What is sound?

First there is silence in the room; then someone starts to play the violin. Does the violin make something called sound which travels across the room and arrives in me?

How could this be? The bow drawn across the violin string does not make anything that was not there before. The room is still and silent; the bow is drawn across the string. Nothing has been added that was not there in the silence a moment before. There is the same number of items in the room now as there was before.

But there is movement. The string is made to vibrate: it shakes rhythmically and makes the air adjacent to it shake too. And this vibration is passed on very quickly from the violin until it fills the room.

Air, invisible, shaking. But air shaking is not what we mean by sound.

The vibrations in the air reach my ear where their kinetic energy is transformed into chemical and electrical energy in the nerves connecting the ear to the brain.

But still there is nothing happening that could remotely be called sound. The brain receives this energy, processes it and is subtly altered by it. But a brain changed by energy is not sound.

This is a brief account of what is happening when we hear a sound. But it does not even begin to explain how it is we come to have the experience of hearing sound. Indeed, it seems to have nothing remotely in common with the sound. For what have a few million fidgeting neurons to do with a sound, a melody?

Now my description of the physics and biology of sound is not very technical. But if it were a thousand times more technical and detailed, would it come any nearer to explaining how the sequence of one physical event after another is related to the sound we hear?


Stretched horsehair, pushed, pulled
over taut wires pressed by fingers
fast as hummingbird wings
shakes air that tickles ears
that ruffles cells
that spark inside the brain
then, somehow, somewhere, the music plays.



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Imagine that travellers from some remote planet visit the earth and examine the body of a living human being. They study the eye and the brain in very great detail. They soon learn that the eye is a device that receives and transmits data to the brain where it is processed. They trace the course of the information from the eye into the intricate labyrinth of the brain. They also note how the human body reacts in response to the information received by the eye. A dangerous animal appears – the body moves away quickly; food is near – the body moves quickly towards it.

The question to consider here is this: would this observer from afar have any reason to infer that, when the eye has sent the information to the brain, there occurs a conscious experience of seeing?

Note exactly the form of this question. It is not this: does the eye receive information which is processed by the brain and lead to action? The answer is clearly yes. The alien observer witnesses exactly this sequence of events take place.

No, the question posed here is different: would the extra-planetary visitor have any grounds, any reason whatsoever to draw the conclusion that in addition to the process described above something of a quite different nature is taking place? And by this I mean that something, somehow, is being alive to the experience of seeing, the very quality that the camera (which also receives light information and processes it) does not have.

Suppose we give the visitors more information. We increase the amount of detail available to them. They now have access to the structure of the eye and the brain, of the whole human body in the fullest possible way. They observe the inner workings of the cells in the brain; they can penetrate to the molecular structure of the cells and even into the atoms and the particles within the atoms. We put no boundaries on their powers of observation, no limits of size and detail on their capacity for physical analysis. Is it more likely that they now have some understanding of what it is like to be the one having the experience of seeing? Do they know any better what it is like to have this conscious state?

Here people will divide. Some will say that to understand what happens when the eye transmits, the brain processes and the body reacts is to understand all about seeing. That is what it means ‘to see,’ they will say; that is the whole story with nothing left out.

Others will complain that in this account there is a serious omission; it leaves out not a minor detail but the very essence of what it means, of what it is like ‘to see’.

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(named after philosopher, Galen Strawson 1952-)

This argument which presents a case against free will (or, perhaps, more accurately against the way we think of moral responsibility and by implication of free will too) consists of a series of stages.

The initial claim is that everything that I do, whatever it is, I do by virtue of the way I am. An event impinges on me and the way I react to it is determined by the way I happen to be structured at that particular time, in short,  by my innate properties overlaid with layer upon layer of alterations and modifications that life experience has brought to make me what I am in my present condition.

