Under the Aspect of Eternity

For thus says the One who is high and lifted up,
who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
“I dwell in the high and holy place,
and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit” (Isaiah 57:15)

The View from Nowhere

In the book, ‘The View from Nowhere’, Thomas Nagel explores the tension between what the subjective point of view and the absolutely objective point of view (the titular ‘view from nowhere’). The subjective point of view is the point of view wherein we encounter the world as it appears to us, awash with emotions and the ordinary things we value, lust, love, hate, the tragic, mundane and beautiful moments of life. On the other hand, we can also occupy a perspective that stands apart from our particular experiences. Intellectual progress is possible because somehow human persons are able to stand apart from their own particular position to consider things from an objective perspective. As we come to abstract from our point of view, we arrive at a more objective picture of the world. For example, as we step back from our particular desires and more sectarian values we see that we ought to pursue the good of others as well; and of course the scientific picture is the paradigm of a picture that is supposed to be independent of any particular perspective. The cosmological, quantum etc. laws purport to describe ultimate reality independent of any particular viewer. Such a view point is one that most philosophers aspire towards, to see things in a sense from the perspective of God, or as Spinoza put it, sub specie aeternitatis; under the aspect of eternity.

Nagel, however, notes that the objective view will sometimes conflict and exist in tension with the subjective view. Of course, this is part of the deal — we enter the objective view so as to discern which parts in the subjective view are really appearances and not to be taken as seriously as they were. But the danger is there. A crucial and fascinating area where this arises is with regards to the value of our individual life-experiences and the meaning of life and death. Seen from a point of view whereby our own individual experiences are but one among many and where we are just a small spatio-temporally extended blip in the entire universe, the things that seem so important to us become pathetic, trivial and, as Camus claimed, absurd. Nagel’s task in his book is to describe the tension and make suggestions on how the two views are to be reconciled in various areas of philosophical interest.

The One who Dwells in Eternity

In this essay, I’m not so much interested in Nagel’s task as I am to explore a related worry present in the Christian view of God. Christians affirm God as transcendent, and far above time and space; as the opening quote notes, God “inhabits eternity”. As understood by most traditional theologians, God’s eternality is understood to refer to the fact that he stands outside of time, and his perception of temporal events is one that is as of all temporal directions at once. All of past, present and future are in a sense immediately present to him. As Peter notes, “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” (2 Peter 3:8). Consideration of God’s eternality and his general transcendence often produces tension and perhaps a kind of emotional dissonance at times with the fact that God is supposed to be a loving Father who tenderly cares for his children. This, in some part, lies behind the resistance to accepting the doctrine of the sovereignty of God: that God ultimately stands in charge of all events and works them all for his purposes. If such is God, high above all human temporal events, it seems impossible or at least emotionally incomprehensible to fathom that he would also be a loving God.

To attempt a full discussion of this is not within the scope of this essay. What I am keen to do instead is to explore the eternality of God and his perception of events under the aspect of eternity to see how it may be reconciled with his tender care and concern for individual persons. To clarify, I am not trying to reconcile the two philosophically. In fact it seems that there is no strictly logical tension between the two. Unashamedly, as a Christian, I begin from the starting point that both can indeed be reconciled — indeed there is none insofar as the biblical authors are concerned. Consider the opening verses again: God both dwells in the high and holy place but also with the contrite and lowly in spirit. He is far and near. But, at least for myself at times, the emotional dissonance persists. I thus attempt a kind of emotional reconciliation here. I want to present the reconciliation as not just possible, but plausible, attractive and indeed sublime. The starting point of my reflection is the recent and deeply beautiful movie, ‘Arrival’. (If you haven’t watched the movie, don’t spoil yourself, go watch the movie now!)

Eternal Perception

In ‘Arrival’, aliens arrive on earth in order to present humanity with a gift. This gift happens to be the very language of the aliens, which they teach Linguistics professor Louise Banks that she may instruct the rest of mankind. The written language of the aliens, which Banks studies and finally decodes, has a free word order such that its content is not ordered sequentially but somehow presented simultaneously in writing. By a fairly ludicrous extrapolation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (essentially the idea that language structures thought), Banks somehow begins to perceive reality in the way these aliens do: all temporal directions are in a way arrayed before her and she begins to view things under the aspect of eternity.

The narrative of Banks’ interaction with the aliens is constantly interjected by scenes of her interaction with a young girl; at times playing with her, going through mundane events, and at other times we see scenes of the girl in the hospital, hooked up to life support and on her death bed. These scenes are present from the beginning of the film and initially appear to be flashbacks of Banks’ life. In fact, they are flash-forwards — they show us scenes from Banks’ future life, where she will marry and have a daughter who will die a painful death at a young age. The movie in a sense affords us a glimpse of what it would look like to perceive as the aliens and later Banks herself perceives temporal events. From the point of view where the present appears as an arbitrary point in time, where the fleetingness and tragedy of human life is made salient, how does the world look? As she gazes on the imminent and ever immanent heartbreak, the viewer is struck both by the preciousness of the little moments and even more by the brokenness of the coming tragedy. Human events are not diminished, instead they intensify in weight from this point of view. Banks will eventually choose to affirm and willingly make the predestined choice to have a daughter, leading to the fated and foreseen events.

The ability to take such a perspective should not be totally foreign to us, nor the experience of being at once aware that all things are fleeting and yet heartbreakingly precious. Does not the Preacher in Ecclesiastes say that God has put eternity into the heart of man? I suggest that anyone who wishes to experience this open their old cupboards and array their old photos before them. This is precisely what I found a few months back as I trudged through my old cupboards to find some old photos to compile into an album as a birthday gift for my late grandfather. It was as if I could now see my present experience as but one among many. The fact that I was occupying this moment as present became arbitrary. Some things did vanish in importance: the ridiculous cares of getting ahead in life, or the small things I could be irritated with. But it was not as though life became sterile and meaningless, instead I now saw all of those moments as deeply precious and charged with importance. Some things receded into trivilaity, but others magnified in significance. The ridiculous smiles on all of our faces in those photographs, which must have seemed a trifle then, now appeared to me as with an astonishing charm.

