If a Tree Falls in the Woods and Nobody is Around to Hear it…is it Real?

What if morality isn’t real?

Not the type of morality that feels real to each of us individually. Not that internal compass emanating from deep within us, guiding us through the fog of right and wrong.

Rather, morality as a real, tangible thing. A system of laws inherent to nature that dictates what is allowable and what is a violation of natural order. What if that type of morality doesn’t exist?

What would that mean for our individual relationships and the choices around them?

What would that mean for our laws, institutions, and forms of government forged from ancient principles carried between cultures, across continents, and through generations.

Could we reconcile with the idea that the core values tethered to our identity as individuals and as citizens do not exist beyond our own hearts?

Would we be okay?

Or, would such a realization free us to define and achieve the existence, the collective goals, and the self-governance we want?

It could be that the moral arguments that inspire our social contracts and acts of collective will actually interfere with our ability to achieve the positive outcomes we intend from our democracy.

The answer may be in the sound of a fallen tree.

A classic thought experiment poses a paradox: “If a tree falls in the woods, and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Common sense indicates that it would make a sound, despite that nagging skepticism that something unobserved is unverifiable.

This question invokes a primal, human need for certainty and predictability. We require validation that human logic and knowledge of the world are adequate. That the laws of physics do not change simply because no one is present.

We seek comfort that the tree and the woods are still real, because we could not accept the possibility that trees do not make sounds.

Yet, to answer this question with certainty, as with any question, we must first agree on defined criteria before we can reach consensus that the outcome was achieved.

We must first ask, “What is sound?”

Sound, as defined, is a sensation due to the stimulation of hearing organs by vibrations in the air.

To be a sound, it must be heard. If it is not heard, it is not a sound.

Sound isn’t real; it’s a hallucination caused by external pressure stimuli as interpreted by the brain. To the deaf, sound does not exist. They may feel the vibrations of a book landing on a table, or the force of the wind as it blows across their face, but the pressure waves impacting their tympanic membranes transmit no signal to their brains. The book is real, the wind is real, despite any perception of sound.

Sound is not real, just real to those who experience it.

Similarly for color, the vibrant hues of a floral bouquet are an interpretation of visible light at particular wavelengths. Different animal species can perceive and interpret the color spectrum of light differently — if at all. Light is real, despite any perception of color.

Color is not real, just real to those who experience it.

The perception of sound or color does not make an object real. Our perception of an object is not a requirement for that object to be real, only real to us. Perception only shapes our experience of reality, it does not create or define reality.

Morality is not real, just real to those who experience it.

A personal sense of morality is real. The moral threads that bind us in community are real—and very important.

To act in fairness or in kindness. To trust or to punish. To give deference or to demand reparation. These are real. They are informed by human ideas of morality. But these ideas are a product of evolved human behavior, not of an immutable natural order.

There is no evidence that morality exists in nature outside the behavior of humans. And even still not uniformly — simply being human does not guarantee a set of hard-coded values, nor do individuals or communities carry the same set of values.

Our perceptions of reality differ, and therefore, so do our values.

The principles and values that underpin our social institutions are not inherent to nature, but are products of human experience, and therefore can be challenged and revised.

The pinnacle of human social behavior, thus far, is self-governance.

Government — and its associated legal codes and enumerated rights — is underpinned by a system of complex values that accrued through a thousand attempts at self-governance.

What would laws against theft and murder be without moral attitudes toward pain and loss?

What would rights that preserve social liberties be without moral attitudes about personal freedom?

Democratic forms of self-government, in particular, are founded on a social contract whereby we feel personally obligated to fulfill our responsibilities, as well as feel personally wronged if our government or fellow citizens fail to uphold their half of the contract.

When we examine public discourse and debate around democratic government and policy, we discover that residing at the core of prevailing disagreements is a fundamental dissonance in the moral arguments offered to justify one policy priority over another. Each side defends the legitimacy of their normative interpretation of how the world should be.

Consider the efforts to protect gun rights that are at odds with efforts to reduce gun violence. Moral arguments that defend the freedom to bear arms and oppose limitations on free will also promote a gun culture where weapons are easily accessible, especially to those who desire to inflict harm on others.

Evidential arguments that define a preferable social outcome — community safety — examine whether expanded or restricted access to personal firearms are more likely to achieve that outcome — all moral arguments aside.

We have a choice whether we we want to base our social contracts on convincing moral arguments or evidential outcomes.

American institutions, namely government, are built upon social contracts grounded in traditional principles and values, but the momentum of these have generated extreme polarization and policy stagnation that no longer serve the collective well-being.

Similarly to sound or light, a public institution only exists and operates effectively if we agree it exists; it only carries authority if we agree collectively that it does. If we are unhappy with the outcomes, then we do not have to continue providing our consent.

A new social contract based on a revised state of nature, as well as outcome- and evidence-based policy-making, must challenge the status quo.

Such a social contract should be based on the following conclusions of morality and governance:

  1. There is no such thing as right or wrong. There is only what is possible in nature, and what we agree to be right or wrong.
  2. What we agree to be right or wrong has changed over time, will continue to change, and changes differently around the world.
  3. Decisions about right and wrong are made by choice through the free will of people.
  4. The collective will of a portion of a population often imposes its decisions of right and wrong upon the rest of the population.
  5. These decisions lead to outcomes that may be perceived as positive or negative to the survival and well-being of the population.
  6. Preferable outcomes can be prioritized.
  7. Therefore, examining the rationale behind choices of right and wrong, along with evidence about the outcomes of these decisions, can inform better choices about what we agree to be right and wrong under self-government.

Morality can change

...and social contracts can be renegotiated.

In order to move beyond the problems of society, we need to realize that we are more than capable of changing our circumstances through different choices founded on alternative logic and evidence about what we agree to be right and wrong.

The positive, collective outcomes we prioritize should dictate these choices.

Change is only possible through self-governance, public discourse, and expressions of collective will.

Stepping outside of our personal and cultural morals and norms expands what could be possible. It can shift policies in that are better suited to guarantee the outcomes we agree we want for our civilization and mutual well-being.

What happens in the woods when no one is around?

The same thing if someone were around.

We use moral arguments to drive our existence. We instill fear that reality will crumble if we violate our moral principles.

Yet, it doesn’t. The world continues.

Nature persists. We persist.

The tree is still real; it still falls. The laws of physics still reign.