Who hasn’t considered or at least heard the old question, “If a tree falls in the forest, and nobody is there, does it make a sound?”
If we conduct a quick survey of friends and family, we shall find that the vast majority of people answer decisively in the affirmative.
“Of course a falling tree makes a sound.” That’s the answer you’ll usually get from people, as if this were a question too dumb to merit a moment’s contemplation. By taking this stance, what people are actually stating is their belief in an objective, independent reality. Obviously, the prevailing mindset is of a universe that exists just as well without us as with us. This fits in tidily with the Western view held at least since biblical times, that “little me” is of small importance or consequence in the vast universe. Few consider (or perhaps have sufficient science background for) a realistic sonic appraisal of what actually occurs when that tree falls in the woods. What is the process that produces sound?
So, if you don’t mind a quick return to 5th grade Earth Science, here’s a quick summary: sound is created by a disturbance in some medium, usually air, although sound travels even faster and more efficiently through denser materials such as water or steel. Limbs, branches, and trunks violently striking the ground create rapid pulses of air. A deaf person can readily feel some of these pulsations; they are particularly blatant on the skin when the pulses repeat with a frequency of five to thirty times a second. So, what we have in hand with the tumbling tree, in actuality, are rapid air-pressure variations, which spread out by traveling through the surrounding medium at around 750 mph. As they do so, they lose their coherency until the background evenness of the air is reestablished. This, according to simple science, is what occurs even when a brain-ear mechanism is absent – a series of greater and lesser air pressure passages. Tiny, rapid puffs of wind. There is no sound attached to them.
Now let’s lend an ear to the scene. If someone is nearby, the air puffs physically cause the ear’s tympanic membrane (eardrum) to vibrate, which then stimulates nerves only if the air is pulsing between 20 and 20,000 times a second (with an upper limit more like 10,000 for people over forty, and even less for those of us whose misspent youth included listening to loud music). Air that puffs 15 times a second is not intrinsically different from air that pulses 30 times, yet the former will never result in a human perception of sound because of the design of our neural architecture. In any case, nerves stimulated by the moving eardrum send electrical signals to a section of the brain, resulting in the cognition of a noise. This experience, then, is inarguably symbiotic. The pulses of air by themselves do not constitute any sort of sound, which is obvious because 15 pulse air puffs remain silent no matter how many ears are present. Only when a specific range of pulses are present is the ear’s neural architecture designed to let human consciousness conjure the noise experience. In short, an observer, an ear, and a brain are every bit as necessary for the experience of sound as are the air pulses. The external world and consciousness are correlative. And a tree that falls in an empty forest creates only silent air pulses – tiny puffs of wind.
When someone dismissively answers “Of course a tree makes a sound if no one’s nearby,” they are merely demonstrating their inability to ponder an event nobody attended. They’re finding it too difficult to take themselves out of the equation. They somehow continue to imagine themselves present when they are absent. Now consider a lit candle placed on a table in that same empty forest.
Even if we contradict quantum experiments and allow that electrons and all other particles have assumed actual positions in the absence of observers (superposition), the flame is still merely a hot gas. Like any source of light, it emits photons or tiny packets of waves of electromagnetic energy. Each consists of electrical and magnetic pulses. These momentary exhibitions of electricity and magnetism are the whole show, the nature of light itself. It is easy to recall from everyday experience that neither electricity nor magnetism have visual properties. So, on its own, it’s not hard to grasp that there is nothing inherently visual, nothing bright or colored about that candle flame. Now let these same invisible electromagnetic waves strike a human retina, and if (and only if) the waves each happen to measure between 400 and 700 nanometers in length from crest to crest, then their energy is just right to deliver a stimulus to the 8 million cone-shaped cells in the retina. Each in turn sends an electrical pulse to a neighbor neuron, and on up the line this goes, at 250 mph, until it reaches the warm, wet occipital lobe of the brain, in the back of the head. There, a cascading complex of neurons fire from the incoming stimuli, and we subjectively perceive this experience as a yellow brightness occurring in a place we have been conditioned to call “the external world.” Other creatures receiving the identical stimulus will experience something altogether different, such as a perception of gray, or even have an entirely dissimilar sensation. The point is, there isn’t a “bright yellow” light “out there” at all. At most, there is an invisible stream of electrical and magnetic pulses. We are totally necessary for the experience of what we’d call a yellow flame. Again, it’s correlative. What about if you touch something? Isn’t it solid? Push on the trunk of the fallen tree and you feel pressure. But this too is a sensation strictly inside your brain and only “projected” to your fingers, whose existence also lies within the mind. Moreover, that sensation of pressure is caused not by any contact with a solid, but by the fact that every atom has negatively charged electrons in its outer shells. As we all know, charges of the same type repel each other, so the bark’s electrons repel yours, and you feel this electrical repulsive force stopping your fingers from penetrating any further. Nothing solid ever meets any other solids when you push on a tree. The atoms in your fingers are each as empty as a vacant football stadium in which a single fly sits on the fifty- yard line. If we needed solids to stop us (rather than energy fields), our fingers could easily penetrate the tree as if we were swiping at fog.
