Let me convince you that a tree doesn’t make a sound

If a tree falls and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound?  After you’re done laughing, let’s think about this. This is not a stupid question: it brings up fundamental questions that are still fundamental, even for scientifically minded people.

Before indulging in The Matrix hypothesis and talking about how the external world doesn’t exist, I’m going to start with what’s not controversial. First, animals perceive the world differently than humans (some drastically different). Second, among humans there is variation (due to various physical and psychological causes). Conclusion: the external world and the world we actually perceive are two different things. It is interpreted, processed, constructed, measured–by our sense organs and brain. In other words, the diagram above is a fiction; we do not see an exact copy of the tree “out there”; our eyes are not giant gaping windows that “let the tree in” so to speak. Naive Realism is false. Again, not controversial so far.

And if you’re still not convinced that your eyes are playing tricks on you and that your sense organs are all sacks of shit, consider two more facts: (1) sense organs evolved (like everything) and thus survival are their main concern–truthful representation of the external world is not necessary their concern at all. Whether you see the berry as white or red, all it cares about is what works. As Williams James would say, the truth is what works. For us believing folk, a nice way to put it would be: God made you so that you would survive rather than be an astrophysicist–be happy He did. (2) sense organs detect change more than anything. Vision is not like a video camera that is always recording everything like a faithful steward, not even close.  Not to mention that memory, state of mind, personality, beliefs, language, societal norms–they can all affect the way we perceive things, literally. Let’s stop here.

Representational Realism

So what is happening here? Most common sense people will say there is a physical tree “out there”, made of physical stuff (atoms) having certain fundamental properties: size, shape, texture, mass. Those properties are “really out there” and our sense organs pick up on them the best we can. Okay, cool. But notice color is not on that list. Green is nothing more than the way light reacts with our retina/brain. Color is not “out there,” light is. The tree has the potential to be perceived as green and brown when light bounces off it and hits our eyeballs, that’s all. This isn’t controversial either. Qualities like color, heat, loud, bitter, the smell of a fart–they are all quasi-real, in limbo, secondary, dependent. I hope you feel the world crumbling. Color seems pretty fucking real to me thank you very much!

Enter the Idealists

Some people just scrap the whole idea of an external world altogether. We don’t need it. When I’m dreaming, I see green trees, I move through space, I eat cake, I cry (hell, I even have sex and ejaculate sometimes). All in the mind, mental, not caused by physical objects. There is no external tree causing my perception of a tree in the dream. So why can’t reality be the same way? Well, it can. The Matrix, although improbable, is possible. We could all be “plugged in” right now. Descartes imagined a powerful Evil Demon that might be tricking us, pulling this fake reality over our eyes just for the hell of it. George Berkeley simply replaced the external world with God. God doesn’t need physical matter, a useless middle man, when He can just implant sense experiences directly to our mind. We are living in God’s dream, God’s mind; God holds up reality. As a believer, this is a very tempting position to take. There is a simplicity to it, sort of. Kant replaced the external world not with God, but with an unknowable world, a foundation, a world that causes our perceptions but one we can know nothing about–except that it must exist.

So does a tree make a sound if nobody is there to hear it? No. Or, sure, God hears it. Or, the question itself makes no sense. That’s really the point here. What do we mean by a tree, after all? Green, brown, particular shape, particular feel, particular smells, etc. A tree is nothing but a group of sense experiences or possible sense experiences, therefore to talk about an unperceived tree makes no sense at all. To be is to be perceived in some way. Yes a tree has size, shape, texture, and mass. All those qualities are real. But notice those qualities, just like color, are qualities we perceive the tree to have. They are real because we perceive them, simple as that. Yes we can say the tree is made of atoms, but that just means if we look in a microscope we see it’s made of smaller stuff, and smaller stuff, etc. We can speculate about what’s really “out there,” but all we really have is our perceptions, all we have access to is the end product (in my diagram above, it’s the thought bubble). We can only look at the world through eyes, smell the world through noses, and feel the world through touchers. We cannot float above our body and brain to see what the world really looks like when nobody is looking at it. Human reality is human reality. There is something out there, but who knows what that is? Perhaps it’s really a pink, squishy ball that’s causing my perception of a green, hard Sugar Maple. As long as we all perceive the tree, nobody cares.

