the FAQs of Life

frequently asked questions about life, reality and meaning


If a tree falls in a forest and no one is nearby, does it make a sound?

The question is intriguing because it involves the conundrum of whether there is such a thing as ‘objective reality’, independent of human observation. Sound is subjective, so you might conclude that if no one is nearby, there can be no sound. But what if someone has passed nearby and left sound-recording equipment? What if there are birds nearby? What exactly is sound? – elephants can hear with their feet! What if someone hears the sound but is too preoccupied to notice it?

We live on the assumption that reality exists; it seems like madness to assume otherwise. When you leave a room, you don’t assume that its contents cease to exist just because you can no longer see them. Yet your sole experience of those contents comes through your senses, and your knowledge of them is a collection of images based on past experience. So in this sense the world that you think exists ‘out there’ is a world that you have imagined, and are constantly re-imagining, into existence.

Is there a forest? Are there trees? Or does the word ‘tree’ confer a spurious ‘existence’ on what is actually an inextricable part of a vast, mysterious movement, a movement that thought cannot comprehend or grasp? Even when you are in a ‘forest’ looking at a ‘tree’, your mind is unconsciously filtering out everything that doesn’t conform to its immediate agenda (‘firewood!’) and to its limited preconceptions (‘larch!’).

You can think about the question as much as you like, and come up with any response you like – ‘Of course there is sound’, ‘No, there is no sound’, ‘It depends on what you mean by sound’. But these responses are all in the world of idea, of mind. So no amount of thinking can answer the question. You can’t imagine your way out of the world of imagination.

Is there a world, a reality – call it what you like – beyond the limited sphere of our experience, senses and ideas? The question cannot be answered by thought; it can only be answered by awakening from thought. This implies becoming aware of the activities and limitations of our thinking, and of the stillness that comes when thought is quiet.

The Unnameable by Martin Hawes and Steve Ruben