An Empty Forest Full of Trees

Grant Williams |



1. A great, often sudden calamity.

2. A complete failure; a fiasco.

3. The concluding action of a drama, especially a classical tragedy, following the climax and containing a resolution of the plot.

In 1710, philosopher George Berkeley formulated a proposition in his work "A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge," which would inspire a philosophical discussion that continues to this day — three centuries later.

Berkeley wrote:

But, say you, surely there is nothing easier than for me to imagine trees, for instance, in a park ... and nobody by to perceive them.... The objects of sense exist only when they are perceived; the trees therefore are in the garden ... no longer than while there is somebody by to perceive them.

Twenty years later, William Fossett took Berkeley's baton and ran with it:

Tease apart the threads [of the natural world] and the pattern vanishes. The design is in how the cloth-maker arranges the threads: this way and that, as fashion dictates.... To say something is meaningful is to say that that is how we arrange it so; how we comprehend it to be, and what is comprehended by you or I may not be by a cat, for example. If a tree falls in a park and there is no-one to hand, it is silent and invisible and nameless. And if we were to vanish, there would be no tree at all; any meaning would vanish along with us. Other than what the cats make of it all, of course.

But it wasn't until June 1883 that the magazine The Chautauquan posed the question more or less in the familiar form we know today:

If a tree were to fall on an island where there were no human beings would there be any sound?

The Chautauqaun answered — rather too emphatically, I thought — "No. Sound is the sensation excited in the ear when the air or other medium is set in motion." But that implies a more scientific perception of the question than the philosophical one which has intrigued thinkers through the centuries.

It was from that example that the modern-day form of the question was finally settled upon:

"If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound?"

Now, rather than take the path followed by a million tortured souls and try to answer the question, I am going to pose my own question of a similar nature and see if I can stimulate a philosophical debate that will endure through the centuries, as George Berkeley did way back in the 18th century.

If "through the centuries" is reaching a little, would you all mind doing me a favour and just pretending to discuss it until I've left the room?

Much obliged.

OK... so all that remains is for you to click here for some appropriate mood music, and off we jolly well go...

"If something bad happens but nobody reacts badly to it, did nothing bad happen?"

Deep, huh? Not what you come here for, I know, but bear with me for a moment.

I recently read an article that bemoaned the level of volatility that besets the modern world, and the piece got me thinking: how volatile is the investment world, really?

To continue reading this article from Things That Make You Go Hmmm… – a free weekly newsletter by Grant Williams, a highly respected financial expert and current portfolio and strategy advisor at Vulpes Investment Management in Singapore – please click here.

DISCLOSURE: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors, and do not represent the views of Readers should not consider statements made by the author as formal recommendations and should consult their financial advisor before making any investment decisions. To read our full disclosure, please go to:


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