God’s Eye View

Perhaps such is the perspective of God. At once he views all things, but not in a way that is distant from them. Instead, all things are immediate and intimate. From this perspective, some things which seem important from our limited perspectives become trivial — to him, the “nations are like a drop from a bucket” (Isaiah 40:15). And yet what may appear small becomes infinitely more precious — a cheeky smile, the love between a husband and wife, the out-of-tune singing in church — and others no doubt infinitely more tragic — death, sickness, sin. Perhaps from God’s perspective he views the world not as one sees it as from a high tower or from a satellite gazing at the earth, with all its multifarious features blurred into a blue daze. Instead all things are somehow immediate, all things are the more dear to him.

Let me close by thinking again about Nagel’s project of reconciling the subjective and objective views. His book provides thoughtful explorations of various  themes, some of which Christians can learn from but one which we must ultimately reject as deficient. After all, one may ask, in a non-theistic framework, how are we certain that the objective and subjective views can be reconciled? How can we be so confident that when we obtain a completely objective picture of the world, when we abstract away from all particularity, that there are still irreducibly subjective and personal aspects of the world which are not mere appearances. But if Christianity is true, there is a good reason why even from the most objective perspective, individual persons and the small details of our lives are still charged with importance. After all, if God is the true foundation of reality, then it is simply coherent for the ultimate point of view to be impersonal. Personality is the reality behind the seeming impersonality of the universe, not the other way round. To attempt to abstract away all personality and perspective from our objective view of the universe is not only impossible but wrongheaded.

It is not easy to maintain such a perspective of ourselves and our lives sub specie aeternitatis: it takes not a little for us to be sucked from the beauty and tragedy of life to live for things that from the perspective of eternity are truly lame: being irritated, achieving worldly goals, being anxious about a myriad of trite things and so on. Again and again we must seek the face of God and ask him to “teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12) We must view ourselves under the aspect of eternity. We must see from the perspective of one who stands in a manner disengaged from all particular things, only that we may engage the world more deeply and truly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This piece dedicated to the memory of my late grandfather, 29/7/2017.

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Weak, yet Strong

In the past one month, I had three different individuals affirm me for being a strong person. At those moments, I felt as if they were cracking a big joke, because no, I felt (and feel) far from strong, and it came at a time when I felt as if my world was crashing down on me.

The first one went something like that:
Person A: Well, it seems like you are the strongest one right now.
Me: Don’t. That’s a sick joke to say that.
Person A: No, it’s true. Look. You’re the only one who is willing to seek help.

The second one went something like that:
Me: I fear I’m no better and just as bad…
Person B: No, the difference is that you were willing to seek help…

I mulled over what these people said, and it occured to me that me being weak and them affirming me for being strong could be true simultaneously. Why? Notice something in common between the two individuals who affirmed me? They affirmed my strength in a manner that was inseparable with my willingness to seek help, which was then inseparable with my willingness to acknowledge my weakness. My strength came not from gathering power on my own, but from being held and supported by many arms around me. Strength then, was not to be found from within, but from without. Those who think that they are to be strong by not needing others will find themselves weak, and those who realise how weak they are to need others will find themselves strong.

Isn’t this also what is described in the Psalms? “1I love you, LORD, my strength. 2The LORD is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold…17He rescued me from my powerful enemy, from my foes, who were too strong for me. 18They confronted me in the day of disaster, but the LORD was my support.”~Psalm 18:1-2,17-18. The psalmist was weak, totally weak in the face of his enemies who were “too strong for him”. Yet, he was able to face them because the LORD was “his strength” and “his support”. As Christians, we may be weak, but God is mighty. Hence, even in our weakness, we may be strong when we find our strength in God. And God gives us too his church and community, in which he dwells, to give us strength.

As a closing, here’s a link to one of the songs that have greatly soothed my soul in recent times: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S6Odk49ZvD4
May we sing in our hearts, “I am weak, but Thou art mighty; Hold me with Thy powerful hand.”

Who are You, and What is Your Source of Strength?

I just watched Thor Ragnarok yesterday. It was brainless entertaining— my favourite kind of movies. But as usual, as with most other Marvel movies, there are some cheesy and “deep” lines in the movies, and yes, I’m an absolute sucker for those moments. As you probably can infer, this post will be about one of such moments, so, a disclaimer: small spoiler alert if you belong to one of those who cannot watch a movie after knowing just anything about the movie, but no big spoilers ahead.

As you all might already have known from the trailers/ synopsis, Thor’s signature hammer is destroyed by his evil sister, the Goddess of Death, Hela. In previous movies, Thor has always been portrayed in a manner such that his strength is inseparable from his hammer. Naturally, he now feels absolutely powerless without his hammer. In a scene where Thor is seconds away from being killed by his sister Hela, Thor imagines a conversation with his father, Odin. Thor cries to Odin saying, “I am powerless without my hammer.” And here comes the part that I loved. Odin replies Thor with a question, asking, “Are you the God of Hammer, or are you the God of Thunder?” (“The hammer was to help you control your power.”) Upon this eureka moment, Thor transforms to a super powerful super hero who matches, if not surpasses, the power of his sister.

Here’s the message I found impactful: While Thor is powerful with his hammer, the moment it is destroyed, he instantaneously becomes crushed and powerless when he (mistakenly) believes that the source of his power originates from the hammer. Yet, Odin reminds him that this is untrue, and that his source of power is far greater— he is the God of Thunder— far mightier and limitless compared to that of a hammer. Instantly, his strength is restored. Thor’s source of strength is inseparable from his identity.

Does this not sound like us? What are the hammers in our lives that we believe defines us, and from which we derive our source of strength or place our hope in? Have we been crushed and powerless when our hammers were destroyed? Yet, what is our true identity? Is it not that we have been called children of God— the God who is infinitely mightier and stronger than anything that exists, and who promises to withhold nothing from us. Our source of strength is inseparable from our identity. If you find your strength failing you, perhaps, like Thor, you need to hold fast to your true identity.

Nature and Artifice in Structure

[This is a continuation of the last post ‘Experiencing Function’. I do welcome comments and responses on what I’ve written, especially since many of those who usually read what I write actually study music or are practitioners.]

In the last post, I suggested that the experience of function in music is the experience of live possibilities as governed by a set of rules, the rules of harmony. I promised to discuss two further related questions, namely: (1) How do these rules make the possibilities salient to us? and (2) What is the status of these rules: are they merely formal constructs or are they somehow natural or innate? I then try to extend some of these findings to two other areas: logic and narrativity.

