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September 2015
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
The Trouble With Reason
Roger Skoff discusses cables, knowledge, and the human condition.

Article By Roger Skoff


  I wasn't there, of course, but I'm going to guess that even the very earliest human beings looked up at the sky and noticed that when the sun was shining brightly there was light and heat just like what (after they had discovered how to turn fire to their use) came from their evening campfire. I'm also going to guess that they noticed, in addition, that the sun didn't just stay in one place, but moved across the sky from (after they had learned to name the directions) east to west, always at the same apparent speed, and that it had done so every day for as long as anyone could remember. Finally, I'm going to guess that, being human, just to observe all these things wasn't sufficient for them but, even back then, at or before the dawn of history, they tried to find a reason for them.



I neither know nor am willing to recount all of the "explanations" for the Sun that were put forth by the earliest societies, but I do know that the Greeks the nation credited with some of the greatest discoveries in human history; the home of Euclid (considered the "father" of geometry). Then there is Archimedes, whose discoveries in physics, mathematics, mechanics (the lever, the screw), and even the principle of specific gravity, rank him among the greatest scientists of all time; and Aristotle and Plato (whose philosophies and mathematics count among the cornerstones of Western Civilization)   at least in their formal religion, believed that the Sun was a large flaming ball pulled across the sky by the chariot of (depending on who was telling the story, and when) either the Titan Helios or the God Apollo.



Does that seem unreasonable? Are you surprised that the same people who had such complete knowledge of so many other things could actually believe that about the Sun? Well, why not? It gave-off light and heat, so wasn't it reasonable to believe that it must be on fire? It could be seen to be high up and far away, so for it to still be so warming to the earth below, it must be huge, right? And being all that big, it had to be too big for anyone -- even a supernatural anyone -- to carry (not even mentioning the fact that it had to be too hot to touch!), right? So what could be more logical than to think that it was being pulled (from a safe and comfortable distance, no doubt) by the speediest and most advanced land vehicle of the time; a chariot. And, to explain the fact that that chariot and its horses had managed to get into the sky and to stay there, what could be more logical than to explain that they were the property of, and driven by, a god? The fiery ball being huge and high up also, incidentally, went a long way toward explaining why neither the chariot, the horses, nor the god driving them could be seen: They weren't invisible; they didn't need to be -- they were simply too high up to see!

One of the greatest and, at the same time, most maddening things about human beings is the fact that we are reasoning creatures.  When faced with something that we don't know, we always come up with an explanation for it, and our explanation will always be perfectly logical, given the information available to us to draw from. Unfortunately we don't always as can clearly be seen from the Greeks' explanation of the movement of the Sun have all of the information necessary to come to a correct explanation. And also unfortunately, an explanation doesn't have to be correct in order to be perfectly logical.

Correct logic and true conclusions don't always go hand-in-hand: A syllogism based on a faulty premise can be true in logic and still be absolutely false in reality: If, for example, I say that all horses are blue and that I have a horse, according to the rules of logic, it must follow that my horse is blue. And yet, how many blue horses have you ever seen?

That logic can be correct without being true is a problem that has been faced in both directions by people and societies throughout history. To cite just two familiar examples, Galileo and Copernicus both had information and logical reasoning on their side when they presented their astronomical findings to the church and the scientific community of their time and both were confronted by reasoning and information that were equally logical given the conventional knowledge and beliefs of their time.

Obviously only one side could be correct, however, and, as we all know, that wasn't the side that initially prevailed.

