Listen to the Hand

Written by on July 5, 2013 in Commentary with 2 Comments

Undoubtedly you’ve heard the expression ‘Talk to the hand”, a sarcastic gesture meant to redirect verbal abuse away from your face and towards a more indifferent extremity, namely the hand.

And while we in the West have been thrusting our palms at each other, some Ancient Eastern cultures have been listening to the hand instead, and what they’ve heard is worth a listen for us all (I hope that literary segue was subtle enough?)

Zen Buddhists in particular have questioned the ‘sound of one hand’ for centuries as an aid in meditation, phrased in what is known as a Koan. A Koan is a paradoxical statement that if considered deeply enough will provide an insight into the true nature of reality.

It’s paradox is meant to arrest the conceptualizing mind and give the practitioner a direct experience of reality. What opens this experience is the realization that thought, language and logical reason are forms of limited attention. The Koan then provides the monk with a broader awareness, beyond words, beyond the intellect.

I am not a Zen practitioner by any means but I would like to tackle one of the more famous Zen Kõan’s, the one eluded to in the beginning of this post—it is called ‘One hand clapping’.

‘One hand Clapping’ – If two hands clap and there is a sound, what is the sound of one hand?

My first thought was to begin juggling metaphorical concepts, however I decided to take a more literal approach by considering the nature of sound?

The idea of sound is not a universal idea. Sound doesn’t exist on its own. Sound requires an ear to hear it. Without an ear, sound is merely slight vibrations of air molecules and therefor necessarily requires human perception to be a ‘sound’.

I recall the philosophical question: if a tree falls in the forest, and if no one is around, does it make a sound? I feel strongly that it does not. Mainly because there is no ear present at the time of felling but a better question would be; with no one present in the forest, does a falling tree vibrate air molecules when it hits the ground? – It would be natural to have no doubt here, however if you know anything of Quantum Theory this scenario may send up a flag for you.

Quantum theory states that matter is suspended in an ambiguous state until such time as an observer interacts with it, either by measurement or observation. This ambiguous state is called a ‘superposition’, which means that all possible states a system can have are suspended in a cloud of possibility awaiting interaction by a conscious observer.

This may sound like metaphysical mumbo-jumbo but quantum theory has been exhaustively confirmed by experiment over the last century.

Quantum science essentially discounts the validity of a true and objective reality when a conscious observer is absent. That means to believe that air molecules vibrate around a distant falling tree is just that, only a belief. However there is a strong potential or probability of vibration that does await an observer’s interference.

Think of it like this; an Apple sitting on the kitchen counter certainly has the potential of taste whether you’re in the Kitchen, Living room or down the street, it doesn’t matter. Ultimately it does require a Taster to eat the apple and actualize the experience. You may feel that this is a bad analogy, for surely physical reality cannot be compared to something as ethereal as flavour? Well, please read on.

I have always wanted to visit Egypt and see the great pyramids. Better yet to climb one and look out over the desert would certainly be extraordinary.

However, if I were to climb the great pyramid of Giza for instance, and clutch at its towering stoney mass with my bare hands, the fact is my fingers wouldn’t actually touch its surface but rather be suspended above its atomic structure at a distance of one angstrom—One ten billionth of a meter.

Its an exceedingly small distance but that is generally how close we will ever get to touching anything, insofar far as anything is actually made of something to touch anyway. And there’s another interesting fact; we think the outside world is full of all this substantial matter but when atomic physicists go looking for the fundamental ‘stuff of stuff’, they find there is nothing but energy patterns. Matter is as ethereal as nothing could ever be. So, on an atomic level I will never feel the pyramids directly, ever.

In fact I will never see the pyramids directly either, this is because my sense of sight is based on gathering photons from the light reflected from its surface. I am merely sensing the electromagnetic echo of the pyramids, certainly not the actual things themselves. It is all merely secondary experience.

Simply put, it’s our five senses that come between us and any ‘objective reality’ we feel we’re in touch with. Our experience of this world will always be second hand… Hey, there’s mention of a ‘second hand’, perhaps a ‘first hand’ or ‘one hand’ is yet to come here?

Quantum effects are atomic effects, exceedingly microscopic and not apparent to human sense perception. Atoms do constitute everything there is but our experience merely floats atop their vast subtlety. Because of this, during our lives, we will only be able to shake the one hand. Zen, on the other hand, ascribes to an experience that goes beyond. It’s ‘sound’ is not the conventional sound, the ‘sound of one hand’ means to mock the idea of sound, negate it reference and instead point to the transcendental sound.

So the Quantum world is a parallel to the soundless sound. It is the oneness of all things—that everything is contingent to everything else. All is in all, interconnected and interdependent. This the sound of One Hand to me.

So to return back to the idea of the falling tree:

  • Does a falling tree make a sound when no one is around? No, not without an ear present.
  • Does a falling tree without an observer present, vibrate air molecules? It buzzes with the sound of no sound, the sound of One Hand.


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  1. Paola says:

    Lubos, It’s nice to see your note on the interpretational prbeolm finally. I just want to note that Feynman might have not talked like ‘Shut Up and Calculate’ really. David Mermin once talked about it in the ‘Reference Frame’ article of Physics Today (last year or two years ago). He couldn’t find any sources which explicitly quote that words from Feynman. Perhaps, the possibility that Feynman does not like that quote still remains.

    • Christian Joore says:

      Thanks for the reference to the Physics Today article, I have found it online and will give it a good read later… and thanks for commenting BTW

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