As a final example, consider rainbows. The sudden appearance of those prismatic colors juxtaposed between mountains can take our breath away. But the truth is we are absolutely necessary for the rainbow’s existence. When nobody’s there, there simply is no rainbow.
Not that again, you might be thinking, but hang in there – this time it’s more obvious than ever. Three components are necessary for a rainbow. There must be sun, there must be raindrops, and there must be a conscious eye (or its surrogate, film) at the correct geometric location. If your eyes look directly opposite the sun (that is, at the antisolar point, which is always marked by the shadow of your head), the sunlit water droplets will produce a rainbow that surrounds that precise spot at a distance of 42 degrees. But your eyes must be located at that spot where the refracted light from the sunlit droplets converges to complete the required geometry. A person next to you will complete his or her own geometry, and will be at the apex of a cone for an entirely different set of droplets, and will therefore see a separate rainbow. Their rainbow is very likely to look like yours, but it needn’t be so. The droplets their eyes intercept may be of a different size, and larger droplets make for a more vivid rainbow while at the same time robbing it of blue. Then, too, if the sunlit droplets are very nearby, as from a lawn sprinkler, the person nearby may not see a rainbow at all. Your rainbow is yours alone. But now we get to our point: what if no one’s there? Answer: no rainbow. An eye/brain system (or its surrogate, a camera, whose results will only be viewed later by a conscious observer) must be present to complete the geometry. As real as the rainbow looks, it requires your presence just as much as it requires sun and rain.
None of this is speculative or philosophical. It’s the basic science that would be encountered in any grade school Earth Science class. Few would dispute the subjective nature of rainbows, which figure so prominently in fairytales that they seem only marginally to belong to our world in the first place. It is when we fully grasp that the sight of a skyscraper is just as dependent on the observer that we have made the first required leap to the true nature of things. What we perceive as reality is a process that involves our consciousness.
sound exists, simply there is nobody there to hear it. the laws of physics don’t depend on human presence.
sound is vibrations by definition. it’s humans that ascribe value to sounds, whether a sound is pleasing or unpleasant, loud or quiet, is speech, music, an explosion, etc. The laws of physics don’t care if a sound is loud or a sound is speech, we as humans assign the value. This riddle has never really made sense to me, even though Berkeley didn’t mean it literally.
@chodebalm, Good post dude, but you’ve forgotten something small that changes your answers quite a bit…. Other animals.
Other animals can hear soundwaves (puffs of air) at different frequencies. Some of these frequencies travel longer than others so some animals don’t even have to be in the forest to hear a tree fall.
Both for the flame and the rainbow, no animal sees in black and white. Or, at least, they have found none thus far that lack the cones in their eyes to see colour. Some animals see more colour, some see less and some see colour outside of our spectrum of colour. To other animals, a rainbow can be bigger, smaller or maybe even quite the same. However, it still exists to them as the lightwaves emitted are still processed.
If there were no animals at all, nothing with eyes nor ears nor were they a mass of atoms then yes, your answers would be completely correct.
