Adam Gopnik and I have now finished our written “conversation” at the link below (click on the screenshot). He has produced letter #8 in partial response to my letter #7, so we’ve each had four chances to say our piece. Since the conversation is now finished, I’ll make a few brief remarks, particularly with respect to our last two letters (#7 and #8).
This is a recurrent debate, one intensified by the rise of postmodernism which claims (along with religion) that there are “other ways of knowing” beyond the methods used by science (empirical exploration, testing, falsification/verification, etc.) Adam adheres to neither religion or po-mo, so he’s not on those sides. Rather, he sees art (literature, music, and painting, including abstract painting) as a “way of knowing.” I defined “knowledge” at the outset as “justified true belief.”
I’ve discussed individual letters before, so will just mention what’s in the last two letters.
I’ll take up three issues. The first is Adam’s insistence that I admit that Darwin’s theory of heredity was wrong (I gladly admitted that), but yet the whole theory wasn’t discarded, as a Popperian might have done. I noted that Darwin’s theory, which has several parts, doesn’t depend on the accuracy of a particular theory of heredity: only that there is genetic variation for traits and some variants leave more copies of their genes than others. In truth, I’m not sure what this was all about unless it’s to make me admit that scientists don’t conform strictly to Popperian falsification. But we’ve known that for decades.
Adam also leveled several “challenges” to me that he accused me of not answering.
Meanwhile, we have evolutionary psychology and epigenesis: I know from reading that you take a soft view on one, and a hard view on the other, but there are plenty of good biologists who think evolutionary psychology is an outright fraud, and others who think epigenesis is significant in ways you strongly don’t.
(I also note that you evade my challenge on the status of epigenetics and evolutionary psychology, which experts like yourself, with ‘voting rights’ , find equally vapid or vital, underlining my point that the settled truths of science you cite are the very tip of the iceberg of argument.)
I didn’t really have time to deal with both epigenetics and evolutionary psychology, as those weren’t part of our argument; but I took time to answer the evolutionary psychology “challenge”. My words:
The other challenges I’m accused of evading involve two current debates in biology, the value of epigenetics and of evolutionary psychology. Yet this was not evasion, but rather my realization that full answers would require long essays on issues largely irrelevant to our exchange. But I’ll make room to deal with evolutionary psychology.
You note that “there are plenty of good biologists who think evolutionary psychology is an outright fraud”. Well yes, there are biologists who think that, but I don’t know any good ones who do. No thoughtful biologist would argue that while our bodies are products of a long evolutionary history, and still show traces of that history, our brains (which after all are also made of cells) show none. While it’s not easy to study the evolutionary roots of human behavior and mentation, evolutionary psychology has shed substantial light on human sexual behavior (why do the two sexes look for different traits in a potential mate?), parental behavior (why do we favor kin over non-kin?) and differences in behavior between men and women (why is it males who typically engage in competitive risk-taking?). These are scientific hypotheses that have been supported by observations and experiments. To dismiss this whole endeavor as “fraud” is to be both incurious and ignorant. Certainly a lot of work in the field has been overly speculative. But opposition to evolutionary psychology as a whole comes not from some shoddy work in that field, but from a “blank slate” ideology that objects to any claim that human behavior could reflect our genetic and evolutionary past.
I still maintain that biologists who dismiss the entire field of evolutionary psychology as worthless are not doing so for good biological reasons, but for ideological ones. Adam then hit me with what he thought was a zinger:
So, in discussing evolutionary psychology, it seems to me that you are offering an excellent instance of the “No True Scotsman” fallacy, when you say that no good biologist can doubt the relevance of evolutionary psychology. If Richard Leowontin [sic] and Stephen Jay Gould were not good biologists, then none exists – but they both were largely hostile to evolutionary psychology. I don’t endorse their view—though obviously evolutionary psychology becomes perilously silly perilously soon, in the unskilled hands of someone like Robert Wright – but there’s no gainsaying the debate is taking place among equally ‘good’ scientists.
Well, it’s not exactly a “No True Scotsman” fallacy, though I’d rephrase my assertion this way: “I think anyone who dismisses the entire field of evolutionary psychology (of humans), a field that has progressed substantially since Lewontin and Gould (read Pinker’s The Blank Slate), is doing so for ideological rather than biological reasons, and in that sense is not acting as a good scientist.”
I still believe this of Gould and Lewontin, though of course both made considerable contributions in other areas of biology. But in the battle over the simple validity of evo-psych as a field of endeavor, I think Lewontin and Gould lost the war to Wilson, Trivers, Buss, and their colleagues.
I note, though, that Adam completely ignored my challenges to him! To wit:
But maybe I’m wrong. So here are my challenges to you: please give me the “knowledge” conveyed by abstract paintings like “Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)” by Pollock, “Cossacks” by Kandinsky, or Malevich’s monochrome “Black Square.” And what is the knowledge we gain from non-programatic or “absolute” music like Beethoven’s first piano trio and his first string quartet? If, like science, art is a “way of knowing”, these questions shouldn’t be hard to answer.
Not a peep from Adam!
