Mike Kueber's Blog

April 1, 2014

Aphorism of the Week #19 – If a tree falls in the forest….

Filed under: Aphorism — Mike Kueber @ 11:05 pm

If a tree falls in the forest but nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

I always thought this in an interesting question because sound waves don’t have a physical manifestation. Thus, if there is nothing to detect the sound waves, it seemed to me that there was no sound in that vacuum. But during a recent conversation with my literate leprechaun Mike Callen, he pointed out that this riddle was actually philosophical nonsense in support of the broader proposition that nothing (even physical manifestation) is real unless someone perceives it.

For further information, I referred to Wikipedia, which seemed to agree with Callen:

  • The most immediate philosophical topic that the riddle introduces involves the existence of the tree (and the sound it produces) outside of human perception. If no one is around to see, hear, touch or smell the tree, how could it be said to exist? What is it to say that it exists when such an existence is unknown?

But when I read further in Wikipedia, it eventually got to my point:

  • What is the difference between what something is, and how it appears? – e.g., “sound is the variation of pressure that propagates through matter as a wave.” Perhaps the most important topic the riddle offers is the division between perception of an object and how an object really is…. people may also say, if the tree exists outside of perception (as common sense would dictate), then it will produce sound waves. However, these sound waves will not actually sound like anything. Sound as it is mechanically understood will occur, but sound as it is understood by sensation will not occur…. This riddle illustrates John Locke’s famous distinction between primary and secondary qualities. This distinction outlines which qualities are axiomatically imbibed in an object, and which qualities are ascribed to the object. That is, a red thing is not really red (that is, ‘red’ is a secondary quality), a sweet thing is not really sweet, a sound does not actually sound like anything, but a round object is round.

What would I do without Wikipedia? Well, I might refer to the fun and interesting Urban Dictionary, which suggests that the riddle “symbolizes the ineffectiveness of unheard opinions/thoughts.” That meaning seems like a strain of Callen’s thinking, which is not surprising since Callen in an urban sort of guy.


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