Day 597: That Damn Falling Tree

originally published August 19, 2013

If a writer posts a thousand words and no one is there to read them, does he make a point? As a person who faces that possibility every morning – usually before consuming that first cup of coffee that could potentially render the answer easier to digest – I prefer not to dwell on such riddles. These unanswerable questions are nothing more than mental self-wankery anyway, right?

Actually, as that very same internet would be quick to remind us, people enjoy self-wankery. Drivin’ the ol’ floppy jalopy might be the most common leisure activity in the known world, and when the physical act is not on the table, we’ll happily slap some brain-lube on our think-wang and try to find a logical release.

If a writer posts a rambling tirade of masturbation puns and no one is there to tell him to cut it out, should he still feel shame?

It’s all a twisted variant of the tree question, and I won’t be the first to run head-first into that problematic brick wall.

George Berkeley, noted double-cravatist and gang-sign originator, proposes in his 1710 Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge that objects only exist when we are there to perceive them. William Fossett agreed in 1730, asserting that a tree falling in the park with no one around would be silent, invisible and nameless. In fact, if all of humanity were to disappear, there would be no more tree, no more park, and no more anything because all meaning would disappear with us. Well, except for what cats perceive. Fossett would never be so bold as to discount the sensory experience of his beloved Mittens.

Scientific American weighed in on the question in their April 5, 1884 issue, pointing out that a tree falling would produce air vibrations. When those air vibrations are captured by an ear and juiced through the citrusy chasms of the brain, they become sound. If no one is around, all you’ve got are some airborne vibrations that dissipate without ever being translated into what any creature could consider to be ‘sound’. Simple, right?

Leave it to physicist Niels Bohr to take things too far. The noted atom-anatomist made the claim that the moon would cease to exist if nobody was looking at it. His buddy Albert Einstein asked Niels if he really believed this to be true – Niels replied that there was no way to prove otherwise. I suppose he has a point, so long as one doesn’t think about the fact that our tidal system would become very suddenly screwed up if the moon were to suddenly vanish. But given that we couldn’t even coordinate Hands Across America properly, getting world-wide buy-in on not looking at the moon would probably render this experiment impossible to conduct. Score one for Niels.

But let’s get back to George Berkeley. His theory of immaterialism, which was later clarified as ‘subjective idealism’ by other folks – denies the notion that anything exists in the world. That bed you left behind this morning is gone until you reenter your room tonight. I could see turning this around into an excuse not to go into work; if I’m at home, my job doesn’t exist because I’m not there to perceive it. Why would I go to a job that doesn’t exist? I may as well stay at home and watch all that shit I PVR’ed during Shark Week.

Philosopher John Locke distinguishes between an object’s primary and secondary qualities. A tree’s primary qualities would include the cylindrical shape of the trunk, or the fact that it has leaves – these are the inherent certainties that only the most stubbornly anal (and ubiquitously party-killing) skeptics could even remotely doubt. A secondary quality would include the tree’s color, the flavor of the sap, and the sound it would make if it fell – qualities that must be imposed by our perception. Does that make the secondary qualities less grounded in reality? They make up a subjective reality, but since that varies from person to person, is it reality?

Is anything reality? You see, this is the kind of crap I end up asking when I pull back the sticky rind of philosophical quandary. I never fail to piss myself off when I do this – I should really stop.

(Arby’s; Appleway Ave.; Coeur D’Alene, Idaho)

There’s a Zen parable by Hui-neng that tells of two monks arguing about their temple’s flag which was waving in the wind. One monk stated the flag was moving while the other claimed the air was moving. Hui-neng dropped the big brain-fuck bomb when he told the monks that neither the wind nor the flag were moving – their minds were moving. Boom!

So by this logic, if there’s no nearby mind, there’s no sound, maybe even no tree.

Ancient Hinduism is no greater help. According to the Drishti Srishti Vada (translated as the Sight-Universe Theory), the known universe arises only after it has been seen, and has no independent existence apart from the person who saw it. The world may only be a concept in our own minds; our minds are space, and the objects we see only exist within that space, devoid of any substantive being.

(how could I have slept with my secretary? She only exists in your mind!)

Critical realism, as pushed by British philosopher Roy Bhaskar, essentially states that if humankind were to take a permanent holiday from this planet, trees would still fall and they’d still make sound, the only difference being that no one would know it. So then if something is completely and totally unknown by any man, woman or living creature, does it technically exist?

This is where my inner pragmatist tells the rest of my inner populace to shut up, get a beer and focus on something else. The only arguments against this mysterious tree having made a sound – apart from the technical definition of ‘sound’ being the after-effect of vibrations being processed by the brain – appear to rely on that floating ghost of a phrase: “it can’t be proven.” No, we can’t prove the world exists outside of perception because the very notion depends on its own intangibility. We could leave a running cassette recorder beside the tree and those on the ‘no’ side of the question would say, “Yes but if the recorder wasn’t there…”

It’s an unanswerable question once you drape it under a blanket of philosophy and metaphysics.

Not to mention self-wankery.

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