Sunday, May 14, 2006

Forests, Trees & Thuds

If a tree falls in a forest, but no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? This is the kind of philosophical question my younger brother and I often discuss in our phone conversations. While there are many ways to ponder and answer this question, my brother Sean & I have come up with an even more thought-provoking one:

If you are alone in a forest -- totally preoccupied and completely oblivious to your surroundings -- and a tree suddenly falls on you (thereby smashing you to bits and leaving you quite dead), does it make a sound?


  1. the relevancy of that question is something I've discussed with some friends some time ago...

    The tree will make noise even if there is noone to listen too it.
    Compare it with your youth. Basic genetic rules imply that you grow into an adult (physically I mean).
    Basic nature rules also imply that the falling of a tree makes noise :)

    Ok, that's not very philosophic, but it answers your question ;)

  2. sorry about the grammatical error in the post above...

  3. By someone, do you mean only humans? Because in a true forest, it is impossible that no other beings are present to witness the event.

    I've always found that question to be a little maddening. My answer, usually unspoken, is always "who cares? It matters not a whit that no humans were around to witness it. It matters greatly to the creatures who share a home with the tree."

  4. If you are not there, how do you know a tree has fallen, let alone made a sound? And then how do we know trees fall? I say the earth rises.

  5. If no one is around when the tree falls, the air is disturbed but no one is there to interpret the disturbance as a sound. So no, no sound is made.

    I do, however, believe that disturbance would be interpreted as a sound by the person the tree were falling on. That is until the moment of maximum squishedness is reached at which point all would return to silence.

  6. Yes, it makes a sound. Just the fact that we are here discussing it, answers the question itself. We don't have to be in the immediate area of its motion to feel the ripples of its waves.

  7. Personally speaking, I agree with Bob. Sound is a social construct. In my opinion, it only holds any meaning when interpreted by a form of consciousness, whether that be from a person, a bird, a rock or maybe even the tree itself.

    Brad, I hope you realize from the above assertion that, what I posited originally, wasn't bound by mere human presence. Your point is well taken that it would be difficult to envision a forest devoid of life beyond the tree. That said, this is a philosophical exercise. Consequently, we can remove as many (or as few) of the variables as we so choose.

  8. Here's a fun that Trey is better able to practice than someone like me (city-bound)

    Go into the woods...back off the trails a good ways. Find a stump or log (check for snakes! LOL)...and just sit quietly on it for a long time. Close your eyes and listen to the sounds of the forest and see how many different sounds you can pick out. See, with your ears, what you miss with your eyes...and discover what you'd never notice, because of the impact of your passing.

  9. Trey - you and Bob are correct, I believe, because the definition of sound requires a source and a recipient. No recipient = no "sound." I took the question to be more one of relevance, i.e. if a tree falls and nobody is around to hear, does it still matter?

    Flounderi - excellent practice. I have been trying to do more of this myself. On Saturday, after a long day of chores and outdoor tasks, I slipped off to a clearing in the woods near our house and sat quietly in the grass. I'm always amazed when I do this at how quickly the sounds return - the buzz of insects, the birds. And the smells, which seem to change with each faint breeze. It's good to take time to reconnect.

  10. There's a sadly amusing bit of truth in the old quip:

    "If a tree falls in forest and a man is not there to hear it he still wrong?"

  11. ...eeeerrrrrrrryyyyyyyuuuuuuuuummmmmmmmmmmpppppphhhhhhh -- "OUCH!" -- ppppoooooooffffffffhhhhhhhhhkkkkaaaaarrrrrrrrriiiiiiinnnnngggggghhhhhhh -- "OOOOooo" -- ppppphhhhhlllliiiiiiiiggggggg ...

    (yes, of course sound requires both sound waves transmitted and a receiver to receive and translate those waves. In the above answer to your final question, the human receiver mechanism (ear drum, middle ear, and brain) were indeed rendered broken, but high above, all the sound waves created by tree, air currents, smashed human, and associated disarranged flora, were received by the ear drums of a passing Stellar Jay. Said jay continued its flight, insect in beak, to nest of chirping hatchlings, all very noisy indeed.)

  12. i thought this question was intended to show us our normally unconscious, unquestioned assumptions. we assume, that's the key, that it does or doesn't make a noise but we don't know for sure. if we let go, suspend all our assumptions including what we call "immutable laws of physics" or whatever, all assumptions suspended, we have to admit that we don't know if it makes a sound. or we ask "has there ever been a sound that has not been heard?" how would we know? every sound that has ever been desribed or experienced has been heard(recording devices are hearing apparatus, like ears). this leads to the question " is there any difference, other than a conceptual difference, between the sound, the hearer and the hearing of the sound?" Is there any difference other vthan a conceptual one? how could we know, again, suspending all assumptions? i thought that was the point this question was meant to lead to; to get us to see that we don't experince directly, we "experience" conceptually, and is that experience at all? we cannot normally see that our experince of life is conceptual and not direct experience unmediated by concepts. read Wei Wu Wei for a better explanation on this.

    that's my take on it. make sense to anyone out there?



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