How is Shakespeare's work superior to Twilight? How is String Theory superior to some random dude's "theory of everything"? How is a Van Gogh better than what is termed 'kitsch'.

An answer that I do not want is something like "color choice, form, texture" or "abstraction, truth, falsifiability". I'm no stranger to these concepts, but it's obvious to me that these are models that we've constructed to explain why something is better rather than the 'cause' of something being better than something else. If you answer with that, my next question to you would be why are those particular models for difference superior to the countless others one could have invented, including models that might reverse the appraisal of which is better.

I also recognize that one tempting answer is that there is no such thing as 'better'. In that case, I would like an account of the perception we all have that there IS such a thing as 'better'. This perception seems to me no less compelling than the perception of existence.

Also, I'm a bit confused about what tags to put on this. I wanted to put 'judgement' but that's not a category I could find.

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    Aesthetics is a massive field with tons of literature. We have historically closed questions that were as broad as this, esp. absent any particular reference material or author. Is there any way you could narrow this down, i.e. a specific concern you have or what a particular author thinks? – stoicfury Sep 25 '12 at 6:15
  • One possible answer would be: something that is crafted well (no obvious problems like contradictions in random dude's "theory of everything") and starts a new direction in arts/sciences. – fubra Sep 25 '12 at 13:25
  • Well, I did not perceive this as a question of aesthetics. Everywhere, one must make similar judgements. I suppose if it must be narrowed down, I would be interested in references to authors who explore this question for everything including the purportedly "objective" fields such as science. If that is still not enough, I can re-write the question this evening. – anonymous anonymous Sep 25 '12 at 15:04
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    Prima facie, one might begin answering this question with references to metaphysics (properties of things, what some things have which might make make them "better" than others, etc.), but you seem to not want that. The judgment that "one thing is better than another" is covered by aesthetics. I don't think your question is bad. In fact, I really like the topic in general and I'm quite interested in the answer. However, part of maintaining content quality is by having focused questions because overly broad ones are rarely answered appropriately. This has a real answer, but it is very long. – stoicfury Sep 25 '12 at 15:58
  • Alright, I understand the need for content quality. I can post more specific questions when I start breaking down the subject. You can close this. I would still appreciate some pointers as to where I might track down this answer. – anonymous anonymous Sep 26 '12 at 0:19

You ask why A is considered better than B. This assigns properties to A and B that can be measured so that the results can be evaluated w.r.t. some value system.

How is Shakespeare's work superior to Twilight? How is a Van Gogh better than what is termed 'kitsch'."

Imho, this is a subjective evaluation of art that is created according to and measured versus the current values of society. I guess, as a rule of thumb, the more you can emotionally connect to or "understand" art, the higher its value.

How is String Theory superior to some random dude's "theory of everything"?

This can be scientifically explained. If you were to create physical experiment to measure what is explained by String Theory (ST) and Random Dude's "Theory of Everything" (RD), then ST is more likely to predict the correct results than RD.

  • As far as String Theory goes, it is true that if it predicts more results, then it could be said to be better. But in practice, most potential theories are eliminated without any such test. The situation reminds me of combustion engines vs steam engines. There was once a car race in which the combustion engine car won so everyone invested in that technology. Today, it seems "obvious" that I.C. engine > steam. But some argue that this is largely because that one event that made people jump on the IC bandwagon which resulted in the perfection of IC and a lack of investment in steam engines. – anonymous anonymous Sep 25 '12 at 15:21
  • So what I mean by that is that, we seem to use some different criteria that we apply to proposed explanations for phenomena since we eliminate the vast majority of them before a single test. But it would be too simple to say that some hypotheses are just "inferior" because the investment that goes into expanding an idea is a force in itself that can make it superior to other hypotheses that haven't been worked on nearly as much. – anonymous anonymous Sep 25 '12 at 15:26
  • In science, if you suggest a theory to be better than an existing theory, then you'll better be sure to present some comparative empirical results or at least analytical arguments that establishes superiority. Your peers are gonna scrutinize. In economics, scuh scrutiny may be reduced, of course. – Marcel Sep 25 '12 at 15:32
  • So what interests you is the psychological aspect of it? Which then causes people to invest into an idea making it in some cases superior? – Lukas Sep 25 '12 at 15:37
  • On the same token, I have read about the Blue Ocean Strategy which basically delivers the values system with the product :). You think a product is "better" because there simply do not exist too many similar products. – Marcel Sep 25 '12 at 15:43

"Better" can mean a lot of things depending on the context.