Convention in Structure

Strictly speaking, the rules of the harmony are but a set of rules, a formal structure: they dictate to us the function of the various notes and chords. How does a formal structure enliven certain possibilities for us? There is a fairly straightforward way in which this is possible — this is by actually learning the structure deliberately or by some kind of social pressure. Consider the rules of chess. Each of the pieces can only move in certain ways, the knight moves in an L-shape, the bishop moves diagonally and so on. If I observe a game of chess before I learn the rules the game would make no sense to me. Without understanding the legitimate moves, I would not understand why the pawn may not simply go off and knock the king off his rocker. It is only as I learn the rules of the game, deliberately or gradually by observing others, that I observe the game as a series of live possibilities. Only certain moves are legitimate, are ‘live’. A game would be played beautifully by a player only if he manages to artfully navigate his pieces according to the formal rules.

Using chess as an example would seem to suggest that in some sense the rules of harmony are conventional. I think this is true to some extent. Consider another larger scale formal structure in music that is somewhat based on the rules of harmony, the fabled sonata form. The sonata form governs not micro chord progressions but the various parts of certain pieces of music — it is somewhat based on the rules of harmony, however, specifically on the primacy of the tonic. (Very roughly, a sonata form always begins and ends in the initial key, throughout the music passes through other keys and passes through an stormy section known as the development where both harmony and melody are developed and extended in various ways, with the harmony tensely anticipating the return of the initial key. Think of it as some kind of musical home-coming story) The sonata form must be learnt in order to be appreciated — without it, the sonata would barely make any cohesive sense, or would be enjoyed as simply discrete sections of music. In fact, the very genius of many composers lies not in their adherence but in their transcendence of the sonata form — presupposing it but subverting it in various ways to electrifying psychological effect. This effect, however, is only felt by the discerning listener, one who has been led by convention to expect certain possibilities and is pleasantly surprised to find them subverted. This conventionality is more evident in the larger formal structure than in the rules of harmony itself, though I believe it is also present there to some degree.

[I digress here and have to add: here is wherein I believe the very definition of art music and pop music lie. Art music always has a form, but the genius of composers lie in their both presupposing and transcending the form at the same time. To simply re-use the form would be lazy, creating some pastiche as most of popular music does. To cast off form completely would result in mere noise: like one who plays chess and then decides that the pawn can move like a queen or that the game can continue when the king is dead. Some contemporary music falls into this category, some others do something more interesting: they contrive a new formal structure and play around in it, I discuss this possibility in a bit.]

The Experience of Natural Structures

Nonetheless, this cannot be the entire picture. There is a sense in which the formal structure is not merely learned but in some sense discovered. The rules of harmony are not laid down completely arbitrarily as say the rules of chess or checkers are. Instead, they purport to describe something we naturally or instinctively experience. Presumably, even before the rules of harmony were formalised, people already had a natural sense of harmony, they felt that certain notes in certain contexts tended to go well together resulting in the formalisation of various modes and scales. Furthermore, the specific kind of experience generated in the experience of function is a lot more rich than that of one who anticipates a myriad of possibilities of chess moves, they are imbued, to borrow a visual metaphor, with a number of colours. It is not merely that the dominant chord anticipates the tonic, but that this movement or anticipation generates a specific phenomenological experience, one that feels like a kind of closure — ditto for the various other kinds of progressions. Therefore, while it is true to say that there is some element of conventionality in music, at bottom there is a certain sense in which the rules of harmony are formalised subsequent to their being experienced as such.

Talk of the naturalness of the rules of harmony, especially as formulated by the old white men of the western classical tradition is sometimes met with accusations of western hegemony. There may be some truth to this suggestion — I concede that that there is some conventionality in play here. Yet I think it would be fantastic to suggest that the entire system is an artifice. Even in other musical traditions (of which I have only a passing acquaintance), the interplay between the tonic and dominant notes in a mode is still a prominent feature. An fruitful consideration here would be to examine formal musical structures that are really invented artifices. One finds such a trend in much of modern music: Schoenberg is such a case. He turns his back on the normal harmonic structure of the classical tradition, but interestingly he does not cast structure off completely; instead, he contrives a new one — what is called the 12-tone technique or serialism. I don’t pretend to understand or appreciate the system fully, but in each iteration of the system there are certain rules that govern the music. Have a listen to one such example below:

What strikes the untrained listener is probably how confusing it all sounds. One does not know what to expect and the notes that come out seem random. They are not in fact random but are the product of following a different set of rules from the ones which we are used to. This suggests that the expectations are in some sense unnatural — they are not the ones we are naturally led to expect.

Now, it might be suggested that the reason why it sounds in this manner despite there being a structure could be due to the fact that unlike the classical rules of harmony, Schoenberg’s system has not yet achieved the privilege of having hegemonic status. If one is sufficiently familiar with its rules and after it has been more widely adopted, perhaps we would come to experience its possibilities as live in the same manner we do the usual rules of harmony. Perhaps, according to the possibly apocryphal quote of Schoenberg, “milkmen would whistle his tunes”.

Let me suggest three responses to this. Firstly, I think there is some truth to the fact that more acquaintance with Schoenberg’s system would allow one to better experience his music. I have been in concerts with more careful listeners who are able to discern the structure and intentions of such esoteric composers. Perhaps the learned and discerning listener experiencing this is like one who experiences live possibilities in a game of chess after having mastered the rules — the moves are now live to him because they have been learned. Secondly, despite this, I do think that there is a manifest difference in the experience of the live possibilities as a result of learning purely formal rules and the corresponding experience when the possibilities are given naturally. The natural possibilities, in the first place, do not have to be learnt — and they carry with them distinct phenomenological qualities, the closure, anticipation etc. that I have been gesturing at. The experience or pleasure that one derives from experiencing the learned possibilities might feel more ‘intellectual’, for lack of a better word. This might suggest why Schoenberg’s prediction about the milkmen have yet to come true.

Thirdly, while I do think that there is a natural innate set of possibilities, I do not think that they necessarily have been completely represented in our current systems of harmony, not least those expressed in the western tradition. There might be new harmonic possibilities that are naturally coherent to us but that we have yet to formulate and composers may be able to grasp these somewhat intuitively. Indeed in Schoenberg’s music, one sometimes catches a whisk of such moments when the music seems to convey something — perhaps it is him as a composer intuitively mapping out some natural harmonic possibility while studiously avoiding some of the hackneyed ones. This is purely speculative of course, but the diversity of harmonic systems in various cultures ought give us some humility into thinking that the set of harmonic rules formulated in the West represent the only natural set.

