Sonic inference to the best explanation: On listening otherly

1. Listening otherly

“The beliefs about sounds heard in the dark can always be wrong.” This assumption is one of the hypotheses taken for granted in the visual-centric theory of evidence, which adopts only visible things as true evidence. If we heard something eerie outside of the window last night, we would probably take a look to see if there was anything that caused the sound after the sun rises. Because I want to confirm that the spooky imagination we had about the sound was not true. You are relieved to know that it turned out to be a fricative sound of something that had nothing to do with eerieness.

Here I start from the very experience of hearing a sound incorrectly as another. And, I try to think about what such a misunderstanding in listening can do. To this end, the state in which one of several hypotheses to explain a single sonic event had to be selected was named ‘SIBE(Sonic inference to the best explanation)’. It seems that reasoning according to SIBE usually manifests itself as a belief in the plausibility of a certain state, that says to us 'in such and such circumstances, things will unfold in such and such a way.' What underpins this belief is subjective rationality. In a sense, subjective rationality sometimes causes the listener to hear one sound 'otherly', depending on the degree of the beliefs the listener already has. In this sense, belief about the misheard sound is often a result of a forced process generated from the muscle memory of the past, rather than optional; And here lies the crux of the potency of listening otherly: making the inconceivable the conceivable, by preimagining things that we would never want to imagine. Such an approach taken to the problem of listening allows us to find the driver of belief in testimony as a result of practical occasions. This helps us to move away from the usual approach of believing testimony as some kind of an act of ethical responsibility.

Now, let's rewrite the previous assumption as follows: 'Knowing by sound is not reliable-as if seeing something in the dark does not.' Just as we have to consider the possibility of a blue taxi looking green under the yellow gaslight when taking into account the testimony about a hit-and-run incident that happened at night, knowledge from sound always suffers from the remaining possibility of being listened otherwise.* In short, knowledge derived from listening has the potential of misrecognizing things, as if seeing in the dark, sometimes even worse. Because unlike what is seen, what is heard is not seen.

But even knowing by seeing is not always reliable. For perception often believes so strongly in the plausibility of a state that sometimes it denies what is really seen. Experiments in cognitive science and findings in behavioral economics expose how irrational human perception is, and further discover that such irrationality only manifests under certain circumstances. Misperceptions or biases such as seeing the same saturation differently under the belief that the color of the lighted side will always be brighter than the shaded area are as very much systematic as a rationally functioning perceptual process.

2. Systematic Irrationality

It is also possible to recontextualize systematic irrationality in a more positive, which is holistic, or in other words, a ‘human’ point of view. It is by examining the act of such perception, which automatically fills in empirical data in the place of absent information, as something that shows the potency of (human) imagination. It is impossible to cease seeing a specific figure from an abstract, random pattern made up of mere black and white, once you start seeing it. Even if the figure has been removed, still is the same. Although "we quickly realize that she has gone, [..] the expectation of her presence remains in her place. [..]an unsuppressable expectation even when we know it will go unfulfilled" still persists.**

It is at this point where the first concern of this writing emerges: seeing mistaken, or seeing what is not there, is influenced by beliefs and expectations on the given state that will probably unfold in such and such a manner. Then, what will be the impact of these 'automatic expectations' in listening? At first glance, just as the desire to see something makes you actually see it, the desire to hear something will probably make you hear the very sound. This is because like any sensory experience, listening otherly is also related to the expectations about the context of a sound coming into one's ear. This might be true in a general sense, but not in the same way that seeing wrongly does.

So, what is the difference between seeing otherly and hearing otherly? If the different hypotheses raised for a given state equally satisfy the given evidence, the priority of the hypotheses cannot be determined. This is sometimes referred to as the problem of hypothesis selection(theory determination).*** When visual misperceptions, such as optical illusions, are caused by an arrangement of optical data, and finally induce us to see in a particular way, our eyes do not suspect what we see until we “hear” that what we have seen was not what we thought it was. Nevertheless, as soon as we switch our mode of perspective, the duck in front of us can become a rabbit and vice versa. But listening otherly does not always proceed in this way. Rather, it seems to have more to do with the situation where I cannot dismiss my non-plausible hypothesis, or belief about sound even after I got to know that what I'm hearing is not what I think it is. Like the construction of subharmonics, beliefs about a sound occur simultaneously rather than transitioning from one side to the other.****

