What is the sound of one hand clapping?

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It sounds a lot like two hands clapping, but quieter, because you can only do it by slapping your thumb against a couple of your other fingers and not to hard. This, of course, leaves open another important philosophical question. Is a thumb a finger?

A while back my friend Massimo Pigliucci took Neil deGrasse Tyson to task for, among other things, equating philosophy with asking the question, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” That was a dig, of course, made in the context of suggesting that philosophy had no real utility, and that the real thinking was all about science, not philosophy. This seems to be a difficulty NdGT has, this thing with philosophy. I believe that when Neil was a child, in the crib, a philosopher came along and scared him. He does not remember this event, but ever since then, he’s had this idea that philosophy is a bad thing, a worthless enterprise. (Until recently, anyway, see below.)

And that would be of little consequence were it not for the fact that approximately 23.41% of people who are not scientists (or philosophers) who also love science believe whatever Neil deGrasse Tyson says. Much of what he says is, of course, wonderful and insightful and even inspiring. But, he is not always correct, and he is sometimes abysmally wrong. For example, when he says that GMO agriculture is exactly the same as traditional agriculture because we’ve been manipulating genes for thousand of years, he belies a misunderstanding of genes, plants, history, and GMO technology. We have been manipulating traits for thousands of years, not genes, and GMO technology allows us to move genes between organisms that we can not interbreed in the agricultural setting, thus providing potential opportunities heretofore unimagined. Equating GMO technology to prior traditional agriculture, in asking what can come of it, is like equating space travel to horse and buggy travel. Yes, there is a link, no, they are not the same.

By the way, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” is not a question of philosophy. It is a K?an. A K?an is a question or statement posed as part of Zen practice designed to challenge a student or to represent a salient belief. Many are references to well known stories. Collectively they form the basis for meditation. They may be other things. I’m not an expert on that. What they are not, however, is philosophy.

A Zen K?an is a touchstone to Zen thought and belief. A philosophical question is one engendering enquiry about meaning, value, knowledge, reality, etc. but typically one that is not subject to direct scientific interrogation.

It is quite possible for a question or subject to shift between the scientific and philosophical realm (though not always retaining relevance). For example, the question “what am I really seeing when I look at something” was addressed by early philosophers such as Plato, and later became a matter of scientific inquiry. The founder of Anthropology, Franz Boas started out as a physical scientist looking into an aspect of this question (with sea water) but there were all these interesting Indians around and he shifted focus. Eventually physicists got on to explaining what happens when light illuminates something and we see it. Recently, I asked some physicists about the difference between light bouncing, reflecting, off a mirror like surface vs. any other sort of object, and I’m pretty sure we ran into the philosophical realm when the question came up, “is a photon that reflects the same photon after reflection?” It turns out that physicists can’t agree and/or don’t know, and then they seem to get a little embarrassed, then they claim it is a philosophical question. Probably not a very interesting one.

Philosophers may ask about meaning. A behavioral neurobiologist may also explore meaning, and actually pin down what meaning is physically without having a clue what meaning actually means. Meanwhile, a semiotician may come to understand meaning as a process and even a non-physical entity that can be measured and described, which makes that meaning not very philosophical because it is being directly observed scientifically, but a semiotician is a kind of philosopher, usually, and they don’t give up on their subject matters so easily. The field of “linguistics” sits astride philosophy and science in such as way that we, fortunately, don’t have to ask if a given question is philosophical or scientific so often. One might ask if the determination of a question being philosophical vs. scientific is itself a philosophical or scientific question. I’m pretty sure, though, if you do that, you’ve got a Zen K?an on your hands!

Anyway, this topic got Mike Haubrich and me thinking, a while back, that it would be a good idea to scientifically address philosophy, or get into some of the philosophy of science, to amplify Massimo Pigliucci’s comment born of his critique of NdGT:

I hope you can see, dear Neil, that it isn’t just that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy, but also that there is more active, vigorous, interesting, and intellectually respectable philosophy to be explored than you and some of your colleagues have been able to dream of so far. Please, keep that in mind the next time someone asks you about it. Or ask them to give me a call.

