If a tree crashes to the ground in the midst of a forest, does it make any sound?
The question is being repeated in a current TV commercial for a popular insurance company. But before insurance was "invented," this question challenged the minds of philosophers everywhere.
"If a tree falls in a forest…" I can recall discussing this puzzle during the late 1940s, when studying the Philosophy of Science at St. Bernard’s Seminary, Rochester, N.Y. (The course, programmed for the last year of college, which was actually the second year of philosophy, was taught by the Rector, Msgr. Wilfred T. Craugh, one of the most learned and brilliant men I have ever known. Even today, a half century later, his celebrated lectures are recalled by alumni with obvious appreciation.) The subject of the tree in the forest occurred in the context of the philosophy of George Berkeley, as his system related to Einstein’s theories of relativity.
Berkeley (d. 1753), who became an Anglican bishop, is known especially for his key premiss: Esse est percipi (Latin for, literally, "existence is perception"). Today, many British philosophers are inclined to view Berkeley as being among the precursors of the school of linguistic analysis. In his time, many thinkers dismissed his ideas as extravagant fantasy, others as simply ridiculous, still others as absurd. Dr. Samuel Johnson’s assessment is well known. Kicking a large stone, the famous Johnson declared, "I refute him [Berkeley] thus."
But, to return to the tree in the forest metaphor. When challenged as to reality, Jesuit Frederick Copleston wrote in his multivolume A History of Philosophy, Berkeley "had no wish to deny that the table [read: tree] can be said to exist in some sense when there is nobody in the room to perceive it." (Vol. 5, p. 12, in Doubleday Image Series, 1964)
Again, what about the tree crashing in the silent forest, as recalled in the current TV commercial? In response, I can recall Msgr. Craugh’s lectures at St. Bernard’s over 50 years ago. He cited a limerick composed by the great Msgr. Ronald Knox (in my view, the finest homilist in the 20th-century, English-speaking world), entitled God in the Quad, which Mark Saur, a colleague in academic quests, found for me word for word on the Internet. ("Quad" here refers to the configuration of the buildings at Oxford, in the shape of squares or quadrangles.) The verses read:
There was a young man who said, God Must find it exceedingly odd To think that the tree Should continue to be When there’s no one about in the quad?
There was a young man who said, God
Must find it exceedingly odd
To think that the tree
Should continue to be
When there’s no one about in the quad?
Dear Sir: Your astonishment’s odd;
I am always about in the quad.
And that’s why the tree
Will continue to be
Since observed by, Yours faithfully, God.
(The second stanza is not usually attributed to Knox. There is a third stanza, whose author is anonymous. The tree, I vaguely recall, was a juniper.)
Berkeley, incidentally, visited America in 1728, hoping to raise a college in Newport, R.I. But adequate funds were not forthcoming, and he returned to England and Oxford by 1731. I am told that a memorial plaque in Newport still marks his presence there, which was, ironically, real, not simply perception.
Berkeley’s literary output was quite substantial, ranging from metaphysics and theology to dense moral admonitions about the state of his homeland. An example of the latter was An Essay towards preventing the Ruin of Great Britain, wherein he pleaded for a return to religion. He also dared to take on in debate Newton’s theory of fluxions in The Analysis or a Discourse Addressed to an Infidel Mathematician.
Born near Kilkenny in Ireland, Berkeley became an active voice in Irish public affairs; as a bishop, he did not even hesitate to write pastoral letters to Catholics.
Father Copleston faces the obvious question as to how a prominent philosopher could possibly deny the existence of matter. The question is especially difficult to answer in view of one of his key works, Principles of Human Knowledge.
However, as the Jesuit philosopher observes, "Berkeley himself … was very far from regarding his philosophy as an extravagant fantasy, contrary to common sense, or even being at variance with the spontaneous convictions of the ordinary man." The irony is that Berkeley viewed common sense as a defense of his side.
In a sense, one suspects that people will believe what they want to believe, regardless of the evidence. We see this attitude well and alive today, don’t we, in the pro-abortion lobby, defying all the facts? How does the saying go? "Don’t bother me with the facts; my mind is already made up."
By the way, as far as TV commercials go, I prefer the one about Susie, the little girl who, with the help of her cell phone (a gift from her father), turns her lemonade stand into a major business.
Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript