Home > Culture, Philosophy > A Tree Falls in the (I need a week in the) Woods…

A Tree Falls in the (I need a week in the) Woods…

Near this time in 2007 I posted a little thing on an old saw in philosophy that cuts this way, “If a tree falls in the woods, and there is no one there to perceive it, then does it make a sound?” Since I think I’ll need a week off and the post raised a little debate, I decided to recycle the post. Philosophical skeptics such as David Hume and Bishop Berkeley are largely responsible for the notion and the incessant debate that surrounds the idea. They were so consumed with the mechanics of human perception they doubted the existence of a world that existed outside the human mind.

Once upon a time, Mr. Grim and I were knocking around an idea for a story and this notion of perception came up in regards to freedom. If there is a secret cabal [you know, like the vast neocon conspiracy to wrest control of our government (of course to update this, it’s a vast leftwing consipiracy)] influencing/manipulating society without their knowledge, is that society free? Is their freedom contingent on their own perception? Is ignorance really bliss?

Seriously, in terms of perception, if a deal is made between two parties, and both parties are satisfied by the deal, haven’t they both come out ahead because of their perceived value of the exchange in question? I pay a buck fifty for the Sunday paper because I believe the value of the contents are worth more than my buck fifty, and the newspaper company is convinced the buck fifty is worth more than the paper (the paper is at least suitable to wrap fish, unless it’s the New York Times). Too capitalist a perspective? Or is freedom not a commodity that can be valued or traded in a market?

For Mr. Grim and I, the notion was relative to the observer. If I am unaware of the manipulation moving me in a specific direction, then I would consider myself free to act. If and when I become aware of the manipulation, then I also become aware of the constraints on my freedom. The question becomes whether or not there is a locus of perception greater than myself that defines an objective reality that everyone shares.

Is there an objective reality? Does it make sense for us to hash things out for the best course of action? For Bishop Berkley it makes sense, and Ronald Knox wrote a limerick that comments on why:

There was a young man who said “God
Must think it exceedingly odd
If he finds that this tree
Continues to be
When there’s no one about in the Quad.”

“Dear Sir, your astonishment’s odd;
I am always about in the Quad
And that’s why this tree
Will continue to be
Since observed by Yours faithfully, God.”

I like these limericks, Mr. Grim likes these limericks, and I figured you might like them. A last question to everyone then: Does the tree continue to be?

Cheers all.

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  1. John
    July 28th, 2009 at 21:50 | #1

    The tree is there, whether you can see or hear it. Philosophers who ask these questions were just put here to annoy us.

    Freedom though, is both relative and dynamic. We are free by the terms of whatever society has determined for us, because total freedom would be complete anarchy. If there is a law prohibiting you from doing something then you are not completely free.

    Alcohol is a good example. It was legal, then it was illegal, then it was legal again, but there are still limits as to it’s use. Are we free to drink alcohol? Yes and no, look what happens if you drive or show up at work drunk.

  2. The Skald
    July 29th, 2009 at 23:01 | #2


    Philosophers who ask these questions were just put here to annoy us.

    That was chuckle worthy! 😛 I also agree with your assessment of freedom/liberty – I believe it is dynamic. I only believe it is relative in the sense that we tend to compare it to what we believe to be an objective ideal… kind of like the tree that is there whether you can see it or not.

    I think the founders tried to afford us the closest thing to absolute liberty without being anarchy – just enough government to avoid anarchy without smothering individual liberty. It is so dynamic that “Congress shall make NO law abridging the freedom of speech…” is progressing toward a list of illegal words.

    Yikes! Time for work so I can pay for this vice 😉 Thanks for the comments John, you are an excellent read 😉


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