[Figure 1] Curve Fitting of SIBE

If arbitrary points on the graph are called evidence, and a line passing through all the given evidence in a specific situation is called a hypothesis, then, in principle, there can be several other lines passing through all the given points, i.e. hypotheses. And these competing hypotheses cannot be true at the same time. Moreover, since the evidence given to us is limited, it is impossible to determine which of these hypotheses is true. One way of judging truth in this kind of situation is called ‘Inference to the best explanation, or IBE, which means the taking of the most plausible hypothesis if it is true.

Also often referred to as abduction, the heart of IBE lies in the fact that this method of reasoning is irrelevant to the guarantees of truth. The plausibility of the hypothesis has nothing to do with the so-called epistemic legitimacy. If the hypothesis given here can be confirmed ex-post whether it is correct or not, the adoption of the hypothesis will result in the following four outcomes. First, if the hypothesis is accepted as true, and if it is actually true, it is a true positive(TP), and if the accepted hypothesis is wrong, it is a false negative(FN). Conversely, if the hypothesis is rejected and the hypothesis is actually wrong, we call it a true negative(TN). Finally, when a hypothesis we reject turns out to be true, it is a false negative(FN).

When we hear a strange sound outside of our windows before the sun rises, we cannot be sure which of all possible possibilities is particularly plausible, due to the darkness and other constraints. Belief about the state of affairs becomes more and more plausible to the extent that the most unimaginable possibilities engulf our mind until it gets out of control. Of course, it could be a different sound, but that's unknown for right now. Perhaps we would never know what sound it was in the future. Then, choosing and believing the most plausible hypotheses that explain sonic affairs in the dark could be called 'Sonic Inference to the Best Explanation'.

3. Specious Present*****

SIBE is important in the problem of testimonial belief, which is the second concern of this writing. If judging P/N primarily bases itself on the knowledge through sound(testimony), and secondarily judging if a judgment on T/F is based on the knowledge gained from seeing(evidence), it is not possible in principle to decide whether our belief on testimony is 'false positive' or 'false negative'-because testimony is something that we always hear, not see. There is no verification mechanism that can ultimately determine whether a diagnosis or inference, is correct- that is, to reject or accept the null hypothesis. The only basis of knowledge is the post-mortem belief of the listener's updated prior belief she had before the sonic state. What is important here is not the visible evidence, but the listener's subjective rationality. Sometimes its substance is denigrated in contrast to the ambiguous concept of objective rationality. However, what is concluded at the nodal point of testimonies and counter-testimony is a specious present, not some kind of a hidden truth that lies beneath. The moment the testifier discloses the possibility that the past could have been different, the counter-testifier claps back, "That is not true at all." To this, the testifier reciprocates, "Their statement that our statement is not true at all, is not true at all." Everyone claims that what they say is true, but those facts are incompatible with each other since everyone is claiming a different past. 

[Figure 2] A specious present arising from the nodal point of testimony and counter-testimony

(~T: Counter-testimony, SP: Specious Present, T: Testimony)

In such a context, how can we not compare bearing testimonial belief to an act of rushing into gambling? A contest of incompatible hypotheses about a given past destroys our common past ("history") like waves eroding a sandcastle built on the seashore. Testimonies become the crest, and counter-testimony becomes the trough part of the wave respectively, to the point where it is impossible to discern which one started at the very beginning. Besides, the confirmation of the facts of the testimony is blocked in advance, under the name of protection/solidarity/identification toward the victim. An easy progressive view that obsolescence of the past("yesterday") will forge the future ("tomorrow") even exacerbates this plight. However, under the point of view that testimonial belief arises from the taking of 'practical truth' rather than a result of an ethical motive, the possibility of 'the past that could have been otherwise' is open as much as the future does. Understandably, the reason is that past is something we continuously reconstruct through struggle, instead of staying irreversible.

