Blackford on “other ways of knowing”

November 28, 2010 • 12:09 pm

Over at Metamagician, Brother Blackford has a nice post about the ways that humanities, rather than science, can help us “know” stuff.  I think I’m pretty much on board with him: our big difference seems to be largely semantic. That is, I construe science broadly—as “empirical investigation combined with reason,” while Russell takes a narrower definition of traditional scientific investigation (chemistry, biology, physics, etc.).  Thus, when I say that there is no way other than science to find out things about our world and universe, I’m pretty much agreeing with Brother B.   The important point, which we both recognize, is that pure intuition, revelation, and unchallenged dogma are not ways of finding out things, other than about the subjective nature of the person who experiences them. In other words, they’re not “ways of knowing,” if by “knowing” you mean “something that nearly all rational people agree on as truth.”

Do remember that the phrase “there are other ways of knowing besides science” is almost always used as a justification not for the value of the humanities, but for the value of faith.

Brother B:

Why did I say “or at least new to the academy”? It’s because humanities scholars are generally dealing with human experience on Earth, so the stuff they find out will often be stuff that is or was known to somebody. If textual-historical scholarship on the Bible reveals that the Gospel of Matthew relies heavily on the Gospel of Mark and must have been written later, that is finding out something that was once known (very likely by whoever authored the Gospel of Matthew!). If someone manages to resolve what happened to Queen Zenobia after the fall of Palmyra (was she beheaded, as some sources say, or was she taken back to Rome, led in triumph, but ultimately set free, as other sources say?), that will be finding out something that we don’t currently know. Obviously, however, it was once known, for example to the Emperor Aurelian, who defeated her in battle.

I don’t think there is any sharp line between the sciences and the humanities, but you can see, I hope, how humanistic scholars are often trying to find out stuff that was once known by human beings who are not around to ask but have left traces, or sometimes by human beings who are still around but have not organised their knowledge in a sufficiently systematic and public way for the purposes of the academy. . .

However, there’s nothing spooky about the fact that humanities scholars and scientists are often trying to find out different things and that different techniques are likely to work for finding out these different things. An advanced knowledge of mathematics may be much more useful to a physicist than to an historian trying to settle what really happened to Zenobia. The latter may need to develop advanced skills in understanding a raft of ancient languages that are used in our conflicting records of poor Zenobia’s fate. These languages may be of little use to a physicist.

There are no “other ways of knowing”, if this refers to esoteric techniques that get us in touch with a supernatural realm. There are, however, numerous techniques for finding out stuff. Some of these techniques require no unusual training (I can look out the window and find out various things). Others may require advanced training, whether in mathematics, languages, the acquisition of extensive knowledge bases, developing certain ways of thinking about problems (yes, lawyers really are trained to think in a certain way, but there’s nothing spooky about it … it’s continuous with how we’re all trained in critical thinking), and so on.

44 thoughts on “Blackford on “other ways of knowing”

  1. Amen Brother Coyne.

    The important point, which we both recognize, is that pure intuition, revelation, and unchallenged dogma are not ways of finding out things, other than about the subjective nature of the person who experiences them.

    But let’s not diminish the value of finding out about yourself! And let’s not lump together all attempts to do so as equal. You can find out knowledge about yourself through photographing your aura, or by taking a fearless moral inventory. But I’d want to contend that they won’t give you equally useful results.

    Knowing oneself is genuine knowledge. Not objective knowledge, obviously. But like all knowledge, there are good and bad ways of gaining more of it.

    For Godlessness sake, don’t let’s just throw that to the woo-mongers as if it were the scraps of food we don’t want to eat.

  2. Well that’s just the banal positivistic reductionist tripe I’d expect from Blackford. How does he know Felix, wonder cat, loves him? Unless he votes 1 Cheeky as the best Kitteh, I’ll steadfastly hold to the view that gnu atheists are emotional psuedorationalists.

