Thursday, March 8, 2012

If a Tree Falls, and There's Nobody Around... It's Very Confusing

I stumbled across this blog post from NPR yesterday. It seemed interesting, so I started to read it. It begins like this:

"The human mind is more amazing than the universe," said my teenage daughter the other day. "How come?" I asked. "Well, it all really starts in our heads, doesn't it? Like, without our minds there wouldn't be a universe."


I'm glad that this line of thought came from a teenager, and not from the Dartmouth theoretical physicist and professor of natural philosophy who is the author of the post. I realize that something in the approximate vicinity of this way of thinking about things has a long and somewhat distinguished history, but seriously. The universe contains human minds. There is no way the universe is less amazing than the human mind. It might be just as amazing as the human mind, but since the universe contains the crab nebula in addition to human minds, my vote is for more amazing. Anyways, that's not what I wanted to talk about. I wanted to talk about what he says next.

It got me thinking. The rift between what is and what is perceived is at least as old as philosophy itself. Yes, it has something to do with the popular "if a tree falls in a forest and no one sees it, did it fall?"...


That's as far as I got before I had to stop, walk away, and pour myself a bourbon. When I read shit like this, a piece of me dies. There is no possibility of any interesting question here. It literally answers itself. If a tree falls, did it fall? Yes, it fell if it fell. If the tree falls, whatever else might happen, it falls. To be fair, he says he thinks the answer is 'yes.' But to be more fair, this is supposed to be a smart, well-educated person. His research centers on how non-living chemicals made the transition into life.* I realize that we're in an age in which public intellectuals are a rare breed, and so maybe we should just take what we can get. But I really feel like we're entitled to expect better than this. Not just anyone is cut out to be a public intellectual, and at the very least the person should be capable of knowing a profoundly easy question when he sees one.

--Mr. Zero

*Which, to be clear, is a fascinating and important topic.

8 comments:

Big D said...

He also seems to have gotten the thought experiment completely wrong. The usual phrasing is 'If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?'

This one has a less obvious answer, and even the idealist admits that, if a tree falls in the forest without me perceiving it, it still falls!

Anonymous said...

I use 12:26's corrected version in my classes to show the value of physical and mental event language. Define "sound" as a physical or mental event, and the answer is respectively yes and no. I even describe how we could use a sound-wave(physical event)-activated camera(sans mic)synched to a graph-paper acoustic recording device to show that a physical event sound occurred (graph squiggles synched with the silent video of the tree falling) when the tree fell. So it demonstrably made a sound that no one ever (mental-event) hears.

Anonymous said...

It gets way worse. My favorite:

http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn16769-concept-of-hypercosmic-god-wins-templeton-prize.html

$1,000,000 that guy won...and I struck out on the job market.

Duck said...

I like the labels on this post, all of which are entirely appropriate (that is, once you take "enduring mysteries" in the intended sense).

Anonymous said...

Well anon 5:32, if you're going to have a God of the Gaps, you're gonna want some high-quality gaps!

Anonymous said...

Not a fan of Bishop Berkeley, I take it?

Mr. Zero said...

Not a fan of Bishop Berkeley, I take it?

I'm no Berkeley scholar, but I doubt that he would have put the question that way. I suspect that Berkeley would want to say something like, "if there's no one there to see it, the tree doesn't exist in the first place, so a fortiori it didn't fall." Whereas this person is asking us to consider a story in which the tree falls, and then asks whether, in that story, it fell. Maybe I should take a moment to do a truth table, but my view is that If p, then p is true for any p.

And although I see why there's a clear and immediately interesting question about the nature of sound that Big D's corrected version of the question exposes, since there's a clear sense in which sound is a sensory experience, and sensory experiences depend for their existence on an experiencer. So, on this view, an unheard "sound" would not be a sound at all. But there is no comparably obvious way in which the existence of "tree fallings" depends on the presence of an observer. By the time you get to Berkeleyan idealism, you've wandered pretty deep into the Empiricist Epistemological Swamp.

So anyways, no disrespect to the Bishop was intended. And I guess I think that if prof. Gleiser had Berkeley's ideas in mind, the proper respect for Berkeley and his views demands that he state them carefully, and not in this careless and transparently self-refuting manner.

Bearistotle said...

Limerick objection to Berkeley:
There was a young man who said God,
must find it exceedingly odd
when he finds that the tree
continues to be
when no one's about in the Quad.

Limerick reply to objection:
Dear Sir, your astonishment's odd
I'm always about in the Quad
And that's why the tree
continues to be
Since observed by, yours faithfully, God