Another letter in my exchange with Adam Gopnik

March 18, 2021 • 9:45 am

Over at the “Letter” section of The Conversation site, I’ve posted another response in my continuing discussion with writer Adam Gopnik about “Ways of Knowing”. The topic is in the screenshot below, and you can see my latest (“Letter 5”) by scrolling down.

My letter doesn’t need a gloss, as the whole conversation is self-explanatory. I think that we’ll finish with a total of eight letters—four each—with me writing one more piece and then Adam finishing off the discussion after writing two more letters.

22 thoughts on “Another letter in my exchange with Adam Gopnik

  1. *Snort* Science is not a “way of knowing”; it’s a way of *testing* what you think you know. Why is there such a push to denigrate science these days?

    1. LF this is the most sensible clearheaded comment I’ve heard so far. And brief. Thanks. Science is the orderly arrangement of observation arranged rationally around an initial less thorough or more sparse set of observations, or idea. Where the original idea came from is anybody’s guess- intuition, wild guess, rumination on experience- but founded upon a lesser proportion of consciously rationally organised repeatable observation. If you are beginning a new field then the possibilities seem endless or it can lead to a mental block.! You may not know even the right tools or etc etc. Or the reality actually may be so far from the preconception that it all is just baffling.How many iterations did the map of our solar system go through. Many examples.
      In many fields it just ain’t possible to do orderly, organised observations or nobody has figured out how yet.
      And the discussion/ argument here hinges on different understandings of the meaning/application of the word know– and I submit all are valid and indispensable .I know how to play the piano,,, ride a bike.. finding your way across familiar could say it also involves multiple observations to acquire but it is not consciously rationally organised observation. The only rule is– just keep going.
      –So science is a refinement of basic intelligence–another tool – but not the only tool. And not usable in all circumstances.

  2. It needs to be said : this format is excellent for this topic – almost precisely life, the universe and everything! My thoughts are percolating, changing, re-settling, and so on. Important and valuable!

  3. Gopnik is a very smart guy; I’ve read quite a few of his essays and he’s clearly a skilled prose stylist and for the most part a very clear thinker. But he has, so far as I can tell, no clue about how science actually proceeds.

    This makes it difficult to resolve anything in a dialogue like this, because there really isn’t a common ground. Gopnik has obviously read a fair amount about science, and the philosophy of science, but in this backing and forthing between Jerry and Gopnik I get the strong impression a conversation between an experienced ski racer/ski instructor and someone who has read a score of books and innumerable articles about ski technique and watched films of people skiing, but has actually never had a pair of skis on his feet—yet *thinks* he knows everything that he needs to know in order to carry on an argument about the right way to ski deep powder or a super-steep slope.

    1. I want to make it clear: I’m not disrespecting Gopnik—it’s just that people based in the humanities are coming in with what seem to them a natural view of the world, where the ‘Aha!’ moment is in a sense self-validating. The ‘Aha’ moment in the practice of science is in contrast just the beginning of the
      work—your brilliant insight might go down the tube overnight. Scientists are used to that grinding process of problem, insight and then the struggle to support (or disconfirm)—and I don’t think that it’s possible to get a sense of how integral that is to the process of pressure-testing ideas without having actually *done* science.

      The two cultures are as far apart as they ever were, is what seems to be coming out of this exchange, and I’m afraid that it’s in the nature of things that they can never be bridged….

    2. I agree TL and think this is generally the problem with debates between disciplines – one person will have a rudimentary understanding or even a caricature of the other’s field of expertise and the discussion crumbles quickly into oversimplified straw-manning.

  4. In the end, this way of finding “knowledge” in literature is a kind of confirmation bias, in which one sees “knowledge” in only those ideas one finds congenial.

    I tend to agree with everything said in your most recent letter, save for its penultimate sentence above. I’ve certainly had the experience of having my mind opened to new vistas by novels, of considering viewpoints I’d never entertained before, even of having my outlook changed.

    I’m not claiming that constitutes “knowledge” in any scientific sense, but it’s certainly more than mere “confirmation bias.”