  3. Agreed that this perennial discussion relies mainly on semantic nuances, “way of knowing” itself being one of the fuzziest phrases to come along in some time.

    Blackford sums things up well with the illustrations he employs in the last two paragraphs quoted above; at base, each endeavor, physics & history, is employing the same “way of knowing”–basically, research–just using different, discipline-appropriate tools to do so.

    And for the record, some branches of science also find themselves uncovering knowledge that was already known to someone at some time. 🙂

  4. I would go so far as to say that this discussion is strictly semantic, which is why I like it. Semantics are important. Slippery and sloppy semantics is, after all, the bread and butter of people like Karen Armstrong. (For whom words like “God” and “truth” mean whatever the hell she needs them to mean at any given moment.)

  5. Agreed that “way of knowing” is fuzzy, re Diane. Agreed that there is no principle distinction to be had between humanities vs science, re Blackford (but it happens to be one in practice).

    But I tend to Blackford’s rather general “finding out stuff” rather than Coyne’s then restricted “ways of experiencing”, on the grounds that I see learning as complementary to science. But learning, even empirical such as trial-and-error or trial-and-reward, is contingent on the data and circumstances experienced, and acquiring at most correlations. (Even if robust such as best.)

    I.e. one can learn that insects have 4 legs from some books. Or one can learn from some observation that bugs seem to have any number of legs. But it is only testable science that can tell you that some related bugs have 6 legs, and the causal process that makes it so.

    “If you can’t know what is wrong, you can’t know what is right” applies very well to experience and learning.

    “Ways of knowing” is inclusive by definition, and then “knowing” isn’t actually knowledge which is exclusive by definition. It is instead more or less well documented experience and pattern search.

    Any correlation and/or causation with this and religion is mere coincidence, I’m sure. (O.o)

  6. What an interesting coincidence. As a result of inquiring into what has been covered here and elsewhere on knowledge and knowing I found (have no chain of evidence) Personal Knowledge by Michael Polanyi which I shall read with careful attention since he took nine years to write it and it is a University of Chicago imprint.

  7. Prof. Coyne, I love what you’re trying to do here in this exchange this month with Russell Blackford, but I have to disagree with something you’ve just written.

    I posted a comment on your blog here about musical pitch as an example of something we know directly, without rational inquiry. And I concluded with this point: If someone was to say our perception of pitch falls under the sciences of psychology or brain science, then I would agree, but note this distinction: 1) You know pitch without rational inquiry on your part, and 2) Those sciences are rational inquiries about how you know pitch without rational inquiry on your part.

    So I question this passage you wrote today:

    Thus, when I say that there is no way other than science to find out things about our world and universe, I’m pretty much agreeing with Brother B. The important point, which we both recognize, is that pure intuition, revelation, and unchallenged dogma are not ways of finding out things, other than about the subjective nature of the person who experiences them. In other words, they’re not “ways of knowing,” if by “knowing” you mean “something that nearly all rational people agree on as truth.”

    My immediate objection to that passage is this — personally, I have the sense of “absolute pitch” where you could play any five notes on a piano and I can tell you the names of the notes without looking at the keyboard or hearing a reference pitch, because I feel the pitches absolutely, in my mouth, my fingers, and my guts. So in this example, I am working in a domain that has “true” and “false” answers, and my answers are “true”.

    How does your nomenclature account for this? Is my sense of absolute pitch “science” or “rational inquiry”? I would say no. Is it “intuition”? I would say that word is far better, although the connotations make me feel uneasy (as I’m trying to support what you and and Russell Blackford are mapping out).

    By the way, I only cite my absolute pitch as an example — I could construct a discussion using relative pitch to be more general, or other perceptions. Also, I’ll repeat this point blatantly because I expect someone to miss it — If someone was to say our perception of pitch falls under the sciences of psychology or brain science, then I would agree, but note this distinction: 1) You know pitch without rational inquiry on your part, and 2) Those sciences are rational inquiries about how you know pitch without rational inquiry on your part.

