• Christopher Tanner

If God Falls Like a Tree In the Forest and No One Hears, Does God Exist?

At the beginning of every semester, I tell my students: there is a world of difference between hearing music and listening to it.  Emphatically despite the fact that “hear” and “listen” are often used interchangeably in casual speech, as though they were exact synonyms. In fact, they mean two completely different – although not entirely unrelated – things.

I’ve spent a goodly portion of my life thinking about language and trying to understand its expressive range, the better to express myself. I’ve noticed that transitive verbs do not carry the same weight – are not charged with the same energy – as intransitive verbs. Did any of your English teachers ever tell you that? Mine didn’t: I had to discover it for myself.

Let me illustrate: We regularly hear music, but we also occasionally listen to music. The transitive verb requires a direct object to complete its meaning; the intransitive verb is complete in itself (hence its greater potency), and the prepositional phrase that follows adds no weight to the verb: it simply brings the verb’s activity to a focus.


The difference in energy between transitive and intransitive verbs is faithfully reflected in our daily experience. Taking the illustrative case I’ve offered above, consider the fact that hearing is an altogether passive experience which might actually be described as a condition, often ignored and therefore mostly registered unconsciously; every animal with ears has pretty much the same experience of hearing, assuming similar auditory capacities. (There are interesting differences, of course: dogs can hear at least an octave higher than humans, and humpback whales and elephants can communicate in wavelengths much longer than those available to us.) The capacity – the sense – known as hearing is our ability to register physical phenomena in a way that’s available only to an exquisitely fine-tuned nervous system, by means of equipment (eardrums, etc.) that can respond to (resonate with) disturbances in some fluid medium such as air or water. The old conundrum, “if a tree falls in a completely unpopulated forest, does it make a sound?” is thus answered: sound is the name we give to that nervous-system registering, that experience of a disturbance in air or water. Where there is no experience, i.e. no experiencer, there is no sound.

If we listen to something, there’s a noticeable difference in our response to sound. We are no longer passively receiving, we are attending. Before she went to kitty heaven almost two years ago, leaving me more broken and desolate than I ever remember feeling, I often saw this difference in my then-19-year-old cat. Despite her advanced years, her sense of hearing seemed to be in better shape than mine, and this must mean that the constant barrage of atmospheric disturbances struck her ears exactly as often as mine, and that she ignored most of those sounds just as I do. But when she was listening to something, she became almost a different animal: her pointy ears standing straight up, her pupils dilating, her little body becoming taut and ready for the appropriate fight-or-flight response, and occasionally bristling. The difference between hearing and listening is obvious. It is the latter that I recommend to my students, when they are fulfilling their assignments for my class.

Now, to my crucial point: “sound” is the name we give to an experience – not a name for the wave phenomenon that is experienced. The early Earth must have been a horrendously “noisy” place given the colossal disturbances of its original atmosphere, crust, and oceans by asteroids constantly raining down during the Late Bombardment, and volcanoes going off like roman candles in every direction. This planet must have snapped, crackled, and popped with a deafening din. But of course my use of such adjectives as “noisy” and “deafening” is misleading; absent animals with nervous systems, there was nothing but dead silence as on present-day Venus. The distinction between silence and sound can only be made by conscious critters because it is only by them that sound can be experienced. Thus, in a very real sense, “sound” is a product – and a feature – of the imagination. (The word “imagination” is also quite telling in terms relevant to this essay, if you tease it apart and consider the meaning that lurks behind it. As you do so, it will be useful to keep in mind the fact that the distinction between seeing and looking is exactly the same as that between hearing and listening.)

The fact that sound is, in a sense, imaginary doesn’t change the fact that our experience of sound is incredibly rich and engaging – and indeed crucial to our survival. But please understand: it’s not a real thing in the same way that the physical phenomena that are experienced as sound are real. We wouldn’t want to be without it – and those who have gone deaf certainly do know what they’re missing and generally lament their loss – but it is ultimately a service that our brains do for us, an experience that our grey matter creates for us, a way for us to make sense of and navigate the world. It has exactly the same ontological status as a rainbow. Everyone, except fundamentalists who believe that biblical nonsense about God’s covenant with Noah, knows that a rainbow is very much like an illusion or mirage and that without a viewer, no rainbow exists: it is an experience, not a thing.

Notice that I have not so much as hinted that a world without rainbows would be none the poorer for the lack of them. That would be nonsense: every time I see a rainbow, I stand riveted to the spot, open-mouthed in wonder. But that doesn’t make it “real” in the same sense that the light waves and the drops of water that refract them – and the eyes and brains that register the resulting effect – are real.

The remainder of my post is addressed to believers, who will probably never see it on this blog; nevertheless, there’s always a chance that a lurker or two will pop in for a look, and I’m also happy for any of my fellow atheists to share this argument at will should you see any merit in it.

By Dan Etherington from London, UK [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Dan Etherington from London, UK [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Believers, I wish I could help you understand that your experience of “God” is exactly the same kind of thing as “sound” and “rainbow.” The raw sense data of life overwhelm us all. We have to make sense of those data somehow if we are to survive. For our hunter-gatherer forebears, the world was a mysterious and magical place, and causal links were not always readily apparent. The human brain has developed capacities for dealing with incomplete information: it tends to fill in the gaps. (The blind spot near the center of our visual field is a well-known example: we do not experience vacancy there, although it most certainly exists in all of us. I wonder how many generations of humans were born, lived and died before anyone noticed that interesting lacuna.) Our forebears thus perceived a world imbued with an intentional potency, a spirit that permeated everything, a proto-god that was later molded into something much more particular and sinister and then turned against us, not too long after the onset of the Bronze Age.

The modern notion of God (by which I mean the notion that has prevailed ever since the birth of monotheism) has persisted on account of a program of childhood indoctrination: no thinking person would ever have reasoned his way to such outrageous, nonsensical conclusions as are taught by the Abrahamic religions. It is an evil, life-destroying vision (to say nothing of a misogynistic one), of an absolute monarch whose demands cannot be met by the “mere mortals” who invented him, and of horrendous punishments for those who fail in the attempt. Christianity flavors that toxic stew with the obscenity of human sacrifice – and people believe it. This is one grotesque example among many, of the ability of cynical opportunists to turn a perfectly noble human impulse against those in whom it resides: our sense of wonder and mystery is bent to the service of those who grow rich and powerful by manipulating (that’s much too mild a word) the vulnerable, and humanity chafes in mind-forged manacles.

My brothers and sisters, there is no god. That’s just a word that some of us give to our rich experience of the world (including our terror of certain of its features). If you really want to understand that world that you’re experiencing, and that often confuses, overwhelms, and even terrifies you, give science a try.

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