New letter from Adam Gopnik in our “ways of knowing” exchange

April 1, 2021 • 10:00 am

Adam Gopnik has written his third letter (the sixth between us) in our continuing exchange on the topic shown below (click on screenshot to see all the letters, but then scroll down on the site to “Letter 6” to see Adam’s latest.

You may want to read my last letter (Letter 5) in conjunction with his latest one.

Adam defends his views on Darwin and argues that he’s not, as I suggested, projecting his own views onto writers like Dickens and Trollope. (I didn’t argue that; I said he picked from the smorgasbord of literature just those views that he found congenial to his own, and labeled those as “knowledge”). He then begins what will be an interesting discussion: do music and abstract painting give us “knowledge”? His view is “yes, they do.” I doubt I’ll agree!

I’ll respond after I get back to Chicago, and that will be my last contribution. Adam, in his fourth letter, will get the final say.

Some may feel that this is a futile exchange and the issue can never be settled, and of course I didn’t expect a lot of agreement. But my own view is that there has to be a place where the arguments about “ways of knowing” are collected, and I hope this is one such place.

26 thoughts on “New letter from Adam Gopnik in our “ways of knowing” exchange

  1. Music and literature inform us just as a beautiful waterfall tells us about the structure of the underlying rocky face. There is a structure on which a changing surface can undulate and move, giving clues about the reality underneath.

    1. So could you then tell me what “knowledge about the universe” (i.e. something that can be empirically confirmed by others) is imparted to you by the Brandenburg Concertos? Please read my definition of “knowledge” in my first letter. It does not include subjective experiences like one’s emotional reaction to music.

  2. This is great – so much important stuff to evaluate and place properly. Not easy.

    The last letter, IMO, nailed it – Bayesian inference / likelihood, the tools for updating beliefs. I found a Feynman clip that drew the distinction between knowledge and understanding – east to find. I thought it was important too.

  3. Seems to me that we can be mistaken about knowledge.

    How could one be mistaken about the “knowledge” provided by music or abstract painting? What “knowledge” can be provided by abstract painting (aside from the trivial Pollock painted that or Kandinsky painted that)?

    And this all sounds suspiciously like the bottom of a barrel being scraped.

  4. You can make a reasonable argument that you can gain insight and wisdom from art and literature… but if the insights and wisdom varies from person to person (as it does) then these are not other ways of ‘knowing’ just other ways of forming a subjective opinion.

    Science, broadly conceived, is objective.

  5. My impression is that Gopnik is conflating the experience of our internal states of mind and emotional condition with knowledge proper. When scientists use the term ‘knowledge’, they are talking about the reality of the universe that is out there, regardless of our ideas, emotions, desires, preference or whatever. Art and music provoke responses in our consciousness, and those responses are the stuff our our first-hand experiences of the world—but they don’t tell us anything about how the world actually works. Surely Gopnik is familiar with the effect of optical illusions, Escher designs and so on: we are certainly having experiences when we look at the graphics involved, and we know what those experiences—our states of mind corresponding to a staircase that up to join another one which eventually leads to the bottom of the first one, or to two different lengths for lines that are actually exactly the same length—are, but those experiences have no connection to the actual structure of the world (except as pointers to how our neuropsychological processing of sensory data to yield scene descriptions works). But it’s the latter which is the goal and object of science, and in these terms, our mental and emotional states tell us nothing; they rather are part of a domain of the universe that science—cognitive science in particular—seeks to understand.

    I don’t think Gopnik wants to allow the distinction I’m drawing—and this is an attitude you encounter in the humanities constantly—which which is why, in the end, these kinds of discussions/debates/arguments never seem to get resolved to anyone’s satisfaction…

  6. Are The Methods Used By Science The Only Ways Of Knowing?

    The simple answer: Yes! To elaborate: If you want to learn objective facts about the world, yes, the scientific method is the only way to achieve this.

    Richard Feynman put this straight.

  7. I agree that science is the way to knowledge. However, in your comments you discussed someone else’s ideas of other constructs where music and art could be ways to knowledge. While I do not agree that music or art can directly provide that, I do believe it is possible that certain music, art, and chemicals can create vision or sensations into possibilities that would have to be explored, scientifically, to validate those insights. Or better yet merely alter one’s consciousness that open the door to other ways of thinking about the natural world. This in turn could inspire one to find or create other theses that once again should remain as theoretical until proven/disproven (or at least strengthened/weakened) by evidence gathered through scientific methods.

