I was sitting at the kitchen table of a dear friend of mine one night discussing philosophy. Not out of some deep desire to grasp the meaning of life, or to discover any kind of universal truth. We were not engaged in some epistemological safari into the nether regions of the human psyche. There was no grand debate occurring on the virtue of the accepted norms of the great society in which we lived and thrived. We were really not were not trying to do anything special. She was trying to figure out how to pass a History of Western Philosophy class she was taking at a local junior college, and I was waiting for her to finish the cream gravy I was about to pour generously over the chicken fried steak about to be served.
The instructor she had was the same professor I learned from in my own philosophy classes. A pretty cool guy with long hair who rode Harley’s, smoked a little dope and, for some reason, felt that the teaching and study of philosophy was his particular calling in life. I took several classes from him where he mercifully gave me B’s that I probably did not deserve.
The deal we had proved simple. She would feed me with artery clogging, cholesterol raising southern food until I could not eat anymore, and I would show her some shortcuts and philosophical secret decoder ring stuff. Her main desire was for her Grade Point Average not to suffer from her ill-advised choice to take a philosophy class instead of the much simpler sociology class. My primary yearning came in the quest for a free meal. Being single, I greatly valued the benefits of a home cooked meal. She, for some reason unfathomable to me, valued my opinion where it came to issues of post secondary education. I valued, for very good reason, her abilities with a cast iron skillet and a pot full of collard greens seasoned generously with bacon.
Now, having set the stage for this book, or for the inspiration of this book that is, as the quest for nourishment (intellectual or physical), let me tell you what happened. Sitting down at the table, we started with the age-old philosophical question of whether or not a tree falling in the middle of the forest makes any sound. I never really understood what that was all about, but sort of accepted that it would be the best question to choose for my first essay test. Philosophy professors seem to derive near sexual excitement from red marking essays to the point where it looks as if someone opened an artery on the page. One thing I learned my eight years earning four advanced degrees in college is that you have to allow the professors to be professors and the students to be students. If the professor asks a question that some might find futile or stupid, then it is the student’s duty to answer in a futile and stupid manner. As a result of this ill arrived at opinion on this particular question, I received a “C” on that test. I never liked being called “average” and, out of irritation or possibly a damaged sense of self-worth, have usually felt it my duty to ridicule the process of asking a seemingly unanswerable question. Except…that night……unbelievably…I discovered a way to answer that most mundane of inquiries.
My friend has a bell on her countertop that she literally rings when a meal is about to be served. This is because between her and her partner they have seven kids. My friend is a quiet woman who never raises her voice. Loudness is a quite simply a accepted reality where it comes to children and meals. The kitchen served as a focal point for the gathering of food as well as my friend’s office. She made the children eat at the table and she sat on a stool at the breakfast bar so that she could spread out her school papers, laptop, telephone charger, massive insulated drink jug, cigarettes, and food. She would sit quietly and listen to the children tell of their day and fuss at each other while quietly studying, eating, smoking, and solving the major disasters the two teenage girls encountered with their boyfriends. It seemed next to impossible that this woman would have time for anything extra let alone a 6’4” 350-pound man with a bad attitude about philosophy professors and an empty stomach. Yet she sat quietly and gracefully ruling her realm with a velvet glove covering an iron fist. She explained to the children that she and I had business to do, and that they were all to walk to the shopping center down the block and eat pizza for dinner. She handed the oldest some money and kissed each child as they filed out. Four of them, that is. The fourteen-year-old girl dressed like a vampire and the seven-year-old boy in a Yankees hat remained at the table. The girl was grounded for sneaking out to meet her fellow vampires and getting drunk at the local cemetery. The boy was allergic to tomato sauce and cheese. The three of us sat at the table watched my friend serve the meal and plant herself back on her throne.
Between bites, I asked her to read the question again. She read it right out of the text – If a tree falls in the middle of the forest and no one is there to hear it fall…does it make a sound? Not caring, but needing to earn my repast, I asked her what she thought. She stared at me and shrugged her shoulders. I was the expert, she proclaimed, I should answer my own question. The girl harrumphed at that and the boy giggled. Trying not to reveal the fact that all I really wanted was some more cream gravy, I turned to the youngsters and asked what their little wise asses thought. Vampirella blew bubbles through her drink straw and offered, “Who cares anyway, man, it’s just a freaking tree.” The surprise that day came from what the boy said…”what made it fall?”
Now I had always thought of this question as some inane exercise the Secret Philosophy Professors Society dreamt up to torture and defile freshman students with. It never occurred to me…not being your standard run of the mill philosopher…that an answer had to be there. Why ask a question if there were not an answer? My ignorance of the reason for taking a philosophy class in your first year of college had nothing to do with providing the instructor with a paycheck. It was quite simply and, and most eloquently designed to elicit critical thought in emerging minds. It served as a tool to show them how to think beyond those levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy, and into the realm where true education can occur. My overweight, over educated ass needed to chill and use some of what I learned.
Thinking about what caused the tree to fall allows for the fact that the tree even exists. It brings up question of method and means. Did lightening strike it? Did a huge bear run into it and bowl it over? Was it eaten by insects to the point where it could no longer stand? Or, perhaps was it cut down by a deaf lumberjack?
But I digress. I did not begin this book or conceive this book to be a juorney with no destination. Nor did I desire to discover the a priori / a posteriori epistemological and ontological foundation of human thought, or to better define the quagmire associated with environmental issues and oddities. What I fancied this piece to become is a definitive tome on what I believe.
Academically and personally, I am literature/history/social studies guy. I like reading, and some science finds favor in my mind. I have always been fortunate in possessing a sufficient level of reading comprehension which has proven both rewarding and amusing. I took philosophy to attempt to answer some questions in my life. The class taught me nothing that my own intellect, spiritual beliefs, and life experience could not answer. I do, nonetheless, possess a difficulty with one particular question. I do not have an easy answer for the question why.
This brings me back to the original quandary about the tree and sounds. I never answered that question in the first place to anyone’s satisfaction. I am not about to now. I leave that to those of greater acumen and incentive such as freshmen philosophy students and their storm trooper professors. I do realize one thing about the question, however. If one was to answer the question to their own satisfaction, or the approval of others, then it would be contingent on the fact that they believed the tree had fallen in the first place. With belief comes faith which just might be the answer to this and all questions, especially the absurd explorations of Junior College level philosophers.
So tell me. What is it to you? Could it be a statement of belief, or might it be a necessity of faith. You choose.