To which Neil replied:

“I generally reply to things if, and only if, they are writing about something that I judge to be untrue about me, or that they have misunderstood about what I have said. Neither is the case with you.”

How very Zen of everybody.

Anyway, we address and update the question of science and philosophy, and what they may mean to each other, by interviewing philosopher Dan Fincke on Ikonokast. Dan is well known to many of the readers of this blog as an outspoken and active member of the Atheist community, with ties to the science and skeptics community. This is one of those interviews where I ask about three questions and the interviewee gives us a lot of great stuff, well sorted out and well said. You will not want to miss this interview. Check it out!

Have you read the breakthrough novel of the year? When you are done with that, try:

In Search of Sungudogo by Greg Laden, now in Kindle or Paperback
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Links to books and other items on this page and elsewhere on Greg Ladens' blog may send you to Amazon, where I am a registered affiliate. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases, which helps to fund this site.

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54 thoughts on “What is the sound of one hand clapping?

  1. Sorry after you said something which is false we have been doing modification to planets for century. Just because you do not understand the fundamentals of nature and such does not mean someone else is wrong.. How do we splice genes again? What do we use? Think on that for a time and ask yourself does time even exist with out a prism… What is mass in the same matter of fact? For sure no one is right none of the time, because we judge things in sequences; what happens to the things skipped? Space is a fickle thing in any place can we think A thing? Peace friend, sorry I did not finish the article, but most stuff written is wrote on strings of numbers an statistician can predict what comes not after any few strings are strummed.

  2. Never understood why people have a problem answering..what is the sound of one hand clapping…as the answer is silly easy.
    But philosophy is one area of study full of traps. For the most part my definition is…it is the art of making BS sound intelligent! And when it comes to areas like religion I still state such. Philosophy has to be nailed down with facts or it is just a form of masturbation and just as important has finding out why 42 is the answer!

  3. “Think on that for a time and ask yourself does time even exist with out a prism”


    I have never had a prism, and time has passed absolutely fine.

  4. I was wryly amused to see that the first response is intent on presenting the impression that it’s a Turing test attempting to emulate a Poe and/or the Dunning-Kruger effect. For a moment I considered engaging it but wondered if it might simply reply with “I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

    As to Greg’s post, it pokes a stick at a question perhaps deeper and more important than many might realise. The trouble is that the answers often spawn more questions than they answer, especially if they are not properly derived. I can sypathise with L. Long’s sentiment that philosophy is the art of making BS sound intelligent (and often it can appear so whether or not such is actually intended), but real philosophy will be grounded in defensible and appropriate logic, which should go some way to negatiing the subjectiveness of the “art”.

    I suppose that in a fashion this is a restatement of an aspect of Greg’s commentary, but it’s something worth noting. And on that note I’ll go and listen to the Ikonokast broadcast, and see from which rabbit holes it emerges…

  5. I also found that first comment amusing. But what that writer fails to realize is that when the candle has gone out the meal has already been cooked.
    (That’s a Stargate SG-1 reference…)

  6. Another, possibly louder way to clap with one hand would be to slap the four non-thumb fingers against the bottom of the palm of the same hand.

  7. Wow, well we live in a prison or prism, is not everything under-pressure inside something full of gas? We tend to lock ourselves up in more defined ways insight to mathematics never being understood… And I do not regurgitate others as Poe and the like are in the past, so you say time more forward?>>>then why do live livid on things past said? I find all this to be rather boorish<instead why do you people whom deem to be wiser synthesize a response that can be present in a future without sights set on dead thoughts.. Bernard J., My intent was to ponder and gather why all you people do not even know the roots in terms you choose to spew out in heaps’ of steads fast’s without facts that you all just keep subjugating contexts to fit a narrative narrowed in lackluster bluster’s of octets.. Can any of you, actual state something not picked up from some wheres else’s process or are you all just indoctrinated on lost arts never to make a solid part whole again? Open ended summation. History tends to skip a few generations with ethically intentions are set aside for strides in gains of monetary… God bless all, for we are going to need new laws to overcome all the feebleness plots stuck and stocked for decades of nifty little divisors..

