nick mailer speaks
the content of his mind

Tim in italics.
Nick in regular text.

Let me see. You are a professional critic, and you work with professional critics. You are read because people want your opinion on what is good or bad.

Indeed, they want your opinion. I note that you concede that they do not seek one's knowledge on what is good or bad, but one's opinion. An opinion is necessarily subjective, by definition.

Is that goodness or badness good or bad simply because a bunch of people think it so, which is to say this 'quality' is, in a sense, illusory?

Get rid of the term "is" or "was" in discussing such things, and that should become clear:

"That film is really bad" becomes "I really didn't enjoy that film". It becomes one's aesthetic reaction to some stimulus, rather than an attempt to place a spooky metaphysical quality into the heart of that stimulus.

I happen not to like the taste of marzipan. I might well say "Marzipan is awful". But my statement will never convince someone who loves Marzipan. They have an aesthetic reaction to the food. They are not "wrong" about any fact concerning marzipan. I am not "right". To make either claim is to engage in a category error. We merely react to a stimulus, and our genetic, cultural and contingent makeup determines that reaction's interpretive hue. One's aesthetic reaction is no more "wrong" than "blue" is wrong.

If this is so you have no cause to be upset that so many people like the Sims, or Myst, because that is really all there is to quality.

A reviewer might describe the necessary conditions to satisfy his aesthetic desires, and these necessary conditions may include certain properties inherent in the artistic work (the number of adverbs used, say, in a piece of writing, or the shade of blue used in a landscape). In reviewing the game Myst, he may demonstrate how Myst fails similarly to fulfil his own personal selection of fulfilment criteria. In writing his review, he may even use absolutist moral terms for poetic effect; however, he cannot claim that Myst is, de facto, inherently "bad", and that people who enjoy its lugubrious wallpaper are somehow mistaking some existential truth, any more than he could argue that I am "wrong" to enjoy certain works of Stravinsky or "The Flying Lizards" or ABBA.

Or, it could be that goodness or badness is a real thing that is normally hidden beneath the wash of consensus subjectivity

You assume that there is some unchanging, a-priori Platonic ideal of aesthetic perfection, which lies outside of subjective, individual judgement. Indeed, many of the ancient Greek philosophers believed this. But here's the kicker: determining this "objective" good would require one to define just what it is that one is seeks. If you seek the objective truth, you need to be able to determine that you have found it. So you define the necessary conditions that such an objective "essence" would fulfil - and in so defining, one is making a subjective judgement. The paradox of "the objective" reveals itself in one's having, necessarily and without exemption, to define its location subjectively.

- it could (humour me) be the case that Celine Dion is the world's greatest singer,

To claim that something is "the case" is to suggest that it has an incorrigible reality. But this begs the question about how one would determine that "reality". If someone tells me that it is the case that pure water, at standard atmospheric pressure, freezes at 0 degrees centigrade, the meaning of that statement is the method of its verification: I can obtain batches of water at standard atmospheric pressure and see what happens when I subject them to 0 degrees centigrade. But how could I ever verify and investigate the claim that "Celine Dion is the world's greatest singer"? I could define "greatest" to mean "most wealthy", perhaps, or "able to hit the 2nd octave A sharp with a constancy and velocity beyond any one else's recorded capability", at which point I would merely be making the statement:

"Celine Dion is the world's most wealthy singer" or "Celine Dion is able to hit the 2nd octave A sharp with a constancy and velocity beyond anyone else's recorded capability".

Note that we now have two arbitrarily selected facts that can be empirically validated. We no longer have aesthetic judgements. So, in order to give the aesthetic term any sort of verifiability, one has had to swap it out for empirically testable statements. That which we choose to swap out is utterly subjective, you'll note. On its own, "greatest" remains a void to be filled by any number of arbitrary factual restatements, or it lies there as a piece of metaphysical nonsense. "Ah", you might argue, "but a great singer must have all these properties". Really? Must? Who decides such things. "One of the most clever Professors of Music told me!". Ok, that's called the Fallacy of the Argument from Authority. Merely because he's a clever professor of music does not mean he can claim any objective fulfilment of the empty term "greatest". Certainly, he could have all sorts of interesting things to say about the mechanics and aesthetics of music, but his erudition and knowledge cannot give him the escape velocity from this necessarily question-begging circle. At best, he could confirm a certain cultural group's arbitrary selection of empirical-statement swap-outs, which his sort believe should fulfil the clanging emptiness of the word "greatest". Even then, one might struggle to find the shared properties of Maria Callas and Blossom Dearie, both of whom have been termed "great" singers by "experts" - but that is besides the point.

There are further clues in your terminology that your quest for objective aesthetics remains a chimera:

it could [...] be the case that Celine Dion is the world's greatest singer.