Dependence and Transcendence

Let me step outside this seemingly neutral analysis of the issue here and make a normative suggestion that I have hinted at already. I believe that the task of the artist is to work within the natural set of possibilities and to transcend them at the same time. This calls for some humility — to step completely outside the natural set of possibilities would result in utter cacophony, mere sound. Nonetheless, while we should not too quickly cast off the ancient harmonic forms, it calls for boldness in that we must not assume that all the harmonic possibilities have been discovered or that artists should simply parrot the music of old. And I mention this again, but art must both presuppose and transcend its form, it must be intelligible and fresh, it must be ancient and new. Thus, there must be room for some sort of artifice in art — and yet the artifice must be in some ways rooted in nature. The sonata form for example, is somewhat based on the harmonic system; it is possible that the larger forms created by other composers may be rooted in natural possibilities as well, grasped somewhat intuitively. A lot more can be said here, and indeed many more qualifications need to be made, but I hope the general direction is sufficiently clear.

There is therefore an interesting interplay between nature and artifice in creating art. And in some ways the very task reflects our ontological status before God: as a created being, we are dependent on him and the natural possibilities he offers us — they are rich and wonderful, to step outside them is a kind of hubris. And yet as image bearers of God, we mimic in a dependent way his creative acts: as he creates new things, so do we out of the materials that he has offered us — such is our task, we must not shirk it or be lazy. We must sing to God ancient truths in a new song. (Psalm 33, 96 et. al.)

Some Extensions: Logic and Narrativity

In this last section I very briefly sketch two areas in which similar phenomenon seem to occur and in which a similar analysis might be extended. My familiarity with these topics is even more sketchy and so I dare not say much.

Firstly, the experience of logical inferences appear to be similar to music. There is a canon of logical rules in the West, the fountainhead of which is Aristotle’s syllogisms, that appear to some today as nothing but a bunch of formal rules and mere convention. And then there is a proliferation of new formal systems of para-consistent logics from the contemporary era, and some from non-western traditions. Certainly the task of logic is not the same as that of art, (on my naive view, its main task should be but aiming at the truth), but I wonder if one can, by reflecting on one’s experience of the various rules of inference, distinguish the natural rules from the merely conventional ones. When I encounter the usual logical rules and move from one proposition to another by logical inference, there is a certain phenomenological experience that I have, when I try to do the same with the non-standard logics, a more jarring experience occurs. I dare not say more.

A second area in which a fruitful connection might be made is with the area of narrativity. Let me consider this first in relation to the field of historical writing, with which I am somewhat more familiar. Historiographers such as Hayden White have noted that in writing history, historians are compelled to adopt one of various generic plot structures such as romance, comedy, tragedy, epic etc. And he notes that this structure seems to float above the facts of history, in the sense that historians can agree about the facts of the case but that they still disagree about how specifically to ‘emplot’ the case. For example, the French revolution has been variously narrated as a story of progress, of tragic decline and of comedy. The decision to make of which facts are relevant and which areas of history to focus on are all governed by the narrative structure, but the structure itself seems to be independent of the facts. Most importantly, the narrative structure provides coherence to the events, attempts to evade it by simply dictating all that has happened result in one feeling as though the historical events have not been explained.

Once again, the status of these narrative structures come into question — are they purely artificial? Were they the result of simply taking the familiar plot forms of the old myths and tales and re-using them for other purposes? Yet from where did the writers and tellers of those tales pluck out these forms in the first place? Surely, the narrative forms must firstly have been experienced before they were formalised. The way we experience history and past events, or perhaps the way we understanding them in the first place is through these structures which are somehow inherent in the way we experience the world. Furthermore the inescapability of these narrative structures parallels the fact that to step outside the natural rules of harmony in music is to lead to incomprehensibility. These are somehow natural structures that we come to experience before they are formalised. There have been narratives before there were narrativists.

Simply because a certain structure is not merely formal but natural in some sense does not yet fully answer the question about how a narrative structure is related to truth. Still, some kind of objectivity may be purchased because if we concede that the natural forms are to be privileged, it provides a heavy constraint on historical writing. Given that there are indeed a set of natural structures, we cannot simply formulate any kind of structure we want with which to explain historical events. These structures have constraints of their own, although there is some leeway on how one might emplot an event: not everything can be a tragedy or comedy, at least not in the same way. However, to answer the question about the relation of historical narrative to truth or historical reality is a far more difficult task.

Here is my intuition of a Christian response to the problem: given that God stands as the ontological ground of the world and that God is personal, it is possible that he understands historical events in a narrative fashion as well. A narrative is true or objective insofar as it corresponds to the narrative that God experiences or fashions in the world. The variety of possible emplotments is no barrier to this formulation: there is no reason why God should not experience or fashion events such that they could be understood under various narrative frameworks. The history of salvation (or if you like, Heilsgeschichte) in fact is understood under various narrative forms in Scripture, it has been described variously as a romance (the pursuit of God’s people), epic (the victory of the serpent-crusher, the coming of the kingdom of God) and perhaps even comedy (John Frame mentions this in connection to Psalm 2:4, I’m half convinced).

I’m sure more connections can be made with narrativity as it is found in literary texts, though I am less familiar with this. The proliferation of new narrative forms in literature mirrors the proliferation of new harmonic forms in music: both the result of a studious avoidance of the ancient forms. Some of these new forms may in fact reflect natural experiences that the ancient systems may have yet formalised: the streams-of-consciousness style of writing may fall into this category. Yet others who are far more experimental or who try to cast off narrative structure completely again fall into incomprehensibility. Once again there is a similar interplay between nature and artifice.

Experiencing Function

[This was initially conceived as a fun post for me to write down my amateurish quasi-psychological/phenomenological musings. Somehow my thoughts became more serious as I continued write to the extent that it seems best to extend my thinking into two posts. Note that some of what is written may require some musical background. Also, I often post my entire writing on Facebook for people who find clicking on links a tiresome task (like myself) — I am not doing that this time because there are pictures and embedded audio which won’t appear on Facebook.]

What I wish to do in this post and the next is to put down some of my thoughts on the experience of music — it’s really an effort to put down some reflections that I have had for quite a while. Much of what I mention may appear painfully obvious to anyone who has had some musical training. Yet I think a closer introspection into our experience of music will prove fruitful in elucidating an interesting aspect of such experience. Specifically, I want to examine how we experience function in music and suggest that the phenomena of function is not in fact a sound. In other words we do not strictly speaking ‘hear’ function. Following this, I want to make some speculative suggestions on how the experience of function might be explained and, I hope, fruitfully extend it to other analogous areas of experience.