    I apologize if my tone is harsh today — I’m just frustrated, because I have tons of respect for you and Russell Blackford, and I have too many things going on right now for discussion in this format. I am looking forward to the results of the kitteh competition.

    1. About the pitch thing.

      When I see a red carpet, I know is red. I don’t need a card with all colors and labels to know it. When I put my hand over a hot surface, I know it’s hot. I don’t need a thermometer. You said, “I feel the pitches absolutely, in my mouth, my fingers, and my guts.” Okay, you feel the colors in your eyes too, don’t you?

      The only difference between my examples and yours is that everyone can do the things I described, while just some people can do the thing you described. They’re all direct experiences of the senses. Raw material.

      What you get with these and other methods used to collect data (including careful measurements, public surveys, or many, many hours of observation in a zoo with a laptop on your legs) is a pool of facts. They’re disconnected, though. They don’t make sense by themselves. They don’t tell you how stuff works. That’s when rational inquiry goes into play: we use it to connect the dots and make some sense out of the data, building conceptual structures and eventually theories that not only explain the data but also predict new findings and frequently have practical uses.

      In short, “This happens” is data. “Why it happens, under what cicumstances, how, and what can we use it for” is knowledge, at least in the sense Jerry is using it here.

      By the way, I wouldn’t trust too much one’s own perceptions. All you have to do to stop getting the right pitches is to try a certain little piece of candy (if you know what I mean). With that, you can even start hearing what you would usually see and seeing those pitches you right now hear. Weird but fun. Perception is always subjetive. In a less weird example, you won’t hear the same pitch when one piano note is played from the radio of a car which is getting away from you, due to the Doppler effect (if the car weren’t moving, you would hear a higher pitch.) The pitch you feel is an interpretation made by your ears and your brain, it’s not “out there” as an objective fact of the world.

      1. Exactly what I was thinking, but expressed much more capably, Jose. Nicely said.

        (Not that it wouldn’t still be wonderful to have perfect pitch!)

      2. All you have to do to stop getting the right pitches is to try a certain little piece of candy (if you know what I mean).

        No, I do not know what you mean. I have absolute pitch (AP). I feel A=440 in my mouth and my fingers as a physical sensation. If you Doppler shift a pitch A=440 down to Bb, then I feel it physically in my body as Bb. I wrote some of the Doppler pitch shift algorithms in the Eventide HF8000FW and DSP7600. I perceive what my Doppler effects are doing absolutely. I have no patience for armchair philosophers saying if X, then Y hypothetically. My Doppler shift effect Liquid Sky named after the movie is shipping worldwide.

        Perception is always subjective… it’s not “out there” as on objective fact of the world.

        ORLY? A piano has 88 keys, and I can name them without looking. This domain has right and wrong answers, and I get them right, not to boast, but to point out the category we are working in to the rest of you. And as I predicted, you people would commit this category error, so I will obnoxiously copypasta this passage, again, for the Nth time!!1!:

        If someone was to say our perception of pitch falls under the sciences of psychology or brain science, then I would agree, but note this distinction: 1) You know <pitch without rational inquiry on your part, and 2) Those sciences are rational inquiries about how you know pitch without rational inquiry on your part.

        1. I meant LSD 🙂 It messes around with your perception.

          The sound you hear isn’t knowledge. It’s how you interpret a physical event. What is this physical event? How does it work? Why are you hearing that sound instead of another? Have you really heard something or it was just your imagination? You don’t know.

          Ya rly, your perception is subjective. Your absolute pitch is subjective. The sound is just your brain interpreting a wave. That’s why I suggested altering your perception for a couple hours.

          1) You know color without rational inquiry on your part, and 2) Those sciences are rational inquiries about how you know color without rational inquiry on your part.

          Wow, color vision is such an amazing alternative way of knowing, right?

          1. By the way, have you considered for a second that maybe you are making a category error, mistakenly confounding raw data with knowledge?

