If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
Yes. There is nothing mysterious or ambiguous about it.
In this hypothetical we are given that,
a) There is a tree
b) It is in a forest
c) The tree falls
There being the process of the tree falling implies the flow of time, of which causality is an intrinsic aspect, and the principles of causality imply that when a tree falls in an environment where there is air (such as a forest), it subsequently vibrates the air, hence constituting a sound.
So the answer is definitively “yes.”
Though there seems to be two different philosophies regarding how to define sound, and the other is not merely the vibration of a medium but such a vibration as heard by a human being (or perhaps any organism capable of hearing sound).
By that definition, the answer is definitively and trivially “no.”
Anything other answer would be incogent and contradict the hypothesis, unless we ask something like, is there air in that forest? In which case the real question becomes, essentially, “If a tree falls in a forest and there’s nobody around to hear it, is there air in the forest?”
That may be an interesting question, but it seems to be a question of a very different nature. There are similar questions such as, in the given hypothetical, would causality necessarily behave
in the same way?, would trees or forests be of the same nature?, etc.
It seems that these questions are as much epistemological and dealing with the nature of thought experiments or hypotheticals as they are about metaphysics. Metaphysically, we could simply assume that the answer to all of those questions is “yes” by induction: everything we we’ve witnessed so far indicates that in all likelihood those things would be the case.
This rationale does happen to assume that the hypothetical is set in this particular world, but why wouldn’t it be? If you ask someone why the sky is blue, you assume he’s asking about the sky in this world, don’t you? And it’s arguable whether the meanings of the words themselves could even be the same if the hypothetical were set in a different world
where things are more-or-less fundamentally different anyway.
You could argue it’s possible that the situation would be different such that there’s no air, or causality works differently, or it’s a special tree or a special forest, etc., but why should we even concern ourselves with those outlier possibilities rather than take the question as applying to the general, normal case? It would seem distracting and beside the point to assume that it may be talking about a special forest or a special tree.
Because there’s no rational reason to assume the world the question applies to is any different such that a tree falling doesn’t naturally cause a sound and therefore a tree falling logically implies there being a sound, but we still assume the question has some profound point to it, perhaps we should assume that the question really boils down to this: if a tree falls in the forest and there’s nobody around to hear it, does it really fall?
And the answer to that question would be “yes” by definition: it’s stipulated as a part of the hypothetical that the tree falls, therefore the only conclusion that’s consistent with this hypothetical scenario is that the tree falls.
This gets into a fundamental issue with all hypotheticals reaching into deep epistemological or metaphysical issues: the very fact that you’re given a hypothetical for consideration with absolute, indisputable facts stipulated at the outset implies a very different world from the one we know, one in which we are essentially an all-knowing (at least within the scope of the hypothetical), objective observer with a “view from nowhere.” This can serve load the question, and do so under the radar, for many issues. It is one of the major sources of confusion in this very hypothetical being discussed.
Another interpretation of the question might that it boils down to this, or if not then at least that this is a related but way more interesting question: Does the moon exist when nobody’s looking at it?
Alfred Korzybski argued that the “to be” of identity and the “to be” of prediction (and all conjugations of them) are structurally flawed and that for clarity of thought we should generally avoid using them (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_Korzybski#.22To_be.22 and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E-Prime). If one were to abide by this philosophy and put the effort into creating a definition of “exists” in accordance with the principles and practices of E-Prime (such as, for example, replacing “is” with “appears” in many cases), then I suspect that the deep questions behind whether the moon “exists” when nobody’s looking at it would go away.
However, maybe doing away with the question in this manner, by making it meaningless, is merely a short-circuiting of the issue. For example, at the risk of oversimplificatin, by defining “exists” in E-Prime we may come to the conclusion that the only rational meaning for the “existence” of the moon is that we can perceive it in some sense, or that we expect to perceive it in the future when we look in the right way, but that doesn’t really answer the heart of the issue: is external reality truly fundamentally independent of our minds or of our perceptions of it, or not?