Isolating the Experience

To understand what I mean by function, let me try to describe and isolate the specific phenomenology that I am thinking of. By doing so, I hope to show that the experience of function is not a auditory experience, in other words, experiencing function in music is not hearing something. What does it mean to hear something? According to prevailing scientific opinion, the experience of sound is the result of sound waves entering the ear. Depending on the wave, its frequency, amplitude, and form (I think this is the word), what we hear varies — frequency determines the pitch of the sound (whether it is high or low), amplitude its volume (whether it is loud or soft) and form its timbre (e.g. a middle C played on a piano sounds different from a middle C played on a violin). There is a parallel here with visual experience — what we see is dependent on the light waves that enter our eye. Depending on the frequency of the wave, we see variations in colours, depending on its amplitude, we see variations in intensity — a combination of the two gives us the notion of various hues of colours.

Notice, however, that in the experience of music we also experience what musicians call harmony, which is the result of a progression of a cluster of notes (a chord). There are certain rules guiding this progression, some of which are tastefully transgressed at times but often still presupposed. These are the rules of musical harmony. In this framework, each piece of music revolves around a primary note, known as the tonic (or pitch-centre) and will be governed by a certain mode (thus we say that a piece is in A major, C minor and so on) — every note and chord will have a specific function once the tonic and mode are determined (i.e. its key). Note that the function of each note is not a product of its corresponding sound wave (a C still sounds like a C in whatever context) but is determined by its context, namely the key.

So far, this sounds like simply restating in a complex manner what everyone has learnt in Grade 5 theory. Yet I think this experience is actually fairly mysterious. One notices the strangeness when one reflects on the context-dependence on this phenomenon. In other words, the fact that the harmony or function that we experience of the same notes change when its harmonic context changes. Now, that certain experiences are context-dependent is nothing particularly novel. Our visual experience is also commonly susceptible to context dependence — take the famous checker shadow illusion as seen below. The two squares, A and B, are in fact of the same shade of grey, but the context has altered our perception of the shade such that one appears lighter than the other. (google ‘wiki checker shadow’ to see proof that they are indeed the same shade) However, consider what exactly the context alters in our experience of the two squares: it is the very hue or shade of the colour itself i.e. the visual experience, the very sight of the squares. However, the alteration of our experience of the same note or chord in a different context is emphatically not an alteration of the auditory experience — we still experience the exact same pitch, timbre, volume (assuming the latter two are kept constant) — something else, something that isn’t a sound, changes.

764px-Grey_square_optical_illusion.svg.png

Let me say a bit more to isolate this experience for you. This part will require some acquaintance with music. Think about the C Major chord (the notes C, E, G played simultaneously). In the key of C major, this chord is the tonic chord, whereas in the key of F major, it is the dominant chord. The chord sounds the same in both situations, and yet is experienced differently: the appearance of the C major chord in the C major key is experienced (especially at the end of a perfect cadence) with some kind of closure to it or perhaps stability (one struggles to describe such things in words), in the F major key however, the chord is experienced as causing some tension or as generating anticipation. However, especially if you have perfect pitch, you will be able to tell that they are the same old notes.

Consider a different example: the experience of melodic intervals. (This relates more to the context dependence in the experience of specific notes rather than chords). In the key of B major, the notes B and D# are described as in the interval of a major third, whereas in the key of C minor, the same notes, B and Eb (enharmonic of D#, i.e. the same note on the keyboard or whatever) are described as in the interval of a diminished 4th. Few actually know that the change in the description of the intervals are really to mark a change in function. The interval in the context of B major will sound pleasant, whereas the very same interval in the context of C minor will sound gaping and jarring. If you don’t believe me, try it out yourself: play a B major scale (five sharps in case you forgot) and then play B followed by D# and then play a C minor scale (three flats) followed by the same notes. (cf. Beethoven’s last sonata, first movement, where I got the example from). [Alternatively, play the example below. The relevant notes are the last two notes of each phrase, the rest help to set the context, B major first and then C minor] Notice that the two notes sound the same, you should be able to recognise this if you follow the example, but at the same time they are experienced very differently.

 

Function as the Experience of Live Possibilities

Hopefully I have helped you to locate what exactly I mean by the experience of function and have convinced you that it is not heard (it does not correspond to auditory experience, since the notes or chords are heard as having the same pitch etc.) but somehow experienced. What then is this experience? Here is my suggestion as to what that experience is: the experience of function is in some sense the experience of a set of live possibilities.

What do I mean by live possibilities here? Let me take a step back and talk about live possibilities in general. [The thought here is drawn from McCulloch’s Using Sartre pp. 35-36 though with some modification.] What does it mean to say that some x is possible? There are many senses of possibility at play. Of the broadest scope is perhaps logical possibility, where some x is logically possible as long as it is not a contradiction. And so consider the scenario where I will soon be suddenly transported to the moon and find that there is a nice summer resort there — the scenario is fantastic, but there is nothing logically inconsistent with this scenario, it is logically possible. There is also epistemic possibility, where some scenario x is epistemically possible if it is consistent with what I currently know — the above scenario would be epistemically impossible in this case. But neither of these are relevant here, what we want is live possibility. But what is it for some possibility x to be a live possibility? It is hard to describe, but that possibility x must be a salient possibility for me. This is not the same as epistemic possibility — there could be a range of possibilities that are consistent with what I know but only a number of them could be salient to me. For example, say I wake up one day and find that my parents are not in their room. It may well be consistent with what I know, after considering all the evidence I have, that they may have been kidnaped, but this is not a possibility salient to me. What is salient is the possibility that they left early and are already out etc. This is a live possibility for me.

What determines what the live possibilities are? Perhaps desire or expectation or something else, whatever makes those possibilities salient. What about our musical case? Here I suggest that the salient possibilities are in fact determined by its musical context, namely its pitch-centre and mode, i.e. its key. Each key has a formal structure (the rules of harmony) that mark out the permissible moves that are available after each note or chord, the harmony can only resolve in certain ways and only certain notes are made available. Of course, this formal structure is often subverted, but even in its subversion the very structure is still presupposed. My proposal is thus that what one experiences when one experiences function is in some sense the spectre of live possibilities as governed by the rules of harmony.

