A Tree in a Forest

This morning as I walked to work I found myself contemplating one of my favorite philosophical dilemmas, the well known (almost a philosophical cliché) discussion of a tree in a forest.

The question goes something like this:

If a tree falls in a forest and nobody is around does it still make a noise?

The question seems simple at first but the more that you think about it the more you can come to realize that it is actually quite complex and even presents possible paradoxes.

First, let’s look at it this way.  Assuming that all the physical laws that we know are still in place in said forest when said tree happens to fall, we can assume that even with the absence of anyone around to hear the falling a sound will still be produced (seeing as sound is really nothing more than wave vibration through a given medium like air or water).

But here is the twist.  If there is no consciousness in the forest to hear the sound in the first place then is there even a tree?  Or a forest?  Or physical laws at all?  What we are brought to think is the wonder in which consciousness allows for the contemplation of existence.  I will not suggest that consciousness creates existence (things may well “exist” where consciousness is not) but without some form of consciousness (which seems to me to be essentially self-aware existence) than how can it be known if anything exists at all?  It can’t, that is the paradox.

We can look at fossils of dinosaurs and the evidence around them and say “these animals roamed the Earth millions of years ago.”  That is fine and good and I definitely agree with the statement.  But the fact is that we were not around then and so, with a certain degree of skepticism I would ask, “how do we know that the evidence does not just appear this way just because it is observed consciously?”  And indeed there are even events in physics, such as the way particles act, that seem to be affected by mere observation (sometimes appearing as a wave instead of individual particles depending on the observation).

And if you want to get to the real mind-fuck of it all consider your own personal subjective consciousness.  How certain can anybody be that anything whatsoever existed before they become conscious themselves?  Crazy right?

Personally I’d say it is a matter of faith really.  And I don’t mean the God Almighty, Praise Jesus kind of faith (though if you’re into that kind of jazz, good for you I guess).  I mean faith in the sense that there are certain things, even with the most advanced sciences, that we just can’t really explain or understand but, without anything else there to do, we believe in anyway.  Philosophically speaking there is really nothing that necessitates the existence of anything prior to human conscious observation (again, sure there is scientific evidence but you still need the consciousness to observe the evidence in the first place) but we take it as a matter of faith that there was. 

Why?  Who knows, probably in general to avoid the potential collapse of the whole system, whatever that system may be.

Good times.

~ by Nathaniel on May 29, 2008.

3 Responses to “A Tree in a Forest”

  1. “But here is the twist. If there is no consciousness in the forest to hear the sound in the first place then is there even a tree? Or a forest? Or physical laws at all?”

    This is good stuff. I mean really good. I’ve pondered this myself for the last few years. How do we know our mind isn’t creating it? That’s the conclusion I came to.

    EXACTLY like you said. Comes down to a matter of faith. The word faith in itself, to most people, implies a religious connotation, but that’s nowhere near the real definition.


  2. Not inside a giant Hadron collider, it doesn’t.

  3. Of course once the LHC if flipped on trees will be semi-sentient flesh eating monsters with the ability to plane shift in and out of existence to better hunt their prey.

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