This would seem to get into the issue of materialism vs. idealism (idealism as in the philosophical school of thought that says that everything is made of mind). In materialism, physical reality is what fundamentally exists and mind/consciousness/life/experience/self-awareness is simply an illusion, or an abstraction over physical processes, or an “emergent property” thereof. Conversely, in idealism everything is fundamentally mental in nature and physicality is some kind of offshoot of mind. One could also posit a form of dualism in which mind and matter are both primary but separate substances, but I’ll ignore that consideration because a monistic view of the universe makes much more sense to me (see https://myriachromat.wordpress.com/2020/06/18/meandering-notes-on-reality/#Monism).
There is a basic logical problem with the idea that consciousness is an illusion, and that’s that an illusion is a false perception of something by consciousness. Consciousness is the subject able to have an illusion. Without consciousness there is no apprehension of or belief about something real that can possibly be misconstrued and thus be an illusion. In other words, the very impression that we have consciousness, which is the experience of it (or experience itself) requires consciousness. Just like it makes no sense to claim someone could be mistaken about whether he/she’s in pain or thinking of a cow or not, it makes no sense to claim that someone could be mistaken about whether he’s conscious and that therefore his consciousness could be merely an illusion.
Consciousness is something we each individually have undeniable, direct apprehension of. That we have it and exactly what it feels like it’s not something subject to theorization and guesswork. You may not be able to prove that somebody else is conscious, but you know without a doubt that you are, and if you don’t then I hope you have a leotard for all those convoluted mental acrobatics you’re doing.
The idea that consciousness is an illusion is the most facile possible way of “explaining away” those deep questions posed by its presence.
See also https://myriachromat.wordpress.com/2018/04/13/notes-on-science-scientism-mysticism-religion-logic-physicalism-skepticism-etc/#Illusion.
I’d like also to point out that the idea that one can only know for sure that oneself has consciousness rather than others having consciousness is, or should be, only academic: somebody who can’t tell just with his/her own sensibility with 100% certainty that other people such as themselves are conscious is a sad case indeed. Less sad, but still sad and actually uncomfortably common, are people who actually don’t know whether non-human animals are conscious or flat-out believe that they’re not. It’s simply uncanny, and with people that dense and unconscientious of other consciousnesses it’s no wonder there’s so much pain and suffering in the world.
There is also a problem with the idea that consciousness is merely an abstraction over physical processes. In all reasonable cases where we say that one thing is an abstraction of something else–such as a car being an abstraction of some pieces of metal, plastic, tempered glass, fiberglass, foam upholstery, etc. organized in a particular way–the two entities or substances exist within the same basic category so that they’re compatible with each other in terms of one possibly being an abstraction of the other.
In the case of the car, its component parts and the overall car are both in the same spot, they’re both perceivable through touch, smell, taste, hearing, sight, etc. and all from the same physical location, they’re both the same colors (or one, the car, is a mosaic containing the various colors of the other, the set of its parts), and any single point selected on one can be mapped to a point on the other. One is simply a “scaled out” version of the other. Even if we get down to atoms, many of the important consistencies between the two (i.e. a car versus its atoms) still hold true, such their being in the same physical location and their both being physical things apprehended ultimately through the senses (albeit much more indirectly in the case of the atoms).
If we talk instead about something like how chemistry is an abstraction over nuclear physics, in that case both things are formal mathematical/scientific models comprising immaterial symbols that interact with each other according to specific rules of thought.
In the case of anything material, such as the brain, vs. anything mental, such as the mind or consciousness, the two things are actually so categorically different from each other that there’s actually no greater dichotomy known to us, because none is possible; therefore the categories of things that they are are incompatible with each other (with respect to their possibly a thing and an abstraction over that thing) to the greatest degree imaginable.