          2. Jose, fair enough, since I flung “category error” first (at you, sorry!), so it’s fair game (for anyone) to fling “category error” back at me.

            Music schools teach courses in ear training, because musicians need to hear how pitches make intervals, and intervals make chords and scales, and so on. So let’s consider three levels — from the pitch (of a single note) to the interval (between two notes) to the chord (of multiple notes).

            Is Absolute Pitch (AP) aural recognition of a pitch only raw data (not knowledge)? Is Relative Pitch (RP) aural recognition of an interval only raw data (not knowledge)? Is aural recognition of a chord only raw data (not knowledge)?

            I experience all three levels as instant recognition (and I can consciously select between them, just like someone can stare straight ahead and consciously steer their attention to something happening in their peripheral vision — I mean, anyone can do something like this, not that I’m special). So I would call all three levels knowledge, or call all three only raw data (not knowledge). My point in this whole thread is not AP versus RP being special or not. My point in this particular post is whether we call aural recognition knowledge, or only raw data (not knowledge).

            I claim aural recognition (on all three levels) is knowledge, because a music student can know the answers to an ear training test that has right and wrong answers. If LSD alters perception of pitch, then it would lead a music student to answer an ear training test incorrectly.

          3. 🙂

            Throughout this discussion, I’ve been trying to imagine someone with “perfect heat.” You know, someone who could walk outside and say “it’s 56.8ºF” (though even Celsius would be impressive).

            (But Dave, to the extent I understand it, your work with the Doppler shift programming is pretty darn impressive. Talk about applying science! [I hope it’s lucrative. 🙂 ])

          4. Jose, first I apologize for being rude to you that night. And my ego obscured my point. I have improved my attitude.

            It’s a fact that Beethoven’s 5th begins with the pitches G-G-G-Eb. I have two ways of knowing that fact: 1) By reading the notation for the pitches, and 2) By hearing the notation for the pitches performed correctly. LSD may affect both ways of knowing (reading and hearing) and make us wrong about a fact (about Beethoven’s 5th). So I stand by my point, that I am working in a domain (of pitches, which are, ironically, subjective) that has facts, and questions about the facts have right and wrong answers.

    2. I don’t think “perfect pitch” could be described as intuition. Do you call it intuition when you’re able to correctly identify the color of a given object? Our senses collect data, and our brains synthesize and analyze it. Come to think of it, this pretty much does away w the notion of “intuition” altogether (except in a sort of poetic sense).

      Perhaps we could say “subconscious Dave” is doing science to determine the frequency of a given pitch?

    3. I think that for you to recognize a C-sharp, or for me to notice that the object at the the top of the stairs is my cat, is to identify something that you had learned previously. If it were some stranger’s cat in my house, I would have to use rational inquiry to identify it. To extend the analogy to musical notes, perhaps you would have to use rational inquiry to distinguish between a mean-tone and an equal-tempered major triad (which, however, a harpsichord tuner would immediately recognize).

      Thus, identifying a musical note is really not the same sort of “finding out things about our world” as, say, figuring out how cats drink. Or am I missing your point?

    4. >>1) You know pitch without rational inquiry on your part,

      No. I know nothing about pitch, because I have never studied it in the slightest. No inquiry = no knowledge.

    5. Dave Ricks:

      1) You know pitch without rational inquiry on your part, and 2) Those sciences are rational inquiries about how you know pitch without rational inquiry on your part.

      I sort of agree and sort of disagree. Mostly disagree, I think.

      You are right that when you perceive pitches, you know things about them. (E.g., that the B flat you’re hearing is different from an A you heard yesterday, whatever that difference turns out to “really” be.)

      But without rational inquiry of some sort, however informal, you don’t know with any great confidence that your perfect pitch has any objective truth to it. You might be kidding yourself that you can distinguish B flat from A in that way, so you do the same thing scientists would do—you look for repeatability and objective correlates that validate the idea that there really is something different between various pitches, and so on.