  8. Well Corey, your generation was know for those things, I bet people my age could learn much on how to fry an egg and digest things you speak of.. If I did drugs, I know who to call and where to find them. I like how all things always come to minds bent on weak responses and words meant for meek benders. Lib-Eral you all are to easily disposed of. Cannot debate without shaming, blaming, or defaming…I wounder if you even know anything other than what was held to stow and bind the bounds. Well, either way..Nice to know your placement in this stark conveyance of words. Either way, I will still be your friend, even if you hide behind after thoughts.. #PiecesofPeaces

  9. Cannot debate without shaming, blaming, or defaming

    Debate what, CAL? Unintelligible, stream of consciousness outgassing isn’t an argument.

  10. “Masturbating in public while tripping on LSD is never advisable, CAL.”

    Not that it offends us, but that we’re left with one eyebrow raised thinking “WTF?” while you do it.

    And we’ve got work to do.

  11. What work, I hope it is not anything to do with anything other than nothing. Actually, how do you know I am spelling anything wrong? I am sorry, I must need to use words that are recent in spelling. Like I said, all you all are people grown on generations of doing drugs. Everything is a form of a drug. I am glad you choose to deem on them. Nice to read the same old same ole rigmarole. I bet y’all have not much clue in a stream or train of thought unbecoming; must be because you all are stuck doing the same thing over and over never wondering or even pondering??? Maybe you all are the cause for all this and even that. I am not happy to offend, but how can any one of you defend things with not having a clue? Well to what end, it began as now in the present children livid when talking to adults… Nice conveyance, was rather hoping for more of a conference.. When heads are such in ah muck, two chapped hands are hard to clap even in times squared. As always, communication is a key factor in any matter of facts. Sorry, for using old words mixed with computer abbreviations added with linguistically bits and bat. Everything has meaning if you know how things break down..

  12. but how can any one of you defend things with not having a clue?

    Defend what? Clue about what?

    The sub-Ginsbergian prose poetry is entertaining but it’s not an argument.

    As always, communication is a key factor in any matter of facts.

    Absolutely. So communicate coherently and off we go.

  13. How can I communicate anything more clearly. Should i write a plain text book full of footnotes and citations referring to things across a broad spectrum of sciences? I feel like all of you use English, but do not understand it is just mathematics, but then if you see an apostrophe or word place or spelled with a different purpose; I am deemed incoherent? What is poetry or philosophy or any method in any system we have made supposed to do? If not meant to have people actually think about terms and placement before bashing or trashing. I see all of you for what you all are… I suggest learn what language is and then understand why all of you are stuck in this plain text way of thought.

  14. I feel like all of you use English, but do not understand it is just mathematics

    I disagree. Using any mix of algebra, calculus and geometry, express the following:

    Weave a circle round him thrice,
    And close your eyes with holy dread
    For he on honey-dew hath fed,
    And drunk the milk of Paradise.

