Yes I know, the age old ethical conundrum isn’t exactly worded like that, but in effect the question stays the same.

The beauty in the question is that it makes you realise how subjective everything is, even science. One of my physics teachers would say that it makes a sound but not a noise – noise being a subjective judgement. Another went on to explain that when the tree falls a part of its kinetic energy is transferred into vibrations and it was only when these vibrations came into contact with a sensitive membrane like an ear-drum is it interpreted by the brain as a sound. Of course hands would shoot up and we would ask unnecessary questions like – does it have to be a human brain? Could the birds and animals hear sound? What if a person was deaf and he could not hear it but his friend could? Anything to disrupt the class!
Then Quantum Mechanics comes along and gives us the Observer Problem. Basically this means that as all events are essentially random, we can’t be sure they’ve happened until they have been actually observed. Forget the sound, now we are questioning if the tree even fell!
Sometimes the answer could change with technology. It was only a few years back that the Pioneer spacecraft recorded the sound of interstellar space. No one had ever heard that before. So would that mean that the sound of interstellar space only occurred for the first time when the Pioneer went up, or has it been there all along and only now did we have the technology to hear it?
The philosophical debate would take an altogether different direction. Just because we are not there to bear witness, does it mean that the event never occurred? If a person is blind, does it mean there is never a daytime? Or say, if we are unaware of somebody’s suffering, does it exist? We can only be aware of it if they tell us or visibly exhibit it. So maybe the tree made a sound, cried out in pain, and we just were not there to hear it. Or maybe pain is an altogether human emotion and does not exist unless there is a human to experience it as such.

Was the final answer yes or no? I am still not sure. To quote the great Forrest Gump, “I think that it may be both.”

Of course there is also the possibility that we misunderstood the question entirely and the point was not whether the tree made a sound or not. The all-important point was that the tree fell.

There is this crazy site getodd.com which comes up with a few crazy ‘alternate facts’ and here I stumbled upon this long explanation on “human stress syndrome”.

Even though plants do not show any changes to the naked (or lensed) eye, when a human is in their presence systemic biological changes have been discovered that have grave effects on plant life when a person is within 300 meters. This effect is called “human stress syndrome”.

I wouldn’t laugh this off. Maybe it’s not factual. Or maybe we haven’t yet got the tools to prove it. But when you consider the havoc that we have wrecked on the environment with afforestation and climate change, I really would not be surprised if we were giving the plants PTSD.


Written for Saturday Stream of Consciousness prompt wood/would


One thought on “If a tree falls…

  1. Perhaps there are always observers and we are not aware of them. Impressive stream of consciousness- so coherent and well structured. My stream of consciousness normally takes many tangents and includes shopping lists, fleeting memories and trivia.


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