Why do I say the two things are as categorically different from each other as possible? The mental realm behaves according to very different rules from the physical realm. For example, thoughts don’t even have particular locations (the idea that they map to particular neural activity in the brain notwithstanding: I’m not talking about theories of what thoughts “really” are, I’m talking about thoughts qua thoughts, i.e. thoughts as we know them, as the question at hand is actually whether thoughts qua thoughts could or could not possibly be an abstraction of material processes). Thoughts are also invisible, tasteless, ordorless, intangible, etc. They’re also more transient, more manipulable by the will, and relate to each other in more rich and dynamic ways than material objects do. And possibly the biggest difference of all, thoughts and other mental phenomena (like sensations) are directly apprehensible and unmistakable, unlike material things which can only be apprehended indirectly and empirically.
Mental objects or phenomena and physical objects or phenomena are simply incommensurate with each other and regarding one to be an abstraction of the other is a category error.
Just as a technicality, I should point out that even physical objects are mental objects because insofar as we can possibly know of/think about, name them and speak of them they must necessarily be ideas in our minds. The point thus becomes that the idea of mental phenomena and the idea of physical phenomena are incommensurate with each other for the purpose of thinking of one as being abstraction over the other. Or if we want to talk about material itself, independently of all our ideas about it (to whatever degree such a thing is even logically possible), then the categorical difference between the mental and the physical is even greater, as one is ideational and one is not, and everything we can possibly think of in order to compare and contrast or relate with other things we can possibly think of is necessarily ideational, while material outside of our thoughts about it is not (unless we were to subscribe to idealism or some other form panpsychism).
That brings us to another interesting point: theorizing that mind reduces to matter is actually the mind theorizing that the mind reduces to a specific creation of the mind. While it is true that even though everything we can speak of is necessarily ideational we still differentiate between a thing, such as matter, and the idea of a thing so that claiming the mind reduces to matter is not the same as claiming the mind reduces to the “idea” of matter, it’s also true that knowledge of one’s own mind is primary while knowledge of the material universe is secondary, both epistemically and chronologically.
We start off knowing only ourselves, the contents of our own minds, then as we gather sensations presumably originating from the “outside world,” we start to create an internal model of this supposed outside world, and then for one’s entire life that’s what one draws upon whenever one makes reference to the “outside world,” as one (supposedly) doesn’t have “direct apprehension of the noumena.” I actually believe that all things are connected–especially minds and other living forces–and that everyone’s a little bit psychic, but for the sake of argument let’s assume here that Kant was right and we only know of anything outside of ourselves indirectly.
Thus, in a very real sense, material reductionism is mind attributing itself to matter which is in turn a creation of mind.
There is also a problem with the idea that mind is an “emergent property” of physical processes. First, the same reasoning that refutes the idea of mind reducing to material phenomenon in general applies to the notion of mind being an “emergent property.” Emergent properties entail surprising results arising out of the interactions of smaller parts, but those results are still of a commensurate type with the smaller parts that give rise to those properties. Experience itself is not even close to being commensurate in type to what it’s supposed to be “emergent” from. Even the moniker “emergent properties” shows this: one would think it’s about properties, but experience itself is not a property of anything, it’s a foundational thing or phenomenon.
People who take the “emergent property” route of explaining away consciousness treat the concept as if it’s magical. Rather than actually thinking concretely about systems and how behavior can arise from them, this abstract notion of “emergent properties” is developed to describe those concrete situations and subsequently is elevated by material reductionists to almost mystical status and applied in a way that would never seem viable or at least wouldn’t seem so easy if we were still thinking on the level of concreteness that actually gave the concept of emergent properties its legitimacy. They’re figuratively pulling a rabbit out of a hat.
The second problem with the “emergent property” explanation of consciousness is the reductio ad absurdum argument made by someone I knew many years ago. There are two versions of the argument. The links are here (https://broodsphilosophy.wordpress.com/2006/03/21/replay-argument/) and here (https://broodsphilosophy.wordpress.com/2006/04/13/why-a-neural-network-cant-be-conscious-2/).
Given the epistemic and chronological primacy of mind as explained earlier, idealism seems like a much more natural theory of the world. Interestingly, in https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6eWG7x_6Y5U&t=21s Donald Hoffman claims that he’s devised a model of conscious interaction that exactly replicates the predictions of quantum entanglement. Unfortunately, he didn’t go into details in this video and I can’t find the details anywhere else on the web, but I’m just including this link as an aside, only to open people up to the idea that there are probably ways of reconciling the laws of physics as we know them with an idealist worldview if only some people are clever enough.
