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PhilosophyCenter | Odysseys

Posts from — September 2014

If A Tree Falls

Considerations of Self and World as Dependently Arising

If A Tree Falls

The classic philosophical question, “If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no perceiver, does it make a sound?” is a trick question, because the answer hinges on how we define the word sound. If sound means a certain kind of perception, clearly it makes no sense to talk about sound if there’s no perceiver around to have the perception. If, however, we mean by sound a set of vibrating airwaves that could be heard if there were a perceiver around, then it seems to make sense to grant that the falling tree produces such a set of waves, and so, makes a sound. This is usually where the question is thought to end. A more considered look, however, reveals that it’s just the beginning. If we push the question a bit further, we realize that, like the word sound, the phrase “tree falling in the forest” also describes a perception; we can picture it in our mind’s eye just as we can imagine the sound the falling tree might make. Taking this into account, the question becomes: “If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no perceiver, can a tree—as a word that stands for a certain kind of perception—be said to have fallen (another kind of perception)?” Even hypothetical or imagined experience presupposes some perceiver from whose point of view the experience is an experience, and if we remove this presupposed point of view, we’re left with nothing to talk about! This reveals that there can be no object without a subject—each implies the other. A world without consciousness, then, is a fiction. Reality is rooted in who we are.

We can bring this back to the world of our experience to explore its practical implications. What we call reality is what we call reality. The past, for example, is a construct of consciousness now. Each of us holds to a version of the past consistent with current belief. Shift the belief in the present, and the past shifts accordingly as it is revised by the revised present. As a rule, the elegant efficiency of this process preserves continuity in the recollection of personal history, so this recreating of the past doesn’t seem abrupt. Rather, the self that has revised its past has the sense of waking from a previous view that now shows itself never to have been true. This typically takes the form of, “Oh, I see now, that’s how I thought it was (referring to the former reality), but really it was like this all along (referring to the new, revised reality).”

The new physics recognizes this mutuality of so-called subject and object, that self and world arise dependently, ever implying each other. Beyond this, philosophical considerations suggest that the subjective side of this coin has a causal reach. Change any relevant belief now, in the present, and its dependent conditions change accordingly, whether these are showing up as present, past, or future constructs. The unlimited point of creativity is the living present. We aren’t hostages to past causes unless we believe we are, and in such a case, it’s our present belief, not the past experience, that makes it so. We aren’t doomed to repeat patterns that no longer serve us in the best way we can imagine. Alternative reality tracks that correspond to alternative versions of the self are always available, and always available right now, in the living present, as near as a deep breath and a new choice.

September 26, 2014   Comments Off on If A Tree Falls