Can We Hear Silence?


We can hear silence because silence, an absence of sound, causes our hearing of it. Advocating this position, Roy Sorensen puts to use his own theory of the direct perception of absences. Sorensen’s theory, which relies on two theories of perception (the causal theory of perception and the theory of non-epistemic perception), certainly has its appeal. However, it also has its problematic aspects. On my reading, a weak point of his theory is that it does not provide a criterion for the identification of what exactly we hear. By elaborating this objection in detail, I intend to demonstrate that Sorensen’s theory (i) does not concern direct (non-epistemic) perception, and (ii) does not show that silence is causally efficient. Therefore, (iii) it fails to show that silence is the genuine negative object of hearing. I conclude by giving two further reasons for why the ontology that underpins Sorensen’s theory should not be endorsed.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    The present paper discusses the central thesis of Sorensen’s 2008 theory that absences cause perception of them, which is best demonstrated by two of Sorensen’s many examples of absences: complete darkness and absolute silence. Sorensen indeed often deals with relative, mostly visual absences or privations (e.g. shadows, silhouettes or sunspots). But he also emphasizes cases of absences, perception of which does not involve any kind of contrast, such as seeing complete darkness (which, in Sorensen’s view, is a shadow unbounded by light, cf. ibid., 238–239) or hearing silence (which is an absence of sound, although Sorensen admits that the sense of the term is also contextual, cf. ibid., 287). Perception of privations (that involves a contrast between absences and related entities such as a pause in a melody sequence) could still be causally explained by pointing to a reaction of a perceptual system to a complex causal situation involving present stimuli (cf. also section 4 of this paper). Yet Sorensen challenges precisely this assumption when he claims that absences themselves are causally effective, although, as he says, they are relative and their identity ontologically depends (is ‘parasitic’) on their relata (Sorensen 2008, 274). If absences cause perception, they cause it even without the ‘aid’ of any entity (in like manner as empty space causes death, cf. ibid., 190).

  2. 2.

    Sorensen’s worry whether to affirm the existence of absences or not (cf. ibid., 19, where he compares the existence of absences to existence of time, space, numbers and ideas), seems to be answered here in favour of the existence of some absences at least. While claiming that absences are ‘physically objective’, Sorensen often does not concede their existence explicitly and talks about ‘anchoring [of absences] in the external world’ (Sorensen 2015, 562). It is unclear why Sorensen associates the existence of absences with the existence of numbers or ideas, if the latter two have no causal powers, so they cannot be ‘real’ (anchored in the physical world) in the same sense. The answer seems to be that Sorensen does not accept a unified metaphysical account of absences (Sorensen 2008, 19): there are absences that are clearly not physically objective, such as lexical gaps or gaps in numeric sequences that belong to the realm of mental or abstract (ibid., 189).

  3. 3.

    Not hearing anything is of course not the same as not being able to hear anything as in the case of deafness (see below). For a version of a subjectivist account of hearing silence see Phillips (2013).

  4. 4.

    For the reasons of space I cannot do justice to other phenomena Sorensen deals with, or provide a more general commentary that his book certainly deserves (for such a broader perspective see O’Callaghan 2011, and reviews by Aranyosi (2008), Lowe (2009), Phillips (2009), and Price (2012). For a similar approach to individual phenomena addressed by Sorensen see Aranyosi (2009) and Phillips (2018) on shadows, Raleigh (2018) and Westphal (2011) on double eclipse/silhouettes, and Wright (2012) on seeing darkness.

  5. 5.

    Cf. Lewis’ account of seeing darkness in terms of seeing that it is dark, that captures the limit of his causal account of perception (see Lewis 1986, 283).

  6. 6.

    Cf. Sorensen (2015, 559) with respect to startle reflex of some animals to shadows.

  7. 7.

    There is no energy cancellation involved in the phenomenon of the destructive interference of two waves. When two waves meet, the energy is redirected to another region where it could be detected. This does not affect Sorensen’s argument, which concerns only the intrinsic region in which neither of the two sounds (sound waves) can be heard or detected. The Figure is simplified in that it does not show the redirection of the energies of the two waves; it should only illustrate a perceptual situation in which perceivers might find themselves.

  8. 8.

    The sound level of zero decibels occurs when the measured intensity of a sound pressure is equal to the reference level (for air it is twenty micropascals), and it is usually considered as the limit of sensitivity of the human ear. Accordingly, the sound level of zero decibels does not mean that there is no audible sound (and correspondingly, that there are no detectable compression waves). The pressure is very small and the sound is in most cases undetectable by human hearing, but it is not equal to zero.

  9. 9.

    I use the expression ‘auditory/perceptual state’ because it is neutral on the question of subjective discerning of such state. The expression ‘auditory/perceptual experience’ would indicate that a subjective discerning of having experienced X as endowed with properties p is in play. However, in Sorensen’s theory two perceptual situations are to be distinguished from each other in objective terms. Being able to tell two perceptual experiences apart subjectively is not considered here as relevant for defining what has been perceived.