So, to bring this back to the question of whether the moon is there when nobody’s looking at it, idealism opens up a whole scape of possibilities. Are we creating and re-creating all of reality, moment by moment, while collectively agreeing to create it in accordance with the “laws of nature” for now? Does every soul define their own basic reality, while also allowing for other souls to interact with them through their own medium? Is physical reality more or less our subconscious or God’s subconscious? Do we retroactively create or modify the past on demand, so that if we need evidence that the moon existed for some span of time while nobody was looking at it, it would be created on-the-fly in a manner that’s causally consistent with everything else we’re presently aware of?
Experience has indicated to me time and time again that we’re actually actively defining the past retroactively in accordance to our present wishes, but that we can only change things that we haven’t seen yet so that the timeline always appears consistent. Not that I mistake “experience has indicated to me…” as being a strong argument in that direction, I just want to let people know that that’s my belief on the matter. It seems not even to matter if other people in one’s world have seen something in question, only if the individual has seen it. Maybe the actuality is somewhere between the two possibilities, though.
I also have a pet theory, as hinted at above, that each person defines their own reality while simultaneously engaging other spirits within that reality. That may seem illogical, because how could people interact in the same reality with each other if we’re all choosing our own realities, given that any two people probably wouldn’t agree on the exact same reality, let alone the same outcomes of events within that reality? I think the answer is that, in the infinite multiverse, every possible situation occurs “somewhere”, and those souls that decide on the same reality or outcomes find themselves in the same reality-pool together.
I don’t know how or why exactly, but I actually feel as though desired outcomes within the paradigm of causality are something we can attract on an individual basis, while the basic paradigm of reality is something we only decide collectively. All beings are one, though, and that would seem to imply that if one’s awareness were rooted deeply enough in oneself then one could conceivably change anything on any level.
When I say that one “chooses” their “desired” outcome, I’m being expedient. Obviously we don’t always get what we want. What we get is instead what we believe will happen. If that doesn’t seem to be the case, there are two possible reasons for that: 1) maybe it’s not an absolute, since there are other beings in the situation as well, and 2) we’re not always aware of what we really believe about a situation. That’s something I’ve discovered myself. And I’ve discovered that, when I become aware of what I really believe, or actually the knowledge of a situation I am projecting outward into my reality, I can change it, and that actually changes what happens in reality. But only if I haven’t witnessed an antecedent to that thing that causally contradicts the outcome I want, of course. Also, some things I dare to try to change and some I don’t; the efficacy of this method seems limited, and it seems “bad” somehow to believe I can change something with belief in the case where it won’t happen, so it’s tricky. It seems to work best in social situations between me and other people, rather than with things that don’t involve another’s reaction to me vis a vis their own free will.
It could also be that we do get the outcomes we choose and desire, but only on the superconscious or “higher-self” level; in other words, we are not aware of those desires and decisions so it doesn’t appear to us (on this level of consciousness, the level of what’s accessible to brains) that we’re magically effecting our desires.
Not that any of this stuff about outcomes-per-se necessarily has much to do with whether the moon is there when we’re not looking at it. I guess I’ve digressed.
I also apparently lied when I said that there’s nothing mysterious or ambiguous about the question of whether a tree that falls in the forest with nobody around makes a sound. I wrote that line in a previous version of this essay. =)
Speaking of the ambiguity of the original problem, one more issue I wanted to bring up is that, if we define “sound” to be vibrations heard by living things (as opposed to merely vibrations through a medium), we get into the interesting question of what constitutes a perceiver and what doesn’t. I mean what if no humans were in the vicinity but a deer was? Did it make a sound? What if no mammals were but insects were? Do they count? How sophisticated an insect do you have to be to count? What about bacteria? Other trees and plants? They don’t actually have hearing apparatuses, but they could certainly be affected by the vibration.
