If a tree falls and I’m not wearing my hearing aids, does it make a sound?
One morning last week I was sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee when I noticed something odd out the window. We have a large, old, beautiful and very decrepit barn. From where I was sitting, a tree trunk seemed to be leaning on it. It’s a woodsy overgrown area, so at first I thought I just hadn’t noticed it before.
Later I went out to look more closely and saw that the tree trunk had pierced the barn roof, leaving a hole about six by eight feet, now filled with tree trunk. Not only that, as the tree man told me later (see photo), the trunk had snapped off, hit the sloping ground, and then flipped back up, like an Olympic pole vaulter. I’m sorry I missed it!
But I’m more concerned that I didn’t hear it. It must have made a loud noise as the trunk cracked and fell and an even louder noise as it sank into the roof. It was a windless night, and quiet.
I have a dog who barks at people coming to the door and at stray raccoons and other creatures who venture too close to the house. But the cracking tree doesn’t seem to have phased him. Maybe because it was one (or two) short sharp sounds. That may be why I didn’t hear it either. I have some residual hearing, though, and it dismays me that I could miss something so dramatic.
But back to the question. It’s a play on the old philosophy trope, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” An amusing essay in Medium by John Hydrisko attributes it (or the idea of it) to George Berkeley, an 18th century Irish philosopher whose belief was summed up in the phrase: esse est percipi (aut percipere); to be is to be perceived (or to perceive). For Berkeley, Hydrisko writes, if the tree is not perceived it doesn’t exist. “If you asked George Berkeley, ‘If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it? — he would probably cut you off, “What tree?’” No one there to perceive it. Thus it doesn’t exist.
The Oxford English dictionary defines “sound” as “Vibrations that travel through the air or another medium and can be heard when they reach a person’s or animal’s ear.” But if they reach the ear and are not heard, are they still sound?
Scientific American, back in the 18thcentury (thank you again John Hydrisko), summed it up: “Sound is vibration, transmitted to our senses through the mechanism of the ear, and recognized as sound only at our nerve centers. The falling of the tree or any other disturbance will produce vibration of the air. If there be no ears to hear, there will be no sound.”
Of course there were ears to hear: all the little critters in the forest have some form of hearing, and in many cases it’s far more acute than ours. So, If a tree falls and I’m not wearing my hearing aids, does it make a sound? Ask the deer and the raccoons and mice. The answer is yes.
Katherine Bouton is the author of “Shouting: Won’t Help: Why I and 50 Million Other Americans Can’t Hear You” and “Smart Hearing: Strategies, Skills and Resources for Living Better With Hearing Loss.” Both are available in paperback or as an ebook through Amazon.com