      We know that perfect pitch exists, and that people with perfect pitch are perceiving something “real” and not simply subjective, in several ways.

      One is that people with perfect pitch tend to agree with themselves across time, and with others. Another is that they tend to agree with fundamental frequency detectors in simple cases. (Without much inharmonicity or very screwy overtone distributions.)

      Jerry is right though, that this kind of “intuition” or perception counts for little unless it can be validated by such rational inquiry.

      He’s also right that beyond a certain point, it says more about the people doing the intuiting than about anything else.

      Here’s maybe a better example.

      Some women have hyper-color vision—they can detect differences in color that are totally invisible to most people, because they have four distinct kinds of color receptors rather than just three—not just red, green, and blue, but a special band of red that overlaps the normal one.

      (This is a sex-linked trait having to do with a mutant allele for one of the non-red pigments, which ends up detecting certain reds instead of greens—or blues, I forget which. It’s generally only women who have this, and they tend to have partially colorblind sons because the mutant allele on the X chromosome isn’t masked by another allele from another X chromosome, and they end up missing the normal pigment altogether. The women with four-color vision get a normal allele from one of their X chromosomes and the extra color allele from the other.)

      Rational inquiry can easily validate this hyper-color vision. You can find reds that look identical to normal people, and some women can tell them apart. (E.g., easily seeing what’s written in red on seemingly identical red.) They can do this repeatably in controlled circumstances.

      Rational inquiry can further study this perceptual ability and determine what frequency band these women are detecting, and what the frequency response curve is. By suitably extending the theory of three-color vision we can actually understand what this kind of four-color vision is, in detail, and how it does and does not map onto features of the world.

      For example, we can heuristically distinguish some “extra” colors that tweak two color sensors whose frequency bands overlap there. We can’t distinguish between that and a combination of two frequencies that tweak both sensors in nonoverlapping parts of their ranges.

      (Which is why 3-color TV works fine for most of us, but the reddish colors are often wrong for women with an extra band of reds.)

      What all this rational inquiry about color vision tells us ends up being mostly about eyeballs and brains, not about frequencies and which ones are reflected by which surfaces, in themselves. It tells how our visual systems carve up the continuum of frequencies, which we already knew about.

      Presumably the perception of a tubular bell’s pitch is similar. If we find out what makes hearers agree on the “pitch” of such an inharmonic series, it’s going to tell us more about pitch perception than about vibrating pipes per se.

      1. Paul ~ How common is that hypercolor vision thing in women? I’ve never heard of this.

        Sounds like you are describing my late mother and her partially color-blind son (me.)

        She and I used to have frustrating arguments about whether or not my clothes “went.” She kept telling me they didn’t and I had no clue what she was talking about. My color-blindness wasn’t diagnosed until I was nearly an adult.

        1. I read about this in New Scientist years ago and I’ve been looking for it ever since. I didn’t know it led to partial colourblindness in sons – wouldn’t the sons tend to have the hyperred perception, even if they couldn’t see, say green, since they’d have the two reds and, as it may be, blue?

          I imagined it was quite common in women, hence their use of, and interest in, more colour-words. And this would extend sociologically, into why it is “unmanly” to use many colour words.

          Apparently this wasn’t discovered until relatively recently because the colour test charts were all devised by – men.

        2. Ex Wiki:
          “One study suggested that 2–3% of the world’s women might have the kind of fourth cone that lies between the standard red and green cones, giving, theoretically, a significant increase in color differentiation.[7] Another study suggests that as many as 50% of women and 8% of men may have four photopigments.[6]”

          As somewhat anecdotal support, I had a female partner who could reliably differentiate shuffled colour swatches that looks exactly the same to me, ironically under “double-blinded” conditions.
          [6]Jameson, K. A., Highnote, S. M., & Wasserman, L. M. (2001). “Richer color experience in observers with multiple photopigment opsin genes” (PDF). Psychonomic Bulletin and Review 8 (2): 244–261. PMID 11495112.
          [7] Mark Roth (September 13, 2006]). “Some women may see 100,000,000 colors, thanks to their genes”. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

      2. Paul, thank you for being patient with me. You’ve made it clear to me that possessing absolute pitch (versus not) is like possessing three-color vision (versus being colorblind) — it’s just possessing more versus fewer senses. So you helped me get my categories lined up.

