, so no justified belief is knowledge unless it is true.

    2. Your definition of “knowledge” seems to exclude introspective knowledge. Introspection is a basic empirical source of psychological knowledge of one’s mind or consciousness. Its data are private or (ontologically) subjective; that is, they aren’t (directly) accessible to and verifiable by other observers from the third-person perspective, but introspection is nonetheless a source of knowledge. It is not the case that only publicly or intersubjectively accessible and observable data or facts are knowable.

    1. I dealt with both these points in my first letter. According to my definition of knowledge–the one we’re using for literature and science–that kind of introspection is NOT knowledge. That’s why I did all the definition in my first letter.

  13. “Now let me qualify two kinds of “knowledge” as being largely irrelevant to our debate. The first is private or subjective knowledge. It can be superstitious, like “I know God exists”, purely subjective, like “I am in pain”, or more perceptual, like “there’s a cat on my lap.” Such claims may in principle constitute knowledge, but only when supported by empirical evidence.” – J. Coyne

    If your definition of knowledge isn’t meant to include introspection-based psychological knowledge, then so be it (in which case it isn’t a general definition)—but:

    Introspection counts as an empirical source of knowledge, so my introspective awareness of my pain is empirical evidence for my belief that I am in pain; and no additional epistemic support in terms of extrospective, third-person empirical evidence is required in order for my introspection-based belief to become knowledge.

    There’s a conceptual confusion: So-called “subjective knowledge” is often nothing but subjective certainty, as in “I know God exists”; and there isn’t anything epistemologically objective about subjective certainty, which isn’t a kind of knowledge at all. But when I am in pain and introspectively know I am, then my knowledge is epistemologically objective despite my pain’s being ontologically subjective. That is, there is epistemologically objective knowledge of ontologically subjective facts (such as my being in pain), which aren’t observable from the third-person perspective.

    “It is important to emphasize that you can have epistemically objective knowledge of a domain that is ontologically subjective. It is for this reason that an epistemically objective science of ontologically subjective consciousness is possible.”

    (Searle, John. “Biological Naturalism.” In The Blackwell Companion to Consciousness, 2nd ed., edited by Susan Schneider and Max Velmans, 327-336. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2017. p. 328)

    1. I’m not going to argue beyond this post. My definition of knowledge is the one most philosophers use: “Justified true belief”. It doesn’t include “introspection based psychological knowledge” because that is not the kind of “knowledge” that Adam and I are arguing about. He is not maintaining that you learn from literature stuff like “I am in pain.” He is talking about facts about the universe, and so am I. This philosophical pilpul is completely irrelevant to our discussion.

      1. Okay, now you generally define “knowledge” as “justified true belief”; but—for the sake of precision—the latter is *not* synonymous with what you write in your first letter—”justified belief of rational, independent observers about what is true in the universe”—, which doesn’t contain the essential truth-condition of knowledge. (Justified belief about what is true isn’t the same as true justified belief!)

    2. “Introspection counts as an empirical source of knowledge, so my introspective awareness of my pain is empirical evidence for my belief that I am in pain”

      What do we do with this observation?

      We tell a person who studied medicine and performed a residency. What for? To solve the problem of the pain’s origin. The doctor will measure phenomena, quantitate them, suggest hypotheses for what the observation means, look for other clues to potentially save the patient from harm.

      What is that called?

      What is it when we take observations from introspection and do not use independent means to determine their significance or origin?

    3. Oliver S – I am fascinated by your replies.
      Seem spot on. (Funnily, my daugter is currently studying Descartes, JJC Smart, Nagel, Chalmers etc, and your post is eerily relevant).
      For another day, I would love to get your take on the sensation of colour as a brain state (Smart) as opposed to something above and beyond all the empirical evidence for a colour still leaving the subjective knowldege of the colour as…(mind (I am not a dualist!!), property dualism, physicalism etc etc).
      Sorry all – just indulging.
      Carry on.

  14. When art in general and literature in particular is called a source of knowledge, then the source of knowledge in question is testimony: artistic or literary testimony.

    In the broad epistemological sense of the term, testimony is virtually any instance of somebody being told by somebody else (or indirectly by something created by somebody else) that something is the case or true, i.e. “propositional telling” (“x tells y that p”) as opposed to “imperatival telling” (“x tells y to do z”)—”telling that is roughly a matter of saying the kind of thing from which we learn facts from other people.” (Robert Audi)

    Testimony (testimonial telling) can be indirect and mediated by works of art or literature. An author can tell me that something is the case through his texts; so both the author and the text can be called a “teller”, which means that tellers in the epistemologically relevant sense needn’t be persons.