If someone says "I believe that Shakespeare's work is superior to Twilight", they can be saying one of many things:

  1. Something akin to "If I had to be stranded on a deserted island for the rest of my life, I would rather have Shakespeare's works there than Twilight". [That is, they think they would definitely choose Shakespeare if given the choice in real life]
  2. The majority of people who have come in contact with both works agree with statement 1
  3. If the majority of people who have come in contact with both works had any sense, they would agree with statement 1
  4. Some combination of statements 1, 2, and 3 (for example: just 1, 1 and 2, 1 and 3)

If someone does not include the "I believe" part, this probably means they are stating more of those than just statement 1. This is the usual definition when it comes to works done in mediums.

The scientific sense of "better" means, usually, that if someone claims one theory or idea is "better" than another, then what they are saying is:

If you start from the appropriate assumptions and principles and work logically, you will find yourself more partial to the idea [of believing in this theory, if the thing is a theory] that is better than the one that is worse.

Morality, though, is a whole different animal: to say an action is "better" than another action is to say the following (for actions A and B):

I have a certain ideal of the world, or goals that I believe should be accomplished. Doing action A would contribute more towards that idea or those goals than action B (it would get to the ideal faster, with less trouble/sacrifice, etc)

Most of these statements attempt to quantify what can not actually be quantified ("level of" artistic quality, "amount of" evidence of an idea, "how" moral something is), usually for the purpose of speed of communication and emotional satisfaction (I'm not a psychologist, though).


Our ideas of "better" and "worse" ultimately stem from our goals. In a universe with only objective and passive participants, there would be no such thing as better or worse. In a universe with active participants with goals, things are "better" if they enable us to achieve our goals and things are "worse" if they hinder this process.

The complexities of our goals in life hide the clarity of this truth. Ultimately our goals in life are biologically determined. We need food, water, shelter, to reproduce etc. We have evolved to feel happiness when we achieve these goals, and thus a secondary goal could be to achieve happiness. A tertiary goal might be to have a stable job, which enables one to have long term security of needs etc.

Examples of the relationship between better-worse judgements and goals:
A job that pays more may be considered "better" than a lowly paid job, because it allows one to have improved chances of satisfying one's goal of long term security of needs.

If one's goal is to read a book, one may consider one author better than another, if the first author can better convey their meaning, and thus allow the reader to gain a greater understanding of the book.


Better maybe related to three things:

  • Consistencies
  • Safety (with feeling secure) and Pleasure (in any means, whether personally or not, whether because of fulfilling ethics or based on religion)
  • Wider than before

Something is better because something gives us safety (with feeling secure) and pleasure (survival, happiness, excitement, satisfaction, and similar to these), wider than before and within consistency.

The more for something gives us safety (with feeling secure) and pleasure wider than before and even longer on consistency, then it maybe considered better.

Besides, do we have to be proud of just because of knowing something? No! Knowledge is knowledge, comparison is comparison, not less and not more, and it's useless, because we don't even know whether something is better or worst, until it is beneficial for us. Right?!

  • As long as we are confident with our knowledge, it is not actually a problem for downvotes, because over time, what we believe to be so (if true) will heal itself. If we have confidence in our own knowledge like this, then the communication can be done only for the correction of understanding, not correcting the essence of consistency of our knowledge. But it would be better if downvoting done after asking to clarify. Please feel free to downvote if you are still unsatisfied with our clarification. That's fair enough. Am i correct? :) – Seremonia Oct 14 '12 at 12:08

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