  10. 10.

    For an alternative interpretation see Crane (2014, 16–17), according to whom there is nothing in psychological reality that corresponds to Dretske’s distinction of epistemic (S sees that P) and non-epistemic (S sees P) seeing; the distinction is only conceptual.

  11. 11.

    Other cases where the criterion of contrast does not apply is seeing ganzfelds, uniform visual fields such as when we see complete darkness, homogeneous red or anything that completely covers the eyes, such as a ping-pong ball cut in halves (Sorensen 2008, 244), or hearing absolute silence. Cf. also Price (2012, 851), on Sorensen’s inconsistency in applying Dretske’s criterion of contrast.

  12. 12.

    On Sorensen’s theory silences can differ numerically and are individuated spatially. There can be silence coming from the right side and sound coming from the left side of the orchestra (Sorensen 2008, 280). Such account allows that there can be more silences in one place at one time (subjective belief is irrelevant in discerning them). Silences in music are, in contrast to that, traditionally individuated in time and on basis of contrast with sounds, with respect to their virtual ‘place’ in the melody.

  13. 13.

    Cf. O’Callaghan’s (2011, 183) case of two overlapping silences.

  14. 14.

    For instance, Mahler emphasizes the spatial aspect of hearing music with his Fernorchester, Schumann indicates in the 17th composition of the cycle Davidsbündlertänze, op. 5 (1837), „wie aus der Ferne”, but many other examples could be given.

  15. 15.

    Cf. O’Callaghan’s (2011, 178–179) concern for proliferation of absences in Sorensen.

  16. 16.

    According to Sorensen (2011, 211) absences are normative.

  17. 17.

    Cf. Sorensen’s critique of Sartre’s criterion of expectation, explicitly in the context of proliferating absences, insofar as it involves belief (Sorensen 2008, 248 and Sorensen 2011, 210f). Yet, on other places, he accepts a kind of a subjective criterion (cf. Sorensen 2008, 273: ‘introspection may help us correct confusions between absences’). Putting aside the question of whether the subliminal perceptual priming (process described to make some stimuli more salient to perception on a subpersonal level), also introduced by Sorensen as an alternative, delimits the experience of absence, it is clear that an experience of absence would be the effect of priming, i.e., the absence would not itself be causally responsible for the experience of itself. Despite the fact that this mechanism might be common to humans and animals, and that it could serve as a norm for distinguishing the kind of experienced absence, it has no consequences for the question of whether absences themselves are objective, or for saying that the resulting experience is perceptual (cf. Martin and Dokic 2013).

  18. 18.

    Normativity introduces value preference here: it is better to postulate fewer absences than the causal-objective picture predicts.

  19. 19.

    Insofar as the two criteria (causal-objective and normative) yield different results when applied to perception of absences, they are in contrast here. This is contrary to what Sorensen holds, i.e., that absences are objective and normative.

  20. 20.

    In what follows, I am considering only the five external senses.

  21. 21.

    Although this is normally the case, in the case of sounds it is not quite true. An ultrasonic compression wave may produce an audible sound due to the non-linearity of the transmission of high-frequency compression waves in air; see Nudds 2015, 279, note 16.

  22. 22.

    It would be more appropriate to say that the walls prevent external sounds from reaching the room or that the walls prevent us from hearing the sounds. Cf. Hyman 1993, 213: ‘An agent (or his action) may deprive S of the opportunity to V x; but the lack of opportunity for S to V x does not cause S not to V x. Therefore blocking is not a causal notion.’

  23. 23.

    Admittedly, the question concerning hallucination of silence is complicated not only for Sorensen. There is no subjective and objective ground for distinguishing between momentarily hallucinating silence (non-existent hallucinatory object) and hearing silence in a silent environment (non-existent perceptual object). If silence does not exist as an object of perception (simply because silence does not exist and there can be no auditory sensation of silence), and if silence does not exist as an object of hallucination (because it does not exist as a subjectively experienced object, and hallucinated objects in general do not exist in objective reality), hallucinated and perceived silence are not objectively and subjectively distinguishable and therefore they are identical. Phillips (2013, 340) observes that Sorensen’s theory includes a counter-intuitive claim that the profoundly deaf perpetually hallucinate silence, but as István Aranyosi argues (2013, 266–267), deafness and hallucination are not incompatible (a deaf person can hallucinate sounds and, theoretically, silences), and they are conceptually indiscernible. So the theoretical possibility of hallucinating silence while being deaf is not just a matter for Sorensen’s objectivist theory.

  24. 24.

    Cf. Sorensen’s case of a spinning shadow of a sphere (Sorensen 2008, ch. 4), and a riddle of the double eclipse (ibid, ch. 1–2), see also O’Callaghan (2011, 179–180).

  25. 25.

    Some examples given by Sorensen could include an absence of fish, liquid, coins, inebriation (and, perhaps, peace, cf. Sorensen 2008, 217–218), or an absence of Mona Lisa in the Louvre that can be viewed or photographed (Sorensen 2015, 544; cf. Sorensen 2018 on what he calls ‘absence tourism’).