    1. ” it is possible that certain music, art, and chemicals can create vision or sensations into possibilities that would have to be explored, scientifically, to validate those insights”

      Jerry has acknowledged that inspiration can come from almost anywhere. (It actually comes unbidden from your subconscious brain.) But that’s not knowledge. It’s an idea. Then you go to the scientific method to show whether (or not) your idea is true: You gain knowledge.

      I think you are agreeing with this.

    2. Yes, but i’ve already said several times in this exchange that subjective experiences from literature or art, etc. can lead to hypotheses abut the real world that THEN MUSt BE TESTED EMPIRICALLY, i.e. with the tools of science. Did you read the other letters?

  8. From Mr. Gopnick:

    there is no reliable method, no sure fixed strategy, by which scientists can reason their way towards truth

    I would respond to this by saying the scientific method IS reliable, because “reliable” doesn’t imply perfection or always right. My car is reliable – that means it breaks down not too often. It doesn’t mean it breaks down never.

    Now to the meat:

    Any work of art worth looking at, and any song worth hearing, is about something more than itself, and offers a view of life that can be inspected, not merely ‘experienced’ as an idiosyncratic pleasure…The greatest mystery, I once wrote, is how the mind makes music into meaning.

    He’s still, IMO, confusing “hypothesis” with “knowledge.” Yes art and music can give us ideas about life. That’s not knowledge. Knowledge is what you get when you take those ideas, test them, and figure out which ones are supported and which ones are wrong.

    When we look at the long history of representational art — with the birth of Renaissance perspective, then the coming of aerial perspective, and then it the chiaroscuro possibilities of oil painting – surely, we are seeing a history of discovery, progress, exploration, every bit as stirring as the subsequent scientific revolution

    Sure there is learning and progress in the techniques of art. JAC referred to this as “operational knowledge” in his first letter and pointed out that everyone accepts this – but it’s not the knowledge he’s talking about. Sheesh.

    Verdict: no valid defense or even progress made. He’s repeating his arguments, not addressing their errors.

    1. Yes, this is another conflation of distinct things that Gopnik is committing. He seems to believe that scientists claim to have a procedure into which you throw data and out of which, after you turn the crank enough, you get general relativity, Feynman diagrams and models of the neurochemistry of memory, and he appears to be under the impression that this has given him a ‘Gotcha!’ counterargument in saying that science is no better than any other mode of ‘knowing’ because it doesn’t actually have such a procedure. This is a pretty breathtaking bit of confusion about what science is and how science proceeds and progresses.

      All this strengthens my sense that Gopnik’s arguments reflect not just a conflation of personal experience (and interpretations of that experience) with knowledge, but a *really* deep misunderstanding of science itself—the central topic of his dispute with our host. So many debates between scientists and nonscientists seem to come down to this in the end.

      1. a conflation of personal experience (and interpretations of that experience) with knowledge, but a *really* deep misunderstanding of science itself…

        Agreed, though I would focus on the first. While there’s no perfect or consensus definition of “knowledge”, I’d expect that most people subscribe to some variant of the philosophy 101 “justified true belief” concept. Well art, music, literature and the like can get you to belief. They might sometimes even get you to true belief. But they don’t get you to justified. As you, Jerry, and I have been repeating; experience and ideas are not knowledge.

  9. Adam gives an admirable summary of the sociology of science: “Scientific progress is a social, not an individual, achievement; its integrity depends on certain kinds of open institutions and accepted rules of argument, not on a standardized model of reasoning or one lab-path to truth.”

    I wonder if Galileo Galilei, were he to join the discussion, would apply a similar principle to representational art. We certainly must take Galileo as an authority on the experimental method, as he was in effect the founder of experimental physics, as well as the most notable member of the Accademia dei Lincei, which explicitly championed Science. But representational art is the field in which he held his first academic position in 1588, at the Accademia delle Arte del Disegno in Florence, teaching perspective and chiaroscuro; and later, in 1613, he was appointed a member of the Florentine Academy of Drawing Arts.

    My guess is that Galileo might view every drawing and painting as an experiment in ways to represent reality through perspective, chiaroscuro, and such techniques; and the viewers’ responses to the art as analogous to the scientific process of replicating experiments and testing predictions.

    1. Considering peer review makes the differences obvious, IMO. In science, you hand your findings to a peer. They find something about the technique or results that’s off to them, they tell you “your data analysis technique had a bias, therefore your finding is biased too.” Or perhaps “you made a math error;your findings don’t follow from your data.” Or even perhaps “ah, I know the machine you used. It has an electrical problem which creates a data spike so your result isn’t real.”

