Friday, November 24, 2017

The Answer Key, Item #1

I have an abundance of important points on issues of consequence to make in the posts to come on Ordain and Establish, but I take the present opportunity in order to conclusively answer a question that I think that people have been debating for far too long.*  Tonight, I give you The Answer Key.

This long-debated quarrel has been over the question: "If a tree falls in the woods and no one is close enough to hear it fall, does the falling tree make a sound?"  This question is reputedly difficult to answer.  However, the answer is "Yes"; assuming that the circumstances concerning the falling of the tree are such that a person would have been able to hear it if that person had been within earshot, the tree would make the same sound in the person's absence.

I am aware that many people will be skeptical of or will disagree with my answer (though probably only for the next one or two minutes).  I ask them: if audio recording equipment were left behind in the woods near the tree in question and that equipment were recording at the time of the falling of the tree: 1) Would the audio recording equipment record anything as a result of the falling of the tree, and 2) If so, what would the equipment record?  It is my privilege to supply the answers to these questions as well: Yes, the equipment would record something resulting from the falling of the tree.  Specifically, it would record the sound produced by the falling tree, which the falling of the tree will have produced even though no person was present to hear it.  Additionally, I will insist (and rightly so) that the equipment will have recorded that sound regardless of whether any human being ever listens to that recording and hears its reproduction of the sound that was recorded.

I am also aware that a number of people will attempt to contrive (and might even believe themselves to have succeeded in contriving) a response that will rescue themselves from the necessity of agreeing with what I have written.  For their benefit, I offer the following:
  • If a tree falls somewhere in the woods but the only person within earshot happens to be deaf, does the tree make a sound?  Does the tree make a sound that the deaf person is simply unable to hear, or does the fact that the person is deaf prevent the sound from even existing?
  • Would you say that deaf people can only fail to hear sound while in the company of one or more persons possessing an unimpaired sense of hearing, on the ground that a sound cannot exist unless it is actually heard by someone, which cannot happen when the only person within range to hear the sound lacks the sense of hearing?
  • If a given tree in the woods does not fall at all, but a person a few yards away from the tree happens to experience auditory hallucinations that cause the person to perceive the sound of the tree falling, even though the tree did not fall and create the kind of vibrations that the human ear usually receives as "sound", did the tree nevertheless make a sound?  In the familiar, original scenario, some would deny that a falling tree does not make a sound (even though it makes vibrations of the very kind that register as sound) simply because no one actually would perceive the sound, but in this modified, hallucination scenario, sound is perceived, but this happens without the ear even needing to receive the vibrations which when processed by the ear and nervous system are what result in perception of such a sound.
  • If no person is close enough to the falling tree to hear it make a sound, if we were to suppose that those circumstances prevent the vibrations created by the falling of the tree from qualifying as "sound", what word would we then use to describe what any animals in the vicinity happen to hear?  Is the availability of animal ear-witnesses sufficient to allow the vibrations to qualify as "sound", or would such animals hear something other than sound when a tree falls and no person (in possession of the sense of sound) is present to hear it create a sound?
  • Before any human being had ever seen the far side of the Moon, did the far side of the Moon have an appearance?  Does the far side of the Moon have an appearance only intermittently, manifesting an appearance whenever a human being is positioned as needed in order to see that part of the Moon (and is, at that time, actually looking at the Moon)?
  • When a person is alone in a room without any reflective surfaces in it, does most of the person's face become invisible?
  • Given that I am not colorblind, if a colorblind person and I both look at a rainbow and then I close my eyes or look away from the rainbow, does my act cause the rainbow to have fewer colors than it had possessed only moments earlier?
  • Is it possible for food to possess flavor before it has been tasted, or does its flavor exist solely while it is being tasted by someone?
  • If a used (and fragrant) diaper is left in the woods and there is no one around to smell it, does it still possess an odor?
  • (If the person (though I do not know who that person is) who was originally responsible for the current push for the Indiana General Assembly to raise Indiana's legal smoking age from eighteen to twenty-one years had simply kept that idea to him- or herself, would the idea still have been a noxious stain on the history and the reputation of human thought itself, embracing a plan of contemptuously thrusting the reach of legislative power (or attempting to do so) beyond the outermost bounds of what any honest and thinking person could countenance as conceivably being within the just and legitimate limits of the legislative power?  Of course it would!)
The answer to the original question has always depended on how we happen to use language and what meaning we have come to understand certain words to have.  If it were firmly established and widely known that the meaning of the word "sound" necessarily must either refer to (on the one hand) the vibrations that we may sense or else to (on the other hand) the way we perceive and experience those vibrations when and if they are received and processed by our ears and brains, no one would ever have found the "Tree falls in the woods" riddle either interesting or difficult.  However, though the meaning of that word has not been definitively established to that degree of precision, I think that considering how we use that word and certain analogous words that relate to other senses, the "Tree falls in the woods" question is not difficult to answer.

* Interestingly, though people have long been divided in the conclusions that they have reached concerning this ancient controversy, the partisans for the two opposing sides have not yet resorted to building up an ideological mythology for themselves, respectively, or to replacing rational arguments with far-fetched blanket accusations about the supposed motivations and intentions of the people on the "side" opposed to themselves.  Perhaps a little investigation and study of this phenomenon would be justified, with a view of finding ways to bring about the same state of things in relation to the plethora of highly divisive controversies that preoccupy large numbers of people with stimulating distractions having very little to do with the issues that they believe themselves to be fighting each other over.

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