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asked Jul 05 '12 at 03:15

Sage's gravatar image

Sage
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The answers posted here seemed to answer the question, "Can something exist without being perceived?" but to answer the question literally, the answer is no. Sound is vibration of the air. The human ear does not "hear" sound, the ear drum picks up vibrations in the air and translates them as sound. Without ear drums, sound does not exist. Likewise, if there are ears to hear but there is no air (such as in space), there will also be no sound.

(Sep 30 '13 at 04:29) AndruA AndruA's gravatar image
Sound is vibration of the air.

Yes! But what is the cause of the vibrations? If they exist independently of a perceiver having eardrums capable of detecting the vibrations, then it cannot be said that the perceiver is the cause of the vibrations.

(Sep 30 '13 at 16:18) Ideas for Life ♦ Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

I agree, perception isn't the cause of vibrations. I guess we need to differentiate vibrations from sound. All sound is vibration but not all vibration is sound. Ultimately, the cause of vibration is air but matter interacts with itself regardless if there is atmosphere or not. The collision of two planets devoid of an atmosphere, would create no vibrations. The collision of two particles in an atmosphere could make a sound audible across thousands of miles.

(Oct 15 '13 at 02:55) AndruA AndruA's gravatar image

When studying perception, one differentiates the sense organs and the stimulus. The sense organs merely inform the brain of the existence of the stimulus. The auditory system is the sense organ in this case, and the stimulus is a sound wave. If a tree falls, sound waves are produced even if no sense organ informs a brain of it. Then the answer to the question is: yes, a sound wave (aka: sound) is produced.

(Mar 11 '14 at 17:00) Juan Diego dAnconia Juan%20Diego%20dAnconia's gravatar image

Hi, dAnconia. Please see the answer I posted here; it explains why the answer is in fact "no." This is because "sound" is a perceptual form -- and perceptual forms cannot exist without a perceiver (any more than, say, a marriage could exist without a spouse). The object of perception (the falling tree and resultant vibrations in the air and ground) of course exist independently of any perceiver, but that is not what was asked about. The form/object distinction is central to untangling the puzzles of perception.

(Mar 11 '14 at 17:15) Greg Perkins ♦♦ Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Thanks for pointing that out! I'm still doubtful on the application of such theory to sound. It is plain to see what you mean with color and flavor--both of the sense organs can physiologically change their forms through experience, but not sound. Sound does not really change unless the sense organ is damaged--which is another thing.

If we continue with the reasoning of the perceptual forms, couldn't we ultimately claim that everything we perceive is not really there, but only in the relationship reality-stimulus-perceiver? Wouldn't that amount to empiricism (which Obj. rejects)? Thanks.

(Apr 20 '14 at 11:27) Juan Diego dAnconia Juan%20Diego%20dAnconia's gravatar image

Hi, dAnconia. You ask, "couldn't we ultimately claim that everything we perceive is not really there, but only in the relationship reality-stimulus-perceiver?" No, absolutely not. The object of perception is most certainly really there -- that is the "what" in perception. You're really perceiving things in the world! You see the car. You taste the apple. You feel the chair you are sitting in. The form of perception is the means by which you perceive it -- that is the "how" in perception. Both are fully real; the "problems" of perception will arise from confusing the what and the how.

(Apr 20 '14 at 16:48) Greg Perkins ♦♦ Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

But we are not really talking of the form by which we perceive sound but of the object which we perceive—regardless of the form. Sound, as an object, as a stimulus, does exist out there and it is fair to say that if a tree fell it woul make a sound even if no perceived was present.

"If someone asks: where is a perceptual object, e.g., a man? It is accurate, even though we do perceive in a certain form, to answer: the object is out there, in the world. [italics mine]" (OPAR, 112).

(May 28 '14 at 13:27) Juan Diego dAnconia Juan%20Diego%20dAnconia's gravatar image

Hi, Juan Diego dAnconia. Have you read the answers below? As we indicate, the form-object distinction is very important, yet you seem to be erasing that critical distinction by simply saying the form of perception we have been talking about is really the object of perception itself. Of course the stimulus of waves in the air exists "out there" -- but that doesn't make it the object of perception, any more than light waves existing independently of us would mean that they are the object of perception rather than the thing being looked at.

(May 28 '14 at 16:20) Greg Perkins ♦♦ Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Oh, I don't mean to erase the distinction, I'm just trying to say that the original question does not ask about the form of perception. I mean, the questioner is supposing there is nobody there to hear the falling tree. The question merely asks if a falling tree makes a sound, and the answer is yes. I know what you mean about form, I just read the chapter you recommended just so I can understand it properly and I did--or at least I believe so.

(May 29 '14 at 00:27) Juan Diego dAnconia Juan%20Diego%20dAnconia's gravatar image
The question merely asks if a falling tree makes a sound, and the answer is yes.

