A falling tree doesn't make a sound

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there, does it make a sound? I’ve always thought the answer to this was yes, of course it makes a sound, even when no one is present. I posted this question to Twitter and the answers were the same: of course it makes a sound! I was surprised to learn this is the wrong answer.

After I heard the case for why it does not in fact make a sound, I was dumbfounded. Why had I been conditioned to see it otherwise? It was kind of earth-shattering. Let me explain why a falling tree only makes a sound when someone is present.

“Sound” is made when our ears pick up vibrations or pulsations in the air and converts them into what we perceive as auditory sensations. But without ears, all you have are pulsations in the air. Pulsations in the air do not have an “inherent” sound. It only becomes sound when our ears convert that air into sound. You wouldn’t say a binary encoded audio file has an intrinsic sound, would you? It’s just ones and zeros. Only when you open the file with an audio player, and the audio player routes the data to your computer’s speakers, is sound actually made. But if you open that same file in a text editor, it won't make a sound.

Once I saw it like this, I couldn’t understand why I had ever seen it any other way. Unfortunately, once you unlock this understanding, you’ll be taken on a wild ride where you question the objective vs. subjective nature of everything. If sound is made only when we perceive it, where do we draw the line with our other senses?

Images of the world are made when light is converted by our retinas into meaningful symbols. Without a retina to perceive light, what does the world actually, “intrinsically” look like? Again, it’s sort of just illegible data until our mind parses it and turns it into something meaningful. Without eye technology, the world cannot really be said to have a visual interface.

Without our sense of touch, the world cannot be said to have a tactile interface.

And really, given what we know about electrons being wishy-washy about the details of their existence, without humans, or other conscious beings, the world cannot be said to exist, period.

You'll only receive email when they publish something new.

More from Mo
All posts