If a tree falls in the forest, does it exist if nobody’s looking?
S ince this same example and question came up twice in three days in private conversation, I thought it might be useful to translate into a blog post.
The question itself was meant to spur philosophical discussion around observation, knowledge, and the nature of reality.
Well, how metaphysical. 🙂
The first time it came up in conversation, it was around the ideas of philosopher George Berkeley who advanced the theory of immaterialism (a.k.a. subjective idealism) – that physical objects are merely ideas in the mind of the person perceiving them and therefore do not exist if no one is there to see them.
The question was posed, “Is this similar to the observer effect in quantum physics?”
In relation to quantum physics, the observer effect is essentially when anything interacts with sub-atomic particles (be it other matter or what we would deem to be a sentient being), which exist in a state of probability, and causes a wave function collapse – meaning that the various states collapse into one outcome.
Below is a video of a cartoon version of one of my favorite theoretical physicists, Dr. Fred Alan Wolf, explaining the observer effect.
The second time this came up in conversation, just a couple of days later:
Friend: “Just read your post on non-linear time. I think back to my past, and my parents past, and the time period they grew up in, and think that isn’t really the past. It is still happening. You could theoretically visit 1972 or 1942, just like you could visit Rome. Kind of cool to ponder.”
Me: “Yep. Although ‘happening’ is a little misleading. ‘Existing’ is a better term. Nothing ‘happens’ until you see it happen. Your awareness passing through it is what gives the appearance of ‘happening.'”
Friend: “So a tree falling in a forest doesn’t make a sound if you are not there to hear it?”
In terms of Berkeley’s philosophy that nothing exists until you perceive it
and whether this is the same as the observer effect in quantum physics –
it isn’t, really, because Berkley says the tree doesn’t exist if you aren’t observing it.
The metaphysical interpretation of quantum physics says the tree not only exists, but it exists in every possible state – both fallen and not fallen – simultaneously, and it is only when you observe the tree that it falls – or doesn’t, depending on your observation.
And if you take into account multiverse theory, the tree actually falls in one reality, and it doesn’t fall in another.
So not only does the tree exist in every possible state, simultaneously, so do you, along with every possible moment in time, and what you observe is your limited awareness moving through a tiny fraction of those possible moments.
Now – the real question after all of that is this: does the tree have awareness? If it does, then the tree can fall or not fall all on its own, without a human (“sentient being”) needing to observe it. And if everything has consciousness to some degree or another, as metaphysics suggests, then even simple matter interacting with a particle wave is an observation in the conscious sense. You can see just how big the truth of reality just became.
But it doesn’t matter anyway because the tree still exists in all states and if a human were to come along and observe it, they would see the reality that most closely matches their current vibration.
This is how we manifest our lives independently of one another and yet co-create them at the same time.
But back to that original question:
Funny how it’s a matter of perspective.
My first reaction to the reading was WOW. Your words captured a theme woven into my life right now. The reading has emboldened me to take back my power and inspired me to research some books, get back to meditating and provided a focus.Dina