The end of my conversation with Adam Gopnik about “ways of knowing”

May 14, 2021 • 9:15 am

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.  – 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.

Gopnik continues:

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, 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!

30 thoughts on “The end of my conversation with Adam Gopnik about “ways of knowing”

  1. “Not a peep from Adam!”

    When I read his last letter this fact is what most struck me. Seeing no response to these specific challenges I concluded that Gopnik had lost the duel.

  2. Sub

    … If I could point out one thing, it would be that the natural sciences – including engineering and mathematics, and all that – are themselves other ways of knowing, and have always been.

    1. They find out knowledge in exactly the same way that “formal science” does: Using the scientific method, which is why we call them “natural sciences”.

  3. Arts, including music and literature convey pleasure , more than knowledge. In a sense they can deliver knowledge too: I know it is Bach and what piece when I hear it we can even look for the mathematical construction behind it, I know it when I see a Hokusai , Hopper or Vermeer (for the latter, ask Han van Meegeren).
    But I guess that is not the kind of knowledge we are talking about. We are talking a greater knowledge about our world. And science (broadly defined 🙂 ) is the only method that actually does that.

    1. The knowledge that it was written by Bach was not given you by the music. It was given by some other documentation, probably someone teaching you to associate these particular stylistic features with a particular composer. Absent that person’s historical instruction, the best you could do would be to say “this piece sounds kind of like that piece”, a “scientific” observation about sounds in the real world.

      1. There are other layers :

        The recording engineer
        The soundboard person
        The conductor/arranger
        The performers
        The speakers
        The room

        And so on – it is layer upon layer of interpretation, manipulated to multiple extents, resulting in an unfolding experience that cannot be touched or isolated. It is ephemeral, intangible, and ever changing by definition.

      2. I have to differ here. Bach’s music is so distinctive that in most cases, after hearing a few measures one is certain that it is Bach, and not a different composer of the Baroque era. In addition to the architectural sense mentioned by Glenn Gould, there is the utter mastery of counterpoint, and not least of all the remarkable imagination in regard to key relationships. In regard to emotional resonance, my feeling is that the chaconne in D minor from the violin partita #2 elicits in 14 minutes more than all of Wagner’s operas and Mahler’s symphonies put together. All in all, the only plausible explanation is my theory that JSB was a visitor from a more advanced planet, stranded on earth by space-ship difficulties. Is this a way of knowing?

        1. The music itself can not tell you it is Bach. You only can know it because some paper document (the sheet music representation of the music, for example) has the name “J. S. Bach” written on it. Or some other human tells you. All you’re doing is charaterizing the music, which is a form of science-writ-broadly, based on patterns you can detect when you listen to it. You’re confusing a post-knowledge recognition of patterns you can tell are Bach signatures with the actual knowledge that a fellow named Johann S. Bach wrote music of this sort.

            1. Exactly. The knowledge gained here, I guess, would be that there is another piece of music that sounds like it may have been written by the fellow he already knows about. It is like seeing a new kind of fly and recognizing that it is probably related to a kind of fly you already know about. The fly didn’t tell you about this relationship.

            2. Like the Chaconne in #2, this piece must have come to us from another and more advanced world. The mystery is why JSB could’nt repair his spaceship and go home.

              1. But you don’t always know, is the thing. I know Bach’s music fairly well, and have always been able to identify his music against other possiiblities (Tartini is another one with a markedly distinct melodic signature). But I was completely taken in by the Fiocco allegro for violin the first time I heard it. Have a listen here:

                and you may find yourself wondering how anyone but Bach could have written this.

                It is a surpassingly gorgeous, exhilerating piece of music. The first time I heard it was a live performance, and I was, no kidding, on the edge of my seat with a pulse probably well over 100 by the time the soloist finished her performance. Really, do yourself a favor and listen to

        2. “Is this a way of knowing?”

          What is the point of music? To be heard. Does music exist independent of the hearing experience? No^*. Is there an independent method to arrive at the identical “knowledge” of any piece of music? No. I mean, what, precisely, am I looking for in the counterpoint? It cannot be isolated in time – it requires flow.