Whether to doubtlessly believe the testimony from the lives of others I have not seen nor lived under the pretext of the restoration of a repressed voice or to treat them as fabricated fiction to season your taste-it's a game you always lose regardless of your choice. Believe it or not, this game is not simply a matter of belief or distrust. Both beliefs(belief on, and belief against) occur at the same time. I could distrust hearsay testimony by n% and trust it by (100-n)%. Beliefs that are not likely to fit together stay together. This coexistence always occurs, even without recalling the skeptical argument that the witness's memory might have been manipulated unknowingly, or that the true knowledge of the witness might only be a result of luck(which might have been intended by the demon in the room). Rather, the process of epistemic justification that requires the foundation of truth always considers the slightest possibility that the testimony might have been false. That's why we often imagine the improbable. But the benefits of this are found somewhere off the wall: that is, the extension of conceivability in a perverted way.

SIBE turns out to be inevitable in whichever case the truthfulness of the fact is unknown for this moment. When you cannot recollect one way or another(because it never reaches the end), or the events that happened are still irreducible to evidence-your hypothesis selection gets overfitted with your improbable imagination about something that is highly reluctant. The most reluctant possibility here means what we are hearing could be perjury. The fear of simulated perjury becomes the very fear of testimony listening. When the hypothesis most useful in a given state is regarded as a set of truths simply because false positives and false negatives cannot be distinguished, you are adopting a practical truth, not an epistemological truth. Again, the selection of a sonic hypothesis based on practical and empirical requirements can be another way to expand conceivability. In short, it could even be argued that imagining the unimaginable is not only a precursor to an act of conceiving the inconceivable but rather a prerequisite.

This is more than a strange thing, since being reluctant to imagine something means that it has already been imagined. To understand what this means, it can be helpful to think of it as a matter of desire, instead of that of a belief. We cannot fear the desires that do not exist, since being reluctant to desire something means that you already have thought, imagined, or desired it. Therefore, just as the inventing of a new desire often starts from the variation of what is reluctant to desire, the conceiving of the inconceivable can also benefit from the imagination that we are reluctant and shy of. Another commonality between belief and desire is that we cannot really choose them. We think we choose to believe something, but we may not. Similarly, we think we desire what we want, and what we choose, but we may not.

Starting from the listening otherly, a 'hypothesis' is proposed at this point as to whether the imagination that we are loath for, can serve as a portal for the things that are inconceivable. In this hypothesis, what emerges is subjective rationality rather than objective rationality, and a pragmatic view of truth than epistemic truth. This hypothesis sounds very speculative, but the moment we adopt or reject it, we discover that we are in some way dependent on our trivial humane experience and our limited rationality. At the same time, it is a way to speak differently about the experience of listening otherly, instead of dismissing it as the result of a cognitive error, auditory hallucination, delirium, or being 'haunted'. The belief about the present sonic state that later could be revealed otherwise, is at the heart of the strange possibilities of listening otherly.


You do not have to leave your house and stay a night in the woods to find a sound that suggests the presence of a predator that might harm you. If the day comes when you spend the night in a house with a broken window, you may mistake the sound you hear outside the window at dawn for the sound of some intruder's footsteps. After trembling in fear, you will finally feel relieved the next day, and get to know that it was a sound of a short shower last night from seeing slightly moist soil on the ground. This is how we forecast whether our belief in the tune of the coming future will be realized or betrayed. When the impending event finally happens, when one of the hundred sparks was finally ignited, the remaining unrealized scenarios are enveloped, and the climax of expectations faces a rapid decline. But it's not the end yet. "We quickly realize that she has gone, but nonetheless the expectation of her presence remains in her place. [...] an automatic expectation[...] an unsuppressable expectation even when we know it will go unfulfilled"

* This illustration also called the “taxi problem,” is an example of behavioral economists Daniel Kahneman & Amos Tversky's study on base rate fallacy.

** Alex Maclean(2005). “Gestalt theory: Visual and Sonic Gestalt”

*** Rhee Young-eui(2020, revision). Bayesianism

**** Subharmonic, or undertone, refers to an overtone that is generated at an octave ratio such as 1/2 or 1/4 of the fundamental frequency due to nonlinear distortion.

***** William James(1890). The Principles of Psychology, Vol.1