Our exploration might still feel somewhat incomplete at the stage. Given that the experience of function is the experience of live possibilities as governed by a set of rules, the rules of harmony, further questions arise. How do these rules make the possibilities salient to us? What exactly are these rules: are they merely formal constructs or are they somehow natural or innate? I think these two questions are related, in a subsequent post, I provide some speculation regarding these questions and try to extend it to other areas of thought.

Crazy? Them? Me, You? Who’s Crazy?

What is normality?

Who is abnormal? Who is weird? Who is crazy?

I recently had a conversation with a friend, who expressed her disappointment that someone she knew said that she wanted to work with “the crazy ones” when she really meant that she wanted to work with psychiatric patients. I confessed to her, “You know…I’m sorry, but you’ll be disappointed to know that I use the same terms (kind of, maybe “weird” instead)…….By the way, what’s crazy? Who’s crazy?” A disclaimer: People who know me know very well that when I use such labels, it’s a challenge to the term “craziness/ weirdness”. “Oh, they’re crazy. Okay, how do you know you aren’t crazy or that I’m not crazy?”

I am a firm believer that craziness and it’s opposite, normality, are societal constructs. They are somewhat useful (e.g in deciding where limited resources should go to), but they need to be challenged too. Think about it. Why do we call psychiatric patients who are institutionalized crazy? Why are they crazy? That’s because they aren’t blending into what society expects them to do. And why am I normal? That’s because I’m surviving (even if it means having my nose just above the water bobbing up and down) and performing the tasks of what society expects me to do. Do we differ phenomenologically very much? I doubt so.

Recently, I’ve started volunteering at a mental health institute, and reflecting on the sessions in addition to my past volunteering experiences in a children’s home for the mentally challenged, I commented to my brother, “It’s so remarkable, how stripped of all our fronts and appearances, how similar all of us are.” These individuals are genuinely happy when we bring sugared drinks and snacks for them, and so are they, when they receive the company and interaction of fellow humans. Doesn’t that sound like you and me? Though perhaps these common human desires take more sophisticated forms for us.

Recently also, I’ve been been doing an online biblical counseling course, where the prof discussed an individual with paranoid schizophrenia. He reminds students not to reduce individuals to their diagnosis, and to hold on to the truth that we share a common humanity. In his grandiosity, the individual experiences a manifestation of the pride we all to some degree experience– the desire for ourselves to be in the centre of the world instead of God. In his fear of persecution, the individual experiences a manifestation of the fear of man we all go some degree experience– the fear of what others think about or will do to us instead of resting in God’s perfect satisfaction in us in Christ.

In church/ Christian circles, it is commonly said that the line dividing good and evil resides within of us. Similarly, if I may extend this phrase, the line dividing normality and abnormality resides within of us. We all share the same story line. We are made in the image of God, but sin and the brokenness of this world has marred this image. We share the same wiring of desires, dissatisfaction, and sinfulness in this world, but also reflecting some beautiful image despite all these. I remembered witnessing a lady in the institute sharing her only chocolate cake with a friend, of whom then went ahead to offer to share her cake with me, and I thought to myself, “wow, such generosity”. I might just have eaten the cake up myself in both their shoes. Who knows.

Long story short. Next time you call someone crazy/ weird/ abnormal/ mad, look carefully– you might find some within yourself 😉 If you encounter any of the “crazy”, be a little more accepting and less afraid. We are more similar than we’re comfortable to believe– good or bad.

Two Veils: Reflections on a trip to Myanmar

The last few days I have spent with my church on a trip to Myanmar, visiting one of our partner churches there and conducting a summer english camp. It was an immensely encouraging and humbling trip, seeing that we serve a living God who indeed is working in this world and to see his glory in his church. I’ve decided to write down for myself two affecting thoughts that have struck me on the trip.

A Veil on Glory 

The first thought came through a scene that served for me as a parable. On Sunday, we attended the church service of our partner church here. Of course, the service was conducted in Burmese, a language which I barely understood. And yet I sat there listening to them singing their songs with a passion, making out at times the words for ‘God’ and ‘Jesus Christ’. I wondered then, what glories they must be singing about Jesus, what they could possibly be saying about him? What majestic greatness or tender mercy are they recalling to mind as they sing with such passion? It was as though the glory of God was literally right before me, and yet it was veiled.

The scene served as a parable to me. Surely, the whole of creation reveals the Glory of God! Does not the Psalmist say,

“The pastures of the wilderness overflow,
the hills gird themselves with joy,
the meadows clothe themselves with flocks,
the valleys deck themselves with grain,
they shout and sing together for joy.” (Psalm 65:12-13)

The creation rings with the glory of God! It is all around us, as if we were in a kind of perpetual worship service, and yet we cannot see or hear the lyrics. But ah! What glories might they be singing? And surely it is not just the singing of natural creation, but the apostle says that when we gather in worship every Sunday, we

“come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant.” (Hebrews 12:22-24)

If only we could hear and see these things — we are distracted by the songs we may not like, or the people who might be annoying or our pride that gets in our way, but oh this does not hinder the glory which is veiled from us.

After the service we followed the pastor and some of his congregation to visit a house and attend the death anniversary of a man who was the father of one of our congregants. There I saw what I believed must be one of the most beautiful sights I have laid my eyes on. I saw this girl with down syndrome struggling to sing a hymn in the same language which I did not understand. Perhaps it was the jarring nature of the scene that drew me to it, the sound that she made was to me a coarse grunting and mumbling as she attempted to pronounce the words of the song. I later found out that this girl and her family were relatively recent converts to the church, who cared for and loved them after they found themselves in dire straits. I wonder what God might have heard as she sang. Surely to him it was a voice sweeter than than the chorus of angels and more enchanting and sublime than their music. I imagined that he would break into a smile, beaming as his daughter sang to him. Oh God, open my eyes to see these things all around me!