          We form associations with music all the time, and even that can change. This is not to say that a great mysterious process is at work.

          *written music is only for the purpose, ultimately, of playing – and Beethoven _became_ very hard of hearing – but he knew (… uh oh…) what the instruments sounded like. Furthermore, what Beethoven heard in his head might have been almost a whole step _lower_ than what the instruments were playing.

  4. 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…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.

    So this pretty much encapsulates the problem with Gopnik’s argument for me. He can only argue for ‘knowledge’ from the arts by rejecting the initial definition of it given by Jerry, and expanding it to include ‘progress on values.’ To make an analogy, it is also possible for us to make ‘progress’ on characterizing the personality of Bugs Bunny. Superficially he’s just a wiseass cartoon intended to amuse children. But upon deeper reflection and conversation, we may progress to understanding that he’s a continuation of the storytelling tradition around trickster gods. He’s brer rabbit, and before that, coyote and anansi. That’s cool as far as it goes, but have I learned anything about the real world, the world separate and independent of human psychology? No.

    Art is not optional. It is mandatory for anyone claiming to want to understand the way the world wags and how we wag it.

    I probably provides some insight into how humans wag it, but I think he has utterly failed to make any case that it gives us understanding about the way the broader world wags.

    But a big thumbs up for the entire exchange. Kudos to both Jerry and Adam. Adam, if you read this page: you have not changed my mind. You may even have set me more firmly on the ‘no other ways of knowing’ side. You’ve made a good case that the fine arts can provide interesting ideas, hypotheses, as it pertains to human psychology. But ideas, insights, hypotheses only become knowledge via testing, confirmation, reproduction, etc., and that seems to be the key concept you are missing.

  5. I put up a YouTube link last time to Leonard Bernstein discussing Beethoven’s 5th. If music was a way to know things, Bernstein would have said so. But the most he ventured was that it gave the listener “a feeling”.

    Indeed, Bernstein suggested the composer might even be playing games, tricking the listener, challenging them to …. well… :

    I conclude that music is in no way whatsoever a method to know anything, as it is a product of experience, which by definition changes with time – it is subjective.

    Perhaps it is a way to pay attention to experience, but where is Beethoven’s experience now? It died with him. All we have is the record of his expression in written music notation, perhaps letters to associates.

  6. Someone who just shrugs and says, “Well, I prefer Black Sabbath” may have a right to existence – I doubt it; but okay – but no right to a place at this table.

    “Excuse me, Mr. Gopnik, there’s a Mister Osborne on line 2 — he calls himself Iron Man — and says he’d like to have a word with you regarding your last letter to Professor Coyne.” 🙂

    1. That was dense reading, but very interesting.
      It is clear that evolution shaped our minds, in that respect evolutionary psychologists are undoubtedly correct. The snag is in the filling in, which may, in the worst cases, deteriorate into just so stories.
      The most clear example is the Thornhill and Palmer book about rape. Our host and several others have torn it apart as not being scientifically rigorous enough, which is correct (they pointed that out very clearly).
      However, I still think Randy (what’s in a name?) Thornhill and Craig Palmer were onto something. Rape, or more broadly sexual coercion, is ubiquitous in all human societies. Despots -who can- use it nearly systematically (see Laura Betzig). I cannot escape the idea that sexual coercion is a kind of innate strategy that was, if not an adaptation, at least adaptive behaviour. How much offspring was conceived by sexual coercion (before contraception and safe abortion, that is)? Stronger, how could wide spread sexual coercion even exist otherwise?

    2. Which brings us back to Steve Gould’s: “Show me a cultural relativist (POMO, nowadays) at 10.00 feet and I’ll show you a hypocrite”.

  7. As Dawkins wrote about proposals for “different” truths, I would propose :

    The only way of knowing that works

  8. My summary of Gopnik is terse: fail.

    Gopnik failed to demonstrate his premise. No different, really, than William Laine Craig or the other self-proclaimed “sophisticated” theologians who in centuries haven’t moved a nanometer further than Aquinas.

