A Sound by any Other Name

What is the difference between thinking that consciousness requires a living body and thinking that sounds have to be made by acoustic instruments?

It seems like the same common sense intuition, and I think in both cases, it happens to be false. From audio recording we learned that we did not need to have someone play a horn to hear a horn sound. We could actually use the sound that a needle makes when scratching over a grooved surface to make a nearly identical sound, as long as the grooves matched the grooves made when the horn was played in the first place.


As audio technology progressed, people discovered that purely electronic changes in semiconductors could be used to drive speakers to drive eardrums. We didn’t need to begin with a horn being played, or acoustic vibrations to propagate from brass to air to a steel needle to a cooling disc of resin. All we needed was electronic switches to rapidly change the flow of current through a speaker in the same pattern that the needle used to make going up and down in the groove. The up and down analog became digital stop and go, all the way up to the point where you have to jiggle people’s eardrums. That could not be done electronically but required a membrane to mechanically push air into the ears.


It seems now that we are getting closer to cutting out the acoustic middleman entirely with the possibility of Neuralink type technology and broadcast music directly into your brain without any physical sound at all. No speakers, no ears…but you still need something that senses something, and you need something that senses that something as sound. Even if we play music and record our dreams electronically, it still doesn’t solve the Hard Problem of consciousness. There remains an explanatory gap between the silent operation of electrical current and the experience of sounds, sights, feelings, thoughts, and the entire material universe of objects…including brains and electronic instruments.

That last sentence is the tricky part that physicalist thinkers can’t seem to stop overlooking. Yes, the entire physical universe that you know, that you read about, that scientists experiment on, can only exist under physicalism as a ‘model’ or ‘simulation’ that simply, um, ’emerges’ from either electromagnetism itself, or electromagnetism in various brain structures, or from the ‘information’ that we imagine is being communicated by any or all of these processes.


Of course, it’s all circular. To say ‘the brain’ is to say ‘my qualitative and cognitive experiences that I call ‘brain”. To say ‘the world’ is to say ‘my’ or ‘our’ qualitative experiences that seem like a world. There is no getting around this. The last mile of any cosmological theory always has to cash out in some experience-of-a-cosmos, with or without a theory of a cosmos-outside-of-some-experience. Noumena are optional and hypothetical. Experiential phenomena, as Decscartes almost said, cannot be deined.


I argue with a lot of people about information and qualia, because it is glaringly obvious to me that this technology based idea of information conflates the purely intellectual and abstract process of learning or communicating with the concrete aesthetics of what it is being communicated. Information or simulation theory says nothing about what is ultimately doing the communicating and what literally happens when a communication is decoded, from the billions of quantifiable microphysical stop/go events in an engineered device or neurological organ to unquantifiable and irreducibly aesthetic sight/sound/objects/feelings/thoughts.


The idea of simulation only pushes the explanatory gap down further in scale, but it is the same gap. It’s not enough that a change in a computing device or brain coincides with a change in direct experience, we have to ask what is doing the correlation in the first place, and how, and why. It’s not just “what breathes fire into the equations?”, but what the hell is fire doing in equations in the first place? Why wouldn’t it make sense to ask what breathes equations into every form of ‘fire’? What could it be other than conscious experience itself? Anything we try to put in between conscious experience and nature always has that same last-mile problem. In the end, you need something eternal that can make sense – some capacity not only to run programs on hardware to manipulate hardware but for either programs or hardware to exist as something aesthetic rather than just invisible facts in an arithmetic void.

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