    Moreover, testimony can take place non-linguistically. For example, a painting of Charles Darwin can tell me (truly) that he had a beard. In this sense, paintings can be non-linguistic sources of knowledge.

    Works of art or literature are sources of knowledge if and only if they truly tell people something about reality.

    A crucial question is whether testimony in general, and artistic or literary testimony in particular is a *basic*, *fundamental* source of knowledge; and the answer is no, because it depends on other sources of knowledge: sensory perception, introspection, and memory.

    1. “… and the answer is no, because it depends on other sources of knowledge: sensory perception, introspection, and memory.“

      Those are properties of individual experience, and do not exist when, by definition, experience ends.

      What is known to be true in nature like evolution by natural selection is independent of any particular person’s experience, such that anyone else would discover it eventually, as Darwin and Wallace’s independent conclusions for evolution show.

      The structure of DNA would be another example with competing groups showing, overall, only one model to be true. The knowledge exists independent of the experience of the individual discoverers and is used to make new discoveries about previously unsolvable problems – about the unknown. Pure philosophy is at best a spectator to such problem solving.

  15. I just happened upon a quote that is worth noting – but I think it’s a tad over the top :

    “There are, indeed, two things, knowledge and opinion, of which the one makes its possessor really to know, the other to be ignorant.”

    -Hippocrates of Cos, c. 460 BC – 377 BC
    Source : https://en.m.wikiquote.org/wiki/Hippocrates

    … predates Nullius in Verba by quite a bit though, .. and then there’s the Alexandria library thing that might have been a problem…

  16. here’s a quote attributed to Peter Medawar :

    “There is no quicker way for a scientist to bring discredit upon himself and on his profession than roundly to declare — particularly when no declaration of any kind is called for — that science knows or soon will know the answers to all questions worth asking, and that the questions that do not admit a scientific answer are in some way non-questions or pseudo-questions that only simpletons ask and only the gullible profess to be able to answer.”

    -Peter Medawar????
    Source : https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/3364853.Peter_Medawar

    1. Well, as to Medawar’s 2nd half, it’s clearly counterproductive to call someone a “gullible simpleton” if you wish to change their mind about something.

      But did he give any convincing examples of questions “worth asking” which cannot “admit a scientific answer”?

      1. I don’t know if this is a verified quote – goodreads is iffy. It’d be useful to know the source for background.

    1. “… And literature is the origin of the modern scientific method.“

      This appears to be true and trivial.

      “[Question:] Why do you call literature a technology?

      [Answer:]
      A technology is any human-made thing that solves a problem. Literature tackles [the problem of] how to master ourselves. It wrestles with the psychological problems inside us. “

      Maybe I missed it, or need the book (?), but I did not see any examples of problems that were solved by the application of written language – “literature” – alone, nor is there a definition of what, precisely, the forms of a solution would take, in this context. As such, all literature appears to be able to do is “wrestle”, indefinitely. Psychiatry might be more productive for this. I do not see how expression of thought in writing or literature can be categorized as technology.

      1. I guess the writer might suggest the section headed ‘Do you think a need for literature is baked into our evolutionary nature?’ goes some way towards an answer. He mentions a ‘need for meaning’ as one potential problem to which a particular work of literature might be a potential solution. The problem will of course only be a problem to someone who has that problem, and the solution may not work, or may not work in the same way, for everyone. But that lack of universality shouldn’t disqualify that particular work of literature from counting as a technological artefact.

        Another potential ‘problem’, less generic than a ‘need for meaning’, could be ‘How to develop empathy and imaginative engagement in the members of our community?’ I don’t think it stretches credulity to see, say, at least some 19th Century novels as ways of addressing something like this.

        At a perhaps more prosaic extreme the components of a particular poetic style could also count as a technology. Before writing existed things needed to be remembered (tribal histories, what behaviours counted as praiseworthy etc), and conventions like rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, repetition and so on helped create content which could be remembered and repeated and so passed on from one generation to the next.

        1. “He mentions a ‘need for meaning’ ”

          I recall the notion of the meaning of life has been discussed on this website. As I recall, it didn’t turn out well for meaning, or for us.

          I note that the question as put forward does not explain how we know meaning must exist, or that it is certain to be found, like a diamond the size of a refrigerator buried in the backyard (I learned that idea from Sam Harris’ writing).

          I’ll read some of this book Wonderworks anyway, to see how confused it is to pitch the humanities as just one more letter in the SHTEAM acronym that they use in preschool.

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