If a Tree Falls in the Forest …

“To be is to be perceived.” So said the famous Irish philosopher, George Berkeley, considered by some to be the greatest of the British Empiricists. Berkeley claimed that existence required perception. The negative implication of the theory was that if something was not perceived, it had no real existence.

Berkeley’s views were popularized in the twentieth century by the philosophical riddle, “If a tree falls in the forest, and there is no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?” Many versions followed, such as, “If a tree falls in the forest and hits a mime, does it make a sound?”

“If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?” The philosophical riddle has often been pronounced as having no satisfying solution, a true conundrum. Yet George Berkeley, upon whose thought this question is based, would have been confident that there was indeed an answer. Berkeley was a man of powerful intellect, but he was also a man of deep faith. He was trained as a clergyman. His abilities were evident, and he was appointed the Dean of Derry, a comfortable position with a generous yearly stipend. In 1725, Berkeley left this position and its income for a project that was his passion. He wanted to found a college in Bermuda to train missionaries for the evangelization of the North American continent. This never materialized, although Berkeley spent many years working for it and exhausted his personal fortune. In  1734, he re-entered the establishment of the church and was appointed to be a bishop in his native Ireland. He was one of the most celebrated thinkers of his time who could have had a teaching position at any university in Europe, yet he gave his last years to the service of the church.

In 1866, over one hundred years after his death, a small group of visionaries founded a new city on the eastern side of the San Francisco Bay to be the home of a great university. The chose to name it “Berkeley” in honor of this Irish man of faith.

But back to the question, “If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?” Berkeley would have answered “Yes, of course, Yes!” The idea of there being no one to hear the tree fall was preposterous. This was because Berkeley believed that God was always present. God was the Grand Perceiver, the one who presided over his creation and sustained it with his presence. No tree could fall without God’s notice. As Jesus said:

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.And even the hairs of your head are all counted.So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.   Matthew 10:29-31

May we always be aware that our loving God is always with us and hears our voice whenever and wherever we cry out to him.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

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One thought on “If a Tree Falls in the Forest …

  1. your answer is based on the assumption that God has sensible qualities which Berkeley would say he does not.

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