Let me convince you that a tree doesn’t make a sound

A blue box in your head proves you have a soul

Philosophy calls it the “mind-body” problem or the “mind-brain” problem, and it’s one of the main problems in the history of philosophy and the philosophy of science, believe it or not. Here’s why. Close your eyes. Now picture a blue box over a white background. Focus on that for a while. Now ask yourself: where is the blue box? In your head? Of course not: if we cracked your skull open, no box, just grey matter, neurons, synapses. Well, you say, that’s because the blue box wasn’t real. Really? How so? Was it not really blue, as blue as any other blue thing that you have seen? Was the background not really white, as white as a dry-erase board? Surely, then, even if we call it an “imagining” or “picture in our head,” and even if we admit that we cannot feel the box or touch it, and even if we explain how this actually works in the brain, the blue box remains a reality; it is somewhat real; after all, it looks identical to a real blue box on a white background! In other words, it’s not obvious at all what the hell the blue box is. So, if we cannot simply banish the blue box from existence, and if it’s not in our brain (although it’s clearly caused by our brain), then perhaps it’s in our mind (whatever that means). And when philosophers use the phrase “mind,” they historically meant “soul” too; that is, the soul is where we have all our experience, perceptions, thoughts, memories–in a word, consciousness. The theater of the mind.

And just like that we prove the soul. Well, not really I’m afraid; you can’t prove anything (although Descartes thought this was the only thing you could prove). There are several answers, replies, and rebuttals to this simple little thought experiment, and many people will simply laugh at the fact that philosophers think about these things at all. Yet books are still being written about it by intelligent people from various disciplines, both academic and popular. And I believe these little puzzles suggest at something. I call these sorts of things hints–it’s a hint that reality is more than meets the eye.

Picturing a blue box in your head, of course, is just a subset of the larger human ability to think, to be self-aware, meta-conscious. To have the very peculiar ability to think about the very thing that is doing the thinking–our brain, which just doesn’t seem right damn it. Even if you don’t believe in mind, it’s bizarre. Thus the history. For Rene Descartes (pronounced “Day-Cart”), the existence of the mind (not the brain or body) was the only thing we know for sure exits. He famously said “I think: therefore I am.” He could doubt that his body and brain existed–perhaps they were illusions, like a dream–but he could never doubt that a thinking being existed (i.e. himself), even if he was plugged into the Matrix this was a self-evident truth that his entire philosophy rested on. The philosopher of science Dan Dennet would say “mind” is nothing more than a word we use that means “brain.” Mind is reduced to brain. A thought literally is a group of neurons in the brain, nothing more (“I am having a neuron X34 right now”). The philosopher John Searle gets a little more complex. He says we will always have to describe the mind and its contents in a fundamentally different way than the brain and neurons. Therefore, they sort of have a special ontological status and always will. But he doesn’t want to be a “dualist” which to me sounds like he wants to have his cake and eat it too. Most religious philosophers are perfectly fine with saying we have a brain that causes events in the mind, and that they are different things and one doesn’t decay and this is all okay because a transcendent God exists so I’m pretty much open to that kind of stuff. 🙂

I prefer to think of the everything–brain, trees, body, galaxies–as a manifestation of Mind, instead of Mind as a manifestation of matter (which I admit makes a lot of sense, after all mind took millions of years to evolve in the first place…I’m using Mind in a special metaphysical way so fuck off this works). In the tradition of Berkeley, Kant, Emerson, Philosophical Idealism is the belief that Matter is on some metaphysical level an expression of Mind, as a painting. My entire life is a manifestation of my own mind. If you were to look in my brain, you would find a manifestation of the choices of my ancestors, then my parents, then myself, and the Author of Nature in the first place. And this is a beautiful way to live my life.

A blue box in your head proves you have a soul

Idealism: or, What if God was the Matrix?