        Still, all of our senses and perceptions involve an element of “How do I shot web?” that I will try to address below.

    6. I agree with the people saying why pitch is wrong but it got me thinking – some people have a great intuition for which note comes next in a sequence. Being non-musical myself there may be some heuristic people learn, but it could equally well be a talent that some people are born with.

      So, does the intuition of which note does, or should, come next in a sequence count, or is it all maths based sequences based on a sub-process in the brain that understands vibrations as mathematical patterns?

  8. ###
    Hi Jerry ~ Congratulations on your gripping, entertaining & informative book. Light pours from the pages.

    I watched the Apollo XI mission on British TV when I was 14 & I was struck by the banality of the comments by the astronauts over ‘the air’ & also later ~ upon their return to Earth. The sort of people with ‘The Right Stuff’ are not noted for their lyricism ~ it has no survival value in combat or in flight testing & maybe it is a negative trait to be burdened with imagination when your life depends on maintaining focus in extremis.

    Nevertheless it was a disappointment to me that they came back to us SEEMINGLY unchanged & with no immediate new pearls of wisdom to share. I guess it takes a Tom Wolfe or a Nicholas Monsarrat years after particular events to weave the threads together into a garment. Some distance is required & much reflection.

    However I think that society would be much improved if we could provide a greater range of intellectual tools & concepts to the laconic hero to-be, the mono-skilled track athlete, the grey bank manager & the humble hospital porter…

    I propose that every child in the world needs to be proficient in the following areas: **
    Vocabulary, debating & logic, a conversational second language, a musical instrument, a physical skill, mathematics & statistics, evolutionary theory, Newtonian physics, chemistry, art & literature, government, public health & social responsibility, the Beatles – maybe philosophy too 🙂

    An end now to the multiple choice exam paper & the exam-led education machine


    ** I was schooled in only one third of the list I provided, as were most of my peers. An enormous loss of potential for my generation


    1. To explain myself:
      I think the science/humanities gap is artificial…

      The cause is cultural perception & dodgy methodologies (such as not defining terms & the use of twee language)

  9. We must also remember that the religious do not have a monopoly on “Other Ways of Knowing”. For example, Mooney and Kirschenbaum make numerous unsupportable claims in their unmentionable book; some claims clearly contradict reality so they are likely the product of other ways of knowing. Mooney seems to be an expert in other ways of knowing. For example, he claims that the “Cool Scientists” series in GQ Must be Good and inspire people to be less scientific or even become scientists – but substantiating that claim is, in his own words, “demanding an unreasonable burden of proof” and that evidence to support the claim would be difficult if not impossible to obtain – in short: “I can’t prove it but it must be true.”

    This “other way of knowing” is nothing but a euphemism for what we used to know as “making shit up”.

    Oh, and as Tony Blair might say: since the religious do not have a monopoly on other ways of knowing, religion must be a force for good in the world! Blair is capable of nothing but other ways of knowing.

    1. This “other way of knowing” is nothing but a euphemism for what we used to know as “making shit up”.

      Bravo! 🙂

  10. They have to call it “other ways of knowing” because to call it, more logically, “other ways of finding out” would immediately raise the question “And what ways are those?” with absurd answers like “God told me” and “I just know”.

    Going straight to “knowing” shortcircuits the whole critical faculty.

  11. pure intuition … are not ways of finding out things

    A good deal of our greatest mathematical and scientific achievements are driven by (impure) “intuition”, which amounts to deep insight into the known pattern of mathematical/physical structures. I imagine that the emotions tied to these insights are the same as for “intuitive breakthroughs” in non-scientific fields. The part where non-science breaks down is testing to see if the intuition is actually true or false, because intuition is very often wrong.

