The Tree In The Woods

Say you’re caught standing over a dead body, blood dripping from your sleeves, a blood-stained knife in your hand and as you’re lead away, you’re screaming “I’m glad I killed the bastard!”. And then you’re acquitted because the prosecution could not prove you guilty. The question is – did you do it?


Now, the reason I’m asking is because I had a most interesting and fierce debate this evening. It all started with crossing the road at red light. Since noone saw me break the law – did I actually break it? Can you break the law as such (Das Gesetz an sich, to put in Kantian terms) or do you break the law only if and when you’re found to have broken it?

Or – as the old logical riddle goes – if a tree falls down in deep woods and noone hears it, did it actually fall down?

I may seem to be asking high-school trick questions, but it occured to me that answers to these and similar questions are the essence of one’s moral, political and social outlook. Not that one is inherently better than any other, but – if you’ll allow a slight generalisation – on one hand we have the conception of One Truth, where things either exist (happen, are said, etc…) or not. On the other hand, however, we have the Relativistic Conception, where things only exist if we and others perceive them as existing (happening, being said, etc…).

Ergo, if I’m convinced that reality is one and incontestible, I’ve broken the law. If, however, I’m convinced that reality is only what we perceive (in this case, what a court of law perceives), then I haven’t broken the law.

What do you think? Did the tree fall even if noone heard it fall?

Tommorrow: how the two conceptions create a cultural and political rift in Slovenia

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Agent provocateur and an occasional scribe.

55 thoughts on “The Tree In The Woods”

  1. If I saw a guy standing at a red light with no cars in sight, I would think he is plain stupid. Laws are not always good and therefore must be broken. What us humans shuold follow with more fervor is the inner moral that tells us not to do to others what we wouldn’t like others do to ourselves.
    Regarding the tree falling, such relativisation is crap. It is like saying: I will cheat my dearest but since he will never know, it’s like it never happened.

  2. A brutal example, but to play the devil’s advocate: If your partner doesn’t know, then (from his point of view) it didn’t happen. No?

  3. I do not want to be the advocate of the other side, because I am inclined to agree with the devil’s advocate 🙂

    However, this is like walking on a mine field.

  4. as the old logical riddle goes

    “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

  5. Yep, your analogy with the tree isn’t the best – if the tree has fallen then you can see that it’s on the ground. The typical question asked is whether it makes a sound – because a sound is transient and leaves no immediate give-away that it happened.

    And as for waiting for a green light, I do it whenever I’m in Slovenia. You NEVER know when a car is going to come out of nowhere at 200 km/h; it’s best just to be safe and wait. And also the police are ridiculous about it, as in, they can actually fine you for crossing the road where there isn’t a zebra crossing, or if you cross when you have a red light. It’s a bit ridiculous really.
    Here (in the UK) you can cross whenever and wherever you want to – it’s just, if you cross at red, you can’t normally sue if a car knocks you over. But sometimes you still can, depending on the specific circumstances – basically pedestrians are treated like mentally retarded people and can do absolutely anything they want and it’s CARS that have to adapt. I LOVE it. 😀
    (I have no idea what relevance this has to anything mentioned here. I’m just procrastinating – sorry.)

  6. > car is going to come out of nowhere at 200 km/h;
    > it’s best just to be safe and wait.
    Yeah, sure. If the car comes – let’s say in the middle of LJ with that speed it surely will stop at red lights 😉 The only safe thing with Slovene drivers is to stay away from roads 😛

    > Since noone saw me break the law –
    > did I actually break it?
    Sure. But as we say in Germany: “Wo kein Kläger, da kein Richter” (where no suitor, there no judge). Meaning: law broken, but no consequences.

    > If your partner doesn’t know, then
    > (from his point of view) it didn’t happen. No?
    It dit happen. However it has no consequences. Risks are, however:
    a) you get a guilty conscience and just feel bad
    b) you get a guilty conscience which has consequences (e.g. screw up relationship or so)
    c) at some point in future your partner could somehow find out

    If you want to look at it like that, the cheating didn’t happen – for the partner. But you cannot be sure, things stay that way…

  7. @Aja & Alex: Admittedly, the analogy isn’t the best… But if you see the tree fall, you know it fell 🙂 And if you are seen crossing the red light by a copper, you broke the law 🙂

    @Dietmar: Far idea being for me to approve of cheating. I’ve been on the receiving end of that stick and all of what you wrote happened to the other party 😉

    What I’m getting at – pehraps from a wrong angle – is the question of whether there is one reality which exists objecitvely, or whether reality is continuously constructed by ourselves based on information (and perhaps ideological foundations) we have.

