“If a tree falls, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”
This question has become iconic in our society and has inspired many debates. The idea behind it is that, if one is not able to experience a phenomena or event directly, one cannot attest to its existence. While to some this exercise may seem clever, or possibly “make one wonder,” to those who base their view on the world in material reality already have their response.
The Objective, Material Answer to the Question
There are three possible ways to articulate the materialist answer to this question.
The first and simplest answer, is “Yes, the tree would still make a sound.”
The second, “It will make a sound because when matter strikes matter, such as a tree hitting the ground, it vibrates in such a matter as to generate sound waves, which ripple through the air and can be heard both by humans, animals, sound recording and measuring equipment and can otherwise impact the material world around it through these sound waves.”
Third and finally, the most important point to make in answering this question, is that “Sound is an objective force generated by concrete, material conditions and it does not require that human beings experience things directly for them to exist.”
The Origins of Doubt: Metaphysical & Individualist
This final point is the cause of contention within the realm of ideology. While materialists have the rational and scientific perspective that matter precedes thought, a.k.a., the brain is matter which thinks and allows us to perceive the world, idealists have the world around us being the product of the “idea,” that “we think, therefore, we are” to paraphrase Descartes. For the materialist, it is the other way around — “we are, therefore, we think.”
What the Descartes position represents is metaphysics. Metaphysics holds that the causation and manipulation of phenomena in the material world lie outside of the material world, while materialism holds that material reality itself, with its motion and contradiction, can be understood without metaphysical reasoning in a scientific manner. To put it simply, we can understand the world around us by looking at it and studying it, rather than leaving it to some “higher power” to let us know.
Seeing the world doesn’t make it — the world exists and we happen to see it. Those who champion the former fetishize the individual to the metaphysical level of god, that the world exists because of our perceptions and not outside of them.
Obscurantism has a Purpose
While this perspective may, at first, seem empowering — that we make the world by seeing it, that the world in front of us is a product of ourselves, etc. — the actual effect of this kind of analysis is one that makes us powerless.
When the world does not exist outside of our seeing it, we are alienated from it. We can’t know what’s there if we aren’t actively looking at it; it isn’t “real” without us thinking about it — that’s like a trapeze artist thinking that there won’t be a safety net blow them if they aren’t actively looking at it. We can’t be sure of anything we aren’t looking at, and even then, we can’t be sure that our eyes aren’t lying to us because of the existence of optical illusions. Therefore, we can take no comfort in this world that our eyes have made us, because it can be unmade by the slightest impairment of sensory information.
When the world is defined by something that is outside of the world, that we cannot truly “see” or experience, that we cannot rationally understand or study, we are powerless to change anything. Those who follow metaphysics are ultimately spectators — the world is either frozen, or it moves because of a power we can hardly comprehend, let alone study or influence.
While metaphysics can be comforting, can provide a convenient answer or a safety net that reassures us, ultimately it deprives. This deprivation ultimately serves power, since metaphysical forces are what is blamed for the problems of our world rather than material conditions and class antagonisms — things we can influence.
The Science of Liberation
In contrast to the powerlessness metaphysics imposes on us, science gives us the means to understand and influence the material world. Knowledge is power — the power to understand, the power to orient one’s activity in our world for the ends of revolution. Marxism-Leninism is the highest form of revolutionary science and ideology. It allows us a means of understanding why our world is the way it is, the origins of present antagonisms, the forces at work in our society and the best means of working to understand and lend our energies to revolutionary motion. It is the science of liberation, the method and the means to changing the world around us.
Conclusion: Know the World & Change It
If a tree falls, it makes a sound, regardless of whether we are there to perceive it or not. That’s because our world is real outside of our senses. It’s real, material, objective and knowable. Understanding this allows us to know for certain what is happening in the world, for what reason and what we can do it about it.
Metaphysics would endeavor to deprive us of this essential knowledge, to strangle us with the chains of obscurantism and to take away from us our means to resist the power of the bourgeoisie. It is imperative that we apply revolutionary science if we are to effectively know the world and change it.