We had been going through Philippians as part of our morning devotions throughout the trip, but as I read the first chapter again on the plane back, a thought struck me. As Paul reflects on his then incarceration in a Roman prison, writing the letter to the Philippians, he ponders whether he would prefer to die or to live. He notes:

“For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.” (Philippians 1:21-26)

Something initially appears strange here. Paul has clearly said that if he dies he will be with Christ, and claims that this is a really great thing. And yet he seems fairly okay with the possibility that he remains to be with the church at Philippi. But surely, there could be nothing better than being with Christ! Indeed this is true, but I am inclined to think with some speculation that to be with the church on earth is pretty comparable with being with Christ in heaven. For Christ is the redeemer who dwells in the presence of his people. Indeed, Paul did not say that ‘for me to live is gain and to die is Christ’ (thought that would be true in a different sense) but that ‘for me to live is Christ, and to die is gain’ — to live is Christ, to live and to see the church again is Christ, to see the people he has saved and to be among the community of the saints is to be among the people with whom God has promised to dwell with and never forsake — that is Christ. Do we see the church of God in this way?

In my very interactions with those from Singapore and my friends from Myanmar, I felt indeed the glory of Christ with us. These were people from vastly different backgrounds from me, from our team there were those from various countries, life stages, social and educational backgrounds and a frustrating and beloved roommate and team leader; and of course we worked with men and women there with whom we shared even less in common. And yet as I spoke to them, I found a brokenness and softness that I understood and a deep joy that comes from knowing Jesus. I heard of a constant struggle to remain faithful and a burden for the coming of the kingdom and the preaching of the gospel. They felt like my very family. As we all gathered for dinner with our partners and their youth leaders one evening, I remember just feeling such joy as we interacted, truly they were my brothers and sisters and father and mother and children. I don’t remember another trip that I had laughed as much as I did. Who but God can bring such a disparate group together in such a loving way?

A Veil on Suffering 

Yet it is surely not only glory that is veiled from our eyes, but sin and suffering as well. The trip opened my eyes to see that beneath the surface there is so much pain in this world. It was not so much the relative poverty that they were in or the rudimentary housing that they had, it was the broken families, the fathers who left their children, the parents who compel their children to go far off to work instead of studying — it was these that struck me. Knowing more about the stories of these children reminded me that beneath their cheeky smiles might be tears that have dried in the sweltering heat. One of my team leaders wept as she spoke to one of the children there who was compelled to go to the city to work at a tender age, but had come for the first day of the camp because he remembered the fun he had the previous year before he needed to return to work. In my conversation with her I was moved by the heart she had for the hurting, and was reminded by her that surely God’s heart is even more tender than that.

This too is veiled from us. It is no longer the case that we do not know of hurting people in the world, the press and the internet have long removed that excuse. But it is that the suffering no longer affects us, we are no longer horrified or shocked we no longer weep for these things. The tears of Jesus here comfort and rebuke us. The story of Lazarus in the gospel of John was preached on Sunday and I was struck again by how Jesus weeps (John 11:35) as he sees the pain of his friends and the destruction wrought by the fall.

Elsewhere I have written about how Christianity is uniquely a religion for sufferers. And yet in Buddhist Burma, Christianity can hardly claim to be the only such religion. Buddhism too was founded to respond to the suffering of the world. And yet how vastly different are their responses towards suffering! For the Buddhist, suffering is the result of believing or desiring that transient things be eternal. The fleetingness and the passing away of things is but natural, and it is only our attachment to them that makes us suffer. Our tears are wrong because death is not wrong. But Christianity teaches us the opposite. As Christ wept before death and the effects of sin, so our tears are right. Our tears are right because death is wrong, because the world is not as it ought be, because sin and pain and all sorts of abuse are a curse that have come upon the world. People are not transient things weeping because they wrongly believe that they are eternal, we are eternal beings that weep because we have now been made fleeting.

As sin and suffering are a violence, so must our response to them be violent. Did not Christ say that the kingdom of God has been coming by violence and the violent take it by force (Matthew 11:12)? We must violently lay down our lives at the feet of Jesus, to love others and share with them the good news that Jesus loves us so much that he tasted our suffering and died for our sins. He did this so that one day he would wipe away the tears from our eyes. And then we must come before Jesus and sing with the saints:

“Facing a task unfinished
That drives us to our knees
A need that, undiminished
Rebukes our slothful ease
We, who rejoice to know Thee
Renew before Thy throne
The solemn pledge we owe Thee
To go and make Thee known”

Shame: Self-Directed Disgust

Disgust, and self-directed disgust

This week for Emotions and Psychopathology class, we will be covering the basic emotion, disgust. I found reading about disgust very refreshing, because it shed light onto an under-emphasised aspect of psychopathology, and in particular, mood disorders. When we talk about mood disorders (e.g. anxiety disorder, depression), we often focus on their obvious derivative emotions such as sadness and fear, but tend to neglect the role of disgust. What is disgust? According to Power & Dalgleish (2016), disgust is the emotion that arises when one appraises a person, object, or idea as repulsive to the self, and to valued roles and goals. The complex emotion that arises out of disgust and which also predicts psychopathology is shame. Do not confuse guilt and shame. Aptly captured by Brene Brown in her Ted Talk (2010), the difference between guilt and shame is the difference between “I’m sorry, I made a mistake”, and “I’m sorry, I am a mistake.” Indeed, shame can be defined as disgust directed towards the self.

What is the problem with disgust directed toward the self?

When we eat something gross, we experience disgust. Naturally, what we seek to do next is to expel the food and distance ourselves from the source. Disgust is an uncomfortable emotion, and it drives us to remove the eliciting stimuli in order to reduce the level of disgust. Think about what happens, however, if this disgust is directed to the self or aspects of the self. What can you do to remove that experience of disgust? Attempting to bring down disgust levels when disgust is directed toward the self becomes a whole lot more complicated than disgust directed toward an external source, just because we cannot simply expel our selfs out of ourselves. You are stuck in your own skin. There are different ways that people still seek to cope with it, however, and they can be classified as prevention, escape, and aggression (Schoenleber & Howard Berenbaum, 2012). Here, I give some pathological forms in which these occur. People prevent self-disgust via mechanisms such as perfectionism and dependence (seeking assurance from others), almost as if to compensate for repulsive parts of their selfs. People escape from self directed disgust by withdrawing from social situations that might cause them. Finally, given that shame is frequently contained within the individual and cannot be easily escaped, people also cope with their self-directed disgust through aggressive tendencies, such as self-harm or harming others.

What hope is there for the self-disgusted?

