I have a young friend named Ellie. She and I have been communicating through emails and texts and blog comments for several months now and last night she posed the age old question, “If a tree falls in the woods does it make a sound?” Now this is a smart girl, so she was not being glib. She was asking a philosophical question about perception and reality. I answered her with absolute certainty, “It makes a sound.”
But this morning at 4:00 a.m., I feel like I needed to think more about the question as it relates to her, and answer with less of a knee-jerk platitude. Ellie’s been through a lot, and I think she was looking for the assurance that things do exist whether we can see them and hear them or not.
Ellie and her dad and her sister Evie are what they all describe as “science people”. I call it the perfect combination of attractive and nerdy – white boards with calculations in the living room; telescopes and prayers in equal measure; deep discussions of books and art and clouds… An understanding that the best of a person is what’s on the inside, while recognizing the outside is what attracts like magnets to metal… They are curious and tactile and experimental. They want to prove things.
And because Ellie was asking me about a lot more than a rotted tree, she deserved an answer with some thought behind it, so here goes:
First, as hard as we try Ellie, we cannot prove that the tree makes a sound. If the tree exists outside our perception of it (sight, sound, touch), there is no way for us to know if the tree exists. We can believe the tree exists, but the riddle has what physicist Niels Bohr called a kind of “infallible conjecture,” neither provable or not provable.
I call it a leap of faith.
I think I may have a better riddle for you. It is said that Albert Einstein asked the question, “Is it realistically believable that the moon does not exist if nobody is looking at it?” Get past the double negatives and think. Can you imagine a world without the moon? Can you imagine a world where your father walked, that did not have a moon shining like a beacon whether we looked up to see it or not?
Today I’m not drinking because if a tree falls in the woods I want to hear it…