Not to be confused with optimism or happy thoughts–which I also believe in–philosophical idealism is the idea that all our perceptions are mental phenomenon, rather than physical, material, external, phenomena. They are “in the mind” just like dreams. But they are real. Idealism defines reality in a very simple way: reality is what you feel, hear, see, smell, and experience. That’s it. No abstractions. A tree is how we perceive it.

Sounds crazy but think about it. While you are dreaming you have perceptions that are real. You see, feel, walk, hear, and have a range of emotions. They are, of course, mental, in your mind, yet real. So why can’t reality be like that?

According to George Berkeley (and me) reality is exactly like that. And God is the dream maker. We live in God’s dream, God’s Matrix. When we wake, we exit our world and enter Gods. It’s uniform, coherent, mathematical, beautiful. When we look at a tree, we are looking directly at one of God’s ideas; or, God is implanting an experience in us. When we do science, we are uncovering the laws and rules of the Mind of God, the Grammatical Rules of the Author of Nature. Malebranche said we “see all things in God” and he meant it. For those who believe in God, it’s an incredible, magnificent idea. Jesus said that people will look for the Kingdom of God, asking “Is it up there? Is it over here?” No, the Kingdom of God is within you, but men do not see it. God is present and immanent in a way we didn’t even expect, “in whom we live, move, and have our being.”

So does a tree make a noise if nobody is there to hear it fall? Yes, but only because God is there to “hear” it.

The metaphor is tempting. Also, you cannot really disprove it. That’s the real bitch of it. We really could be living in the Matrix right now. We also could be living in God’s dream. Or neither. Just admitting that it’s a possibility is amazing from an intellectual standpoint. So much for certainty! The point is not to denigrate the amazing world we live in; it’s to help make sense of why it’s so amazing, to put it in a larger context. As Emerson said, Idealism looks around and feels that the universe is, somehow, at bottom, in its essence, mental, spiritual, mind-like. Matter is an expression of mind, not the other way around.

Idealism: or, What if God was the Matrix?


Transcendentalism was a group of intelligent, socially conscious men and women walking around Massachusetts around the mid 1800’s. Think Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau (although several women were major parts of the movement). Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance,” the most uplifting words that have flooded my eyes, changed my life forever and continue to do so. I re-read Emerson yearly. Also Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” I will warn readers that the language and writing style of these transcendentalists can be rough-going and non-sensical at times, but for me it always penetrates my soul, leaving me with wisdom that is non-propositional, felt, based in conduct.

They took their name partly from Kant‘s “transcendental idealism”. They accepted that a world exists beyond our perception of reality. There is a “transcendent” reality. Secondly, the world as we perceive it is, in part, a mental construct interpreted by our brains, “in our minds” so to speak, mental rather than physical. At bottom, Emerson says, Mind is primal, not matter; mind comes first. Thus they were “idealists”. They were not anti-science.

They were anti-establishment, anti-authority. In other words, they agreed with Kant’s definition of Enlightenment: think for yourself. They lived it. They were against slavery well before the Civil War. When Thoreau disagreed with paying taxes to pay for a senseless war, he didn’t pay them. He went to jail instead. This inspired Gandhi. When Thoreau disagreed with the materialistic consumption of America, he lived in the woods and wrote one of the most influential essays in the world. They disagreed with each other and themselves. “Do I contradict myself?” said Whitman. “Very well. Then I contradict myself. I am large; I contain multitudes.”

They believed in the indomitable spirit of man, the amazing power of the self. We are God. “I am part and parcel of God,” said Whitman. Therefore, we can do anything. Yet, amazingly, they were humble men. Emerson, an incredible man, was also tortured by his potential and his struggle to do great things; it haunted him.

They were unabashed optimists. Emerson, whose life was a series of family tragedies and suffering, was the most optimistic among them: “Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear.”

They shared the religious and moral impulse, yet a fierce individualism found most of them in the ranks of Unitarianism, a pluralistic form of Christianity at the time. They hated dogma and loved the Divine so much they could not keep a religion. Emerson was a Unitarian preacher for a time; Thoreau’s religion was nature; Whitman’s God was in daily events: “I know nothing else but miracles.”