It’s a nice, hot summer evening and I’m sitting here, inside, looking at my computer screen. I could have gone out to catch some of the wind that just manages to move the leaves and the smallest branches on the tree outside my window, but I’m not doing that because I’m blogging. I have promised myself to post an article every three days and tomorrow is one of those days. I find I have lots of ideas but they simply haven’t matured enough. My eyes keep drifting towards the world outside until I feel like my vision is blocked by this tree that I know and love. How weird.the lonely tree
Imagine a tree falling down. No one there to hear it, man or beast. Does that tree make a sound? Apparently, the question was first asked in the early 1700’s. At the time, the tree was stood in a park and this was the answer:
“If a tree falls in a park and there is no-one to hand, it is silent and invisible and nameless.” William Fossett
The tree has since acquired a page in Wikipedia, so we can’t maintain that nobody noticed it. There are people who believe this question cannot be answered, but that’s not true. It just proves that many of us find unanswerable questions easy to live with.
When I first heard this question, I soon forgot all about the tree and felt lonely. Many of the things I did during an ordinary school day lost their meaning because there was no one there to witness them. My best friend told me God was watching her every move and that changed my mind: my being alone could mean there were no rules!
However, I was still stuck with the tree. I asked a few grownups and they told me it was an annoying, pointless question. It seemed to make them uneasy.
only the mind movesI then wondered if my observing would make any difference to the tree. I imagined the tree having already produced its seeds and provided shade for the tender green shoots that were its next generation. From an evolutionary perspective, it would be ready to die. My witnessing its fall was a one-way street: trees communicate with their environment, but humans mean nothing to them.
“What do you mean by a one-way street? Quantum physics has given us new ways to look at the observer and the tree.”
Even without quantum physics, some people would turn the problem around and say the tree only existed in my mind. It would die with me, when I forgot about it. This is a description from the Mumonkan collection of zen koans about a flag, waving in the wind.
“Two monks were arguing about the temple flag waving in the wind. One said, “The flag moves.” The other said, “The wind moves.” They argued back and forth but could not agree.The Sixth Ancestor said, “Gentlemen! It is not the wind that moves; it is not the flag that moves; it is your mind that moves.” The two monks were struck with awe.”- The Mumonkan Case 29, translation by Robert Aitken
philosophical analysis of the question
The best explanation I found shows how anyone can solve this problem. It’s not about the observer, nor is it about the tree. We should focus on the sound and analyse that part of the original question. We should look at sound as a concept.I found the following answer on a university website aiming to explain what philosophy is about and I’ll quote it in it’s entirety. Not because I’d expect any of my readers to not be able to answer this particular question, but because it shows how you can think about a simple problem in a rigorous way and hopefully move on to other problems. It’s brilliant that we humans have ways to think laterally, but sometimes it helps to think straight.
The answer to the question was found under the heading Philosophical Analysis
“The question to be answered is: Does the falling tree, when it hits the ground, make any sound?”
“On first take, some want to answer that obviously the tree will make a sound. After all, sound is something objectively real which shouldn’t need the presence of a perceiver to occur, even if it is true that we’ve never heard a sound that we didn’t hear. Even the sound we didn’t hear could be evidenced by (say) a tape recorder placed in the vicinity. So yes, it makes a sound, or so it seems. But, in contrast, it also seems that sound is a subjective phenomenon, something not unlike a sweet taste or the feeling of pain—things that seem to require a perceiver. And so one might well doubt whether the tree really makes any sound. What should be apparent here is that “sound” has more than one meaning. That is, there is more than one concept of sound. Indeed, consider two definitions of sound, one which we might call the physics concept, and the other the psychology concept of sound.
soundphys = vibrations in a medium (such as air)
soundpsy = a sensation; an auditory experienceThese are both legitimate definitions. The first (physics) reflects interest in sound as a physical phenomenon. The second (psychology) reflects interest in sound as a kind of experience. Notice that these two kinds of sound, though related, are different and can occur independent of each other. Normally sound as vibrations causes sound as an experience. But they can occur independently, i.e. one without the other. For example, sound as vibrations doesn’t have to cause sound as an experience (perceivers might not be present or their ears/brains might be damaged). And sound as an experience could occur without being caused by vibrations in the air (the perceiver might be undergoing some internal hallucinogenic stimulus from chemicals in the brain). Once we see the distinction between these two concepts we can see that the original question is ambiguous; it has more than one meaning. The question (Will the tree make any sound?) is really one of two questions:
(1) Will the tree make any soundphys?
(2) Will the tree make any soundpsy?
The answer to the original question depends on the sort of sound the questioner is asking about. The answer to (1) is: Yes, there will be sound in the physics sense (soundphys i.e. vibrations). The answer to (2) is: No, there will not be sound in the psychology sense (soundpsy i.e. auditory experience). So the question, once clarified, has a definite answer.”