It could? What could? To say that "it could be" is to hide behind an ambiguous, existential actor. What "makes" this "the case"? You claim a possibility that the statement "Celine Dion is the world's greatest singer" is true. But you do not define how one could ever validate, how one would ever recognise, and how one could know the provenance of such an absolute conclusion.

but consensus subjective opinion (at least among everyone you know) disagrees.

You seem to suggest that there can be an objective "opinion" beyond those mere garden-variety subjective opinions. Who will decide which opinion is objective", and which merely "subjective"? You're begging the question again. If there can be no objective "opinions", except where the "opinion" happens to coincide with a tautology (say, in my having the "opinion" that 1+1=2), and all aesthetic judgements are necessarily opinions, whence the "objective" aesthetic judgement?

What I want to argue is that in spite of the subjective consensuses that normally warp all perceptions of goodness or badness, there really is such a thing

You have entered a little linguistic trap there. By using the term "warp", you're presupposing the pre-existence of incorrigible "goodness" and "badness", shimmering beneath a murky distortion. You are engaging in the teleological mistake of first presuming the a-priori existence of "goodness" and "badness", and then postulating that one's perceptions warp our appreciation thereof. But your responsibility, in arguing for the objective truth behind such entities, is to deduce from perception, and not vice versa. One might argue that the subjective consensus warps our opinions, and influences which facts we arbitrarily swap for words like "greatest" when we try to argue our "case"; but to presuppose a "goodness" or "badness" beneath this shimmering veneer is illegitimately to presuppose exactly that which one has no reason yet to presuppose!

and that this is something we can reveal by a slow and painstaking process, a little analogous to the way that Newton discovered gravity, which was closer to the 'truth', and quite a bit later Einstein discovered relativity, which formally disagreed with Newtonian gravity, but effectively refined it.

You are conflating two very different universes: one of aesthetic opinions, and one of empirical testability. When one makes a scientific statement, one claims that one has detected a uniformly evident pattern in the universe, which one can describe, and whose description can be validated through the perception of any agent who follows the appropriate procedures. Again, the meaning of a scientific statement is the method of its verification. Indeed, that science can progress to the "truth" should not come as a surprise to us, as this "truth" is nothing more or less than a refined description of our perceptions. If I say "Water freezes at 0 degrees centigrade", I offer a challenge to the world. I'm saying "See if you find one instance where what I say will be rendered invalid by your sense perception". So you run the experiment, look at your thermometer, and notice that the temperature at which water has frozen is not, in fact, 0 degrees. So you say "no, what you said is incorrect. At the top of Mount Everest, water does not freeze at 0 degrees". You then realise that you need to refine your statement to make more accurate an account of your observation: "water freezes at 0 degrees centigrade *when exposed to a uniform pressure of one atmosphere*". So, you're not working to a greater "truth" about water, you're merely working toward a more precise *description* of our *perceptions* of its behaviour. This is the best we can do; but even science itself relies on a basic inductive faith. After all, one day, water might suddenly decide that it prefers to freeze at 2 degrees centigrade, and we'll have to change our theorem. See more about such inductive instabilities at my online scrapbook.

You mention Newton. He discovered nothing. He merely observed something, and formulated a pattern to describe these observations. Eventually, our observational methodologies were refined, and so his model no longer made up for the kinks and dips he'd "smoothed over", which we were now in a position to observe. Einstein was, if you like, a better predictor of what an accurate observation would reveal. And, later, actual observations have largely borne him out. Thanks Einstein. Theinstein. But, again, we're not talking about opinions. We are talking about observations which can be repeated by any human (or, indeed, non-human) detector. A thermometer can accurately measure that which we label "zero degrees centigrade". So long as we understand how that thermometer has been calibrated, and the definition of a thermometer, we won't argue the case. And an acoustic analyser might, indeed, reveal something utterly peculiar about Celine Dion's voice, which is not replicated to that degree in any other voice we analyse therewith. Again, so long as we understand the mechanism of the analysis, and are given the opportunity to validate its data, we can agree with that. But would we similarly agree with an "aesthetic thermometer", which we dipped into some artistic work, and which then flashed the word "rubbish" or "good" on its display? Of course not: we would immediately want to know what actually was being measured: the pitch of a voice measured against a database of respondents' aesthetic opinions on such voices, the shade of blue measured against a MORI Poll of blue lovers? If the scientist looked at you, and said "what do you mean actually? It's just measuring whether this work is Good or Bad", you would think he were mad.

