If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there, is the tree real?

  • If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there, is the tree real?

    Posted by Don Salmon on April 9, 2023 at 2:31 pm

    (of course there’s the famous alternative question: “if a man is in a forest, and his wife is not there, and he says something, is he still wrong?” but we’ll leave that for another forum!)

    The Matter With Things appears to come to the conclusion that materialism is not a valid philosophy.

    Rather than dealing with this philosophically, I’d like to present the following contemplative experiment.

    THE RAINBOW AND THE TREE (with thanks to Owen Barfield)

    Is a rainbow real?

    What do we mean, nowadays, when we ask if something is “real”?

    Usually we’re asking, “Does something exist if there’s nobody around, nobody looking at it or sensing it in any way?”

    Well, in that sense, a rainbow is not real, right?

    In order to have a rainbow, you need 3 things:

    – light

    – Water vapor

    – Someone seeing the rainbow

    No person seeing, no rainbow, yes?

    So that’s easy enough. The rainbow, in the sense I wrote about above, is not real.

    Now what if we ask, “is the light real?”

    Your first instinct is probably to wonder why anyone would ask such a stupid question. Of course the light is real, you numbnut!

    Well, let’s look a little more closely.

    What do we mean by “light”?

    Do we mean the whitish/yellowish colored beam?

    Maybe. Are you outside, or near a window? If not just bring to mind a bright, sunny day.

    Lots of light. Clearly, you think, the sunniness and bright light couldn’t possibly depend on YOU (or any human being or animal) seeing it.

    That would be crazy, right.

    Well, wait a minute. What does neuroscience tell us about the experience of a whitish/yellowish colored beam or whitish/yellowish light in general?

    Electromagnetic rays (which are invisible!) stimulate our eyes, and a whole complicated process occurs which ends up with the brain constructing an image of whitish/yellowish light.

    So what’s real, when you ask, “is the light real?”

    Scientists tell us the electromagnetic rays are definitely real. They do not depend for their existence on human or animal perception.

    But the EXPERIENCE of a whitish/yellowish beam or rays DOES depend on human or animal perception.

    So electromagnetic rays are real, and EXPERIENCED light is not real – not real in the sense we described above – EXPERIENCED light doesn’t exist in the absence of experience. That’s pretty simple, right?

    But wait. Let’s ask again – are electromagnetic rays real?

    When scientists speak of waves, or electromagnetic energy, what are they talking about, and how did they come to know of these waves or energies?

    When physicists speak of “waves,” they’re not talking about anything perceivable. “Waves” really refer to measurements, or numbers.

    Let’s look at a different example and see if we can make this any more clear.

    If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound?

    If you look carefully, we have the same question here as we did regarding light. Remember, we’re using the word “light” to refer to the EXPERIENCE of whitish/yellowish beams and rays.

    So here, we’re going to use the word “sound” to refer to the EXPERIENCE of a certain kind of tone or tones.

    Does the tree falling set in motion movements of the atmosphere – what we call sound waves? Of course.

    So if nobody is in the forest, and the tree falls, it certainly creates sound waves, but if there is no human or animal present, there’s no “sound” (remember, by “sound” we’re talking about the experience of tone or tones)

    Now lets ask the same question about sound waves that we asked about electromagnetic waves – are they real?

    How do we know about sound waves (movements of the atmosphere)? Do we have a direct perception of them?


    We have certain instruments, that vibrate in a certain way in response to what we refer to as sound waves, and we measure those movements of the instruments.

    In other words, we measure them, or we come up with numbers.

    So what do electromagnetic waves and sound waves have in common, from the physicists’ point of view?

    We refer to them both with numbers.

    Ok, now it’s time to wrap things up.

    What’s real, according to science?

    Our perceptions – colors (whitish/yellowish beams), sounds (a tone or tones of varying qualities), the sensation of hardness or softness we feel when we touch a tree), tastes, smells

    none of those are “real” in the sense we’re using the word, because colors, sounds etc depend on the perception of a human or animal.

    No humans or animals?

    No colors, sounds, etc.

    Are electromagnetic waves or sound waves real?

    Well, the numbers we use to measure them, numbers we are aware of in our consciousness, are certainly real.

    But nobody using the methods of modern science has ANY idea what it is – what the nature of the “Stuff” is – that underlies electromagnetic waves and sound waves.

    So according to science, we have no idea what is real. All we are left with, from the physicists’ point of view, are numbers.

    So the rest of us non scientists have the experience of a colored, sound-filled, sensation-filled tactile world existing in consciousness, and from that, scientists’ abstract certain measurable patterns, represented by numbers.

    Experience within consciousness, and numbers abstracted from experience.

    Therefore, science as practiced over the past 4 centuries, has absolutely nothing to say about the nature of things. You may choose to believe in materialism, dualism, idealism, pantheism, panentheism, evolutionary panentheism, and any number of other isms –

    all are compatible with the data of science that we have.

    Are these isms EQUALLY compatible with the data of science?

    That’s for another post.

    Don Salmon replied 1 year, 1 month ago 1 Member · 0 Replies
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