Philosophy Bro explains complex ideas of philosophy in easy to understand language, created by Tommy Maranges, the author of Descartes' Meditations, Bro.

Mailbag Monday: Trees and Existentialism

Mailbag Monday: A weekly segment that covers readers’ questions and concerns about all things Philosophy, Bro, and Philosophy Bro that don’t quite fit anywhere else. Send your questions to with ‘Mailbag Monday’ in the subject line.

Derek Brown writes:

If a tree falls in the woods and nobody’s there to hear it, does it make a sound?

Bro, great question. When I was in high school, my Social Studies teacher asked us this and I was like, “Of course it does, you British asshat. How could it not? IT’S FUCKING PHYSICS.” But really, this is a question of epistemology. How the hell could we know if a tree does in fact make a sound when it falls in the forest? Here are some different perspectives:

Scientists insist that the sound vibrations would occur. Does that mean a sound gets made? Well, some bros, like the high school version of Yours Truly, think that sound waves are the same as sound, just like light at a certain frequency is the same as blue. Other bros say, “bro, what if what you think is blue, I perceive as red? Maybe I have the same sensation when a tree falls as you do when you hear a C-note on a piano. Don’t assume things about my mind, bro, it’s rude.” And those bros would say “No. Sound isn’t the vibrations in the air - 'sound waves’ are just energy waves that make sound when they hit the ear. Sound is just a sensation. So, by definition, sound requires somebrody to hear it.”

Of course, this assumes that sound waves always get made every single time a tree falls. Hume and the skeptics would say you can’t possibly know one way or the other. He calls this a 'matter of fact’, which means that its opposite doesn’t imply a logical contradiction. You could never add 1 + 1 and fail to get 2; teh mathz, they work, and that’s just how it is. On the other hand, if the sun didn’t rise tomorrow, it wouldn’t violate logic. Physics says it should rise, but physics is based entirely on what we’ve observed in the past. What if we woke up tomorrow and gravity was just fucking different? When physicists were done panicking and crying, they’d have to start figuring shit out all over with observation and experimentation, which would be hard as shit because they’d be floating around. FACT: Stephen Hawking can’t do math if he’s floating. Meanwhile philosophers would be like, “We told you the scientific method was fallible, bitches!!Now get off your epistemic high horses and suck it!” Er… Sorry, that’s a sore subject for Philosophy Bro.
So, if a tree falls in a forest, and no one is around to hear it, Hume says, we can’t know if it makes a sound. You want to say that it will. But are you sure? Bro, are you positive? What if this is the one fucking time that it doesn’t? How big of an asshole would you feel like then?

But there’s an even deeper question here - how the fuck do we even know there is a falling tree? You cansay there is a falling tree, but if no is around to hear it or see it, how do know the tree itself exists? George Berkeley founded idealism which says that all that exists are minds and sense perceptions. Berkeley thought things were just bundles of ideas or perceptions. God coordinates everyone’s perceptions so that we see and hear the same things at the same time. God is just a bro like that. So if you heard a tree falling, that was just God giving you the impression that you heard a tree falling. Idealists today are divided on the question - Berkeley thinks the sound is perceived by God alone, but other idealists think that God wouldn’t even bother with the idea of the tree, let alone the sound, if no one was around to hear it.

So, really, this is a question about your general perspective. The answer that intuitively occurs to you is a good starting point, since there are so many perspectives. Thinking about this question will help you understand what assumptions you bring to the philosophical table, which, as we learned Thursday, isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

J writes in the comments:

For mailbag monday I humbly request you do a brief history of Existentialism if at all possible.

Sure thing, bro. Existentialism is a relatively broad movement, like empiricism or rationalism, that has a rich and wide-ranging history, so much so that people debate what is and isn’t existential. But here’s a brief history of the roots:

Sartre coined the phrase “existence precedes essence”, which has since been a rallying cry for existentialists. That is, there is no essential quality to being a human that we all share. There is no 'essence of humanity’ we just are: from there you have to make yourself.

Existentialism is concerned with what it means to be, and it’s fiercely individualized. The central theme running through the whole movement is that there is no 'universal’ human experience. It started out with Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, who don’t and do believe in God respectively, and who are equally vehement about the question.

So Kierkegaard takes this individuality to mean that we each have to relate to God on a personal level, that there is no universal set of rules or principles for salvation - we have to work it out with “fear and trembling”-which comes straight from Phillipians 2:12 and was the name of one of his major theological treatises. Nietzsche, on the other hand, thought that the Übermensch would forge his own way with brazen disregard for any imposed morality, any code that tried to tell him how to live; he made his own life because he was the only one living it.

Camus rejected any attempt to make meaning and he thought the Übermensch was a ridiculous project. Nietzsche thought we should breed an Übermensch, Camus was like, “Bro, what a waste of time, why even bother? SPOILER ALERT: The Übermensch is going to die too. And then his life will be as meaningless as everyone else’s.”

Since then, existentialists both theistic and atheistic have tried to figure out how to best represent our individuality. But this, first and foremost, is the requirement for existentialism–a rejection of any sort of universal definition of man beyond his need to make himself.

Want more? check out SEP article on existentialism

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