The science and philosophy of silence

Henry Fuselli’s “Silence”

I wake up in the middle of the night. I wake up frequently, actually, because I can barely get any sleep. A solitary prisoner confined to a cell, the night marched on. My comfort is forced to the cold, dank concrete that carried me in and out of sleep. As I dreamt, the world would collapse in on itself leaving me at the hand of my subconscious. The darkness and silence filled the night. 

Winter approaches, and, with it, comes the deafening whiteness and frigidity of snow. In these settings, the concept of silence is powerful. Taking breaks from speaking or writing invites the reader to share a moment of silence. Silence in all forms, though is powerful. Even the near-instantaneous full-stops at the ends of sentences and our quiet moments as we process thoughts hold meaning in our rhetoric and art can be filled with introspection of many forms. Composer John Cage’s (approximately) four and a half minutes of silence song forced us to listen to the ambient sound around us and question what we consider music itself. As it shed light on the ways musicians, writers, poets, and other scholars use pauses and breaks, silence of any form reveals these deeper natures within ourselves. Silence is a powerful force that lacks a moral direction in the general sense. For this reason, we can use it for both good and evil as equal as they are in one another. 

The wrath of silence comes in many forms. At its worst, people use silence as means of manipulating. We can examine silences like a politician or scholar choosing to remain silent on issues. The allegations of Trump silencing women can show hidden intentions and motives. In some cases, it can produce the ironic result in revealing more than we would otherwise say when we choose to speak. The inexpressibility of horrors like trauma speaks about greater concerns in the individual psyche. Some force others to recognize what they lack the courage to communicate. as many call the “silent treatment,” is abusive, deceitful, and immature. Denying a person’s right to respond to criticism or allegations furthers the sinister nature of silence. 

In a social sense, isolation, a more personable form of silence, has been shown to have adverse affects on the brain in the way it forms neural connections, according to Neurobiologist Richard Smeyne of Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. We can view isolation as a form of silence between individuals in a social network. Through isolation, our thoughts and voices might are silent in a figurative sense, even if we still have the power to speak. This takes forms of pressures among marginalized minority groups and opinions. It may also include  isolated scientists who don’t collaborate or communicate with others. Even without pure social isolation, many of us feel loneliness deep within ourselves. It can produce a myriad of mental health issues through its silence of our thoughts and ideas. Individuals suffering from depression often “suffer in silence” with their sheer inexpressibility. I’ve even wondered whether my break from blogging during 2017 and 2018 represented a silence of my soul’s expression. Finally, for legal and social purposes, our methods of solitary confinement exacerbate these detrimental consequences psychologically and neuroscientifically. All these phenomena use silence in one way or another in achieving their ends. 

Silence, in other contexts, forms the basis of beauty and harmony. Through music, we wouldn’t have our fundamental concepts of rhythm and dynamics without resting. A painting’s use of white space can reveal greater emphasis on some parts over others. As an example of the latter, newspaper will often use white space between sections and words to draw attention to them and ease readability. 

“Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein
Austrian-British Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein used silence to upend philosophical beliefs itself in the 1920’s.He said “Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent,” or as philosopher D. F. Pears translates, “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” He wrote this in his piece on logic and language, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. When I read the original German text (“Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen”), I felt an attack on my views of philosophy. I should remain silent? For us to remain silent in areas where we cannot speak seems to upend fundamental views of scientist and philosophers alike. I realized that our ideas of language and logic can only be true when we understand the limits on the power of their claims. This silence the philosopher puts forward is both useful yet apprehensive on knowledge itself.

Wittgenstein explained that many philosophical subjective experiences were the only things worth studying. This included poetry and the subject of God. But they carry so much subjectivity that we cannot put forth conclusions about them. Instead, we must remain silent on them. For a philosopher to argue a sort of “let’s not talk about it” position ignited responses and criticism from others. He would continue to share new insights into the relations between world, thought and language. This way, he’d show the nature of philosophy itself. 

In scientific writing, though, we find a wide gap between the communication of strict, scientific language and popularized, literary jargon for non-scientists. The former resides in our peer-reviewed journals and references while the latter fills the magazines, newspapers, and blogs. I’ve personally struggled in writing about theoretical mathematics and analogiesEven within scientific, theories of quantum mechanics and special relativity need metaphors and analogies. A particle under the laws of quantum theory used to describe atomic interactions lacks a knowable position and momentum. Physicists of the dawn of quantum mechanics like Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein created new ideas of a particle with their theories. The same way a pianist sits in silence or a painter leaves white space on a canvas, scientists recognize limits to assess their arguments. 

I’ve strived to bring those topics into terms a general audience can understand. I hope to break down the boundaries of science writing itself to further realize them. The limits we recognize on these forms of writing forces us to remain silent. Scientists and writers alike may borrow techniques from other fields to go beyond their original rhetoric. Introducing metaphors to break the mold forces us to acknowledge these boundaries on our scientific methods of naming, such as the limits of the senses that neuroscience can describe. The modern goal of science, complete comprehension only through description of the universe, is unfeasible to achieve. 

I sit and stare into the abyss without a word to be said. But maybe I’m only at a loss of words. When I choose to stop speaking, the inexpressible wins.

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