02/04/2012 09:06 am ET Updated Apr 05, 2012

Is That All There Is? A Preliminary Example

At the heart of it, I think there is a problem of misidentification. A lack of recognition results in a sentiment of disillusion that jadedly questions "Is that all there is?" Another way to ask the same question is: if I am disappointed, then what was I expecting? In order to identify the absence of something I must first have experienced its presence in some way, shape or form. In this case, it seems like the disillusion stems from thinking that the world lacks meaning, however, I find it's usually my own faculty of recognition that's mistaken. Otherwise, I could possibly not be immune to saying: "Every time a rug is micturated upon in this fair city..."

The point is to understand how things become relevant. Without a sense of purpose given, and, absent teleological range, scope or aim, it seems the individual is at a loss for meaning. I think the loss does not necessarily signal a lack; it is just a change of perspective. It is not anymore about the subject or the object, self or other, earth or heaven; it is now about the nature of the relation between them. It is recognizing how the nature of relation itself makes things relevant -- engaging itself with concern. I propose that all meaning and relevance is time-related: the structure of time provides a system for understanding meaning and how it works.

Several conditions need to be obtained in order to provide a preliminary model for the experience of time. I will focus on how the model works with respect to the interrelation of these conditions. First, how in the present I am given to the experience of a unified manifold. Second, how I am also already able to access to the past. Third, how the future always enables this relation to already having been by providing the initial unity of time itself.

The interaction between present, past and future is dynamic. I will clarify the choices I make for the language being used in order to avoid thinking about time like an extra dimension of space, or a static series of cinematic frames. Instead of using the words "present," "past" and "future," the three temporal phases will be referred to in the way they are experienced. The focus will be less on taking them apart than how they are taken together and interrelated. It is the experienced synthesis of their relation that is important to this inquiry.

Given how this series started with a homonymously titled song, its haunting melody will serve as an empirical example against which to test how meaning is time-related. To introduce the phenomenological method of listening to music, the experience will shortly be raised from burlesque to opera. I am reminded of the fantastic example Sean D. Kelly provides at the beginning of The Puzzle of Temporal Experience [1]:

There you are at the opera house. The soprano has just hit her high note -- a glass-shattering high C that fills the hall -- and she holds it. She holds it. She holds it. She holds it. She holds it. She holds the note for such a long time that after a while a funny thing happens: you no longer seem only to hear it, the note as it is currently sounding, that glass-shattering high C that is loud and high and pure. In addition, you also seem to hear something more. It is difficult to express precisely what this extra feature is. One is tempted to say, however, that the note now sounds like it has been going on for a very long time. Perhaps it even sounds like a note that has been going on for too long. In any event, what you hear no longer seems to be limited to the pitch, timbre, loudness, and other strictly audible qualities of the note. You seem in addition to experience, even to hear, something about its temporal extent.

The key to this example is understanding how you seem to be hearing something that goes beyond what you are actually hearing. You hear that which you cannot directly hear. This understanding of how experience exceeds itself is also the key to phenomenology. That is why this is not all there is.

For the purposes of this inquiry, the tune to "Is that all there is?" will be modified slightly. For simplicity, the melody will be taken as comprised of pure notes, played one at a time. In this manner I will not be taking into account the harmonics of chords, fundamentals, partials, or otherwise. That would be unnecessarily complicated.

A pure note in the time-domain is essentially a sound wave of a particular frequency. The frequency is a measure of how many oscillations occur per second. This makes sound interesting because it can be understood as the pure expression of difference over time -- the rate of changing time itself. Although the waves propagate in space, sound need not be understood in spatial terms throughout this exercise. Doppler shifts and changes in amplitude by distance do not apply.

Before I can even catch the melody, just hearing a pure note is difficult to explain. The soprano's high C example will help. If we zoom in on the perception of the sustained note, from a scale of several seconds to a small fraction thereof, then we can address the simple experience of hearing a distinct and simple note, albeit shortly. The point is that, objectively, when I hear a particular note, at any moment in time, I always hear more than is being presented to me at that instant. A single moment in the phase of an oscillation is not enough to render sound.  

On the other side of the spectrum, at approximately 20 cycles (20 Hz) bass becomes audible. Anything below that is infrasonic with respect to how the human nervous system is calibrated. Infrasonically, waves are felt more like changes in pressure caused by pulses of air displacement. On a biological level, if the displacement is fast enough, then the sound waves will make parts of our auditory system resonate and we get to hear sound. Anything above 20,000 cycles and the wavelength is too short to resonate with even the smallest hairs in our ears The period of a cycle at 20 Hz is 1/20, or 0.05 seconds. The period of a cycle at 20 KHz is 0.05ms, or, it only takes 1/20,000 seconds for it to complete an oscillation. Given this granularity, it does not seem impossible to model the experience of sound perceived during relatively short intervals.

If I sampled a pure wave of 20 Hz at a rate of 20 KHz, it would take 1000 samples to complete just one cycle. Technically, if I only listened to a 20 Hz signal for 0.04 seconds, it would not be possible to hear the cycle because at least 0.05 seconds are required to complete an oscillation at that frequency. The full oscillation has an angular displacement of 360 degrees that can be separated into two equal yet opposite arcs of 180 degrees. The amplitude or pressure change of the first half is reversed to obtain the second, producing one full cycle. To our knowledge, this translates into something like one of those little ear-hairs vibrating left and right. The point is that this pure 20 Hz signal can only be perceived as such if the full cycle is translated into displacement occurring back and forth.  At any moment in the cycle, I also have to access the previous moment in order to render the experience of a pure note.

The value of the current state is given, however, how is the previous state being accessed?   This question is not trivial. If the problem does not appear at least somewhat difficult, I would suggest re-reading "The Puzzle of Temporal Experience." The next entry will provide a description of the synthesis occurring in the mode of being present, emphasizing its interrelation with the past and future.


[1] The Puzzle of Temporal Experience by Sean D. Kelly can be found in several publications, or directly on the web from UC Berkeley and Harvard University.