    As far as Slovene roads and drivers are concerned – I agree with both Alex and Dietmar.

  8. Did the tree fall even if noone heard it fall?

    Whether you heard it fall or not does not affect what truly happened, merely your perception thereof.

    So yes, the tree fell even if you did not hear it fall.

    Same with the question of whether it made a sound. If sound is defined as mechanical vibrations transmitted by an elastic medium, such mechanical vibrations are produced and transmitted regardless of whether you are there to witness them.

    Same goes with breaking the law. If you took (or omitted, for that matter) an action and thereby violated the law, the fact that you took (or omitted) such action is not changed post festum due to the fact that other members of the society you are a part of have been unable to prove that you have taken (or omitted) the action. And neither does it change the fact that the action or omission was in violation of the law.

    Pure ans simple, as simple as Serbian bean soup in fact.

  9. Ah, the good doctor to the rescue! :mrgreen:

    But what if your “perception of reality” is your reality? I mean, if there were only one, true reality, why can’t we agree on so many issues?

  10. Yes, you broke the law if you went through a red light, even if no one saw you. The fact that no one saw you and you did not get caught means only that there is no (human) record of the fact. Still, you know you went through the red light and that knowledge may affect how you behave in other situations (e.g. “Hmm, I got away with it! Maybe I can get away with something else!) Running a red light when you are not putting yourself or anyone else in danger is, I think, a very trivial matter. But cheating on your partner is not. Even if he or she does not know it, the fact that you did it reveals (if only to yourself) something about your attitude and love and respect (or lack thereof) for your partner, or about your sexual needs, or whatever. And this (self-) knowledge does have an impact.

    Finally, for those theists out there, let me add this bit of doggerel:

    There was a young man who said, “God,
    I find it exceedingly odd,
    That a tree, as a tree,
    Simply ceases to be
    When there’s no one about in the quad.”

    “Young man, it’s your reasoning that’s odd.
    I am always about in the quad.
    So a tree, as a tree,
    Continues to be,
    Since observed by yours faithfully, God.”

  11. Agreed… But – again – if there is only one reality, why are there so many opinions on any given matter?

    I mean – we all take so many things for granted, that it often escapes us that they are more a matter of convention than hard facts.

  12. You don’t give up, do you 🙂

    Mixing apples with plankton now.

    There is but one “original image”, but many perceptions of it. And how they are interpreted depends on where one is standing in the arena and what parts of the original image he can see from his particular standpoint, the lighting if you will. Your perception/opinion, which is obviously biased by your physical and other limitations (nothing personal, holds true for any human), does not affect the original image. Gosh and here we are at the allegory of the cave…

    Gotta get you to talk to my Ph teach. Mine rocked while yours rolled 😈

    Cheers from one who takes very little for granted.

  13. But in the end, that’s all there is to it, right? If you take away the original image, you’re still left with perceptions.

    And your statement that our perception does not affect the original image is false, in my opinion. It is not a one way street. The image is what you make of it, hence the image is what your perception of the image is. Because the image itself is a convention. Therefore, one is tempted to say that there is no “real” image.

    I’m not really taking sides here and some extremely valid points have been raised (especially relationships-wise, where higher points of philosophy don’t matter a pair of fetid dingo’s kindeys), but if there was an ultimate set of values, rules and duties, wouldn’t everyone conform to it?

  14. You cannot take away the image lest you lose all of its shadows.

    I for one never claimed that an ultimate set of values, rules and duties existed. Values are just one of the sets of goggles we wear when trying to catch glimpse of the ‘absolute truth’. And rules and duties are tools that help us survive as a society.

    The above is merely my perception, naturally 😉

  15. I love this blog for many, many reasons however today you’ve surpassed yourself. Or should I say “yourselves” since as usual the comments are equal to original post.

    The quality of philosophy and writing is of the highest standards and while I can’t claim to follow all the arguments made, I love the fact that the people here are smart enough to make them.

