If a tree falls in the woods, and no one is around, does it make a sound? While some believe this is an unanswerable¬†koan designed to clear the mind and achieve zen enlightenment, there actually is an answer: no, it does not make a sound. What it would create would be vibrating particles that require a hearing recipient to understand it as “sound.” Consider if there was a bat present at this spontaneous tree felling; it would not produce a sound so much as a sonar “ping.” The bat would translate this event in a much different sense than a human being. Without an interpretive subject, a tree falling in the woods essentially becomes describable only in mathematical terms.

Falling-Tree

Ask not, did it make a sound? Instead ask, what does having sensory organs at all tell me about my relationship to reality?

Consider an alternative: if a fire hydrant is in a pitch black room, is it still red? Again, the answer is no. Colour requires the reflection of light off of a surface, to be interpreted by the rods and cones in our eyes. If there is no light bouncing into our eyeballs, there is no colour. Presumably there is still the hydrant’s aspect of “red” that would be present while the light is gone, to be reinvigorated when the light returns, but our understanding of it as red is so far removed from its objective aspect that to call it “red” is a misnomer and used only for the sake of comprehensibility. It’s not difficult to imagine a different kind of biological organ that interprets light differently from our human eyes, similar to how a bat would differ from us in interpreting sound waves. The essence of a thing and how it interacts with the world around it outside of how a subject perceives it is thus quite impossible to experience.

This is what Thomas Nagel would refer to as¬†The View from Nowhere. Immanuel Kant would call it the noumenal world. A conceptual world that is unavailable to us based on the fact that our understanding of “worldness” comes entirely from our uniquely human senses. We may be able to understand it in conceptual terms, and science has certainly given us more refined definitions with which we can do so, but its existence in any sense of the word that might have value to us is completely irrelevant to how it objectively “exists.” Music, colour, sensuous touch, and decadent taste; these things have meaning insofar as they are wholly human, oblivious to any other interpretation. Even our scientific tools can only function along the spectrum that our senses allow us to interpret, meaning that the concepts we have of the noumenal world may be far from its totality.

Contemplating a tree falling in the woods should not lead to a conversion to Buddhism, but to philosophical revelation about our relationship to reality.