Indeed, the tautological truism is that science measures only that which can be measured, and describes the results, perhaps next time better to predict the same. But sometimes, scientists think they are properly describing their observations, but later such observations conflict with their descriptions. They then have to try to describe their empirical universe more accurately. A classic example of this is the 19th century physicists' notion of the universal "ether", which filled the vacuum and held space together. This theorem worked, to an extent, to model our then perceptions of the universe. Later physicists, however, began to notice that certain experiments revealed that such a notion had no actual basis in genuine observation and that, indeed, certain observations seemed to conflict with this model. Again, Einstein postulated a better description of our observations, in his notion of spacetime, which postulations generally bear out when the observation actually takes place: "Yes, Einstein, your descriptive model works well for the moment: when I fly at above the speed of light, I do indeed come back seeming rather younger than my twin brother, just as you said I would".

Perhaps Einstein's descriptions will, in turn, turn out to be overly smoothed-out approximations. Approximations of reality, and of a final truth? No! Approximations only of a full analysis of the description of our observations. No more. Perhaps scientists will suddenly notice in their observations a little curlicue, some detail which Einstein's model failed to describe. So the scientists will either adapt Einstein's model, or they will produce a new one, that more accurately describes their repeated observations.

Science, then, is merely descriptive. And the scientific method invites one to validate its statements. More accurately, as Karl Popper pointed out, it invites one to *deny* its statements. This is, indeed, a useful way of determining whether a statement can be analysed with science at all. Let's say someone says "All swans are white". If we can imagine a way of invalidating that statement, then we know that this statement is susceptible to scientific analysis. And, in this case, we can easily imagine a way of invalidating the statement - simply find a black swan and 'tis done. But what about an aesthetic statement masquerading as a statement of fact - like "Marzipan is foul". Can one imagine "invalidating" that statement? What experiment would reveal that, in fact, marzipan is not "foul"? One could spin around in circles, redefining "foul" to mean "few people enjoy eating it", or "it makes Mr Jones down the road throw up", both of which we can validate; but if I like marzipan, that liking is not in the realm of invalidation.

of course both are still theories, but by and large we'd be foolish to contradict them.

Any scientist that found an observation not adequately described thereby would be foolish NOT to contradict them! That's the whole basis of the scientific method.

As Richard Feynman said: "Learn from science that you must doubt the experts. As a matter of fact, I can also define science another way: Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts."

Of course many people believe in horoscopes, or that walking under ladders brings bad luck - and I think they are wrong - I don't consider that a subject for relativism.

You think they are wrong because you realise that there is no empirical validation for any horoscope. The day that horoscopes start accurately to predict the otherwise unpredictable in a systematic and verifiable manner, as part of a well documented double-blind procedure, will be the day that you should decide to analyse its mechanisms, better to describe how it works. But first, you need at least some description of its working at all, and you, like I or any other rational observer, will find scant evidence of that. Horoscopes are not disqualified because of distaste: merely because they do not actually "do" what they say on the tin. If and when they begin so to do, we can start to describe the ingredients as accurately as we can.

But, to use your other example, let's assume that, despite your initial scepticism, you do find some data which seems to validate that people who walk under ladders are slightly more likely to be injured within moments of that experience than those who do not. Let's say that you view the data, and it seems a sufficiently wide sample to be valid. You then notice that people who walk under ladders are more likely to have tins of paint or trowels fall on their head. We explains the statistic by restricting the scope of "bad luck", rather than suddenly necessarily agreeing that superstition without descriptive cause has won a volley. Such notions, therefore, whilst either foolish, manipulative or incomplete, are perfectly analysable by the scientific method. But the notion that "marzipan is bad", merely because I don't like its taste is not. So, again, aesthetic judgements are not in the same realm as horoscopes either.

Now I do believe there is an artistic equivalent to this scientific discovery,

Your belief is predicated on the fallacious interpretation of cultural fashions. You can agree or disagree with another's aesthetic opinion, and someone might try their best to change your aesthetic opinion, but you cannot be said to hold a "right" or "wrong" aesthetic opinion in any meaningful sense beyond the mores of fashion.

albeit that I can't prove beyond reasonable doubt that Middlemarch is a good book - you just have to trust me, or read it for yourself.

You're confusing legal truth ("reasonable doubt") with scientific truth, and that, in turn, with aesthetic opinion. If I can validate something as true, I do not need to "trust" he who provides the method for that validation: his theory speaks for itself in my confirming or discounting it through observation. If I take up your challenge and read Middlemarch for myself, and decide that it is "not" a "good" book, does that mean that I have detected a flaw in your "theory"? Or could it be that science attempts to describe our predictable experience of certain stimuli, whilst aesthetic opinions describe our individual emotional reactions to said stimuli and, as such, are necessarily individually "true" for each one of us, but can be ascribed no truth or falsehood beyond these solipsistic boundaries? When we say "that film was good", we are engaging in a kind of poetry: we are using metaphor, if you will - a metaphor where the comparator in question is an entity which can hold a deductive or inductive truth. To forget that is to engage in the sort of fallacious cultural absolutism that starts wars.