That's true only if, as another questioner mentioned, "Sound is vibration of the air." But the form-object distinction says that the term "sound" denotes an interaction between object and observer, not just the physical phenomenon of acoustic vibrations. Greg has further pointed out that the form-object distinction is essential in resolving "the traditional puzzles around the senses which Skeptics have deployed from Greek times to the present to sow confusion." Perhaps one or two examples of such puzzles would be helpful for those (myself included) who may not be greatly familiar with traditional philosophy.

(May 29 '14 at 00:59) Ideas for Life ♦ Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image
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The short answer is "No." But by itself that is generally worthless... :^)

This is actually a subtle issue because we usually don't need to separate what we are perceiving from the form in which we are perceiving it. Indeed, this is so rarely-used a distinction that most people don't even have the vocabulary for it. (And while it is a seemingly simple and lighthearted question, understanding this distinction will actually arm you with the fundamental answer to the traditional puzzles around the senses which Skeptics have deployed from Greek times to the present to sow confusion!)

Take color, for example: color is the perceptual form in which we grasp certain facts about the molecular structure at the surface of an object, via their causal interaction with light (absorbing some wavelengths while reflecting others). Yes, that's an odd way to put it -- we normally just say that the ball is red. But the redness isn't really in the ball, which becomes evident if you change the lighting or change our eyes (via, say, surgery or strong stimulus), and the experience of redness changes or goes away even as the ball itself stays the same.

Now, this isn't to say that color is subjective! What's really going on is that the deterministic interaction between our perceptual organs and the ball's surface in a context (of lighting, atmosphere) causes us to experience the ball as red. There is no room for feelings and desires here: the ball and it's surface's molecualr structure are what they are independent of us -- and the perceptual experience of those facts as "redness" lies in the deterministic causal relationship between perceiver and perceived.

And the same applies to every sense-modality. To take another example: flavors are the perceptual form in which we experience certain facts about the molecular makeup of the stuff in our mouths. Change our taste-buds (again, say, surgically or by stimulating them strongly) and the flavors we experience can change, even while the material in our mouth stays the same. Notice the parallel with sight and color, above: taste is to flavor as sight is to color.

And finally, the same of course is the case with hearing and sounds: Hearing is to sound, as taste is to flavor, as sight is to color. Sounds are the perceptual form in which we grasp certain kinds of events here on earth. The events of the leaves and branches pushing through the air as the tree topples, the event(s) of the fibers breaking near it's base, and the event of it striking the ground, all cause vibrations in the air which we perceive in the form of sounds -- the sounds we call whooshing, cracking, crashing.

Like with the other senses, the events we perceive in the form of sounds of course happen whether or not anyone is perceiving them (the tree still topples, the vibrations in the air still occur). But because sound is actually a perceptual form -- the product of a relationship between perceiver and perceived -- it can't exist without a listener, any more than there could be a flavor without a taster or a color without a seer.

I recommend Chapter 2 of Dr. Leonard Peikoff's book, Objectivism, and if you're really interested in the technical nitty-gritty there is Dr. David Kelley's The Evidence of the Senses which provides an in-depth treatment of all of this (and more).

answered Jul 05 '12 at 14:14

Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Greg Perkins ♦♦
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edited Jul 05 '12 at 16:44

Definition of sound: "Sound is a mechanical wave that is an oscillation of pressure transmitted through a solid, liquid, or gas, composed of frequencies within the range of hearing and of a level sufficiently strong to be heard, or the sensation stimulated in organs of hearing by such vibrations."

Are you saying that such a thing would not happen just because there is no observer?

(Jul 05 '12 at 16:03) Humbug Humbug's gravatar image

As I wrote, "Like with the other senses, the events we perceive in the form of sounds of course happen whether or not anyone is perceiving them (the tree still topples, the vibrations in the air still occur)."

(Jul 05 '12 at 16:19) Greg Perkins ♦♦ Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Just a follow-up question. From this explanation, it seems that "falling trees make no sound". A peceiver might hear sound when a tree falls, but the falling tree makes vibrations, not sound. Is this correct?

(Jul 05 '12 at 16:19) sector7agent ♦ sector7agent's gravatar image

I think in most cases it is perfectly clear to say that the ball is red and that the tree makes a sound; what we mean by "is red" and "makes a sound" is that we are grasping something perceptually about the entity -- and since there is a nice correlation between what we are grasping and the perceptual form in which we are grasping it, there's no need to worry about confusion. It is only when someone asks this kind of question, or when a Skeptic goes in for the kill with his puzzles, that you might want to get all careful and technical.

(Jul 05 '12 at 16:28) Greg Perkins ♦♦ Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Are you saying that it is not true that a (red) ball "is red"?

If so, would you contrast this with something else, which something is? All perception involves interaction.

