If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
Eighteenth century philosopher, George Berkeley, pondered this question while exploring the theory of subjective idealism—the idea that physical objects don’t really exist unless they can be perceived by our senses.
Later, author and philosopher, William Fossett, added his thoughts:
“Tease apart the threads [of the natural world] and the pattern vanishes. The design is in how the cloth-maker arranges the threads: this way and that, as fashion dictates. […]”
He goes on:
“To say something is meaningful is to say that that is how we arrange it so; how we comprehend it to be, and what is comprehended by you or I may not be by a cat, for example. If a tree falls in a park and there is no-one to hand, it is silent and invisible and nameless. And if we were to vanish, there would be no tree at all; any meaning would vanish along with us. Other than what the cats make of it all, of course. [Fossett, W. (1754) Natural States, R. & J. Dodsley, Pall Mall. London]“
Fossett could have stopped without adding his philosophic meandering. He had the answer: The design is in how the cloth-maker arranges the threads. God, the Cloth-Maker, does the arranging. Not us. And God exists even when we cannot perceive Him with our senses. And so does everything He creates.
I spent time this week in Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine Forest. I hiked off the road a bit, and I came to a fallen, moss-covered tree surrounded by rocks half-buried in earth. God knows where those rocks came from. Maybe they were once the foundation of a rough-hewn settler’s cabin. God knows. I stood under the towering oak trees, their russet leaves framed by a cloudless blue sky. I stood in silence except for the occasional sound of acorns dropping from the trees. I said to God, “Thank You. Thank You for creating me with physical senses to savor the real beauty of Your creation. Thank You that I don’t struggle with philosophical questions about my existence, or Yours. I know, God! I know that You are real and that everything You make is real. I know that if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it—it does make a sound.”
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