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#5: Points of Reference

The Cascadia Protocol

One way to think about our thinking is that at every level, from sensory perception to the highest levels of abstraction, it involves an act of comparison to a point of reference.  At the level of sensory perception, an incoming stimulus is compared to the threshold of stimulation of a neuron.  If the signal is not strong enough…if it’s not above the threshold…the neuron will not fire.  The signal will go no further.

At higher levels of abstraction, new ideas are compared to existing beliefs which may be either conscious or unconscious.  When we are challenged with new ideas that are at odds with our existing beliefs we may experience what is referred to as cognitive dissonance.  The conscious choice of those reference points, which we are able to choose consciously, is then a matter of critical importance.

I contend that points of reference are ultimately chosen on the basis of some aesthetic preference and are therefore never absolute or “self-evident”.  Points of reference or frames of reference may be chosen at very low levels of abstraction (such as A440) or at very high levels of abstraction such as the whole of Nature as a reference for context.
Let’s take a closer look at this particular reference point, the standard pitch of the note A Above Middle C, (which is the reference pitch for our musical system) and is taken to be 440 Hz.  First of all, why A Above Middle C?  The story I’ve read is that this note became the reference pitch because back in the day when orchestras were first booting up, the oboist would play an A Above Middle C which could be easily heard by everyone and they could then tune their instruments.  It was convenient.  It was easy.  This is what I mean by an aesthetic choice.

This means that the pitch or frequency of the note A Above Middle C is set and then all the other pitches for all the other notes above and below that A are calculated based on that. There is nothing special or magical about this number.  It was convenient or otherwise aesthetically pleasing for someone at some point to adopt this as the standard pitch.  It’s just a convention.  And it’s not universal.  In fact, most digital tuners now will all you to set the standard pitch across a wide range of frequencies.

There is always a danger of oversimplification when points of reference are chosen at “low” levels of abstraction. The oversimplification being the assumption that these lowest level “entities” have an existence of their own, independent of their context. This is a mistake.  I take these “low” level distinctions to have meaning only within the context of the whole of the system.  For example, the definition of a particular word (low level abstraction) is dependent at the very least on its use in a sentence and it likely depends on a lot more than that.  So-called subatomic particles are another good example from a different context.

Other examples of reference points...Doctors use 98.6° F as a point of reference for healthy human body temperature, surveyors and aviators use sealevel for the measurement of elevations, carpenters use plumb and level as reference for construction of building, and etc. (Note that these last two are referenced to the Earth’s gravitational field.)
Rod Smith, creator of The Natural Philosopher ~ A Curriculum for Ecological Intelligence, may be reached at The Cascadia Protocol is a model for self-directed, eco-logically structured learning, and deep local Nature connection, in the context of a natural, bioregional mode of human social self-organization.