  15. Well, thanks for getting me all wrong, not a teenager and do not have ties to any one political party. BBD nice poem, how to find the linkage between tones.. Mathematics is always correct, just the people using it never understand in the center is never static. Why we have been stuck on this chaos therom for centuries. We look for parts unsaid and try to only go negative in time(Pi) only counts back wards? So we chase light in speeds dividing never getting to zero absolutely. Everything is just Integers in any sequence. Learn how to read between the lines and sum day life might last long enough for all of us to stop fussing. I still wonder how life has came this far on the dumbfound~ness of the concept of zero. We have never made a true zero. Well, in a crude sense we have all became nothing in thinking we all have created anything new. We talk and piss about in pouts, noting nothing. We know 3% of nothing or do we all know everything ? Must be the latter or is it some time later? Right now at this moment we have not made much in strides to our ever present. Every aspect of our lives is swelling. All clues of this are gleaming. Yet everyone acts if everyone else is worthless. Nice to see all you at least follow the same seeds. Well, until the next rhyme. Peace friends..”ae”

  16. (This is what happens when you turn out the bathroom lights and chant: “Rickamiken! Rickamiken! Rickamiken!”)

  17. “Well, thanks for getting me all wrong, not a teenager and do not have ties to any one political party.”

    Come back when you turn 13.

  18. Hmm.. “CAL” is a bot.

    Let’s see if we can guess what his acronym stands for…

    “Conversationalist using AI for Linguistics”, perhaps?

    His synthesized prior reminds me of Google’s DeepDream images.

  19. They’re ALL bots, to be engaged for entertainment only.

    (The rest of your post is above my paygrade – what the hell is a acronym?)

  20. Acronym… Such as

    IBM = International Business Machines

    IRS = Internal Revenue Service

    TLA = Three-Letter Acronym

  21. Nice to see you all getting you pencils out and acknowledging that you are no more above or below anyone thing… Fast times cries, when the big bad wolf comes for you first. Thanks for ending the story where it began.. Simple idols troll and tire. I would be glad to come where ever any of you work or go to play. Once you reach adulthood, age does not change minds into an adult. First rule of life, put up or shut up.. Hope someday in anyway to fathom the demise of living a life set to feeble ties.. Peace as always, if we ever do meet would love to sit and listen in on things. God speed and god bless you all..

  22. First rule of life, put up or shut up..

    So follow your own rules. Put up or shut up:

    I feel like all of you use English, but do not understand it is just mathematics

    I disagree. Using any mix of algebra, calculus and geometry, express the following:

    Weave a circle round him thrice,
    And close your eyes with holy dread
    For he on honey-dew hath fed,
    And drunk the milk of Paradise.

    Except you can’t, because you are just a fruitcake and a troll. QED.

  23. “So follow your own rules. Put up or shut up:”

    No, no, no, if CAL has learned anything from the rightwing, it’s “Do as I say, not as I do”.

    When you’re powerless, insisting on having your arbitrary demands obeyed on the internet is the only way of pretending that you do have power after all.

  24. I have put up, fought in the wars, while you people talk and swap spit. I do not have allegiance to anyone party. You people talk, I have actual built things you all ponder upon.

    Any day of the week, let us meet. I would love to show you how my math actual builds things in the real world.

    All you people are little feeble beings believing you have something to give.

    What have you done? If you teach, have not done that right! If you work, your greed has made everything else in the world worst off.

    I do not get emotional. I find places like this and read all your words in turpitude and wounder or rather ponder how can y’all call yourself adults when everything you touch ends up in chaos?

    Can you people even do routine tasks or do you hire people to do everything for you?

    Sit down or put up… I do not care to hear your frail words full of grammatical proficiency.

    All of you are lost, to think age or anything gives you the right to thumb up to real people.

    Lets met and show me one thing you can do or have done that is not ordinary.

    Fake people write fake blogs and call it science.

    As always peace, no matter what I will always defend if the undesirable ones that want to get shallow applause’s..

    God bless, thanks for always going right back to the beginning of every spoiled rotten story.

    Starts as it ends, with you all left in the dark, crying for men and women to save you.

  25. I have put up, fought in the wars, while you people talk and swap spit. I do not have allegiance to anyone party. You people talk, I have actual built things you all ponder upon.

    You have no idea what people here have done, including who has undergone military service, so you can stop pretending to knowledge that you do not possess.

