Chaos Trifecta #14: Metaphysics, Epistemology, and Ethics

chaos trifecta
Written By Ai Jiang

Ai Jiang is a Chinese-Canadian writer and an immigrant from Fujian. She is a member of HWA, SFWA, and Codex. Her work can be found in F&SF, The Dark, Uncanny, among others. She is the holder of Odyssey Workshop's 2022 Fresh Voices Scholarship. Her debut novella Linghun (April 2023) is forthcoming with Dark Matter INK. Find her on Twitter (@AiJiang_) and online (

During my undergraduate studies, I had a thought to minor in philosophy until I realized one of the required courses was logic, which at the time seemed absolutely incomprehensible to me because of the problem sets we would get that looked like math equations with written words rather than numbers and letters—for which I would take three hours to get through five questions even though it was supposed to only take twenty minutes (spoiler: I still got all of them wrong when I compared answers with a fellow classmate who excelled in logic). What I was most interested in had been, still is, the branches of philosophy that are metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, along with the studies of existentialism and stoicism. But there were two things that stuck with me most from my courses (outside of the question “Why is a chair a chair?” to which my professor than spent three hours unpacking), the first of which is The Trolley Problem, and the second of which is the question “If a tree falls and no one is there it hear it, does it still make a sound?” (To which I spent three hours, across fifteen pages, trying to argue this question in my final exam.)

I did end up dropping my philosophy courses in the end, solely due to that logic course alone, and I do wish I could have continued those courses, but with the internet these days, I suppose I can on my own. Now, onto the musing!

The Trolley Problem

For those who aren’t familiar, the general premise of the trolley problem is that you are the conductor (or sometimes it is an onlooker who has the power to change the direction of the train) of a train, and the brake is broken. You are given two choices: stay on the track that has five people in your path and end up killing those five people or divert the trolley to the one that only has one person, killing that one person.

Now, do you have an answer?

If you do, hold onto it, and if you don’t, we’ll further complicate it in the next bit.

How might this situation change if the five people are strangers whereas the one person is a loved one? What if the five people are national treasures, or the key to saving entire populations but the one person is a loved one? What if it is a thousand civilians, a million, two million, versus the virtuous leader of a country? A thousand civilians, a million, two million, versus one person who has the cure for cancer?

Now, what if it is not a person on that track but a place, a concept, a situation? What if there must be war in one place for there to be peace in another? In several other places? What if you must wipe an entire culture for the survival of several other cultures. Would you?

Now, what if it is not a person but a creature? Five creatures, one human? A hundred, a thousand creatures and one human? An endangered species and one human? A million creatures and one human?

And sometimes, there might be one more option. With the previous two, you (as the conductor or onlooker) survive regardless. But what if there is a third track? Where you do not have to pick to kill five or one but place yourself on a track that only ends up with you yourself dying? Would you make the sacrifice?

The Falling Tree

There are entire populations that may perhaps believe the reality they live in is in fact the only reality and possibility even when there is the rest of the world in existence, and to us, we may think this foolish, but indeed, do we ourselves not have such sometimes—when someone tells us about something we do not know, whether it is a place, a person, a concept. To us, it had not existed in our world until that moment, and for others, we do not exist in their world until something or someone brings us to those individuals’ attention. And if so, this seems to explain, note that I don’t mean justify, the idea that some people can so easily look away from war, death, disaster, oppression if they are sufficiently removed and privileged enough to do so. Does that mean we should? Does that mean we should swallow guilt and suppress it into inexistence so we can live our lives in comfort? For some, the answer is yes. For others, even if their lives are short, they want to do something other than to turn their back and simply live.

And then what?

Our world often seems like it is in a constant struggle, always setting itself on fire. In some situations, there is strength in number and sometimes, one voice might outweigh us all. Then what? Do we give up? Do we surrender? Do we pretend not to see nor hear the tree that falls in the forest somewhere far away, pretend that it is not broken, cracked, splintering? Pretend that it does not make a sound, pretend that its screams are nonexistent because it is drowned by the distance of trees, waters, lands that separate us? What do we do? What should we do? What can we do when we feel powerless and what do we do when we have power? There is never an easy answer, and more often than not, there isn’t one right one.

I had this conversation with my spouse, and he told me he refuses to choose because it is not something that should be in control. Yet, what if it is? Still, he said he should not be the one with the power to decide the life and death of others. And yet, that is what humans are doing every day, aren’t we? What is worth saving and killing, even if we do not phrase it necessarily in this way.

So, I will leave you with this: If a tree falls and we do not hear it, does it make a sound? If we have never known about this tree, never known that it has fallen, if it does not exist in our minds, would the answer change? If you replace the tree with a person, a place, a nation?

And of course, because this is indeed still Chaos Trifecta, I have three recommendations that tie to everything discussed in this month’s column:

  1. The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay (2018)— If you are handed the world’s fate in your hands but you have to decide whether to kill yourself or your loved ones, what would you do?
  2. Along With the Gods: The Two Worlds (film; 2017) — What moral/ethical decision should you or should you not be punished for?
  3. Okja (film; 2017)— Is it justified for us to sacrifice the lives of animals, to continue the cruelty of livestock farming for the benefit of humans?