Monday, January 12, 2009

Silence and John Kulvicki's stable property view of sounds

In "The Nature of Noise", John Kulvicki defends a 'stable property' view of sounds, on which sounds are "dispositions of objects to vibrate in response to being stimulated." They aren't the compression waves that pass through the air -- they're the dispositional properties of objects that make them vibrate and produce those waves in response to thwacking. (I give him points for using the word 'thwacking' liberally in the paper.) As Kulvicki says, this would make sounds a lot like colors, at least on some fairly intuitive views of color.

Two things. The minor point is that we're going to have to have a really complex view of thwacking in order to make this all work out. Intuitively, the sound of Roy Sorenson is the sound he makes when he talks, not the sound that he makes when you thwack him, unless you interpret his speech as some kind of internal self-thwacking. Kulvicki's distinction between having sounds and making sounds, which he uses to deal with cases like audio equipment, doesn't seem to do the necessary work here. While I suppose I could get into saying that my stereo makes sounds it doesn't really have, it sounds weirder to say that Sorenson is making sounds he doesn't really have when he talks.

But my bigger objection has to do with silence. It seems pretty straightforward that when it is silent, there are no sounds. This goes along perfectly well with the view that sounds are compression waves. But it's big trouble for the view that sound is a stable dispositional property of objects. On the stable property view, silence is compatible with there being lots and lots of sounds! Objects retain their dispositions even if those dispositions aren't being activated, and the presence of lots of drums or other objects with wave-making dispositions will make it the case that there are lots of sounds, even if nobody is beating the drums and all is totally silent.


Anonymous said...

Hi Neal,

Interesting post. Here are two thoughts which may be relevant. First, it strikes me that the sound of `the sound of x' might be context sensitive. Suppose that there are instruments behind a curtain why we are asked to identify by they make. Suppose further that an instrument, say a violin, can be played in two different ways. One can play it by the strings. Alternatively, one can thump it on its back. If we are in a context where all of the previous instruments are played by the strings, and I hear the violin so played, I can say "That's the sound of a violin". Alternatively, if we are in a context of hearing a bunch of string instruments thumped, and then we hear the violin thumped, we can say, "That's the sound of the violin" in these contexts.

Your preference for saying that the sound of Roy Sorenson is the sound of his voice results, I think, from the fact that his voice is almost always the most contextually salient way he produces sounds. However, I can imagine cases where some other way in which he produces sounds becomes salient. Suppose that we are used to hearing him walk in a distinctive way, and I hear someone approaching. I think that I can say, "that's the sound of Roy Sorenson" if the sounds match that distinctive manner.

About the second point, the expression "the sound of a violin/Roy Sorenson/etc" are or can be used as kind referring expression. To bring this out, imagine that A and B are waiting for the abominable snow man. They hear a noise at t, and A gets scarred. B says "The sound of the abominable snowman is very loud. So, that's not its sound". It seems to me that what B says could be true, even if the abominable is not actually making any noise at the time. Anyhow, this suggests to me that at least there is a kind referring use, since even if B's utterance is true, it would be wrong to later say, "At time t the sound of the abominable snow man was loud".

I'm not sure how this impacts your engagement with Kulvicki's view though.


Aidan said...

Hey Neil,

"It seems pretty straightforward that when it is silent, there are no sounds."

This doesn't strike me as all that straightforward, as it stands. It has the consequence that it is never silent, so long as there are sounds somewhere. We need to introduce some relativity somewhere. (I don't mean to suggest you weren't aware of this - only that it seems important to make it explicit when considering your point here). And it's natural to think that the relativity is not tied to particular locations or anything like that, but rather to what normal subjects at a given location are able to hear. At a first pass, we might say that it is silent in location l just when no human in l with normal hearing can hear a sound. That's rough as all hell, but it seems to at least be on the right track, and it looks compatible with Kulvicki's account. (If people don't like the reference to specifically *human* hearing, it's probably some kind of default at least: reflect on the phrase 'silent whistle').

It looks like 'silent' is going to have (at least) a double sensitivity to context. First, it has the indexical element I noted above; claims that it is silent, like claims that it is raining, are usually about a contextually determined location. There's been a lot of literature on the nature of the context sensitivity of 'weather reports', and it'll be relevant here I'd guess. Secondly, what it takes for us to think it true that no normal human perceiver can hear *any sounds* is going to shift, much like what it takes for a surface to have no bumps, and hence to be flat, shifts. We often ignore persistent hums and other background noises when we claim that it is silent. (We also generally ignore that a person who makes a silence-attribution out loud inevitably breaks the silence).