    At the risk of having to reach for my coat again, I’ll just stay a very interested observer. I’ll be perceiving things through my own lens, of course.

    Keep up the good work!

  16. Skipping the replies – just got home and having dinner while having a pleasant read – I’d say you’re going somewhere with this… :mrgreen:

  17. Pengovsky, ask her about atomic particles that start behaving differently when observed

    – and accept it, you’ll never see eye to eye with your girlfriend 😉
    no need to drag philosophy into it
    just joking

  18. Cheating or not, if Slovene politicians read your blog, they finally got a reason to lock you away (namely for self admitted endangering of traffic), if they are “non-amused” about one of your critical posts :mrgreen:

  19. For years we’ve been fretting about the felling of the Amazonian rainforests: “every week an area the size of Wales is laid to waste” is the common analogy. (Why Wales? That’s for another time).

    But it does take make me wonder – what if an area the size of Wales is felled and nobody sees it? How long before nobody sees the Amazon rainforest, because all the trees are gone?

    Won’t somebody think of the trees?

    I need to lay down . . .

  20. Ok, a bit late, but still, there are things, that need to be said, 🙂 and I’ll try to make it short. In this debate I have to side with Peng, since, dr. fil, your arguments are based on a belief in some “original image” i.e. “truth” or definite reality which I would expect maybe from someone in thological faculty but hardly from a political scientist. 🙂 However, as Peng is trying to point out, final reality or truth is just what we make of it. If I claim being Napoleon and you insist that I’m only Luka, well, you are more right than me in our mental universe, but still no closer to the “truth”. Did the tree make a sound? Of course it did, no tree falls silently, yet what sound is, and what we hear, well it doesn’t go beyond our limited minds (nothing personal). If you don’t hear it, then there’s no sound? Bats would disagree. It’s actually not as simple as Serbian bean soup. 🙂 But of course, the above discussions were in fact mixing apples and plankton. To the question of tree, well, there is no absolute reality in its sound, if I sleep with someone else, do I cheat? Totally banal, since this is never a question of reality but only cultural acceptability. You can hardly cheat in promiscuous societies. Did I break the law at the red light. Sure, if such is the law in my country, but what does it have to do with reality or truth? The truth of law??? So the only question relevant here, was the one with tree (or let’s say, is Zebra white with black stripes or black with white stripes?) the rest cannot even be discussed in the same context. Because it’s not even philosophical it’s purely legal or moral.

  21. On the topic of law, justice and such, the Death himself hath spoken (via Terry Pratchett) and he said something like this: You humans are really funny. You think there’s justice and equality and stuff. Now go and grind the Universe into tiniest of particles and search for justice and you’ll never finda any. It’s all just there to make your lives easier. Ypu invented it all. (from Hogfather)

    Another thing about universal laws: I read a few days ago Australian scientist claim a well known and important universal constant describing the power connecting protons and electrons, has supposedly changed for a tiny little bit during some ten thousand years. It needn’t interest us, really, but if it is true, then there are no constants. And if there aren’t any in the micro-world that builds us, who are we to claim there are universal truths about our existence?
    Though I would still argue for them. An unseen falling tree did make a sound, because there was a medium to transform it, sounds waves expanded following good old rules of nature and if there was no one there to hear it, it’s not the tree’s fault. 🙂

  22. We so want to believe that there are indisputtable things around, like law, truth, reality, something solid, something that makes sense,
    science (oh, yes, you claim that, but can it be proven according to the scientific laws?),
    religion (god knows it all and in addition he loves you, so there’s nothing to worry – as long as you go to church and pay enough money for the comfortable lives of clergy of course)
    coz if we start to think about the absurdity of the way we (the most intelligent creatures on earth ?!?) maneged to arrange our lives here on this beautiful planet it’s just too much to handle

  23. @Luka:

    “…dr. fil, your arguments are based on a belief in some “original image” i.e. “truth” or definite reality which I would expect maybe from someone in thological faculty but hardly from a political scientist.”

    That’s sweet coming from one whose blog’s subtitle uses a quote from the Bible 😈
    BTW, dr. fil’s boot camp was at Bežigrad. Do you deny the existence of facts? I dislike the term “truth”, it has a connotation of absolute finality in our own universe perceivable through our limited senses, while I think there must be more to the “big picture”.

