The tree not there

The tree not there - image for article by Greg Alder

The next time you stub your toe on a chair leg or crack your shin on a coffee table, I want you to consider something. Could you have avoided the pain if you’d closed your eyes?

Think I’m being ridiculous? There are people who believe that the world is a hallucination – that objects don’t exist when we’re not looking at them. Maybe you’re one of them (one of those people, not one of those objects). Or maybe you have your doubts.

Well, there’s one sure way to find out. So, here’s what I want you to do. Get into your car. Drive to a quiet road with a tree beside it, but otherwise flanked by open fields. Reverse about a hundred metres from the tree. Align your car with the tree, close your eyes and accelerate.

If the tree’s not there, you’ll come to a soft, harmless stop in the field. If the tree’s there, then, well, good luck with the insurance claim.

“I tried to make the tree go away by closing my eyes, but when I opened them it was still there, and I’d run into it.”

If you’re not one of these folks who believe the world’s a hallucination, maybe you know people who do – or you know people who believe other things that logic and science disprove.

As philosophers point out, observation doesn’t disprove that something doesn’t exist when you aren’t looking at it. You might be tempted to prove the tree’s existence when it’s not being observed. You might collect a leaf from the tree when nobody’s looking. But the disbelievers will point out that you must have been looking at the tree when you collected the leaf, so you haven’t proved anything.

There are plenty of people who still believe the earth is flat. Even when photos from space seem to prove otherwise. They’ll say we’ve been programmed to believe that earth is round and so that’s how our brains interpret what our eyes see.

Talking of space, there are those who believe man never walked on the moon, that the whole thing was faked on a sound stage somewhere in Hollywood.

So, here’s the point. When confronted with confounding beliefs, you might be tempted to argue for science and logic and evidence. Save your breath. You will never win.

There’s a man who is the current figurehead of a once great nation. He presents lies as truth. He paints truths as fake news. His followers lap it up. In their eyes, he’s the only one telling the truth. Everyone else is making it up.

You cannot reason with people who believe white is black. Do you remember the arguments about The Dress – the photo of a dress that was either blue & black or gold & white, depending on your point of view? At the time, The Dress was mentioned in 10 million Tweets. Even the scientific community got involved, investigating human colour vision.

Even though the dress colours were confirmed as black and blue, there remain people who stick by what they saw – white and gold.

It doesn’t matter what the point of contention, there will always be fervent, unwavering protagonists for opposing opinions – and they won’t be swayed.

Getting into an argument with someone whose contrarian beliefs are so absurd (in your eyes) that they defy logic is a waste of time. You present your argument and believe your evidence is irrefutable. So does your foe.

The Christian crusaders believed themselves saviours. They called Muslims infidels.

The Muslims saw the crusaders as aggressors. They called them infidels.

Each side deemed its stance more righteous, more persuasive and godlier than the other. The outcome of battles notwithstanding, nobody will ever win that debate.

There’s really only one thing you can do – accept that the other person doesn’t believe the tree is there when nobody’s looking, and get on with life.

You will never get that other person to follow your god, join your political party, believe your science, support your cause, boycott that company or protest that law. No matter how hard you try.

For every force for good, there’s an equal and opposite force. We’re programmed to believe that opposite is a force for evil. It isn’t. Not in the eyes of those believers.

Is the tree always there? Or is it only occasionally there? Yes.


Photo by Aleksandr Kozlovskii via Unsplash

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