This same kind of issue can also be put into a contemporary audiophile context. Before you leap all over me, though, please let me assure you that I am not suggesting that high-end audio cable designers  or their products not even me or mine are anywhere near the consequence of a Galileo or a Copernicus in any way at all; it's just that we do have similar problems:

For one thing, we are all reasonable human beings, and as such, it seems that quite a lot of us (hopefully, not including me), if we lack necessary knowledge and/or information, can and do (just as those ancient Greeks did) rely on sheer logic to guide us. For cable designers, this is made easy by the simple fact that unlike a Hi-fi system's electronics, which require their designer to have substantial knowledge in order for a design to work at all (you can't just start throwing resistors, capacitors, transistors (or tubes), and bits of wire together at random and have it turn into an amplifier or a CD player), anyone at all, with any level of knowledge at all, can put together any two conductors at all (a length of 30 gauge "hookup wire", for example, and one of the suspension cables from the Golden Gate bridge), and if they complete a circuit, they WILL pass signal and their "designer" can call the result a cable. (This applies not just to cables, incidentally; speakers are exactly the same thing: Anyone at all can hang together any driver at all or any combination of drivers and any crossover at all or no crossover, and put them into any box or no box at all and hook the finished "product" up to an amplifier and a signal source and, unless something wasn't connected properly, it will produce a sound and he will be able to call himself a speaker designer.)



Aha! So now we have an admission (some might even call it a "confession") that some, possibly already 'suspect', audiophile products can be made without any real knowledge on the part of their designer. So what? Does that mean or even in any way imply that they can't work? Was there no Sun until somebody finally figured out the real reason why we see it as moving?

And there's the problem: Both sides of the ongoing audiophile debate about cables (or tubes vs. solid state, or trolls vs. tweaks, or any of the near-countless others) not only believe that they are right, but have by their own standards perfectly good reason to do so.

To understand how that can be, consider that there are at least two major ways in which products or knowledge come about. One begins with a perception: Somebody does something or something happens naturally and we see it; respond to it; decide that we want more or less of it; and figure out how to either make more of it, change it to make something that we do want more of, or, as appropriate, prevent it from ever happening again. The other begins with a base of knowledge and a desired goal and, combining those things and adding more of whatever else is necessary, we eventually come to or are forced to abandon our product or knowledge goal.

Simple, yes? Emphatically, no! For one thing, although logic is always logical, a skillful logician or a politician, or a salesperson, or a zealot or a "true believer" or a polemicist of almost any kind can, without too much trouble make the logic of any issue seem to support his position; whatever that position may be. And if you agree with me that that may be true, but counter that, even so, facts will always trump logic (meaning that if a logically-derived logical conclusion indicates one thing, but the facts indicate something other, that other thing is the one that will prevail) I have to remind you that for the facts to do that, they have to be both known and accepted as facts by both side of the argument.

And there, finally is the heart of the matter:  Reason (the "blue horse" syllogism I gave above) can be challenged and even overturned by facts, but the opposite is also true; the validity of information presented to us as "facts" can also be (and often is) challenged and even overturned by reason.

We see this in audio all the time, with the whole ongoing "subjective" versus "objective" controversy being just one example: I can write, and actually have written a series of articles showing in detail why objective testing of audio gear by any of the test methods currently available can be (Notice: Can be, not must be), either irrelevant, inapplicable, or outright wrong particularly that darling of the objectivists, "double-blind" testing. And in support of my position, I can cite facts about human hearing abilities, statistics, actual measurement or outcome data from current or prior testing, and the subjective results of my own experience and that of others. And whatever I write, the objectivists can do exactly the same thing, only from the other side, and can use reason and facts of their own, whether applicable or not, to challenge what I have said or presented and to demonstrate it to be irrelevant, inapplicable, or false.

That's the trouble with reason, and it raises the question "What's an audiophile to do when reason can be used by anyone to prove just about anything; when even an appeal to fact doesn't work because the facts, themselves, are subject to challenge; and when both sides can quite reasonably lard their rhetoric with impressive and scientific-sounding terms like "expectation bias" and "placebo effect"?


Unless joining-in and waving whichever flag appeals to you is part of the fun, listening is what the music is for and what all that expensive and lovely equipment is about.

Just listen.

At least that way you'll...

Enjoy the music!






























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