    The bottom line is that water boils at 100 C and “The Long and Winding Road” beat “Penguins.”

    Mic drop.

  9. Gopnick’s first letter appeared to have a point. Using stories, narration, even fiction, you can convey knowledge. Those are tools of expression, ways to say something, to make it more understandable, to communicate it better, easier, and sometimes with fewer words. Like presenting a picture of something or using examples. Are methods to appeal to the common sense of someone. Science may use mathematics to say something but in some art, a story or other form can be used. Some artists may want to convey some truths this way, others just a state of their mind. Others want just to entertain. A novel can convey knowledge but also many other things or use beloved tricks like… comic relief. People know things about reality and use various ways to convey them to others. To know what others might know or think, even if it is wrong, is still a useful knowledge. Same as in science those things can stay true or be dismissed or amended – it depends on the reader. Darvin didn’t fix his errors. Later readers did. Of course, a novel can educate (it has in my case but not as much anymore) but cannot convey the level of truths that can make a covid vaccine.


    Unconscious “knowledge” embodied in (some) art? Just for fun …

    A quote from the piece cited above:

    “Since 1972, when “Jesus Christ Superstar” premiered on Broadway, the most popular sung-through musicals have almost unanimously employed a centuries-old formula known as “the golden ratio”—and surprisingly, they appear to have done so completely by accident.

    The golden ratio is an irrational number approximately equal to 1.618. It exists when a line is divided into two parts, with one part longer than the other. The longer part (a) divided by the smaller part (b) is equal to the sum of (a) + (b) divided by (a), which both equal 1.618.

    The ratio is found in nature, such as in the patterns of seeds within a sunflower, the shape of snail shells and, most recently suggested, in the human genome. Its connection with the aesthetic beauty of nature has attracted creatives throughout history to use the number to create art, music, and design.

    When appropriately applied, the golden ratio is suggested to demonstrate an influence on human awareness of proportion and aesthetic beauty, resulting in artistic masterpieces including Da Vinci’s The Mona Lisa (1506), Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936) and Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation (1920).”

  11. In 1966 the philosopher Edmund Gettier wrote a very short article titled “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?” It is slightly more than two pages. In the article he states:

    “Various attempts have been made in recent years to state necessary and sufficient conditions for someone’s knowing a given proposition. The attempts have often been such that they can be stated in a form similar to the following:

    (a) S knows that P IFF (i.e., if and only if)
    (i) P is true,
    (ii) S believes that P, and
    (iii) S is justified in believing that P.”

    He gives a couple of alternate forms of this argument as well. Then he states,

    “I shall argue that (a) is false in that the conditions stated therein do not constitute a sufficient condition for the truth of the proposition that S knows that P.” He gives two cases to demonstrate his argument and concludes, “These two examples show that definition (a) does not state a sufficient condition for someone’s knowing a given proposition.”

    This brief paper has generated a fair volume of papers considering the brevity of his argument. An example of the “Gettier Problem” is given in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

    “Imagine that we are seeking water on a hot day. We suddenly see water, or so we think. In fact, we are not seeing water but a mirage, but when we reach the spot, we are lucky and find water right there under a rock. Can we say that we had genuine knowledge of water? The answer seems to be negative, for we were just lucky. (quoted from Dreyfus 1997: 292)”

    Still if I want knowledge I will not spend much time listening to music, gazing at paintings, or reading intriguing novels but will search the mirage and look under the rock when I seek knowledge of water however provisional it might be.

    I do wonder if giving knowledge such a strict and narrow definition might leave out something that could be knowledge but may be left out by this definition. My experience tells me that some ideas have changed my life and these ideas float around in an area I would call truth but may not meet the narrow definition of knowledge as justified true belief.

    1. Bayes’ Theorem and likelihood seems to me to be the solution – work within what we know in quantitative terms, query Nature, and update beliefs. Repeat as necessary.

      What we know is guaranteed to change – Bayes showed the only way that works to navigate that, using a quantitative foundation. It is not clear to me if Gettier’s argument assumes knowledge or truth is immutable.

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