If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
Yes. Yes, it does.
The fact that we consider this question at all profound is very revealing of how we think. The mere thought that there could be something outside of our own perception blows our minds. There are stars that we will never see. There are countries we will never visit. There are restaurants in New York that we will never go to. There are kinds of fish we will never eat. For those of up who grew up in crowded neighborhoods, there are old high school classmates whom, despite having grown up with us, having our very same upbringing, we will never meet. There are billions of things that we will never personally conceive of, and we accept that they all exist… intellectually. But this acceptance is a learned behavior. It goes against our instincts, and we’re born struggling to believe that those things really exist.
You see it when you play a game of peekaboo with a young child. Your child has, of course, met you before. They love playing games with you, cuddling up to you, sharing their lives with you, but the second you put your hands in front of your face, you cease to exist, because they don’t perceive your existence. Then, you open your hands and there you are! The child sees you, and suddenly you’ve come into existence! The child has someone to love, to smile at, someone to care for them and feed them and—wait, no… no, the child was mistaken, you in fact never existed. All there is in life is a pair of hands.
As I grew up, at some level I believed that my Grandma only existed on Sunday afternoons. There was no such thing as an omelet in the afternoon. School did not exist when I was playing in my room. Even when I got older and moved to Portland after college, the first time I spontaneously decided to go to the ocean in the middle of the night, when I got to the coast at 2:30 a.m., I was actually pretty surprised it was there. It was at that point that I realized that I had thought of the ocean the same way I had the state fair, or Christmas season. It was only at a certain time of the year that the carnival rides were built. There was only one month in which it made sense to put a tree in the living room. And it was only in early August that we put out 187 quintillion gallons of water between Japan and Oregon so my family could watch it splash.
So I get it. I get why we feel a sense of awe when we ponder whether sound only exists for us to listen to. But it’s not a great philosophical question for which there is no answer. When forced air causes molecules to push off of each other, it creates a ripple of energy. When that ripple cascades to a person’s eardrums at a certain frequency, our brains interpret it as sound, but those sound waves don’t go directly to our ears. When caused, they go everywhere, even through solid objects.
Now, that explanation is definitely not as sexy, and more importantly, it goes against that idea of how our perception dictates reality. There’s just something… missing from a physical description of sound waves that doesn’t capture what sound is. How can we describe a recording of Pachelbel’s Canon as just “a ripple of molecules that happen to hit one’s ear”? So, we feel obliged to explain how that purely scientific description fails to address the true philosophical question. Perhaps this is a better question: “if there is no ear interpreting the disturbed molecules in the air, can you really call it sound?”
Maybe not. But that wasn’t the question. To capture that profound emotion we get from the original question, we feel the need to redefine sound. The raw science, while absolutely accurate, is unsatisfactory in describing the world around us. But if we are going to assume the authority of redefining the world around us, of dictating what is reality and what is merely in our minds, we have to be very careful that we continue to see the forest for the trees.