    Nor can pseudonymous commenters make *any* claims about themselves as they are unverifiable and therefore worthless.

    Your commentary is an illogical, content-free mess.

  26. Cal also wants us to get off his lawn.

    And has no idea what age ranges are here…

    But it looks like someones taken over the AI for a bit, this rant was almost coherent English!

  27. The Google team is adapting DeepDream to work with prose now, not just images. They call it CAL, and are testing it on blogs to see how it handles blogging conversations. Interesting results.. wacky, kind of a surrealistic description of an LSD trip.

  28. That’s fascinating, Brainstorms – I had no idea.

    I hope it evolves far beyond the abilities of our whiny, butt-hurt CAL/cal above.

  29. My turn, Corey: it’s sarcasm. Well, it’s half-sarcasm, half hunch. CAL hasn’t exactly passed the Turing test, but there’s not sufficiently solid evidence that “he” isn’t an AI bot.

  30. “Everything is just Integers in any sequence.”

    Way back when I was an undergrad there was another guy in the math program who refused to believe there were any sets in mathematics of higher cardinality than the integers – so nothing that wasn’t countable. That gave him tremendous problems in a variety of courses (with analysis being the greatest problem) and quite the reputation among fellow students and, unfortunately for him, faculty. The bit about “everything is just integers” is eerily familiar. (Last I knew he was trying to prove that he had developed a way to trisect angles with straightedge and compass – that was many years ago.)

  31. Well this is fun, facts are facts.. When you hear your hole life and regurgitate everything and make it smaller. Nothing new comes from it. Just small wheels are turning. Well, you all are all are just busted bits in the cog of life. I feel bad for the education system you all had to sit through to get a piece of paper…

    Means little to much when nuts are bolts. You all have to be real, no one Ai program could of be this insane. To talk as if anything you say holds truth. When you do not even understand the basic’s of any system.

    Well, have a good ‘weak’ends silly little guys.. If you ever need a hand just clap..

    Peace out, little people… I would ask for a refund for all those years wasted sitting in a chair.. Just saying, some people are born and others never live.. I would of never done either if I had to sit and listen to your chatter-bots.

    In the end, I will out live you all… PiecesOfPeaces wannabe folks.

  32. `Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
    Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
    All mimsy were the borogoves,
    And the mome raths outgrabe.

  33. Lastly, age is a number, mindsets is an IQ, so you might have age, but since you all have learned how to live off of past plots, what have anyone of you actually done?

    I am glad you all can copy and group up and say the same old stuff in the same old manners of ways.

    I bet you all, share everything.. The problem with people who live in a bubble.. Trouble comes and you poll things not understanding the system in reality..

    Then you fight and cry and lye in the rye.. Catching the spasm.

    Nice, getting you all to toil and boil and add to this conversation without even stating anything other then silly little plays on schemes that you all must dream must make you something.

    I thank you for the blustering clusters. Thanks for making my belly hurt.. Laughing in anguish to all you indoctrinated octets have really made my time pass by.

    To be bored, and make people deem to be smart comment on things..

    Thanks for being easily sucked into this black hole of a blog.

    Like always, God Bless.. May your days be many.. 😉

  34. Elder Ting asked Lin-chi,
    “Master, what is the great meaning of Buddha’s teachings?”
    Lin-chi came down from his seat, slapped Ting and pushed him away.
    Ting was stunned and stood motionless.
    A monk nearby said, “Ting, why do you not bow?”
    At that moment Ting attained great enlightenment.

  35. If you want to know what the sound of one hand clasping (at straws) see Mike/Cal here. And Dick when he “comes back”.

    See also ron.

  36. “The problem with people who live in a bubble.. ”

    I wonder, surely THAT is just a number. Therefore it can’t be us, since we’re not numbers.

  37. Whoever they were…


    But nice to know someone who can’t string more than three coherent words together thinks everyone here needs to hand in their degree qualifications…

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