What criteria do we use to determine which organisms count and which don’t? It seems we must go by how much we empathize with and relate to any given organism. If the thought of being a bacterium scares us or is unimaginable to us, then bacteria don’t count. But yet the question of whether the tree “makes a sound” is framed in a way that makes it seem as though there’s an objective answer which should just be independent of what animals we happen to empathize with. I suppose this is just an unfortunate facet of grammar and the dynamicism of language. I bet there are plenty of instances in language in which the wording of something makes something out to be objective when it really isn’t. As I see it, this is actually the main issue that’s tackled by the variation of English I mentioned earlier, E-Prime. Of course, that is just one of many ways in which language can be used to trick people into seeing things a certain way, regularly and even unintentionally. But again I digress.
Given that there is no end to the spectrum of what might count and what might not count as a listening organism, from humans to viruses, one might be tempted to take it to the logical extreme and arrive at matter itself, i.e., maybe even matter is alive and can, in some sense, hear the tree fall? This brings us back to idealism or panpsychism or at least to animism. I think that, in one of Neale Donald Walsch’s books in the Conversations with God series, God says that matter is aware, but it is not aware that it is aware. Perhaps the entire material universe is just one huge soul, that perhaps occupies an extremely low frequency of vibration, and our being immersed in physical reality is just a matter of being subject to a larger and stronger mind than our own?
This soul would occupy such a low frequency and high density that its life/consciousness is not even recognizable to us, it just appears to us as dead matter. Our bodies through which we sense this matter are themselves made up of matter, so the way in which we perceive this soul would seem to be qualified by the way in which we’re immersed in it. Our bodies themselves are simply the nexuses between our consciousnesses and its consciousness. When we use our bodies to look at matter (even including the matter of our own bodies), we’re looking at a mode of relation relating to a mode of relation. Perhaps disembodied spirits on planes near ours see matter in the same way, perhaps not. Perhaps higher spirits see the material universe completely differently: perhaps they see it as a fellow spirit, or perhaps they don’t see it at all (law of attraction and all that; their vibration would be too high to see matter..).
Speaking of the law of attraction, I should mention this as a third mechanism, beside desire and belief, by which we attract outcomes in our reality. It doesn’t really relate to the tree in the forest or the moon’s existence, but I should include it here for the sake of completeness. And while I’m at it I’ll mention that one thing that can utilize the law of attraction is feeling: if you feel the way you would feel if a certain thing were the case, you attract that certain case into your life, whether it’s a bad thing or a good thing.
And here are a couple of other general points about getting what you want:
- Wanting it is the worst way. The best way to get something–and I’ve noticed this happening many times–is to desire it briefly and then just let it go. Allow yourself to be just fine without it. That way you’re not attached to results. For whatever reason, being attached to results kills the magic that gets you what you want. In one of Neale’s books, God says that the universe is a big Xerox machine. Whatever you project outward into it, it makes more of that. So if you tell the universe you want something, you’re telling it you do not now have that thing, in other words you are feeling its lack, so it produces more of the experience of not having that thing for you.
- Visualize what you want. This is why people make vision boards. I believe the reason this works is that it unconsciously programs the mind to be more open to the possibility of whatever you want to happen, happening. Just like being immersed in a certain environment can change your mood, being immersed in visualizations changes the way the mind unconsciously thinks and what it expects about the thing being visualized.
One time I had been visualizing receiving lots of money for days, because I knew that the more energy you put into it the stronger its effect is, and yet people rarely put that much energy into it before giving up because you can’t see that it’s working but that it takes a lot of effort to counter the thinking patterns that take up 99.9% of the rest of the time.. Also around that time I had been musing over the best possible algorithm that websites could use to solve the problem of “if you liked a, b and c, you might also like x, y, and z” based on everybody else’s likes. Well, not too many days after I started these things, I randomly came across an offer by Amazon whereby whoever could come up with the best recommendation algorithm and submit it into a webform would win a million dollars. Pretty cool coincidence, huh?
