When the tree falls in the forest, the sound is only due to language

The classic, cliched question goes:

“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

The non-philosophical part of question is easily answered.

  • If a tree falls within an extant medium, and
  • there is consequent vibration within that medium, and
  • there is an organ which can detect such vibrations, and
  • the organ generates impulses, and
  • it sends these impulses to a brain, and
  • that brain interprets the impulses as something the brain itself labels as sound, then
  • there will be sound.

If the tree fell in a vacuum there would be no vibration of anything. No medium, no sound. No ear, no sound. No brain. no sound. In fact, if we did not have ears connected to our brains our language would be unable to come up with words for ears, hearing or sound. If we had no word for sound then there might well be vibrations when the tree fell, but there would be no sound. The non-philosophical answer then becomes that if we had no word in language for sound then there would be no sound. When a dog or a bat detects vibrations at frequencies that our ears cannot detect then such signals never reach our brains to ever be classified in our language as sound. What an animal might interpret in its brain when its ears detect signals is whatever that animal interprets it or labels it to be.  Only if we define the word sound to loosely mean what any brain may interpret on receiving signals from any ear-like organ, could we say that the animal discerns sound.

The philosophical part of the question, however, which considers perception, observation and existence is much more interesting. There are many things we cannot directly experience with our limited senses. But we can infer and/or deduce that they exist by their interactions with other things giving changes which we can observe directly. We extend our senses by creating wonderful instruments which then produce changes observable directly by our traditional senses. We “see” in the ultraviolet or the infra-red only because our cameras convert these UV or IR signals into images that do fall within our visible range.

But what of all that we cannot observe, directly or indirectly, by our limited senses and our finite brains? Is it so that if something cannot be observed, cannot be perceived, cannot be inferred to exist by any interaction it has with anything else in this universe, then it does not exist? Or is it merely that we are ignorant of its existence? Philosophy is, of course, about asking unanswerable questions. Once a question can be answered it leaves the field of philosophy.

Take bongism for example. We cannot observe it, perceive it, infer it or deduce it. It has no known interactions with anything else in this universe. But it is the imbalance in bongism which caused all existence in the first place. It is the answer to the question “Why do things exist at all?”.

Does bongism exist?

It must do, since I have a word for it.

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