Saturday, December 17, 2011

Musical Semantics

I used to think that music had only elaborate and emotionally evocative syntax but unlike language, no denotive semantics. Looking into recent work however, it looks like the picture is a bit more complicated. The American musicologist L. B. Meyer made the distinction between designative meaning and embodied meaning. The former involves a reference to things outside the musical domain and the latter is about the significance that a passage of music can have for a listener in virtue of its own dynamic unfolding structure and its relation to the listener's musical knowledge and expectations. This is meaning in relation to parts of musical structure referring to other parts of itself or the whole. Expectations (implications) can be created and their fulfilment can be delivered, delayed or thwarted.
I had thought the designative component to be totally parasitic on the natural language and culture of the community of listeners. Certain motifs in music come to be associated with objects or events, for example a few notes of the 'Jaws' theme and we think of a menacing shark. This is a long way from the full blown semantics of natural language, since you cannot convey novel concepts and meanings via musical syntax without a direct association first. However, recent work by Stefan Koelsh suggests that music transfers much more semantic information than was previously thought: "Our results indicate that both music and language can prime the meaning of a word, and that music can, as language, determine physiological indices of semantic processing." from Nature Neuroscience 7(3), 2004: Music, Language and Meaning: Brain Signatures of Semantic Processing.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Dogma versus Defeasible Belief

I think this is a distinction which avoids some of the debates between atheists and believers in which the participants just talk past each other. You know how they go, the believer wants to portray the atheist as occupying a faith position. The motivation seems to be a perception that atheists are trying to argue from some kind of rational high ground. Keen to resist the portrayal, atheists sometimes attempt a distinction between a lack of belief in god and a belief that there is no god. I don't think that really works, but if instead the atheist concedes that they can't be certain that there is no god, then sometimes they are characterised as agnostic, which causes confusion. So consider the analogy with your drinking water. Assuming you live in a country where it is safe to drink, it is still the case that you can't be sure that the water supply hasn't been contaminated or poisoned without your knowledge. This doesn't mean you are agnostic about whether the water is safe, at least not according to the normal usage of the term. If you were, you wouldn't drink it. Nor are you dogmatic in your view that the water is safe, if evidence becomes available that suggests otherwise, you'll stop drinking it. So what you have is a defeasible belief that your drinking water is safe. Similarly, the atheist can argue that given a specified god, they have a defeasible belief that this god does not exist.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

'Sure and certain hope'

Which is it? Cetainty or hope? Does this phrase arise from Hebrews 11:1? The New International Version translates as: 'Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.' That makes more sense to me. So perhaps the sense of 'sure and certain hope' is an affirmation of faith, a declaration of assurance that things hoped for will come to pass. Does that sound right?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Spiritual Beard

In the lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender community, a 'beard' was slang for acting heterosexual, it was a cover that allowed people to pass as normal. I'm wondering whether there is an analogy here for atheists who talk of being 'spiritual'. Some atheists who are friendly to religion (sometimes called accommodationists) use spirituality talk but seek to reject supernatural connotations. Is this a tenable position? Are they trying to pass as fully rounded human beings in some way, as if a 'spiritual' dimension is required not to be considered somehow shallow? If so, would a better strategy be to challenge that notion of what it is to be human and contend that there is no such thing as a spirit, and that the baggage-laden metaphor is no longer useful?

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Thin Slicing

'Blink' is the title of a book by Malcolm Gladwell in which he explains how sometimes initial intuitions or 'gut feelings' can be a better way of dealing with information than careful analysis in some situations. 'Thin slicing' refers to our ability to find patterns based on very narrow slices of experience without being consciously aware of how we have done it.

One example given was that of the purchase of a statue (a kouros) by the J. Paul Getty museum. Despite it being subjected to careful analysis and testing and being declared genuine, it turned out to be a fake. Several experts spotted that something was amiss using thin slicing. One had the word 'fresh' pop into their head, another immediately found themselves looking at the fingernails and thinking that they didn't look right but not able to articulate quite why. One expert reported an 'intuitive repulsion' when he first saw it.

I think many people are aware that sometimes hunches give better results than careful analysis, particularly under time pressure, or when deluged with information, or when information is limited. I wonder whether religious believers who have a hunch that the universe is a 'put up job' have the feeling that they are like the intuitive experts who spotted what was going on, whereas atheists have carried out a careful, but flawed, analysis.