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If an electron falls in a forest . . . .

Kōan Ogata

Image via Wikipedia

IW: I remember being shocking by the cultural provincialism of a New York Times Magazine writer who decried Zen Koans as meaningless waste of time.  (It might have been the Ethicist who made this pronouncement).  A Zen Koan is described by Wikipedia as

It consists of a story, dialogue, question, or statement, the meaning of which cannot be understood by rational thinking but may be accessible through intuition.

One of the most famous Koan’s is “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”  The other is the eponymous “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”  After doing some research for this article, I am less convinced that the second question is a koan.  Or just a koan-like philisophical question.

Somewhat like Allen Ginsberg‘s insistence that because of the different structures of Japanese and English that you could not write a Haiku in English so he called them” American Sentences” instead. 

Allen Ginsberg, Miami Bookfair International, 1985

Image via Wikipedia

As Bob Holman and Margery Snyder explain:

Still, Allen never went for the haiku. In talking with him, he spoke of how the 17 characters of this Japanese form just don’t cut it as 17 syllables of English, and that divvying them up in 5-7-5 syllable lines makes the whole thing an exercise in counting, not feeling, and too arbitrary to be poetry.

I always felt remiss that I didn’t not send in a letter to the editor about the New York Times Magazine cultural ignorance.  probably the letter would have said that a koan is no less ridiculous than believing in parting the Red Sea or Virgin Birth.

Much like I felt remiss in not challenging the professor’s in my single college honors class.  We had been studying Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalists when one of the professors warned the class to not get too enamored of Buddhism because it was a religion born of poverty.  I guess the slave religions of Judaism and Christianity stood on a higher plain in his mind.  Though I admit being forever grateful for reading Walden and “On Civil Disobedience” in that class, I have been forever disappointed in the professors and my failure to respond.

This whole train of thought was started today because I was listening to the Teaching Company‘s Great Minds of the Western Intellectual Tradition lectures in my car driving home today.  I am up to lecture 61 which is the introduction for “the first half of the 20th century has been aptly described as an “age of extremes.”  In this lecture, the Copenhagen interpretation of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle is being discussed.  Wikipedia describes this as

some physicists concluded that human observation of a microscopic event changes the reality of the event

The lecture I was listening to was discussing the question of whether an electron was just a statistical probability until it was actually observed, and that the process of observing made the electron a reality.

So if an electron does not exist unless it is observed, then does it follow that a tree doe not make a sound if there is no one there to hear it?

One Response

  1. […] If an electron falls in a forest . . . . OntheWilderSide In this lecture, the Copenhagen interpretation of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle is being discussed. Wikipedia describes this as. some physicists concluded that human observation of a microscopic event changes the reality of the … […]

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