Friday, June 8, 2018

Knowledge and Stuff

A friend of mine blogs on what I think I can fairly call a virulently anti-religious web site. While my friend is a bright fellow who is working hard to figure some things out, the community present there is... not. There's a lot of talk about how objectively stupid it is to believe in God which devolves rapidly into a competition to see who can most quickly illustrate their total unfamiliarity with the Old Testament while simultaneously saying the most horrible things about Christians.

I am not a devotee of any religious faith, but I find this sort of thing incredibly boring. Still, as this sort of thing does, it got me to thinking. "Why, exactly, is it objectively stupid to believe in a diety?"

So, my rough and ready grasp of mathematical philosophy in hand, I spent some time with Wikipedia's page on epistemology. I understand philosophy the way a welder understands ship design, which can carry you a surprisingly long way.

My rough and ready summary is that Epistemologists are concerned with the difference between a Belief and Knowledge. The latter is distinguished from the former by a process of Justification. Justification takes several forms depending on which school of epistemology you hew to, but in general comes out to a correspondence with the real world, in the sense of having predictive power.

Knowledge is the collection of beliefs about the strength of metal that allow us to build a bridge that will not fall down when the train passes over it. Whatever the process for justifying our beliefs about metals, welds, truss shapes, and so on, they are justified, the proof of the justification being observed when the train passes over the bridge without a collapse.

Knowledge is great stuff, I approve of knowledge. I was trained as a mathematician, and spent 20+ years writing software. I love predictability and correspondence with the real world.

But the religious believer, confronted with this and asked to provide Justification for their Belief in a God, correctly responds "but I'm not trying to build a bridge here." The sort of half-assed rationalist program that insists belief in a deity is "just objectively stupid" is itself simply on the wrong track. Predictability, correspondence with the real world, all those things that distinguish Knowledge from Belief, are simply not on the table. Someone in the conversation is definitely objectively stupid, but it's not the believer.

As a non-believer myself, what the hell does this have to do with anything, let alone photography?

Well, I suspect that Art falls into the same general camp. We're not trying to build bridges here. Predictability and correspondence with the real world are not relevant factors here.

We're trying to create experiences, feelings, emotional reactions. We're trying to create impressions and ideas. We know we're not going to get through to 100% of the viewers. Some artists might not care to get through to any viewers at all. Some would be content with half. Even talking about what percentage will "get it" seems to miss the essential point, somehow.

While human vision, sensation, and the human brain are (we suppose) just physics when all is said and done, this does not mean that some rationalist approach is going to get us anywhere. We might as well try to predict the weather by modeling the atmosphere as a shitload of molecules. We might as well try to understand biology in terms of Quantum Physics. None of these programs work, and so I theorize that any sort of rationalist approach to Art is at least as doomed to failure.

Arnheim and people like him have made credible cracks at nibbling away at it from a rationalist stance, but in the end they have not turned Art into a Science. They have built or discovered a handful of rules of thumb, perhaps a staff to lean on as we embark into the wilderness. The staff does not render the wilderness tame.

Luckily, we don't have to model the brain as a vast collection of interacting molecules. It happens that each of us possesses a more or less functioning brain of our own.

We have the capacity to feel, to emote, to imagine. Vast portions of our brain appear to be devoted to guessing what someone else's brain is up to based on facial expression, body language, eye movements, and so on. We can use our own brain to feel around what others might feel. If we let go of the Justification demanded by Knowledge, we can do something lovely, something that has its own, forgive the new-agey verbiage, its own truth.

Good work is done, I think, by following pure, unjustified, Belief, wherever it may lead.

Photographers, and I count myself among them, are perhaps alone among Artists in seeking some sort of rationalist underpinning to the enterprise. They want to know what the effect of moving the light up a little will have. They want to know how to make pictures that people will Definitely Like. They want the predictability of Knowledge.

This shows up in endless books about how to take better pictures. This shows up in the fanatically metric driven sharing web sites, in the burgeoning cottage industry of AI software that will Judge Your Picture or Fix Your Picture.

Photographers want Knowledge about photography. They don't want to Believe things, they want Justification. They want to be able to stamp out Good Photography in a predictable way. Photography in popular culture, in the magazines and web sites, proves over and over and over that the rationalist approach to Art is utterly bankrupt. It leads nowhere.

But we're not building bridges here.

You're on the wrong track entirely. Look more. Feel more. Just wing it sometimes.


  1. I follow one fairly sane atheist blog, and don't read far into the comments on any of his posts. The group that has to prove themselves intellectually superior, on every post, wears me out.

    1. What's wrong with pretentiously, endlessly, striving to prove oneself the smartest guy in the room? ASKING FOR A FRIEND!


  2. Maybe there is a process whereby new tools (digital / internet) come along for the artist and part of the vanguard, part of the same thing happening each and every time, is that their potential has to be evaluated, how they work assimilated, and then, after this process, artists can get back to making art. Some people get stuck in the evaluation stage, others go on and just use them. Like the proverbial python swallowing the goat, there's a bulge at the beginning but eventually the python smooths out again and gets on with being a python (except for those pythons that yak it up and swear off goat forever).
    [As soon as I hit Publish I'm going to be thinking WTF. But never mind - it kind of still makes sense at this precise moment].

  3. I also meant to say, great post, thank you.