Curious Gravity: The Astrophysics of Expertise

A while back Sam McNerney posted an essay asking the question of whether expertise in an art field is grounds for the existence of objective standards in aesthetics. He phrases it thusly:

“Do objective standards in art exist? Are experts in the best position to recognize these standards because they appreciate work conducted within their domain of expertise? I think the answer is yes… but maybe that’s just my novice subjective opinion, uninformed by experience.”

And that sounds fairly straight forward: If you know more about something there is more for you to understand. In other words, you have a better chance of understanding ‘the right’ things. The idea is that depth and sophistication only appear after sufficient experience has taught us about things. Or so it seems…..

But can the question of objective values necessarily be answered by expertise? And if so, in what way? Is one man’s expertise another’s indifference? Does that teach us something as well? Lets explore!

And in fact the truth is perhaps quite simple: As we learn about the world we also learn how to judge it. The two activities are not all that separate. Expertise isn’t something that is added on the top. Its a measure of what we have learned. Its a measure of the solar system of our interests. Its a measure of the force of gravity in certain directions and how space curves toward particular domains. Our interests are those strange attractors under whose influence we are swayed. And expertise only rides on the force of gravity that draws us nearer. Other planets, other solar systems, draw different people in other often contrary directions.

Our interests display our personal tastes. Our tastes tell us true things about the world. And if man is the measure, we are looking for universal agreement only in the utterly vague or the tritely particular.

Maybe that’s too confusing. Here’s an example: Expertise is something like having the ability to understand a language. I speak English, so I count as an expert language user. But I speak English. Not Russian. Not French. Not Hindi. Not Mandarin Chinese. So, while I’m an expert in English I’m not an expert in all languages. And so also, experts in ‘music’ know what they know, but they do not always have a basis for comparing it with other forms they know less well. Knowing Classical music gives me no basis to judge Rock and Roll. Knowing Rock and Roll gives me no basis to judge Jazz. Knowing Jazz gives me no basis to judge Rap. Etc….

The truth is that we are all drawn in certain ways. We learn the world and learning it in this particular way also teaches us what things are valuable. The standards of our judgments are built into how we learn about the world. Its not as if the world is first shades of gray and then we add the color to it. We learn what things in the world mean by learning how to value them, by fitting them in a conceptual map. Which does not also mean that these judgments are not also sometimes flexible. The fact that we can change our opinions simply means that there is almost always a certain room for interpretation, disagreement, and backpeddaling.

Imagine it this way: We are drawn to things in the world not just because we are moved by them but also because we choose to move in those directions. We are always in motion, but we can change course. Its like we are searching the heavens in our very own space ships, and sometimes we are pulled into the orbit of planets with greater gravity and sometimes we can achieve escape velocity. Being an expert simply means we are homing in on lesser or greater spheres of influence.

Consider this also: In a sense, who better is there to judge an artist’s work than the artist themselves? If the creator is not the first and foremost ‘expert’ in what they have done, then what precisely do we mean by expertise?

But its also true that the artist never has the final word. The work they have created may have been brought forth with specific intentions, but also be greater than them. The work can offer things of value over and above what the artist’s intentions were. Different people can be drawn to the same thing for entirely different reasons. And the same things can be looked at expertly from varied and even contradictory points of view! Expert opinion is not a guarantee of agreement. Except when there is agreement….. But how often is that in all cases really?

If expertise is so important (in the universal and objective sense of being taken to be ‘right’ about issues) wouldn’t you think that there would be more agreement in the world? Wouldn’t we be aiming at more consistency and uniformity of opinions generally?

But it doesn’t seem we are heading in anything remotely like that direction. And doesn’t that teach us something important about the nature of the world? That expertise is more a fragmenting force than a necessarily unifying one? That ever since the Big Bang the Universe is expanding and its parts are moving steadily further apart? And our expertise follows the trail of those little bits not towards the primitive center, but to the unfolding fringes…..

Consider again the position of artists. Despite being the author and most intimate expert on what they have done, quite often we are too close to really have a good perspective on it. Our expertise can deceive us. It can cloud our vision. And not only that, but the artist’s opinion itself can change over time. What we once loved we no longer admire. That which brought us tears of joy can turn to mud in our eyes. And we can grow to love what were first considered disappointments and mistakes….

All of which may sound like a case for aesthetic judgments being relative, and therefor subjective. I would say relative, yes, but not subjective. What we see, what we get out of things is not always a figment of our imagination. If we see beauty it is really there, not just in our head. Other people can agree with us or not, because the truth is simply that there are many different ways of coming to terms with the world.

And rather than trying to prove that one insight is superior to another we should spend more time in understanding the language that gives meaning to those other values. We need to get ourselves caught in the gravity of other fields instead of plunging straight to the center of the one planet whose pull we feel. Instead of dismissing what we don’t like, we could spend time learning WHY other people like it. What do they see that we do not? And if we choose not to go down that road, at least have the courtesy to not disrespect what other people see as being of value…..

Expertise means knowing what we know. It does not mean intolerance for things we do not. It does not mean having a handle on all perspectives or on how to judge between them…..

Food for thought at least.

Peace all!

Make beauty real!


About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
This entry was posted in Art, Beauty, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Curious Gravity: The Astrophysics of Expertise

  1. Frank Lloyd Wright: “An expert is a man who has stopped thinking because ‘he knows'”

  2. Pingback: What was I thinking… in 2013? | CARTER GILLIES POTTERY

  3. From Dan Ariely’s blog:

    Dear Dan,

    I recently attended a lecture by a well-known academic, and I was amazed and baffled by his inability to communicate even the most basic concepts in his field of expertise. How can experts be so bad at explaining ideas to others? Is this a requirement of academia?


    Here’s a game I sometimes play with my students: I ask them to think about a song, not to tell anyone what it is and tap its beat on a table. Next I ask them to predict how many other students in the room will correctly guess the song’s name. They usually think that about half will get it. Then I ask the rest of the students for their predictions—and no one ever gets it right.

    The point is that when we know something and know it well, it is hard for us to appreciate what other people understand. This problem is sometimes called “the curse of knowledge.” We all suffer from this affliction, but it’s particularly severe for my fellow academics. We study things until they seem entirely natural to us and then assume that everyone else easily understands them too. So maybe the type of clumsiness you heard is indeed something of a professional requirement.

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