Sound does not exist

This weekend my son asked me, “Dad, what is ‘sound’?”  I replied, “Well, interestingly, sound does not really exist.”  Then we had a really fun one hour conversation about why this is so.  Most readers will know exactly why this is true but in case some don’t follow me, let me offer this condensed explanation:

  • When matter oscillates, its momentum can be transferred through surrounding medium via pressure waves.
  • When these pressure waves, after possibly many interim alterations, finally reach the human ear
  • These pressure waves then move the human ear drum and the anatomical mechanism in the inner ear converts the ear drum’s motions (note: “motions”, not “sound”) into electrical impulses.
  • The well-working human brain then converts these electrical signals into a perception of sound.
  • Thus:  oscillation –> pressure wave –> ear drum movement –> electrical impulse –> brain –> perception/illusion of sound
  • Why “illusion”?  Well, there is no reason the same electrical signals in the nervous system could not be converted to tastes, vision, kinesthetic sensations or even emotions.  Indeed, some people have this sort of brain anomaly (synesthetes).   It is all a translation issue of one sort of information into another.

So “sound” is a human contrivance — at a biological level.  Likewise, so is beauty.  Sure, on a relativistic level, sound is very real, of course.  But sometimes taking our relative perceptions too seriously can take us off guard and sting us.  Holding them lightly is a valuable practice.  And thus, my conversation with my son.  After this heavy conversation we had a great time playing some music together — relativistic bliss !

One of my favorite related posts
Truth and Beauty: deceptive abstractions


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

17 responses to “Sound does not exist

  1. If a tree falls in a forest…

  2. atimetorend

    Very cool stuff, it is so fun to challenge the kids that way. Have you seen the device that turns a video feed into bumps which can be felt on a person’s tongue? It enables a blind person to “see”. But the amazing thing is that they really do “see” objects, not just feel bumps on their tongue which enables them to navigate spatially. So I guess that is a controlled use of synesthetes (or however that would conjugate).

  3. @ A_time_to_Rend :
    I think I had heard of that. Great example! Thanx.

  4. Would it not also be true to say that the images and light we see are constructed in the rear of the brain from electrical impulses originating on the retina and traveling down the optic nerve?

  5. @ Dan
    Of course a similar story could be told for vision, smell, touch, taste and perhaps even thought (the sixth sense in Buddhism) — they are human arbitrary contrivances of sorts.

    Is that what you mean?
    photo–>retinal cell–>electochemical impulse–>’vision’
    (which could just as well been transformed into ‘taste’.)

  6. Yes, that’s what I was getting at, exactly. And of course echo-location (information captured with the ears and processed in “visual” centers) could be conceived as a form of “vision.”

  7. Yes, all that is synesthetes, which is linked in my post — had you heard of this “disorder”?

  8. Adam

    The discovery of my synesthesia helped to reinforce some of the things I was learning about Buddhism at the time. I say “discovery” because for most of my life I hadn’t the idea that there was a name for my particular brand of crazy! I liked that you referred to it as an anomaly, rather than disease or disorder or “people that suffer from” – although there are some people who’s synesthesia certainly can hamper their life.

    In case you are curious, for me, my major form is number form. Followed closely by sound —> color, as well as grapheme —> color (though rather than letters, it’s mostly words and concepts).

    When I tried LSD as a youth, the only thing it really did for me was to take the synesthesia to the nth degree, to a point where I was able to “hear” lights. It was very odd, very cool.

  9. @ Adam
    Thanks for sharing.
    I love this line in the wiki article:
    “Even within one type, synesthetic perceptions vary in intensity[15] and people vary in awareness of their synesthetic perceptions.”

    We falsely assume that those around us taste reality the same as us. And we are often unaware of how “oddly” we taste reality compared to others. Then to amplify all that, some of us structure a believe system based on our perceptions.

    Though I am not a synesthesic, I have had lots of odd experiences which I realize now that a small portion of the population has had — I assumed everyone has had them. Many atheists, for example, have never had unitary experiences or heard voices or seen vision — heck, most people don’t. But to assume a theist is crazy because they claim to have these experiences is a mistake. It is often their interpretation that is “crazy” but often , their is some cognitive experience below it.

    Again, thanx for sharing — weirdo ! 😉 kidding

  10. @Sabio

    “We falsely assume that those around us taste reality the same as us.”

    And yet all we have to do is look at how we view colors to see how differently we perceive things. “I like your red shirt.” “Thanks, it’s orange actually.”

    One of my jobs was working at Kinko’s, and when we made color copies we could waste a lot of time because of the customer’s perception of color. Mind you, their original usually came from a nearly infinite palette of colors, and we were trying to reproduce that having only CMYK in our palette. I could make 10, 20, 30 attempts, and nine times out of ten I’d hit the reset button, setting the machine back to default, make a copy, hand it to them, and they would say “That’s it!”.

  11. @ Mike :
    Wow, that is fascinating — I would never have thought about that incarnation of the issue. Thanx.

  12. “music is just very interesting things to be doing with the air.” -Tom Waits, being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.

  13. @ Ghost
    — Very fun quote!

  14. Some random guy

    My parents also say that the preassure wawe is also sound. I dont think its true but they say that both are right. Wich of us is right?

  15. Hey SRG: it is all definitions — we make things what we want them to be (from that angle)

  16. thisica

    It’s interesting to note that Newton did note a similar kind of thing about colour (and might have started the whole idea of seven colours of the rainbow, despite the very fact that the number of possible colours is much more than that), which did ruffle some feathers of individuals like Goethe, into the 19th century… It still amazes me that we perceive ‘colour’ in bands, rather than continuously, which is what we might assume if we see the world ‘as it is’ (which is impossible, since we’re finite organisms). I also find colour categories to be interesting, especially the difference between blue and green–in some Asian countries, until quite recently, these colour categories were blurred.

  17. Thanks for the comment thisica. Yes, it is fun mix between our brains and its electromagnetic sensory organs that gives us the illusion of color. And I am very familiar with “ao” (blue-green) in Japanese –> 青

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