If a Tree Falls; Our Perception of Reality

Have you ever heard the question; “If a tree falls in the forest, and there’s no one there to hear it fall, does it make a sound?”? This question has been tickling the minds of philosophers ever since its debut in A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge by George Berkeley. It calls into question how consciousness affects events that would have otherwise remained unobserved. Our understanding of reality is dependent on our observations, without which perception cannot exist.

Human consciousness itself relies on the sensory capabilities of our physical bodies. It takes in and converts the data that is gathered from the outside world into a sight or a sound, a feel or a taste, or maybe a smell, but these five senses constrain our perceived understanding of the data. Our sensory capabilities are quite limited and leave more out than they take in. For instance, visible light, the electromagnetic radiation that can be seen with our eyes, constitutes less than a millionth of one percent of the electromagnetic spectrum.

The answer then, to whether or not a tree make a sound if there is noone there to hear it is a resounding no. The tree will fall. It will break or tip over in hurricane winds, and what does occur will be more dramatic and complex than any human mind can ever dream of comprehending, but it will not make a sound; precisely because ‘sound’ is inextricably linked to our human sensory perception of the event. Without our presence it cannot be so. Conversely, everything that would be needed for our ears to detect the sound- or pressure waves as they moved through the air- will be present, but alas no ear! So we will have the exact scenario unfolding that would send pressure waves radiating out, yet the small range which our human ears are capable of hearing will fly by undetected and unobserved.

This sounds quite strange to some of you I am sure. That I can declaratively say that there is no sound if we are not present. This is some what of a trick. What we call a ‘sound’ remains present at the event, but we are not there to lend our ears to the party. Simply put, the fall will not make a sound but something else. It will no longer be bound by our limited perception and will become much more than a sound. Our limitations are not present to constrain and label the event. Sound is, after all, defined as what the human ear can hear.

Imagine for a moment that you are observing the scene without sensory restraint. You have complete and total awareness of the entire event. There is 100 million times more electromagnetic radiation to enhance the scene. The mere 20 to 20,000Hz of detectable pressure waves would no more limit what you could ‘hear’. What you once knew as sound would be lost in the larger picture. The olfactory receptors that awaited the arrival of an odorant molecule, detecting them one at a time, would be obsolete. The physical sensation of touch no longer applies without a body as well. The maelstrom that unfolds during the fall, all the way down to the quantum level, is beyond even our wildest imaginings.

We can exercise the mind as we explore the intricacies that unfold all around us. It truly is an amazing world we live in. Our perception is limited, and as such we must understand that the labels we put on things are restrictive, they betray the complete magnitude of what actually occurs. I think that we can inadvertently stifle the grandeur and awe inspiring depth of the world around us if we exclude the things beyond our direct sensory understanding. If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one present to hear the sound, the event that unfolds is so much more magnificent and complex that to call it a mere sound would be insufficient..

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Originally published at www.thinkhub.org.