Now questions arise as follows:
a) how did I come to be the way that I now am with all the memories, drives, traits, characteristics, idiosyncrasies, quirks, inclinations and habits of which I now consist and
b) am I responsible for bringing about my present condition.
For to be free and to be responsible for my present condition I must have intentionally brought that condition into being.

Well, suppose that I have intentionally brought it about that I am this particular composite character. How did this situation arise?

Surely, it must be the case that I had a certain nature (i.e., the collection of memories etc. mentioned above) on the basis of which the spectrum of parts of my character were preferred and selected.

We can see the beginning of an infinite regress here. I can only be free to make a choice for which I am morally responsible today, if I freely and responsibly chose to be this sort of person yesterday. But that act of choosing must have been determined by the type of person I was then. And so on and on.

It is difficult if not impossible to see a way out of this regress, to look back and identify a point where it all began, where outside this causal loop a free and morally responsible self somehow initiated action.

One implication of this argument is that the notions of free will and of moral responsibility entail the claim that we are self-making beings or, to use the Latin tag, we are causa sui, causes of ourselves. But I cannot make any sense of this as an explanation. It is said of God that He is self-creating in this way but the concept is difficult enough to understand in this context. To think of humans in this sense is quite beyond me,

Two  further points.
1)  There is an assumption in the arguments presented above but it is a very fundamental one that few would want to question, namely, that events are linked in a necessary causal chain (in the way that was analysed and criticised by David Hume). But even if we doubt our familiar beliefs about causation, I do not think that we have made any better sense of free will and moral responsibility for these notions also presuppose causation.
2) The causal connections in the argument do not make any distinction between materiality and consciousness with the effect that the difficulty of reconciling causation with dualism is not evaluated.

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The driver is sitting in the car. In front of him is the dashboard where he can initiate and adjust the operations of the vehicle: the windscreen washers that can be set at various speeds, the heating which can be directed to different parts of the vehicle, the lights that can be sidelight, headlight or dipped, the radio with its volume, waveband and tuning ranges, the ventilation and so on. The driver is in control. He decides what is activated, in what way and to what extent.

It is natural to  believe that in a similar way we are the drivers inside our bodies, controlling its actions, that we can direct movements: for example, when to get out of bed, to pick up a cup, open a door, sign a cheque, put a cross on a voting slip. And, in addition, we also consider ourselves to be in charge of at least some of our mental activity: choosing to concentrate harder, to call up a memory, to imagine a particular scene, to reason about a problem.

The analogy seems to work, at least at a superficial level. But it does not require much knowledge about the brain to cast doubt upon it. For the analogy collapses when we learn that in the brain there is no central dashboard-like control centre and, furthermore, that there is  no one or nothing in overall charge, no counterpart to the driver. Data is taken into the brain via the senses and processed by different systems.

To change the analogy the brain look as though it is a ship without a bridge or a captain.

How then does it come about that we have the very strong impression, indeed the conviction, that we are the masters of our thoughts and actions?

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They could hardly say that they had not been warned. They knew full well that any man who had challenged the gods, who tried to appropriate for humanity what belonged by right solely to the immortals, had been punished with the utmost severity. They had read about Tantalus, condemned to reach out for the most delicious food, for cool, refreshing, limpid water, only for it to recede out of his grasp, leaving him endlessly hungry, endlessly thirsty, and about Prometheus, tortured every day by an eagle that pecked out his liver which grew again each night ready for the next day’s agony. And on their travels they had encountered Sisyphus, even commiserated with him, as he rested for the few minutes allowed before he began again to heave that enormous rock back up the hillside.

But they were young, ambitious, impetuous. Of course, they would escape; of course, they would be the exception, Alcibiades, the older man, the strategist and Cleon, the one with practical experience who had begun as a kitchen boy in Corinth and risen to the rank of favourite cook of the King of Thebes.

The approaches to Mount Olympus were an easy ramble, a clear path and a slight gradient. But their ascent soon became much steeper. And it was hot too, July in Greece, not the best time and place for strenuous activity.