Aidan said...

I spent too long writing my comment, and so Bryan's comment went up in the meantime.

Neil Sinhababu said...

I see the first point, Bryan. I imagine that he'll want to do something like that. I imagine that we aren't going to get a very clean account of what counts as 'stimulating' something, though.

Is your second point supposed to be a response to my thing about silence? If so I don't think it will help Kulvicki.

We can truly say 'X has property Y' in cases where there are no X's at the time, by speaking tenselessly. Suppose we're trying to figure out if John Bengson is a King of France. I think it's fine to say "He can't be a King of France. Kings of France are always French." This is the same thing that's going on in your example, right?

So the tenseless truth of "The sound of X is Y" claims won't establish that there's still a sound of X at a time when X is silent. And that's a problem for the view that sounds are stable dispositional properties, because that view implies that sounds can be present even in a time of silence.

Neil Sinhababu said...

I am honored to have so many good commenters that everyone discovers a new comment after they post! (I'm included.)

I agree with you about the double context-sensitivity, Aidan, but I don't think those subtleties will help him. Suppose the entire universe is totally silent and there are no compression waves anywhere, but there are a bunch of tubas lying around. According to Kulvicki's view, there are sounds in that universe, because the tubas have dispositional properties. So it's true that there are sounds -- the sounds of tubas, no less -- in the utterly silent universe. This is very counterintuitive.

Anonymous said...


As I said in my original comment, I'm not sure about the consequences my point has for the dialectic between you and Kulvicki, but here's why I thought it was relevant:

Kind referring or generic uses tend to be similar to dispositional statements. So for example, "Dogs bark" is true because dogs are in the habit of barking. "The governor of Texas lives in the governor's mansion" may be true in a context even though the governor's mansion is currently being repaired for fire damages and the governor is currently living elsewhere. It is true because Texas governors generally live there.

So, if in many of these contexts, "the sound of x" functions as a generic or kind referring expression, then a habitual analysis would be far off track for these. However, there still may be a class of uses of "the sound of x" which pick out particular instances of this kind. I don't know whether his view allows for this, but your analysis would be right for these cases

As to whether there are such kind referring or generic uses, I think your tenseless analysis of the use I considered of (S) "The sound of the abominable snowman is loud." fails. To see this, lets alter the case a little so that the abominable snowman never actually makes any noise, but A and B know his sound because they have investigated his physiology. I believe that in such a context, (S) would still be true. (Compare: "Unicorns have horns".)

Another reason that I think the tenseless analysis fails is that for (S)'s the pre-theoretic truth conditions in the original context differ, I think, from both (1) "Every sound made by the abominable snowman is loud" and (2) "Some sounds made by the abominable snowman are loud" as would be predicted by your analysis. It differs from (1) because (S) in context does not intuitively require every noise ever made by the snowman to be loud. It differs from (2) b/c it is clear that the existence of a single loud noise by the abominable snowman is not sufficient for (S) in context to be true.

Finally, the sentence "Kings of France are from France" would, I think, be a canonical example of a kind referring or generic use of the expression "Kings of France". In fact, I think bare plurals in English almost always function in this kind referring or generic way.

Anonymous said...

In my previous comment, the following sentence should have a "not" in it.

"So, if in many of these contexts, "the sound of x" functions as a generic or kind referring expression, then a habitual analysis would be far off track for these."

That is, the generic analysis would NOT be far off track.

Neil Sinhababu said...

How tight is the connection between generics and dispositional properties, really?

Am I doing the generic thing when I say, "Humans live on Earth?" That sentence certainly seems true to me, but I wouldn't want to say that humans have a disposition (with, you know, activation conditions and all that) to live on Earth.

Anonymous said...


I would expect that there will inevitably be many fine grained differences between the truth conditions of a given generic sentence and a corresponding dispositional sentence. They are similar, however, in the following respect. I would expect the truth of both dispositional and generic sentences to turn on what objects tend to do or or what it is normal for them to do in certain situations.

Consider your generic use of (1) "People live on the surface of the Earth." It wouldn't be too far off to say that this sentence in your context is true iff people tend to live on the surface of the Earth. Asher's paper argues that the sentence's truth conditions require roughly the following. In all normal situations, all people live on the surface of the Earth.

I think it's pretty clear that the truth of a dispositional statement also turns on what objects tend to do or would do in normal circumstances when provoked by certain stimuli.

Again, there will probably be fine grained differences between the analysis of disposition sentences and generics as your example brings out. But it strikes me that they will be far too fine grained to matter in this dialectical context.