    1. Rather than describing (impure) intuition as “deep insight,” I think it’s more accurate to call it partly unconscious guesswork.

      Intuitions are often wrong, especially “deep” ones.

      One of the problems we have with the term “intuition” is that people don’t understand that it’s very heuristic information processing—and like any other very heuristic information processing, it’s quite failure-prone.

      It’s not magic. It’s guessing, which is why nobody’s “intuition” trumps rational inquiry.

      It’s not a way of knowing. It’s a way of guessing, which is one reason why the whole “ways of knowing” thing is so utterly bogus.

  12. “Other ways of knowing” is another infinite regress.

    I asked a local fundie who insisted on “other ways of knowing” how he knew what he claimed to know. (Not what the “other way” was, but how did he know that he knew. And sure enough, it turned out that there are other ways of knowing that there are other ways of knowing.

  13. Science has sometimes been defined socially, as a “search for consensus.” But there can be no consensus unless we all use methods which have been selected for their ability to eliminate individual or group biases as much as possible. Check, check again, and try to be so objective that the end result will be the same regardless of who follows the process.

    It seems to me that the “other ways of knowing” used in religion do the opposite. They don’t try to eliminate bias — they embrace it. Bias is your friend, but only if you’re the right kind of person or belong to the right kind of group.

    They don’t WANT an objective consensus; they’re not seeking something that just anybody can know. On the contrary, they want special knowledge given only to the few. Revelation and mysticism — following authority and tradition — will all end up in different places depending on the character of the person who follows them. Which is the point. They want to divide, not unite.

    If a “sense of absolute pitch” can be checked and confirmed so that everyone can agree on which note was played, then the listener’s experience will line up with the experience of others. It’s not outside of scientific investigation because a consensus can be reached. But what if the person who claims “perfect pitch” hears a C sharp, and all the tests show everyone else that no, the note was actually a B flat? If the musician continues to insist that he doesn’t care what the objective evidence shows, his immediate sense of evaluation trumps it all and that WAS a C sharp — THEN I think we can say he is using a “different way of knowing.”

    1. In my reply to Dave, I meant to also make the point that while he, himself, is content to rely on his sense of perfect pitch to positively conclude that he’s identified the frequency correctly (avoiding pedantic discussions about A415, choir tone, or other systems in which the letters don’t correspond to the commonly accepted frequencies), as soon as he wants to “prove” this to anyone else, he’ll have to walk over to the piano. In other words, test his conclusion (or, better, hypothesis). In other other words, do some rudimentary science.

      1. @ JS1685, there is your category error — For me to perceive absolute pitch is one category (my perception), and for me to “prove” it to other people is another category (maybe science). If I walk into my local Sbaarro pizza restaurant, and I hear the electric bass go below low E, then I know they’re playing their “Italian Pop” CD as background music, because only their “Italian Pop” CD goes below low E. But should I tell the manager Adam he’s playing the “Italian Pop” CD? Does that change reality? No, because I know the reality is that only their “Italian Pop” CD that goes below low E. I don’t need to prove it, or test it, any more than you need to ask if the lights are on.

        If you say that perceiving the lights are on is rudimentary science, then fine, you can have that point — the lights are on. But what I originally posted about the ANSI definition of pitch is my point. If people here would go back go my original post on Prof. Coyne’s topic of what questions defeat science, then they might need to learn something — An octave is not a doubling of frequency. If they’re not outraged, they’re not paying attention.

        1. I don’t think I’ve made a category error. Why do one’s perceptions have to be put in a completely different category from data collected by artificial instruments? Can’t scientific instruments be thought of as extensions of our senses? To bestow “specialness” on our senses and the perceptions they engender approaches anthropism, IMO. This is not to assert that our senses are just as reliable as technological devices. Our senses are famously unreliable, I know. But I think the comparison holds. It’s not apples and oranges – more like clementines and oranges. And technology goes wonky sometimes, too.