@desifemilove, True, the laws of physics don’t depend on human presence… but many things change when observed therefore our perception of physics in entirely human based. Therefore, physics and all science is limited currently to human understanding.
Not to sound rude, but on the contrary, I didn’t forget about that at all. In fact, what you just said is actually one of the points I was making. It’s all about perception, and perception is absolutely required for reality to exist. Not sure how to make that point any clearer. The animal’s proximity to the sound waves is irrelevant. If the animal’s ear can detect those air waves (regardless of distance), then sound suddenly exists. If the animal’s ear cannot detect the air waves, sound doesn’t exist. It’s pretty simple.
Sorry, I had assumed that when you put in gray, you were saying that other animals are colourblind, which is not the case, and would have affected the rainbow also.
Yes, but given the distance some animals have the ability to pick up soundwaves, is there ever really an unheard tree fall?
The question is officially rhetorical, regarding the nature of existence not physics. As it says “if no one is around to hear it” really means if you personally aren’t around to hear it; does anything exist beyond your field of perception? Does anything occur outside of your field of perception? Do things that have apparently occurred outside of your field of perception actually just spawn as a result instantaneously when they enter your field of perception?
It is very much along the lines of Descartes, and I like to believe that yes, the universe exists independent of me regardless of me being confined to my own perspective, because otherwise I would be alone and actually be some kind of god that tricked myself into seeing things that are not there, likely for my own comfort :p
See, I believe the opposite – nothing exists outside of independent perspective, aka the mind. Many people immediately dismiss and scoff at the notion that the universe would cease to exist without a conscious observer. But consciousness is the missing link that can unite quantum theory and general relativity, but since consciousness is so misunderstood, it’s been cast aside in modern physics, completely overlooked and forgotten about. I truly believe consciousness is necessary for life to exist, and that the universe is the spatio-temporal logic of the self. In other words, consciousness creates the universe, rather than the conventional view that the universe creates consciousness.
I basically believe that also, but I would not isolate consciousness to a phenomena attributed to the mind, conceptualised analysis certainly is of the mind, but then perception and awareness are more related to life in general; from the complex level of sentient human beings down the scale to more rudimentary incarnations of the phenomena in simpler life.
But yes, consciousness I would not relate to sentience, perception or awareness but more they spring up from it, but first they have to spring up from matter and energy, and so I’d say that matter and energy spring up from consciousness even more fundamental than them.
This would mean that consciousness is not an event localised to the human mind but perhaps a blanket phenomena across the quantum scale, or perhaps consciousness is sporadic; emitting from uncountable independent sources to varying degrees(?)
I’d say our perspective of being individuals, this aloneness in our own minds, is related to the separation events in the span of conscious evolution; eg: the energy event, the matter event, the life event and the conceptual analysis event. Although these emanate from a common source, they kind of dilute awareness of the source in the process, resulting in this sense of disconnection from all other existence.
Or like I said about the sporadic theory; there may not be a common source for all phenomena so the sense of isolation is not a result of dilution but runs all the way down to each independent source.
(but I don’t really think the sporadic theory is likely, because I experience a sense of connection at certain levels, unless that is something I invent for my own comfort)
Expanding on the separation events theory; I’d say the singularity event was crossed at the emergence of emotion, I attribute “self-awareness” to emotional awareness because something like fear with the fight or flight mechanism is about self preservation.
However you will see a cockroach and certain other primitive life forms that do not have the cerebral capabilities of fear/emotion, these will run away also, but I’d say this is more related to evolution, that they instinctively have survived by running away and this trait was passed down in their genetics, it is related to that not fear/emotion.
So a cockroach would exist more in-tune with the blanket consciousness where any animal with adrenal capabilities operates more disconnected from that blanket consciousness, especially up to humans who have gone through yet another step beyond emotion and into conceptual analysis.
I’d guess that the level of conceptual awareness may well be the point of going full circle; where this ability can make a connection back toward the blanket consciousness, and who knows what the result will be for those who successfully bridge the divide, it may be spiritual or intellectual, or both resulting in a comprehensive sense and understanding?