If a tree falls in the forest…what was the question?

imagesWhere did this question originate? What does it ask? Why do we care? I quoted this ever-annoying reference to some vague philosopher back sometime, and it caused me to reflect on the fact that I really have no conception of where this question originates. So, I thought that I would do a imageslittle digging and share my discoveries with those of you who happen to have some curiosity about such things. It turns out that the question originates from a philosopher in 1710, named George Berkeley. Berkeley was interested in the concept of meaning, particularly as ascribed by human beings. He taught and believed that meaning originates entirely from humanity’s perception of things. Meaning and existence, likewise, are intrinsically linked together. Thus, if something is unobserved, it does not truly exist according to Berkeley, as meaning can only be ascribed through perception, and existence lies within meaning.

Berkeley himself did not form the question, but left it to William Fossett 20 years later. Fossett asserted that “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”. This concept is an interesting one in a world that is entirely obsessed with scientific discovery. Questions about meaning have greatly lessened in importance over the last century-people are no longer interested in meaning and are rather satisfied with discovering fact. It is this tendency that Max Weber observed when he gave his lecture “On Science as Vocation”. In this lecture, Weber encouraged scientific explorers (note here that science was not taking in the present sense, but merely as the pursuit of knowledge) to engage in questions of meaning and purpose. He asked those who were involved in creating new and wonderful things to ask questions of value. Just because something can be built or created, does not mean that it should be. In his own way, Weber was discouraging developments such as the atom bomb and violent implements. Beyond this, however-he also was calling for a value assessment of developments such as the smart phone (although it arrived long after he was gone). To circle this discussion of Weber back to the question in…question; the philosophy that ascribed meaning is what gives the material world its existence does not have to be rejected in our scientific world. Of course, taken literally-a tree exists and makes a sound without observers. But, without anyone to perceive the event or the consequences of the event (i.e. the tree falls on a house), there is no real significance in the occurrence-it could or could not have happened. Something that resides in a state of complete irrelevance is in a type of limbo for existence. Until the event has some type of influence on the surroundings, it may as well not have happened at all.


Now, why do we care? The question of where meaning and significance comes from is an important one, because it engages in the discussion on free will as opposed to determinism. Jacques Ellul has more recently pointed out that, as politics is becoming increasingly dedicated to “technicity” (being the perfect method for accomplishing tasks), there is a decrease in decision-making. We are no longer controlling our environment, but rather the reverse is occurring. We are being controlled by the tool that we initially used to control. We do what science tells us to do. So then, how do we regain our ability to walk forward in freedom? I would suggest that engineering meaning for our world is a vital part of being human. This is one of the vital aspects of humanity that sets us apart from the rest of creation. In the first book of the Bible, one of the first acts that Adam-which means “mankind”, performs after being formed is to name the animals and creatures of the world. This suggests that it is he that provides identity to the animals. This gives mankind both the honour of ascribing meaning to the world, but also the responsibility to cultivate and care for the world.


What do you think? Is meaning and existence tied together? Does meaning originate from mankind, or is it an inherent part of the world? Does meaning exist at all?


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