(Jul 12 '12 at 08:20) anthony anthony's gravatar image

Also, can you discuss (either here, or in my question about "fragile", or if you'd like I can start a third question) how this reconciles with Rand's discussion in ITOE entitled "The Primary-Secondary Quality Dichotomy as Fallacious"?

In it Rand says "you would say the color is not in the object", and it seems to me that she disagrees with this. But maybe I'm misreading it. Or maybe I'm misreading you.

(Jul 12 '12 at 16:43) anthony anthony's gravatar image

Hi, anthony: No, I am saying that it is troublesome to think that color is actually in the ball. It is fine to say that the ball "is red," as I explained above -- but by "is red" we need to be clear that we are not saying that redness per se is actually in the ball. Rather, color is a perceptual form, so the redness actually refers to a relationship between our perceptual organs and something about the ball. Color is the form in which we perceive certain facts about the molecular structures at the surface of the ball.

(Jul 16 '12 at 15:27) Greg Perkins ♦♦ Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

In my understanding, "primary qualities" are understood to be "in the object" (i.e., intrinsic), whereas "secondary qualities" are understood to be "in the subject" (i.e., subjective). Rand rightly rejects this as a false alternative; perceptual qualities are in the relationship of subject and object. To paraphrase Dr. Kelley: If I reported a violent car collision, you wouldn't wonder whether the violence was in this car or that one -- you understand that the violence would be an aspect of their interaction.

(Jul 16 '12 at 15:34) Greg Perkins ♦♦ Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image
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Just to make sure no one is confused by the issue of "sound" as something that humans hear, versus "sound" as something that a falling tree produces, it might be helpful to restate the question as follows:

If a tree fell in the forest and no one was there to hear it, would it still produce physical phenomena that humans (if present) would perceive as sound? If so, what is the best term to denote whatever it is that the falling tree produces and man has the capacity to hear?

In ordinary usage, we tend to use the term "sound" to denote both the physical phenomena and our perception of them. But if we ever encounter a philosopher who plays on the difference in order to induce doubts about cognition, then we probably do need different, more precise terminology. (Something like "acoustic vibrations" perhaps.)

It is also worth emphasizing that a falling tree still falls even if no one is there to see it fall.

There may be another sense of this type of question: how can one know that a falling tree still makes "sound" even if no one is present to observe it? That is actually how I understood the question decades ago when I first heard it. (One can know that the tree falls because one can see it laying on the ground after it has fallen, but sound doesn't "hang around" very long for observation after the fact.)

Update: Existence and Identity

Greg has been emphasizing the form-object distinction in response to the following line of comment:

If we continue with the reasoning of the perceptual forms, couldn't we ultimately claim that everything we perceive is not really there, but only in the relationship reality-stimulus-perceiver? Wouldn't that amount to empiricism (which Obj. rejects)?

In addition to form and object, another distinction that I find helpful is the existence-identity distinction. Sense-perception tells us that something exists, but what it is always requires further observation, such as by additional sensory-perceptual data using the same or additional sensory faculties, or, in man, applying conceptual knowledge, possibly aided by man-made observational instruments. Here is how Ayn Rand expressed the existence-identity distinction in ITOE (refer to the topic of "Sensations" in The Ayn Rand Lexicon):

A sensation is a sensation of something, as distinguished from the nothing of the preceding and succeeding moments. A sensation does not tell man what exists, but only that it exists.

To put the issue another way, something has to "be there" in order for it to interact with our sensory-perceptual faculties to produce our awareness of it. If we can't see it, maybe we can at least touch it or bump into it in the dark. And if we want to know more about it than we can learn ourselves through our own direct sight or touch of it (etc.), we can use our concepts.

Greg already mentioned the discussion in OPAR, Chapter 2 regarding the form-object distinction. Refer especially to the subsection titled, "Sensory Qualities as Real" (pp. 44-48):

Now let us consider a further issue relating to sensory form and to the validity of the senses: the metaphysical status of sensory qualities themselves.

Since the objects we perceive have a nature independent of us, it must be possible to distinguish between form and object; between the aspects of the perceived world that derive from our form of perception (such as colors, sounds, smells) and the aspects that belong to the metaphysical reality itself, apart from us. What then is the status of the form aspects? If they are not "in the object," it is often asked, does it follow that they are merely "in the mind" and therefore are subjective and unreal? [...]

Ayn Rand's answer is: we can distinguish form from object, but this does not imply the subjectivity of form or the invalidity of the senses.

The rest of that OPAR subsection elaborates on this point in some detail. (Additional discussion of sense-perception and concepts can be found in How We Know by Harry Binswanger, which I'm still in the process of reading.)

answered Jul 05 '12 at 21:54

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Ideas for Life ♦
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edited Apr 20 '14 at 18:32

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Asked: Jul 05 '12 at 03:15

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Last updated: Apr 22 '15 at 18:56