What Makes a Pen Real and a Falling Tree Make a Sound?

Pick up any ordinary pen and consider what you see.  Supposedly your eyes will do their job, which is to represent the physical structure of the pen as a particular configuration of rods and cones. But your mind will not acknowledge the object in your hand as a bunch of rods and cones, nor as a structured mass of molecules (which is what a pen and everything else is made of). Your mind instead understands the object simply as a pen.

There are two stages involved in knowing that what you picked up is a pen. First, your eyes and your fingers communicate sense impressions, or percepts; to your brain. These percepts are in the form of electrochemical stimuli traveling through your nervous system, and they no more resemble a pen than a weather map resembles an actual rain storm. Second, your mind then organizes this raw data into concepts. It is the concept of a pen that the mind grasps, and to prove this, simply put yourself in a room that contains no pens and then reread this paragraph. You still understand what a pen is, even though you’re not perceiving one at the moment.

The first of these two stages is really nothing more than passive observation. What is a pen, materially? It’s a mass of molecules, which are composed of atoms, which are composed of subatomic particles. Has any human being ever actually seen—as in laid eyes on—those subatomic particles? No. Even the most powerful microscopes can only bump over some thing that physicists have mathematically postulated to be an electron, but no one has ever perceived an electron with his own senses. A pen in its raw state, like every other object in the world, is just a mass of particles.

The second stage, the concepts stage, is where we get our sense of reality; for if we did not organize the constituent particles of matter with our minds, we would forever be confronted with a universe of undifferentiated particle soup. A pen is made of particles; air is made of particles; and the particles in both are fundamentally the same (i.e. protons, neutrons, electrons).1 It is consciousness that differentiates between the two by forming two distinct ideas. The idea of a pen is a coherent representation of the sensory data we receive in the form of percepts. The raw data—the particles themselves, as well as the sensory impulses traveling through our nervous systems—remain unrepresented until our minds make comprehensible forms out of them.

This extra-sensory, reality-forming activity of the mind is what philosopher Owen Barfield calls figuration: After passively perceiving undifferentiated particle structures with the senses, the mind figurates those structures and forms an image of the real world. Barfield calls the process of perception and figuration, taken as a whole, participation.2

Thus, the world, without consciousness to participate3 it, is an abundance of unrepresented phenomena. Such unrepresented phenomena would certainly exist in their own right, but they would not be real in any sense that is useful, because they would have no conscious meaning. In terms of an existential state, unrepresented phenomena do not depend on consciousness for existence (in other words, the particles, the quanta of energy, are there whether consciousness figurates them or not); but in terms of conscious reality, what is unrepresented lingers in the realm of the potentially manifest. Thus the answer to the long-debated question, “If a tree falls in a forest but no one hears it, does it make a sound?” is, No, it doesn’t. But it does make something, something as yet unrepresented. Particles of what a participating person would recognize as air would move precipitously. And if a participating person were in the forest, that unrepresented movement of particles would indeed be recognized as sound.

Perhaps the hardest part of participation to swallow is that without consciousness there is no reality. Raw percepts, what I called “particle soup,” aren’t anything without concepts. But neither have concepts any reality without percepts. As philosopher Georg Kuhlewind noted in The Logos-Structure of the World, the percepts bring the weight of evidence to our perceptions; in other words, the percepts of our sense impressions tell us that something exists, that something is actually there. Concepts structure the something-there into an intelligible, experiential reality. It might be useful to distinguish between what exists and what is real in this way: something which exists potentially may occupy consciousness and join with concepts, whereas something real has already so appeared in the mind and been conceptualized by it. Even for the tree to fall in the forest, a participating consciousness is prerequisite. Otherwise the best anyone can say is that, because he’s been in a forest, or experienced artistic renderings of forests (in paintings, for example), he can imagine that in some forest a tree might fall, and if it did fall, he can imagine that it would make a sound. In the absence of a participating consciousness, there is no tree even, and no forest. Something exists, and something is happening in the world of unrepresented energy-particles.

Though it is difficult, using conventional wisdom, to think of a phenomenon as part of existence and yet simultaneously unreal, it is a viable distinction; otherwise, the word real in the philosophical sense could just as well be stricken from the dictionary as redundant, and the distinction between represented and unrepresented phenomena would be impossible to make.

There are many practical implications of the above philosophical excursion, not the least of which is that our collective reality is correlative to our collective concepts. It follows that what we make of the world in fact makes the world. What we do with our minds matters. This is one of the major foundational principles of The Conscious Learner.

  1. You might argue that the configurations of the subatomic particles make all the difference, but if that’s so it must be by a magical process: the mathematical differences between one atom and another do not in any way resemble the qualitative differences between a pen and air. Nor do molecular structures determine that a pen is a pen and not a hippopotamus. A molecular structure is a set of relationships, bonds, between atoms. These bonds are said to determine the substance’s physical properties, its conductivity, hardness, soluability, and melting point. But all of the terms being used to describe molecular structure are conceptual. A bond is a particular kind of relationship involving attraction. Conductivity, hardness, soluability, and melting point are all concepts. Thus a molecule’s physical properties are the product of consciousness’s figuration of percepts. 

  2. See the first four chapters of Barfield’s Saving the Appearances, which, especially as far as the argument here is concerned, may be read as his magnum opus. 

  3. This usage of the verb participate can be found, says Barfield, on nearly every page of Aquinas’s writings. E.g. “Suppose we say that air participates the light of the sun, because it does not receive it in that clarity in which it is in the sun.” (De Hebdomadibus, chap. 2—quoted in Saving the Appearances, p. 90.) 


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