  26. 26.

    Another strategy, explicitly rejected by Sorensen is, e.g., Jean-Paul Sartre’s phenomenological approach that has no ontological implications for absences. (Sartre sees missing Pierre in a café, which is a genuine experience, yet the experience of Pierre’s absence is due to Sartre’s expectations to meet Pierre, not due to the ‘existence’ of nothingness; cf. Sorensen’s (2008 248–249) contrary interpretation.) Farennikova (2013) proposes an alternative phenomenological ‘mismatch model’ of seeing missing objects, according to which absences of objects (such as missing laptops) are represented in perception due to visual expectations and a visual matching process (but she explicitly refrains from applying of this model to hearing silence, cf. ibid., 452). Martin and Dokic (2013) challenge the view that a distinctive perceptual phenomenology is involved in an experience of absence, and argue that the feeling of surprise (an experience of incongruity between what is expected and what is experienced), central to Farennikova’s model, is affective, metaperceptual. Although they do not deal with silence (following Farennikova), their idea seems applicable to it. They are also neutral on the question of ontology of absences (ibid., 124, footnote 2).

  27. 27.

    Cf. Sorensen 2008, 16, 226–227, referring to works of Bertrand Russell; cf. Russell 1903, §427.

  28. 28.

    The assumption is implicit in Seeing Dark Things, for an explicit statement see Sorensen 2018, 121: ‘ABSEN E. You see the absence of the C. You can only behold what is there to be beheld. Therefore, there are absences.’

  29. 29.

    Sorensen does not explicitly endorse an ‘ordinary-language ontology’, and it is obvious that his deference to ordinary intuitions is frequently overridden by appeals to science. Sometimes Sorensen appeals to the overlap between common intuitions and scientific explanations (cf. Sorensen 2008, 5–6), sometimes his theory in its consequences overrides science (physicists ‘lump together’ various phenomena as shadows, e.g., shadow tanks do not have shadows, or, coloured shadows are not shadows but positive entities (ibid., 13 and 154)), or both common intuitions and scientific explanations (e.g. round shadows spin if their spherical caster spins; the result of the destructive interference of two sound waves are two cancelled waves; shadows help our visual system to distinguish objects (ibid., 134) even if the visual system cannot distinguish between positive and negative things; cf. also ibid., 248 and 250, where Sorensen reinterprets scientific accounts to fit his theory). Therefore it is more reliable to interpret Sorensen’s ways of talk as expressing a prior theoretical commitment to the view that negative truths need to be considered when explaining reality in full, and to the CTP, that explanations can be given in terms of causation as a natural relation.

  30. 30.

    Were this not the case, an explanation of the difference between two situations could still be made in terms of the causal roles of all present entities. This is precisely what Kukso wants to deny (Sorensen explicitly follows Kukso’s strategy, cf. Sorensen 2008, 16, 226–227). He argues against this ‘totality objection’ when he claims that ‘all entities present is nothing more than a disguised reference to entities that are present as well as to those that are absent’ (Kukso 2006, 33). However, Kukso’s claim is circular in that it assumes what is yet to be established, i.e. that absences are included in the same ontological category as entities (‘all entities present’ is the category of entities distinguished by causal powers). In order to escape the totality objection, Kukso’s theory has to adopt Sorensen’s strategy of considering two situations such that they both involve an absence of the same kind – otherwise it could not show that two absences in question do make a difference in the causal order of the universe.

  31. 31.

    There can be some candidates for this test when we think of the causal effects of some privations, such as filtering effects of holes in sieves or shadow effects of chandeliers. But these cases fall within the totality objection – their effects seem to be proportionally dependent on entities involved and they do not give us reason to accept Kukso’s strategy. They, again, can be taken as testing the causal relevance of present entities to a fine-grained degree.

  32. 32.

    Cf. Donald Davidson’s (1967) famous distinction between causation (relation between events) and causal explanation (relation between facts), made on basis of the different logical form of causal statements.

  33. 33.

    Cf. Beebee’s (2004, 294–297) argument, who considers the question of normativity in cases of causation by absences of events.

  34. 34.

    I borrow these examples from Beebee (2004) and Varzi (2007) (see also for an illuminating discussion and more examples).

  35. 35.

    See Beebee op. cit., 294–297 and 304 and Varzi op. cit., 9–10.


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This article is a result of research funded by the Czech Science Foundation as project GA ČR 17-05919S ‘Between Perception and Propositional Knowledge’ carried out at Charles University in Prague. I would like to thank Karel Thein, Katia Saporiti, Christoph C. Pfisterer, and the reviewers of this journal for many helpful comments and suggestions.

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Correspondence to Daniela Šterbáková.

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Šterbáková, D. Can We Hear Silence?. Philosophia 48, 33–53 (2020).

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  • Silence
  • Perception
  • Absences
  • Causal theory of perception
  • Non-epistemic perception