Finally, Adam, in defending Mozart against Bach, not only conflated “knowledge” with “understanding,” but, more important, conflated “knowledge” with “values”. Values are subjective, while knowledge, in principle always tentative, is not a matter of opinion refractory to being settled by observing nature. Here’s Gopnik’s discussion of Mozart vs. Bach:
So let me move back to the other, though related, issue I raised, that about the ‘content ‘of the arts: the point is that all arguments about aesthetics end up being arguments not about ‘sense impressions or ‘taste’ in the shrugging sense of whether or not I like it. They are arguments about values, judged by the evidence marshalled. There’s a terrific video that everyone ought to watch that helps refine this point. In it, Glen Gould assaults Mozart – or at least the later Mozart – as a mediocre composer. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1pR74rorRxsThis – to me, shocking—claim is not one that Gould simply offers as ‘my feeling’ or ‘how it seems to me.” No, on the contrary he argues from evidence: he shows as a master musician what we mere listeners might now ‘hear’ – how mechanical and predictable Mozart’s sequence of development is in his piano concerti, running predictably round the ‘circle of fifths’. Unlike a master, Bach, Mozart’s architecture is shoddy even if his ornamentation is flashy.
Now, as a Mozartean I was shocked and amused by this – but also arrested by it. I couldn’t dismiss it. It forced me to argue back, not by saying “Well, I don’t care. I like it’ but by reference to other values that Mozart’s music possess. Melody, after all, is not ornament but substance of another kind– if Mozart is less intellectually architectural than Bach, it is in part because the beautiful flow of melody in his work would be defaced by too clever a development. When we hear a great melody – say the theme from the slow movement in the 27th piano concerto in the heartbreak key of B flat – we want to …hear it again.
Note that “other values”, like a beautiful melody, are dragged in to save the thesis that Mozart is at least as good as Bach! But Gopnik seems to think that everyone will agree what constitutes a “beautiful melody”, or that everyone will rank melodies in the same order.
Now, every listener might have their own place on this spectrum; but it is not a spectrum of’ opinion’ or ‘impression’ in the sense that all views about the issue are equally valid. Someone who just shrugs and says, “Well, I prefer Black Sabbath” may have a right to existence – I doubt it; but okay [JAC: LOL! Here we agree!] – but no right to a place at this table. We marshal arguments on behalf of Mozart, and the arguments, though they may start as arguments about formal structure, always end as arguments about values. Bach, we may say, may be a greater musical architect, but architecture is not the whole of art. Rococo ornament has a place in our system of values. And such arguments have within them other, still deeper arguments about human existence: As I pointed out at length in a recent essay about Helen Frankenthaler, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/04/12/helen-frankenthaler-and-the-messy-art-of-life deprecating ornament is a familiar way of deprecating the merely feminine’ aspects of life; standing up for mere decorative is a way of affirming aspects of life wrongly relegated to the rear.
Now, these aesthetic arguments are not as neatly resolved, and they are, in their nature, looser and less obviously progressive than the arguments of science. But they are not without standards of progress too: no one with a feeling or understanding of art, for instance, would any longer argue for a neat hierarchy of values in which, say, illusionistic Greek art stands unquestioned at the top and ‘primitive’ or African sculpture stands dismissed at the bottom. We have learned too much, from modern art and anthropology alike, to subscribe to so facile a grouping: the artists of Benin will always hold a place now alongside the masters of Athens. (Those who wish to exploit the masters of Benin to deprecate those of Athens have no sympathy from me.) You may not want to call this ‘knowledge’ in the sense that understanding the structure of DNA is knowledge, but it is certainly an advance in understanding, one as important and significant as the advances in understanding that science provides.
And yet, after hearing, and after having been convinced that Mozart’s music is more mechanical than that of Bach, Gopnik still insists that Mozart has a “beautiful flow of melody”. So who is the better musician: Mozart or Bach? Gopnik doesn’t tell us, but somehow seems to construe this discussion on the same plane as one about whether DNA is a double or a triple helix. Saying that the artists of Benin are not inferior to those of Greece is not an objective view that can be justified by empirical reference (unless you define “artistic quality” in advance and everyone agrees on those tenets), but a subjective view that some will agree with, and others not.
Given that aesthetic standards inevitably differ among people, this is not in any sense a question equivalent to a dispute about how nature works. You may say that whether Benin vs. Greek art is a dispute “as important and significant as the advances in understanding that science provides”. (But although I’m a big art fan, I’d take issue with that, for presumably Gopnik gets his kids vaccinated, and would consider the debate between antibiotics and shamanism as more important than the debate about whether Benin art is better than Greek).
I’d say that the entire dispute between Adam and me is encapsulated in his paragraphs quoted above. He regards a subjective assessment of relative value as “knowledge”, and I don’t. This is why he says that art confers knowledge. What he means is that it confers value, and some art confers more value (to him!) than others. I’d add that yes, that’s true, but that value depends on the observer.
A prescient friend of mind, reading this exchange, wrote me this:
One word that Gopnik uses in passing—“understanding”—might have led to some terrain of agreement. Gopnik wants to assimilate “understanding” to “knowledge.” Perhaps you could have gotten him to see that these are different things. Understanding is a mental state that’s plausibly attuned to some facts; those facts are knowledge. Obviously, we’re all in favor of both. But if someone doesn’t realize the difference, he’s apt to fantasize that works of art yield immediate “truth.”
Anyway, the discussion is over, and I’m not convinced that art, music, or literature conveys knowledge, especially in light of Adam’s having avoided my very clear challenges above. Or perhaps he thinks that Pollock and Kandinsky confer “value”, which they do, but also believes that value is identical to scientific knowledge.
Clearly no agreement is possible here, but, as Adam notes in his ending,
Art is not optional. It is mandatory for anyone claiming to want to understand the way the world wags and how we wag it. On that thought, and with the promise of a good dinner someday in Paris, I send my final brotherly salutations.
I will agree with all of that, and particularly of the value of a good dinner in Paris!