    1. Not sure I understand your comment – certainly more than mere confirmation bias. I suppose if the novel changed your outlook it might be more?

    2. Two points. First, the novelist may well convey knowledge even if the knowledge is not original to the author. Hey, most of what I know, or think I know, I read in books, not doing experiments. Second, novelists as astute observers of the human condition may well do science informally, just as car mechanics analyzing a needed repair are doing science informally. I pointed this out earlier with respect to Dostoevsky who has been described as literature’s “greatest psychologist”. So it is the methods of science, whether done formally in a lab, or informally in a city park watching birds, that leads to knowledge.

      1. “the novelist may well convey knowledge even if the knowledge is not original to the author”

        This is an interesting observation. Novelists may describe things from the real world, things they personally observed or things they have learned about in other ways. Of course, this doesn’t make writing a novel a matter of “doing science” but the novel might describe, for example, science being done. If I learned how science was done by such a novel, I will have gained some knowledge about the universe.

        I recall a book we bought for our son when he was young, The Number Devil. It takes the form of a novel but teaches the reader quite a lot about mathematics. The same could go for any subject.

    3. Yes, but if you’d read my first two letters, you’d see that I agree with you. But Adam maintains that “opening one’s mind to new vistas” is not “knowledge”. He means the term more or less the same way I do: justified true belief (about facts about the world).

      The confirmation bias enters, as I said in what I just put up, in what “theory” one chooses to accept as “knowledge.” It appeared to me that Adam accepted those “theories” (philosophies, really) that resonate with how he views the world.

      1. Agreed absolutely. There are, after all, people who find Adam’s kind of “knowledge” in the works of Ayn Rand.

  5. @Jerry Coyne: In your third letter you write: “I’d be interested in hearing what ‘knowledge’ can be extracted from painting or music.”

    As for music (musical perception), here’s an answer by James Young:

    “Music is expressive of emotion, arouses emotion, and, consequently,…represents emotion. The anti-formalist holds that we cannot understand the full aesthetic value of music unless we take into account the content it has qua representational art. As a result of being a representational art, music is able to provide (as many perceptive commentators on music, including some of the greatest composers, have observed) psychological insight into emotion and character. This capacity of music to provide psychological insight is the source of its capacity for profundity. Music can be about the emotional life and character of humans, and this is a profound subject.”
    (pp. 174-5)

    “For a start, music provides us with knowledge of what emotions are like. Music provides us with knowledge about a wide range of human emotions: all of the emotions that it can arouse.”
    (p. 176)

    “The capacity of music to provide knowledge of what it is like to experience an emotion or emotions is part of what makes music rewarding; that is, aesthetically valuable, at least for many listeners. As [Jerrold] Levinson says, listening to a variety of musical works, ‘We become cognoscenti of feeling, savoring the qualitative aspect of emotional life for its own sake.’ Music can lay out before us the panoply of human emotion and let us know what each is like.”
    (pp. 176-7)

    “[T]he content of a work of music cannot be fully captured in propositional terms. That is, from a work of music, audiences do not acquire knowledge that some proposition about emotion is true. Rather, a work of music conveys knowledge of what experience of some emotion is like by arousing the emotion in us. Music shows us what emotion is like rather than telling us something about emotion. We acquire the knowledge about emotion that music conveys in the only possible way: by feeling emotions. The cognitive significance of music lies in the knowledge of what it is like to feel these emotions.”
    (p. 177)

    “Only when we see that music is the source of insight into emotion can a complete account be given of the aesthetic value of music. Music is (at least for some people) rewarding as a source of intellectual puzzles. Many people enjoy the sensations and emotions that music arouses. Only, however, as a source of insight into the interior human emotional life can music be profound. The achievement of the great musician is more valuable than the achievement of even the greatest vintner, perfumer, or creator of chess problems. The greater value of the musician’s achievement cannot be explained if music only pleases our senses and provides the opportunity to play intellectual games. Only when it is recognized that music has content can the relatively greater importance of the musician’s achievement be explained.”
    (p. 182)

    (Young, James O. Critique of Pure Music. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.)