    “However, as Peng is trying to point out, final reality or truth is just what we make of it.”

    Sounds like dogma to me ?

    I claim the opposite. What I claim is that there is “something” that may not have the form and shape that we can perceive, but it exists nonetheless. The term “truth” does not seem appropriate. What you are referring to, the ?item’ that is what we make of it, is our perception of whatever there really is.

    “If I claim being Napoleon and you insist that I’m only Luka, well, you are more right than me in our mental universe, but still no closer to the “truth”.”

    I am not interested in who is more right than the next person, those are artificial categories and as you say, only applicable in our mental universe. It is a fact that:
    – you claim to be Napoleon
    – your name as written on your birth certificate is Luka
    As far as facts are concerned, these two facts are not in conflict. You may well be Napoleon with Luka as the name written in your birth certificate. Now if you claim to be the historic figure who probably comes to most of our mind first when somebody mentions the name “Napoleon” and I will claim that you cannot be Napoleon unless you’re his reincarnation, those two statements will be in conflict. Who you really are, however, what your cellular structure is, your DNA etc. will not be affected by what you and I claim.

    The rest of the post I of course agree with.

    Planktonly yours
    dr fil

  24. @alcessa:
    Thanks for the quote, gotta love it 🙂 Though law and justice again are far from synonyms…

    “And if there aren’t any in the micro-world that builds us, who are we to claim there are universal truths about our existence?”

    I for one wouldn’t dare to claim there was one truth that explained every part of our existence. But I cannot accept a total denial of the category of “facts”. Their interpretation is another matter completely.

    ”An unseen falling tree did make a sound, because there was a medium to transform it, sounds waves expanded following good old rules of nature and if there was no one there to hear it, it’s not the tree’s fault.”

    Right. So to go through this again.

    – the three did change its position (say from vertical to horizontal, more or less)
    – because of this, the medium surrounding it (since the tree is growing on planet Earth, this would be air) was transformed and mechanical vibrations were produced and transmitted

    Interpretation: if sound is defined as as mechanical vibrations transmitted by an elastic medium, sound was made. If we defined sound otherwise, e.g. as mechanical vibrations transmitted by an elastic medium and received by an apparatus (or an organ of a living creature – but then how do you define a living creature-) capable of detecting such vibrations, the answer could possibly have been different.

  25. @aja:

    “ask her about atomic particles that start behaving differently when observed”

    Does that change how they behaved before they were observed? By the way, how do you know how they behaved when you’re not observing them?

    And most importantly, with reference to the fallen tree, does your alleged knowledge of how atomic particles behave when you’re not observing them affect the way they behave when you are not observing them?


  26. Let me make that clear: it doesn’t change the way they behaved before we looked at them (i.e.: it doesn’t change the past), but it changes present and possibly future event, because what you see is not actually the present, but only a reflection of the past.

    Therefore you cannot know the present state of the particle and cannot be sure if it even exists. QED

  27. er….

    I’m struggling with this.

    I’d really better get my coat now.

  28. QED indeed 😈

    I never claimed *that you know* the present state of the particle or that you can be sure of its existence.

    I claim that it behaves a certain way (if it exists at all), irrespectively of whether you are aware of it or not, whether you can detect it or not.

  29. @Adriaan: come on over, the sun’s out and the banks of Ljubljanica are calling for late afternoon drinks to be followed up by nice dinners in great company. Exploration by way of taste buds is most certainly one of the highest forms of epistemology 😀

  30. That’s the point! It behaves depending on whether you detect it or not. If it exists at all 🙂 And if you detect it, you either don’t know what it looks like or where it’s headed.

    And if you can’t be sure of its existence, then your “one reality” just disappeared in a puff of logic, no? 😉

  31. I only came here looking for some porn.

    I might be a day early.

    Dr. Fil: The idea of good food, good wine and good company is a persuasive one. I’m setting off now but I’m a slow walker.

    Expect me in about three weeks!

  32. Hold your horses, dr. Filomena, it’s just a blog and just plain old comments,
    you make it sound like it’s tell-the-right-answer
    -or-die sort of thing. I could almost hear the Queen between the lines saying: Off with her head.
    I was just referring to the so called observer effect.
    You had lots of questions for me I have just one:

    How do we know that the sky is not green and we are all colour-blind?

