"If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?"
I think I was in 5th or 6th grade when I first heard that question. I don't remember the context of it at all, but I remember giving it some serious thought. My instinctual answer was "Yes, of course it does. Something is real whether or not anyone sees or hears it." But something about the origin of that question made me feel like there must be more to it than a yes or no answer so I tried to understand.
I heard the question again in college when I was studying world religions. It was in some context related to Buddhism and meditation.
Now I know that answer isn't as simple and "yes" or "no" and here's why, I thought. There is something under the surface that I don't understand yet... but what is it?
I've heard that same question come up colloquially, usually as a way to make fun of the "deep" thinkers that are actually shallow and say meaningless things. I've laughed along with the crowd about the silliness of trying to make things that are inherently gibberish have a greater meaning and about the way that people try to use "wise" sayings that actually are useless sayings to make themselves feel better about themselves... but even when I laughed part of me wondered... But what does it actually mean? Why even ask it? What's underneath the question?
I hadn't given this question much serious thought since college (10 years ago) so I was surprised when last month as I walked the dogs it suddenly jammed its way into the forefront of my brain.
"If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?"
"What?" I asked the voiceless voice that had suddenly posed this absurd question, "I don't know. Yes and no, it's just a test about you-- whether you see life as objective or subjective."
The voice waited patiently for me to finish this observation.
"If you believe in an objective reality," I explained, "then yes it makes a sound no matter what because reality is based on what IS and not what is perceived. If you believe in a subjective reality that no because reality is only based on PERCEPTION. So it's more of a personality test than an actual question."
But then the voiceless voice posed a new question, "If you perceive a world that no one else can see, does it actually exist?"
My answer was, "No, reality isn't based on my perception it's based on what is really there."
"And how do you know what is really there?"
"Because other people see it too-- oh"
Then I saw what I would like to call a vision but would best be described as a very vivid daydream which I felt that I was not in control of. In that-- whatever it was-- I saw a much more 3-dimensional, moving, and absorbing version of this:
And then it was replaced with something like this:
And then I saw that the terms "subjective" and "objective" were actually the same thing and it was a trick of words that had caused me to believe that they were different. Do you see the trick?
In the first question objectivity is based on the idea that something exists whether it is known by anyone or thing else or not. Subjectivity as it relates to the first question is based on reality only existing in relation to whether people see it or not.
But when you ask the second question the two words suddenly switch meanings: objectivity becomes based on what the majority of people can perceive and agree on as true and subjectivity ends up meaning what only one person perceives as reality.
It reminded me of one of the first magic tricks I learned as a kid. I don't remember the name of it but I'm sure it has one. The trick worked like this:
You cut a piece of paper into thin strips and tape them together to make a figure 8, except that you add two twists into the figure 8 before closing it. Then you cut the strip down the middle along the figure 8 and when you finish you have 2 interlocking loops. Here is a simple sketch of it:
So if you cut the convoluted figure 8 on the dotted line you end up with two completely separate but attached circles.
We do this every day with dichotomies. We believe that opposites are 2 separate entities that are somehow attached to each other. Some people believe that we should try to separate them completely and others think we should accept that they are intrinsically linked, but what we don't see is that not only are they attached but they are actually the EXACT SAME THING.
If we could reattach them we would end up with a figure 8 again, a constant flow from one side to the next.
In this way I saw that "objectivity" and "subjectivity" were not opposites to be balanced but exactly the same thing that exists in unison.
And then I realized I had spent so much time trying to figure out if there was an "objective reality" or not and if so which one it was. I had made myself sick trying to understand which of the realities that I lived in was real-- feeling that one was objective and one was subjective when in Reality they were the same thing and it didn't matter.
Reality is BOTH. It's what we see and don't see. What we agree on and don't agree on. What science has been able to study and what it doesn't understand. It's everything and nothing and I've heard that said so many times before but never really understood it. Now I see this pattern in so many things and it's exhilarating in a way. I don't know exactly what to do with seeing this or if there is anything that needs to be done, but I see how I've spent so long trying to force myself into only one ring of this perspective and in doing that I've become trapped in things that are incomplete and when I step back and stitch the rings back together I see things moving from one space to the next and understand that everything naturally turns from one thing to another if you unite the rings and follow them long enough-- so there is no reason to worry about it eventually you can get to both.
Doubt leads to faith, faith leads back to doubt. Love leads to fear, fear leads back to love. Insanity leads to clarity which leads right back to insanity... and none of it matters because it's all the same and all of it matters because it's all the same.
Simply saying these contradictory things in unison means nothing and that is why they become useless jokes, but when you actually start to see them things look different and I can't explain any more than that right now because I don't know any more than that right now. Things just look different to me now and I'm intrigued to find out more.