Incidentally I didn’t bother to fill out the form because I was feeling really lethargic at that time and I didn’t expect that I’d win it, so I don’t know if I would have won or not. But even if I wouldn’t have I believe that the visualizations brought me to that opportunity through synchronicity. If I could have had the perspective at the time to realize that it was an amazing coincidence that that happened, maybe I would have submitted an answer. But we’re often blind to synchronicities when they happen because the subject that appeared to us was already on our minds so it doesn’t seem like anything out of the ordinary and “blends in.” We just can’t see it for the magic it is for the same reason we can’t smell our own body odor.
This principle of why we can’t see the synchronicities between what’s on our minds and what happens is closely related to the principle of why such a connection exists in the first place: what you experience will naturally be what it seems natural for you to experience. I have a pet theory that this is because reality follows a path of least resistance–just like electricity, water, chemical reactions such as the explosion of an M80 firecracker or the physiological processes make biological life forms efficient sinks for the sun’s energy, and entropy in general–and being surprised by something that happens is a form of resistance because it requires energy to power than mental action.
Requiring energy, of course, is the ultimate deterrent in the scape of paths of least resistance because energy must always be conserved: conservation of mass-energy is a fundamental law of the universe (and as per e=mc^2, mass is a form of energy, and therefore the conservation of mass-energy is really simply the conservation of energy). Without it, the universe would be illogical. You could power a solar panel by a light bulb that’s being powered by the solar panel and generate extra energy to boot. And that’s a lot like pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps, which is an obvious physical absurdity.
If you have two holes that water can go through, and one is bigger than the other, you can always make more water go through the smaller hole with the application of energy: just force it through faster somehow. An M80 won’t explode until you light it because, even though the post-explosion state represents a lower energy state within the chemical bonds, it would have to “borrow energy” to get there. Lighting the wick on fire is lending it just that energy it needs, thus making the path to explosion become the path of least resistance.
And of course, even the fact that the post-explosion state represents the lowest-energy bonds between atoms is testament to energy requirements being counter to the path of least resistance. Going from high-energy bonds to lower-energy bonds and releasing energy is the opposite of requiring energy and going from low-energy bonds to high-energy bonds, hence the natural progression is toward the lower-energy state.
So yeah, that’s why I think that the potential to be surprised by something runs counter to the probability of that thing happening. You could argue that the laws of nature aren’t in the business of predicting the future, or at least that the laws of physics aren’t and that therefore using them to justify this extrapolation into the mental realm is unjustified, but I’d say that the fact that electricity or water, for example, “knows” which path to take way ahead of any actual blockages down the line seems equally counterintuitive to many people, and that a similar principle to how this actually happens (basically through long “stacks” of already-blocked water molecules or electrical charges going all the way from the end-points to the beginning-point) could apply in the case of nature “knowing” which paths it could possibly take would lead to surprise on the side of some mental subject.
Or maybe it’s simply similar to known physical law with respect to requiring energy running counter to the path of least resistance but dissimilar with respect to connectivity between present and future.
Or, most likely, lack of surprise isn’t the mechanism through which expectation manifests reality at all and it’s some completely different reason, such as, for example, what Frank Herbert says in Heretics of Dune: “At the quantum level our universe can be seen as an indeterminate place, predictable in a statistical way only when you employ large enough numbers. Between that universe and a relatively predictable one where the passage of a single planet can be timed to a picosecond, other forces come into play. For the in-between universe where we find our daily lives, that which you believe is a dominant force. Your beliefs order the unfolding of daily events. If enough of us believe, a new thing can be made to exist. Belief structure creates a filter through which chaos is sifted into order.”
Not that it’s really important why the thing works in this context, but more so that it works..
…But I digress.
One thought on “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”
1. I wrote a little more on the question of the tree falling in the forest here: https://myriachromat.wpcomstaging.com/2020/06/18/meandering-notes-on-reality/#Tree
2. I’ve noticed that I’ve covered some concepts 3 or 4 times in different essays, sometimes with the same wording. I apologize for that.