      Now contrast with art. You give your painting to a critic. They find something about the technique or final result that’s off to them. So they call it bad art. But it’s difficult to see how “bad art” is comparable to “wrong result.” Art is never “wrong” in the way a scientific finding can be wrong, it’s just disliked or uninspiring.

      1. Perspective can be gotten wrong; chiaroscuro can be “wrong” in the sense of false if shadows are placed unrealistically. I suppose issues of this kind are what the young Galileo taught about
        in his brief tenure at the Accademia delle Arte del Disegno. My impression is that in those days—roughly the lifetime of Galileo and Francis Bacon (who signally misunderstood what scientists like Galileo did)—the border between Art and Natural Philosophy appeared to be vaguer than it does today. And thus distinctions of the kind Jerry and Adam are discussing were not deliberated.

  10. He then begins what will be an interesting discussion: do music and abstract painting give us “knowledge”?

    That’ll be a pretty short discussion.

  11. The only knowledge music or art give us is knowledge about themselves. When we listen to music, especially if i it is a regular and large feature of our lives (as it should be), we start to perceive its structure….its themes, harmonies, structure and internal relationships. There is no “intention” or message in music despite the attempts by many to attribute emotions and even politics into music.
    Music is its own language with its own symbols and in this case they are aural rather than visual. The composer’s challenge is to merge the composition’s elements in a way that is coherent. It is not to
    exhibit the composer’s technical skills though in the great composers these become evident. I guess it is human nature to attribute human feelings to inanimate objects (this is often done with animals too).
    Music EVOKES emotions; it does not CONTAIN them. It may stimulate us to deeper analysis but it does not convey anything more than what it states musically.

  12. I don’t understand why Jerry denies in his first letter the existence of the “scientific method.”

    The scientific method is the observational verification of beliefs. Jerry himself acknowledges this at the end of his first letter: “the only genuine way we have of knowing — observing the universe.”

    1. What I meant–and I made this clear in Faith Versus Fact–is that there is no stereotyped series of steps one goes through to find out a “truth”. Remember learning “hypothesis, then test, then observe and accept or reject”? That was the scientific method. But you can do science without a previous hypothesis, and you can incorporate both confirmatory and nonconfirmatory evidence into a Bayesian overview. Yes, you’re right, observation of the universe is the key, but observation can precede or follow hypotheses, and so on. I was referring to the “textbook” version of the scientific method that many of us learned when younger.

  13. I saw a trailer for a “masterclass” from Neil deGrasse Tyson wherein he is teaching scientific thinking and communication. From the trailer, he says:
    “I’ve come to realize that there are 3 categories of truth: personal truth, political truths, and the objective truths that shape our understanding of the universe.”

    I’m not going to pay to hear his lectures on what is surely remedial stuff for this audience but surely he’ll tout the scientific method as a means of finding objective truth and innoculating us against our cognitive biases. It got me thinking though. Based on Jerry’s definitions, I think he would strongly disagree but if you’re reading, do you think there is such a thing as subjective truth?

    Isn’t that where all provisional truth starts until individual bias is diluted out and repeated experiments over time lead to objective truth? I realize this might elide into personal preference but what I mean is a human experience that with certain caveats (i.e. explanations of legitimate exceptions to the “rule” that violate the foundations of a theory rather than refute it as contrary evidence) is almost universally true? I don’t have a good example in mind.

    What continues to amaze me about science is how in some fields of study, just how many creative hypotheses for an observation that we can come up with. Some of our ignorance seems to come from a failure of imagination to even articulate enough of them to canvas hypothetical space that ultimately includes the right answer.

    1. Someone already posted Feynman on this – it doesn’t matter how fancy a theory – or “truth” – is, who came up with it, or anything else – if it disagrees with experiment it is wrong.

      Positing different flavors of “truth” is an excuse for giving protection to something because it is a source of some psychological effect.

  14. … the composer … leaves us with the feeling that something is right in the world. (Quote not exact)

    -Leonard Bernstein, at ~ 24:46 in https://youtu.be/mu2HJerMp8A
    A demonstration of how Beethoven composed the Fifth symphony, November 14, 1954, CBS.

    If a case were to be made about *knowing* anything with music, Bernstein would have made it in this lecture – but he did not. The introduction goes through “silly” explanations for the origin of the immortal theme, even suggesting that someone else could have come up with it. Bernstein shows discarded, marked up manuscript sections – and plays them – then the orchestra plays them – to illustrate the process of composition – the possible thought process Beethoven used.

    Nowhere in this lecture is it clear that some thing was *known* – at best, I came away from it with possible ideas as to Beethoven’s thought process, or that the composer was maybe even fooling us.

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