  33. Now they’re bringing the sky into it!

    What did the poor old sky ever do to deserve this?

    Adriaan, you can get good food, good wine and good compnay here at home.

    Not from me, you understand, but it’s out there somewhere.

  34. @Adriaan: ROTFL! :mrgreen:

    @Aja: Blue is just a name 🙂 Oh, and btw: I don’t do girlfriends 😉 I only do women…

    @Smudgeboy: Neither did the tree, but it was sacrificed to science. Or was it? It seems noone heard a thing 🙂

  35. @P: You’re very kind but I am coming for that drink and it will take me 3 weeks. I’ll be VERY thirsty by then.

    @Smudgeboy (or is it “Dave”?): Fancy meeting you here! No doubt we’ll both be trying for good wine, food and company in Antwerp. But apparently not with each other!

  36. dr. Filomena, don’t you dare mocking a holy man or I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger, and you will know I am the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you! For the rest I will have to get back to you later. I’m a bit overcrowded recently, and being omnipresent requires some working overtime.

  37. Luka, great, beside being omnipresent, you’re no doubt omniscient, so could you do humble mortals a favour and clear this most important question about the sky being blue or green 🙂
    We musntn’t do the poor old sky injustice.

  38. Aja, of course I’m “omniscient”, the only department I’m having some problems with is “omnipotent”. Sometimes I just can’t.
    As for the sky, the question is even less intriguing than my example with Zebra. Namely, again as Peng said (damn, the guy is smart, I should somehow recruit him) “blue” is only a name, so this is just a linguistic problem. How do you know it’s “blue” and not “azzuro” or maybe “modro”? Because that specific colour spectre we see down here when we look at the sky, some call “modra” and some call “blue”. However, how one categorizes the clours is culturally specific. So sometimes the sky can be green. For instance, the Japanese use the same word for “blue” sky and “green” traffic light. And surely also yourself can come across the colour you will have trouble deciding whether it’s “blue” or “green”. Doesn’t change the colour of the sky though. So you see, the problem here is not the colour but the “existance” of sky, since if you fly to the outer space and gaze down upon our green planet you will notice there is no sky there. And you could swear it was there just moments ago, when you were looking at it from below.

  39. Luka, well it was just a joke, coz dr. Filomena was taking stuff so seriously,
    but my oh my, was I impressed with the answer, I’m just sorry I didn’t ask something more important, you know, about life universe and everything, coz 42 just doesn’t seem to have much in it.

  40. @Pengovsky: nothing as banal. I am just thinking how I could make profit on you!

    @Aja: well, you blew your chance. I’m like goldfish and you can’t afford me twice.

    @dr. filomena: I’ve been called a certain type of “machine” by women before.

  41. Walk, Adriaan, Waaaaaaaalk!!!

    Smudgeboy, just fly over when Adriaan’s done walking and you can help him recouperate by lending a helping hand with the much deserved beer.

    St. Luka, I repent. Knowing the meaning of the word once saved Indy’s life. Perhaps it shall save me from the wrath of Luka and his faithful disciple. I only have one humble request. Please, do not take the Queen’s name in vain. (Though can’t help but add, ever so anally, that by stating that the name you place on the sky’s color – i.e. its physical characteristics – does not change its properties, makes my point.)

    Six times seven is my cat. I call him Lord.

  42. @dr. filomena: Thou shalt be forgiven. However, I remain ignorant as to which Queen you are refering to?

    @pengovsky: say “slot machine” one more time and I will strike down upon thee …

  43. St. Luka: Oh nay, my faith is being tested. I shall hold on to my belief in your om.. ominous… omni… ominni… omni….. oh hell, your smartassness!

    I want to ride my bicycle
    I want to ride my bike

    Alas, it’s raining.

    Mercuriously yours
    Dr. Fil

  44. @Peng: Something like that, yes.

    @dr. fil: it’s late at night (well, not for you of course, but, after all, there is not one single “reality”. :)) so your hints about Queen, Freddie Mercury and Bicycle race are ringing no more bells in my tired yet holy brain. I guess I’ll just go and pray.

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