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So, If a Tree Falls When No One's Around Does It Make a Sound or Doesn't It?
by David Rudd Cycleback

(c) cycleback 2003, 2005 all rights reserved

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Many arguments are not caused by disagreement over the main ideas, but that the arguers unknowingly define terms differently from each other. Arguers may have different definitions of war, peace, work week, formal attire, animal, automobile, tall, stiff drink and sexy, even though they both assume they are using identical definitions. Once the parties mutually set the definitions (which they didn't do in the beginning), they are often surprised to discover how much they agree with each other. Many arguments, many conundrums, many philosophical debates exist simply because parties never thought to mutually define terms.

 

An age old question is "If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear, does it make a sound?"

The answer to this question depends on what is the definition of sound, and a key to the discussion is the determination of what sound means.

Is sound defined by the act of a human or other animal hearing? Or can a sound exist with none around to hear it? It would seem the smart thing to start by looking up the word sound in a dictionary.

I looked in one dictionary and two encyclopedias. One encyclopedia said that sound is defined by the ear detecting (hearing) the vibrations in the air. This would mean the tree in the question would make no sound if no one is around. The other encyclopedia and the dictionary defined sound as the vibrations itself, whether or not someone is around to hear them. By this definition, the tree would make a sound even if no one was around.

As you see, the famous tree debate isn't a matter of philosophy but of word definition. The difference between "Yes, it makes a sound" and "No, it doesn't make a sound" can come down to the arbitrary choice of definition, the picking of a favorite dictionary, the outvoting of 2 reference books to 1, the flipping of a coin, a show of hands. Depending on what definitions used, the answer of Yes and No can describe the same forest scene. Is one sound definition superior than the other? Not that I can see. They're just different.

People also have differing definitions of the word one in '…no one is around to hear…' Some people think deer, birds and mice count as ones, while others think only humans count. The definition of one can also determine whether the answer is question is Yes or No.

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Certain words have strong connotations in a culture, and people intentionally play around with the definitions so they can apply words as they desire. If patriot is a popular label, people will fiddle with the definition so that they are defined as patriots and their enemies are not. If patriot is an unpopular label, the same people would define the word so that their enemies are patriots and they are not. These shameless self serving manipulations of definitions are common during political campaign season, but also during our daily lives. What may be a lie when someone else does it, is a fib if you do it.

Notice these instances involve people being emotionally attached to a word no matter how it is defined. It's word numerology.

When I was in high school, the quarterback for the football team came to school wearing a pink sweater. He spent the day saying, "No, it's coral."

 

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