The question about whether a tree falling in the forest makes a sound when there is no one to hear it is a philosophical puzzle, which has elicited unending debates in various circles. As Livingston argues, humans need coherent answers to archetypal patterns (12), and thus the answer to this question could be “yes” or “no” depending on how the usage of the word “sound” is interpreted. From a metaphysical standpoint, the answer to this question is in the affirmative because the idea of sound would be interpreted as a physical phenomenon causing a wave of disturbance. This argument underlines realism, which is the foundation of metaphysics. Sound, like religion, could be an “existence beyond the grasp of the five senses” (Rodrigues and Harding 3).
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However, the sound could also be interpreted as a human experience whereby physical signals of a falling tree are delivered to the sensory organs and the brain for synthesis as a form of perception. This point of view underscores epistemology, which seeks to analyze the nature of knowledge. This paper argues that, from an epistemological perspective, when a tree falls in the forest, it does not make a sound if there is no one around to hear it.
The question raised here is an epistemological puzzle because it seeks to understand how knowledge concerning the existence of sound from a falling tree is formed. According to Moser, epistemology is “the theory of knowledge, the philosophical study of the nature, origin, and scope of knowledge” (7). In this case, the focus of epistemology would be to understand how humans acquire knowledge, within what limits, and in what nature. Specifically, in the question of whether a tree would make a sound by falling if no one is around to hear it, epistemology would attempt to understand how the concept of sound is formed in the human mind. This problem demands the investigation of the bounds of what individuals can perceive from sensory experience, with a specific focus on the sense of hearing.
Epistemologically, knowledge can be acquired non-empirically (priori) whereby it occurs independent of prior experience or empirically (posterior) in which case it occurs as a result of or posterior to sensory experiences. In light of this argument, the question of sound coming from a falling tree lies within the boundaries of epistemology. On the one hand, the answer to this question will be “yes” based on the non-empirical perspective whereby a sound occurs whether someone hears it or not because such experience is not needed for the sound to exist.
On the other hand, the answer would be “no” from an empirical point of view because for sound to exist, it has to be experienced in the sensory system, which in this case is the hearing organs. Therefore, it suffices to argue that the question of whether a falling tree will make a sound if it falls in the absence of anyone to hear it is an epistemological issue. The remaining question is how philosophers, such as John Locke, would interpret and answer the question.
John Locke was a philosopher and a physician and thus given his background in science, he would approach this question from an empirical standpoint. As a physician, Locke would be required to examine his patients, establish the cause of their illnesses, and prescribe medication. In other words, patients have to acquire diseases from somewhere – sicknesses are not innate, and thus their sources have to be identified.
Similarly, the idea of sound from a falling tree, according to Locke, should be understood from the perspective of how humans acquire knowledge of the same. As such, Locke would ask whether sound exists in nature or is it a perceived concept formed in the human mind from prior experience. Locke, being an empiricist, would argue that sound cannot exist without being experienced through the hearing sensory. He would refute the idea that sound exists independent of human experience. However, to understand such an argument requires a deeper understanding of Locke’s philosophy.
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The justification of Locke’s answer to the question of sound coming from a falling tree is found in one of his thought-provoking books, “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding Book II: Ideas.” Locke argues, “Our understandings derive all the materials of thinking from observations that we make of external objects that can be perceived through the senses, and of the internal operations of our minds, which we perceive by looking in at ourselves” (18).
In this case, for a tree to make a sound when falling, human senses, specifically the hearing sensory organs, should be involved to perceive the experience, send signals to the brain for interpretation. In other words, materials of knowledge about sound exist or originate from the outside (not innate) and they have to enter the mind for interpretation and creation of meaning. Perhaps to understand this argument better, an analogy could be proffered.
The human hearing or auditory system could be compared to a mechanical measuring device. In this case, human ears simply transfer the act of a tree falling (physical occurrence) to the brain and trigger specific areas in the brain cortex that deal with the perception of such an occurrence (sound). However, the human mind has to interpret this phenomenon and perceive it as “sound” based on the prior experience of a tree falling. Locke argues, “Whatever alterations occur in the body, if they don’t reach the mind there is no perception. Whatever impressions are made on the outward parts, if they aren’t taken notice of within there is no perception” (34).
From this assertion, it could be argued that sound is a secondary quality that only exists in the mind. Just as other concepts associated with human senses (touch, taste, smell, and sight), the sound is a creation of the mind made from the experience of hearing. Therefore, the sound is a human experience and thus a tree falling in the absence of anyone to hear it does not produce sound. Locke would thus answer “no” to the question under discussion.
Philosophical reflection requires people to examine their thoughts and question their beliefs. The question of whether a falling tree would make a sound if there is no one around to hear is a philosophical puzzle and it could be answered from either metaphysical or epistemological perspectives. The question is of epistemological importance because it involves understanding how humans gain knowledge and make sense of the world around them. Locke would argue that sound will not be made if the tree falls in the absence of anyone to experience the occurrence and hear it. Sound is a secondary quality formed only in the mind from an outside physical occurrence.
Livingstone, James. Anatomy of the Sacred: An Introduction to Religion. 6th ed., Pearson, 2009.
Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding Book II: Ideas. 2007. Web.
Moser, Paul. The Oxford Handbook of Epistemology. Oxford University Press, 2002.
Rodrigues, Hillary, and John Harding. Introduction to the Study of Religion. Routledge, 2009.