          Also, how did you discover you possessed absolute pitch? By repeatedly having your perception verified externally. A sort of proto scientific method has given you the confidence now to rely on your perception w/o external verification.

          I’m not sure why the scientific method couldn’t be brought to bear on the process of analyzing data gathered from vibrating bodies that demonstrate inharmonicity.

          Finally, the intervals we call octaves, or fifths, or thirds, or whatever exist in many incarnations (if I may use that word). No, an octave is often not a doubling of frequency, but it is always close, and our brains are good at pigeonholing. The cognitive science behind our ability to recognize as an octave a frequency that is not precisely doubled has been done.

          Please don’t construe my replies as antagonistic. I’m enjoying this discussion – it really has me thinking.

    2. Sastra wrote:

      But what if the person who claims “perfect pitch” hears a C sharp, and all the tests show everyone else that no, the note was actually a B flat? If the musician continues to insist that he doesn’t care what the objective evidence shows, his immediate sense of evaluation trumps it all and that WAS a C sharp — THEN I think we can say he is using a “different way of knowing.”

      Sastra, I love you (from all your posts on Pharyngula) , but what you just wrote is apropos of nothing Anyone here on his thread can read my post 7, plus your post 13, and see how you missed this point — my “different way of knowing” pitch is my physical sensation in my fingers, my mouth, and my abdomen, without looking at a keyboard or hearing a reference pitch. And this is how I get the real pitches on a piano correct — not about some hypothetical pitches like a 900 foot Jesus that never happens.

      1. Dave, I think that your “way of knowing pitches” by “intuitive” perception is a way of guessing pitches that you’ve rationally validated.

        Which is fine, of course. There’s nothing wrong with “intuition” (guessing) and perception if it works, and you actually know that it works.

        What’s bad about “other ways of knowing” is that if we take intuition (guesswork) as immune to rational analysis, they end up being ways of knowing what ain’t so.

  14. Thanks to everyone for being patient with me — I had a time-to-stop-posting-moment. Now I’m going to go off and think about two things:

    One thing is I will read Michael Chorost’s book Rebuilt, where he describes losing his hearing one day in his thirties, then regaining his hearing with a cochlear implant. I heard him talk about his experience on the radio, and I was fascinated by his description of re-learning how to hear. After activating his implant, at first, all voices sounded like metallic noise. Then after a few days, he could make out male voices, but female voices still sounded like noise. That state fascinates me the most — that state where he could “get” one but not the other. Ultimately he gained real knowledge we can agree on — how to hear and understand voices — but there is an element of “How do I shot web?” where one essential element is a good night’s sleep to let your brain rewire and hope you can understand voices the next day — one day, you wake up, and you “get” it. If all of his learning process falls under the banner of rationality inquiry, then something about the banner of rational inquiry seems circular.

    The other thing is for me to revisit the concept of pitch, which was my original point. Our perception provides the definition — not the science about the perception. For humans worldwide, if you pick two people, one with a higher voice and one with a lower voice, and you ask them to sing “the same” pitch, then they will sing an “octave”. Are those two people using “rational inquiry” to make the pitch “the same”? I would say no, because that scenario does not define “the same” in rational terms (in my understanding of “rational”) — here “the same” means whatever the people feel it should mean, without any further definition than the request to make the pitch “the same”.

    1. FWIW, which might not be much, your examples about pitch are competely useless to me because I am evidently tone-deaf as well partially color-blind. (My continued existence on this planet is a bit of a mystery.)

      These words you use — pitch, tone, octave, etc. — mean nothing to me. You could replace them with words from a dead language and I wouldn’t understand any less than I do now.

      Another anecdote: the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago has (still?) a gizmo that played two tones/notes/pitches/whatever in sequence. One was higher than the other. My job was to identify the higher one. I hogged that display for about 10 minutes and tracked my success rate, which turned out to be right about 50%. Random chance.

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