If a tree falls in a forest and there is no one around to hear it, does it still make a sound?

This thought experiment was posed by philosopher George Berkeley in A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge. The question brings up metaphysical dilemmas pertaining to our knowledge of reality: is there a difference in the way that objects exist? Are there objects that exist independently of us? If there are, do we have any way of knowing those objects?

I have come to believe — from experience, and then reasoning upon it — that the reality we believe in conventionally (throughout our day to day lives) is conceptually constructed. By this I mean that notions of ourselves, beliefs about other people and the societies we live in, and other ideas of this nature are nothing more than stories we tell ourselves to better navigate our lives. Therefore, “reality” is contextual and exists only in each individual human mind.

Don’t worry, I’ve come prepared to defend my argument (with emotionally charged beliefs)…

We do not come into this world with a “blank slate” psychologically. Our minds are essentially “programmed” by nature to perceive the world in a certain way — that is, relative to us. The human mind has the unique capability of recognizing things like cause and effect, spatiality, and temporality: all of these become the basis for how we experience reality. 

We also each experience life from one specific metaphysical point of view. As conscious beings, we are able to experience life as a subject, and perceive the world as objects: this becomes reality as we know it. I like to call this intermediary point of view our “mental filter”, but it can also be summed up by the word “subjectivity”. It is something that is inherent in perception so that we take immediate sense-information as true without questioning it. As Arthur Schopenhauer points out at the outset of his famous work The World as Will and Representation:

..It becomes clear and certain to [man] that he does not know a sun and an earth, but only an eye that sees a sun, a hand that feels an earth; that the world around him is there only as representation, in other words, only in reference to another thing, namely that which represents, and this is himself… (3)

I agree with Schopenhauer in that the subject-object distinction lies at the heart of the way man commonly understands reality. The conventional definition of existence seems to be “that which exists, is that which is recognized by the human mind”. Without minds, there would be no questioning existence or non-existence. This brings us back to our question, “If a tree falls in a forest and there is no one around to hear it, does it still make a sound?” My answer would be no, because there are no ears around to perceive sound, and sound is something that is relative to a perceiver of sensation. However, the tree falling would be some kind of event because ultimately, nothing happens in a vacuum. Perhaps it would cause a ripple in all of existence, or it would land on some insects and prevent another creature from feeding, or it would damage the tree-house built by natives.

This brings me to my next belief: that nothing exists independently of something else. Instead, everything exists interdependently as manifestations of one and the same substance. This substance is unknowable by human means — but we are able to experience it by virtue of being an expression of it. Schopenhauer puts forth a similar proposition in the latter part of The World as Will and Representation:

Therefore [the mistake] lies not in the defectiveness of our acquaintance with things, but in the very nature of knowledge itself. For if our perception, and thus the whole empirical apprehension of the things that present themselves to us, is already determined essentially and principally by our cognitive faculty and by its forms and functions, then it must be that things exhibit themselves in a manner quite different from their own inner nature, and that therefore they appear as through a mask. This mask enables us always merely to assume, never to know, what is hidden beneath it… (195)

This mental filter or “mask” is the reason that we do not normally experience reality as it is, but only how it appears to us based on our experiences and concepts formed. For example, we assume that there are causes in people and objects that serve as catalysts for other events to happen — but if everything is the same substance, how can one thing affect another? Schopenhauer uses his “Principle of Sufficient Reason” to describe why our mind acts in this way. To paraphrase his explanation: we use the concept “cause” as an explanation for the occurrence of an effect, which only exists for the human understanding, instead of percieving events as they are . For us, there is nothing without a reason for why it is that way, and not another way. This way of reasoning transcends any experience. Perceived causes are merely distinguished expressions of the same universe that are participating in the same perceived moment (imagine waves moving on the surface of the ocean while the bottom is still).

You might be wondering at this point about a “true” reality, or something that is capable of experienced as it is, despite our cognitions of it. The philosopher Immanuel Kant called objects of that nature “things-in-themselves” and as his contemporary Schopenhauer uses the term as a springboard to explain his ideas. He posits that things-in-themselves cannot be known AS things-in-themselves, because knowing involves a subject, which means that knowledge can only arrive at a representation of the thing-in-itself, and neglect to “capture” what the object ultimately is. Although there is a reality that we are all a part of that underlies all experience and distinctions, it is only known through acting naturally and knowing the self; this means that one must lose the false idea of themselves  as a subject in order to grasp what this ultimate reality is like. However, this is not an easy task… our minds tend to work unreflectively, and the processes to blame are deeply engrained in our consciousness.

Works Cited

Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation


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