Alcibiades put an arm round his friend. ‘Think of it,’ he encouraged him. ‘You will be the most famous cook in all of Greece, in the entire civilised world.’ On hands and knees they stumbled and scrambled, and, where they could, grabbing hold of branches and roots to steady themselves.  Their tent was pitched for the night on a ridge, a sheer cliff on one side, on the other, inches from the tent pegs, a deep precipice. They woke to find themselves in a cloud, the temperature more like winter.

Alcibiades sensed that Cleon was losing his resolve. ‘Why should the gods alone enjoy nectar and ambrosia? Why should not men and women partake of them too? And remember.’ He looked him straight in the eye. ‘One sip of nectar or one mouthful of ambrosia gives immortality. All people can live for ever. And your name will live throughout eternity in the annals of humanity as the greatest benefactor of all.’

Think of the Parthenon, not as the ruin we know now, but in all its glory, much taller and wider and the stone honey coloured, the ceiling glistening with points of light as if the sky itself had been brought inside. The entire building was surrounded by a parapet which hovered above the faraway world of mortals. Such was the palace at the summit of Mount Olympus. The gods were seated at a marble table.

‘Watch,’ whispered Alcibiades. ‘See the door where the servants come and go.’ On hands and knees they crawled over the tiled floor and, biding their time, found their way into the kitchen and hid. Minor gods who waited on the great Olympians carried plates and chalices. Alcibiades pointed. ‘There.’ The kitchen was empty for a moment. Cleon took his chance, leapt forward, tore the recipe from the wall, rolled it up and, with Alcibiades beside him, made a quiet, furtive exit.

Of course, the gods had not been fooled. They knew, or at least Zeus did, what was happening. And of course, Alcibiades and Cleon were caught. Their punishment? Well, that is another story for another day. But before they were captured, right on the edge of the parapet, as Cleon tried to avoid the hands that were seizing him, the scroll slipped from his fingers. It fell from the parapet and was caught on the winds. It floated, swayed and flew away. In which direction it went who can say? But on the surface of the earth it landed. No one has found it but it lies somewhere still, bearing on it the recipe for nectar and ambrosia, the elixir of everlasting life, the secret sought by countless men in ancient Greece and by every generation since even until this very day.

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I assume that the phrase ‘setting the bar’, whether high or low, comes from athletics, to be precise, from the high jump and pole vault. The world record for the high jump is 2.45 metres, set by Javier Sotomayor, a Cuban athlete, in Salamanca in July 1993.  If the bar were set at one millimetre below that level, then only one person would ever have been able jump over it. If the bar were lowered to 2.41 metres, then four more athletes at various times would have been successful.  If you lower the bar by more, then more athletes can manage it. The more it is lowered, the wider the range of those who have the ability to leap over it.

The concept of ‘setting the bar’ can be applied to knowledge. What do we know? What counts as knowledge? If we stipulate that we will admit as knowledge only that which is absolutely certain, beyond any possible doubt, then we are setting the bar at a very high point. What is now admissible as knowledge is limited to the experience of whatever occupies the present moment, knowledge of immediate consciousness. But, as soon as I reflect upon this, even trying to put it into words as I have just done, I am no longer in that elevated state and the bar has toppled to the ground. In the condition of knowledge as just described there is no discussion, reasoning, explanation.

For that you have to set the bar down a few notches. If you allow in more propositions that rest on assumptions not indubitable certain, you can include the less fool proof knowledge of the physical world, other people, what is beyond immediate experience. Now science, history, geography, theology, nearly all philosophy, ethics, politics, theory come into play and are counted as knowledge

Some forms of meditation and mindfulness are attempts to remain in the state of that knowledge which has the highest degree of certainty.

To make sense of direct, indubitable experience, if any sense can be made of it, it is necessary to leave it and move into a domain of belief resting uncertain premises.

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Christmas card418

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by | December 21, 2018 · 10:52 pm