I see lots of harmful manifestations of these coping mechanisms happening around me, and it grieves me, because there is a certain bleakness that surrounds self-disgust. It looks like people running away from themselves, yet never being able to succeed (because obviously, one cannot run away from oneself). To a large degree, it is a futile endeavour. What hope is there for the self-disgusted? I was discussing my learnings with someone recently, and what she said really struck me. “Yea, it all began with Adam and Eve.” Oh wow, I never thought of that. Isn’t it so fascinating that the first emotion that was depicted after Adam and Eve sinned and ate of the fruit of the of knowledge of good and evil, was that of shame? What happened next in the story of Adam and Eve was what I found truly comforting. Like any of us, Adam and Eve sought to hide their shame by sewing fig leaves for themselves. Like any of our coping mechanisms, it was inadequate. But guess what? God sought to clothe them in garments of skins. It hit me then that the antidote for self-disgust could never be found inside of us, nor could we manufacture the antidote for it. All our coping mechanisms are like that of fig-leaves. In fact, given that shame is a type of self-conscious emotion (Lewis, as cited in Power & Dalgleish, 2016), it seems only logical that more self-consciousness is not going to solve the problem. Instead, God sees and knows our nakedness. He knows our shame, he knows the self that has failed to live up to standards. The fact of the matter is, we have failed to live up to the absolute standards that God demands and there is no denying of that. But in love, God has sought to clothe us in righteousness, in perfection, through the blood of Jesus Christ, through whom He sees and accepts us. There is no running away from our selfs, but there is rest to be found in the perfect righteousness, in Christ, with whom God offers to clothe us in.

 

References

(1) Power, M., & Dalgleish, T. (2015). Cognition and emotion: From order to disorder. Psychology press.

(2) Schoenleber, M., & Berenbaum, H. (2012). Shame regulation in personality pathology. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 121(2), 433.

Miracles Every Day, Every Minute, Every Second

This is going to be a comparatively short post, but thought I’d pen this down for the benefit of myself and for those who struggle to give thanks. Recently, Brandon shared with me his reflection that what often precedes sin is a heart that fails to give thanks. I think that’s often true. For example, when I grumble or enter a state of resentment, I fail to see the many blessings from God. Beyond that, I fail even more to see the goodness of our creator God.

This week, God opened my eyes to see the many things that I have, to give thanks for. Things so mundane that I don’t even think about, or typically care about. Just last week as I returned home from the states, I fell so ill with a stomach virus. Anything ingested, whether solid or liquid, literally became expelled within less than an hour. It was impossible to consume anything. I was so thirsty but I couldn’t drink, and I was so tired but I couldn’t sleep. The only way to ensure that I stayed reasonably hydrated was through a drip in the hospital. The day that I got entirely well (2 days ago) I was ecstatic at the fact that I could drink, eat, and sleep. So ecstatic I was literally rejoicing at the fact that I COULD do those things, and not even the content of what I was drinking or eating. Then I thought to myself, “Wait a moment, isn’t it even more amazing that I ALWAYS have been able to do these things without fail daily?” And the thought continued on, “Wow, how radically would it change my heart to learn to give thanks like that daily.”

We really should be giving thanks like that daily. The problem with our hearts (or my heart) is that we often presume a position of privilege. Things SHOULD go right; it’s only natural for things to go right. But should we? Just the past semester,  I took Introduction to Neuroscience which by the way, I can’t say I really enjoyed, but it never failed to make me in awe at how things actually don’t fail. In class, we learnt that we have approximately 100, 000, 000, 000 neurons, and to pass messages to the brain, many action potentials are fired along a neuron. The numbers are huge; huge numbers also mean that the probability for error increases proportionately. But if you think about your life on a daily basis, most of the time, things DON’T go wrong…if not, you wouldn’t be doing anything at all (being alive, for that matter).

I guess, my long-story-short-point, is just that we need to question our assumptions that things ought to go right. Maybe, if we learnt to open our eyes to all the things that could go wrong, we would learn to marvel at all the miracles that go on every day, every minute, and every second, and be thankful for a God who so graciously sustains and provides.

The Commensurability of Incommensurable Sensations

[This is a fun post because I want to write down something I found philosophically interesting]

In this essay, I want to show that time is the reason why certain sensations which are incommensurable appear commensurable in some way to us.

I started thinking about this when my girlfriend mentioned to me that the tea which she got tasted sharper than usual. Wait a minute, sharp is a term referring to a physical quality corresponding to our sense of touch. Whereas the quality she was picking up was a quality of taste. The two sensations are clearly incommensurable – yet, something didn’t feel right. It is possible that the word ‘sharp’ might just be used incidentally to describe these two qualities which had nothing to do with each other, but intuitively the two ‘sharp’ sensations had something in common, they appeared commensurable in some sense. One possible linguistic program that could be undertaken to strengthen this is to do a survey to see if the word ‘sharp’ in various other languages are used to describe both the taste of sharpness as well as the touch sensation of sharpness — this seems to be the case for mandarin, we describe certain foods as 尖. (at least I think we do, my mandarin is quite bad and this could just be a singaporean thing where we use a literal translation of another language in our vocabulary to stand for the thing in the original language)

How do we make sense of this apparent commensurability? There is another sensory realm where such physical or ‘touch’ descriptions also frequently apply. This is when we describe auditory sensations, or sounds. I just pick one example which I think will illuminate how a relationship with time connects two sensations that are incommensurable. Sometimes music can be described as broad, the Italian term Allargando is often used for this direction. Broadness, however, is clearly a physical conception and has nothing to do with sound at all. The reason the two are connected is because we usually have a spatial conception of time. We conceive of the music as stretched out across temporal space (note the spatial metaphor already) and we imagine rhythm as a series of patterns in that stretched out space. The rhythm is broad when the interval between each imagined pattern becomes larger. This allows us to connect and use the term ‘broad’ for both the auditory and spatial sensation. This usage is not incidental, but there is a real connection between the two.

Applying this to the case of ‘sharp’ we see that something similar is going on as well. The touch sensation ‘sharp’ is usually a burst of (painful) sensation i.e. a substantial quantity of sensation over a short time. Similarly the tastes that we describe as sharp are also the result of a burst of taste, again a substantial quantity of sensation over a short time. It is the connection to time that connects these two qualities in our head and allows as to call them by the same name ‘sharp’. My guess is that when we consider other qualities that appear incommensurable but have some kind of connection that is revealed by our linguistic usage, some sort of temporal connection is also present. As Kant noted, time is one of the forms of our sensibility and structures all of our experience including phenomenologically diverse and incommensurable ones, and yet by being the one form that binds them all, it also links them all and allows us to compare them. As indeed we do through our linguistic usage of certain words for multiple sense modalities.