There’s one perplexing philosophical dilemma that continues to vex scientists, philosophers, and people who live under giant sequoias. It is:
If a tree falls in the middle of the woods and there’s nobody around who can hear it, does it make a noise?
The question, of course, refers to the nature of observation: how can you “look“ at something with your ears? It seems like a stupid thing to do. Try it with an eye chart. It doesn’t work for me, but maybe I’m missing something. The question is also about the nature of sound: is it composed of particles which exist independently, or waves which need to be received and interpreted by the arts critic for the New York Times? I know: it’s one of those annoying, esoteric late night dorm room questions without an answer. Or is it? This is the 21st century, right? As a society, we know so much more now than when the question was originally posed by my roommate Matt in 1991.
A quick check of Wikipedia shows that the question was possibly posed before 1991, maybe even centuries before. See? We have technology! We can find stuff out! Which is why recently, I set out to solve this riddle.
My first approach was to try the most direct method possible: leaving a tape recorder in the middle of the woods. If I went back and saw that there were trees that had fallen to the ground, I would simply play back the recording to see if a sound was made. I couldn’t believe no one had ever thought of this before. I figured two weeks was enough time to leave the recording device there.
When I went back, my recorder was nowhere to be found, because the entire area had been turned into luxury condos. Pretty nice ones, too, with stainless steel appliances, granite countertops, even a rooftop pool and a dog run. But regarding the experiment, not very helpful. Maybe our fast-moving 21st century world was actually going to make this harder, not easier.
My next thought was: are there people who have first-hand experience with these types of philosophical riddles, and can I learn anything from them? For instance, there is another age-old Buddhist question: What is the sound of one hand clapping? My next approach, then, became obvious: I would seek out one-armed individuals and have them clap for me, and see what I could learn.
These people were easy enough to find, but totally uncooperative. They didn’t clap for me, and most of them showed me another kind of hand gesture which, although not technically making a sound, still spoke to me in a loud way.
So, that led nowhere. But I liked this angle, though, of trying to apply learnings from other related philosophical riddles. Maybe personal interviews were not the method to accomplish this. Maybe it was the internet. So I set aside several hours to learn as much as I could online about Schrodinger’s’ cat. Do you know what the concept behind that is? I’ll explain it to you:
Ha ha. Admittedly, I never got far on this one. Have you ever looked up anything about cats on the internet? Right. What even happened to those six hours? Let’s just say it’s a good thing Socrates and Descartes didn’t have the world-wide web. I bet we’d never even know who they are today.
Clearly I had to be more innovative in my methods. I asked myself: how do you get information out of people? Of course: incentives! You know those restaurants where if they don’t give you a receipt, your meal is free? I could try the same thing. I printed a large sign that said “IF A TREE FALLS AND DOESN’T MAKE A NOISE, YOUR NEXT MEAL IS FREE!” I don’t know what kind of food trees like, but that was putting the cart before the horse: if a tree came to me demanding a meal, then that would definitely tell me something. So I set the sign in the middle of nearby woods and waited.
When I went back approximately two weeks later, I found that the whole area had been made into luxury condos. Are you kidding me? Maybe the bigger philosophical question is: is there any place in this country that isn’t being turned into luxury condos?
Now I was frustrated and desperate. My next tactic involved the opposite of incentives: threats! I went out walking until I found a recently felled tree and I dragged it home, where I had created a makeshift interrogation room. Why not ask the sucker directly, right? I didn’t get very far before the tree’s attorney, Gloria Allred, called me to tell me that – maybe the tree made a noise or maybe it didn’t, but I’d never know unless I was prepared for a lengthy court battle. How. Hard. Could. This. Be?
Could it be that it was all just a trick question? There’s an old joke that goes like this:
A: How far can you walk into the woods?
B: I don’t know. All the way?
A: Nope. Halfway. After that you’re walking out of the woods.
Was it possible that there’s no such thing as the middle of the woods? That it was a fictional place like Atlantis or Beverly Hills? I put on my hiking boots and thought about going on an expedition to find the exact middle of the woods, but I stopped before I ever got outside. I was afraid this whole exercise was a trick to try to get me to buy a luxury condo. I wasn’t even gonna go there.
I had basically given up on my quest to solve this ancient metaphysical puzzle. And then one day I was in a Starbucks, enjoying the complete silence inside the coffee shop, when I realized – it’s not silent at all in here. They’re playing Coldplay on the stereo system! How long had I been listening to Coldplay and not noticing it?
That’s when it all came together for me. What if sound is just like Coldplay? What if sound is a pleasant enhancement to your world when you’re paying attention, but is generic enough to virtually disappear when you’re not? What if sound is socially reserved because it’s British? What if sound recently broke up with Gwyneth Paltrow and is just trying to find its way in the world again?
Suddenly, I could relate to sound. I still don’t think I understand it completely, but I felt like I knew it a lot better than when I started this journey of discovery. I was willing to say “I feel you, mate,” and let sound have some privacy for a little while. It was a satisfying enough result for me. That is, unless it tries to reinvent itself and start writing Broadway show tunes or something. Some things I will never, ever understand.