    1. I appreciate these quotes, but in my view experiencing emotions, even new ones, is only a form of subjective ‘knowledge’–not the kind of knowledge that I define as “justified true belief.” All of those quotes simply say that in Young’s view, ‘knowledge’ is experiencing an emotion. And each person will have a different form of that “knowledge” so there isn’t anything to it except different feelings that occur in different people. I’d like to hear from Young one example of a fact about nature that can be derived from music alone.

  6. I have to admit that I think the idea that literature is a “way of knowing,” meaning that it is a methodology by which new facts about the world can be discovered and validated analogous to the way science does, is a bit silly. I think literature is clearly a form of communication.

    To me this does not in any way lower the value of literature. Literature does not have to be a way of knowing comparable to science in order to be important or worthy of respect. Communication is extremely important. For one example, being exposed to other points of view, particularly in a way that engenders empathy, is arguably a critical tool in achieving and maintaining a decent society. Literature excels at that.

  7. The word ‘know’ has been around at least several thousand years in various forms-at least the western root has. Many other languages much longer. Modern science cannot, at one fell swoop claim sole ownership it. Is that not cultural appropriation?LOL
    The scientific use refers only to a way of acquiring knowledge and is as susceptible to shortcomings as the folks who employ it as is any other discipline.MTCW.

  8. This letter was the strongest. Hit it out of the park. I’d want to add a couple things.

    • a consequence of the provisional truth in science is worth considering: antibiotics are products of science ; science is always provisional ; so antibiotics are provisional. This should make clear what “provisional” means for scientific truth.

  9. When in need of shorthand to make sense of naturalism I’ve long relied on two definitions by physicist Sean Carroll when it comes to sense-making.

    “Naturalism is a philosophy according to which there is only one world — the natural world, which exhibits unbroken patterns (the laws of nature), and which we can learn about through hypothesis testing and observation. In particular, there is no supernatural world — no gods, no spirits, no transcendent meanings.

    “I like to talk about a particular approach to naturalism, which can be thought of as Poetic. By that I mean to emphasize that, while there is only one world, there are many ways of talking about the world. “Ways of talking” shouldn’t be underestimated; they can otherwise be labeled “theories” or “models” or “vocabularies” or “stories,” and if a particular way of talking turns out to be sufficiently accurate and useful, the elements in its corresponding vocabulary deserve to be called real.

    “The poet Muriel Rukeyser once wrote, “The universe is made of stories, not atoms.” That is absolutely correct. There is more to the world than what happens; there are the ways we make sense of it by telling its story. The vocabulary we use is not handed to us from outside; it’s ultimately a matter of our choice.

    “A poetic naturalist will deny that notions like “right and wrong,” “purpose and duty,” or “beauty and ugliness” are part of the fundamental architecture of the world. The world is just the world, unfolding according to the patterns of nature, free of any judgmental attributes. But these moral and ethical and aesthetic vocabularies can be perfectly useful ways of talking about the world. The criteria for choosing the best such ways of talking will necessarily be different than the criteria we use for purely descriptive, scientific vocabularies. There won’t be a single rational way to delineate good from bad, sublime from repulsive. But we can still speak in such terms, and put in the hard work to make our actions live up to our own internal aspirations. We just have to admit that judgments come from within ourselves.”

  10. I’ll be waiting a long time, i.e. heat death of the Universe, for an example of knowledge not obtained through the scientific study of the natural world.

    Gopnik is full of words but empty of meaning. Sorry, but Trollope? Seriously? No, really, that’s laughable.

    Sorry, but I don’t buy “mystical knowledge,” you know, have you really, really looked at your hand and, oh, there’s an equation for quantum gravity. Nope, don’t buy it. Not impressed by frozen waterfalls, panoramic vistas, concertos, or paintings of cats. Not buying it.

    Finally, Gopnik’s understanding of science is less than a 6th Grade level. Pitiful. I’ve seen worse, but not many more pretentious. I would suggest that Gopnik study Feynman, not Dickens. More bull and less bullshit.

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