Dominic Ersatti's "Water can See"
Copyright Richard Schwartz, 2001
The book under review is an outgrowth of
Dominic Ersatti's doctoral thesis, written at
the University of Maryland in 1994.
Like many outgrowths of theses, this
book has a rather didactic feel to it.
However, given the extraordinary claims put
forth in the book, I would say that the
work is, on the whole, rather well written.
As the title would suggest, the central
claim of this work is that water can see.
This reviewer's first reaction to the claim
is one of outrage. Obviously, water cannot
see. It has no cornea, no retina, no visual
cortex. One cannot even
imagine a mechanism by which water could see; it is,
of course, an inanimate chemical compound.
What is even more infuriating, Ersatti offers
no scientific evidence whatsoever in favor
of his theory. Rather, he dismisses the entire
body of scientific work on perception in a
paragraph. His main contention is that
people really have no idea how the mind
works, and no one has explained
satisfactorily why stuctures like retinas,
neurons, etc. are necessary for vision.
``I spit on the hubris of scientists'' is
his final word on the matter.
On balance, Ersatti spends no less than
five chapters dealing with Occam's razor,
the one objection to his theory he seems
to take seriously. In brief, Occam's razor
states that one should pick the simplest
explanation amongst several competing
alternatives. Ersatti calls Occam's razor
``the great enabler of speculation''.
According to Ersatti, every facet of human existence
has trillions of possible interpretations. He
trots out a long list of examples, many of them
hackneyed: everyone else on the planet
might be a sophisticated robot, placed here to fool me.
Or maybe every third person is a robot, or every
Maybe everyone else lives in a state of extreme
giddiness but hides it perfectly.
On and on and on the examples go.
Occam's razor allows
us to eliminate these distracting options,
on the grounds of their unnecessary complexity.
Ersatti's central objection to Occam's razor is
that the word ``simple'' cannot be defined out
of context. He illustrates his point with a
number of lengthy examples. This reviewer
would have preferred to see these examples
somewhat abbreviated; one gets the drift of
the argument rather quickly and then the excess detail
Here is one of the author's examples, necessarily
condensed. Ersatti considers the question,
What is the
simplest way to get something to eat? One
is tempted to say that one could dial out for pizza.
The whole business takes but a
minute and then the food
arrives with celerity. What could be simpler?
But the phone call is implemented using
an enormously complicated machine, to say nothing
of the production of the pizza.
Alternatively, we could grab something from
But, again, the refrigerator is a complicated
device, to say nothing of the machinations
by which food is transferred from factories
into our refrigerator.
We could try to pick fruit from the plants
in our back yard, say; but perhaps we don't know
which fruit is edible and which poisonous.
We might first have to consult books written
on the matter. All in all, the answer to the
question depends on the context.
The combined effect of the author's examples is
to cast a kind of shadow over the word ``simple''.
In the end the reader is forced to admit that
the word frequently has no meaning at all out of context;
and in the situations where Occam's razor is
required the context is often part
of what must be decided upon.
Given that the main
selection criterion in Occam's razor is
meaningless, Ersatti argues, the principle
itself is meaningless.
This ought to be enough, but the author does
not stop here.
He points out one historical example after another
in which Occam's razor
is mistakenly applied. The Earth was first thought
to be flat rather than curved, orbits of planets were first thought
to be circular rather than elliptical, and so on. Following Liebniz,
he takes special aim at Descartes, who deduced with ``perfect
certainty'' a completely bogus set of physical
laws concerning inelastic collisions.
This reviewer found the statement
``Descartes was a complete idiot'' a bit hard
to take, but nonetheless had to admit that
the great philosopher had made some serious
errors in his search for the ``simplest''
explanations of things.
Once Ersatti has blunted Occam's razor he
gets on with the main business of his work,
elaborating on his claim that water can see. His
idea (which, considered generally,
is certainly not a new one)
is that the amount of ``vision'' inherent in
a body of water is proportional to the volume
of water. Thus, droplets of rain see things dimly,
and only in their immediate vicinity, whereas a
glass of water sees things quite clearly, as
Ersatti invites the reader to consider a person,
this reviewer say,
drinking a glass of water. I
look at the glass of water and the glass looks
back! As I pour the water into my
mouth, the water sees first my lips and then
the inside of my mouth.
As the water washes over my teeth, it
sees my teeth in all their detail, the cracks,
the fillings, images
sliding around each other like cards in a shuffling deck.
As the water is swallowed it sees the expanding
tunnel that is my esophagus, sees itself
flow down and down into my stomach.
The swallowed water joins
other water in my stomach and the larger
quantity experiences a kind of augmentation of
This is perhaps the most interesting part of the
theory. Ersatti proposes that there is a kind of
``shock of clarity'' when small bodies of water
join together to form larger bodies.
He likens the experience to the sudden turning
on of a light, or the sudden opening of a door.
He imagines rain falling down into the ocean.
At the moment of contact each droplet experiences
a kind of explosion of sight. At the same time,
when water evaporates from the ocean the rising
steam experiences a sudden and almost total
I had many problems with this
description. Consider the simple
example of two glasses of water being poured into
one glass. Before the two glasses
are united, they each have their own vision,
their own point of view so to speak. Once the two
glasses are mixed together the result
presumably has a single point of view.
What happened to the
multiple points of view?
Conversely, if the water in a big glass is
split apart into two smaller glasses, how do the multiple points
of view arise from the single point of view?
Unfortunately, these questions and many others
are not addressed.
Continuing with his general theme, the author
argues that the great bodies of water, Lake
Michigan for example, have an astounding and (to us)
a fundamentally incomprehensible ability to
see. He imagines that the fish in this great
lake are seen inside and out, as if X-rayed.
The entire workings of their
nervous systems are as open books.
More than this, the water in Lake Michigan
sees itself, its waves and ripples and currents and
lines of flow, like a mirror staring into
Considering the Earth as a whole,
Ersatti leaves us with a portrait
of a planet supernaturally aware of itself.
Possessed of incredible vision, the great connected ocean
sees a staggering mosaic of images,
an unimaginably rich and brilliant pattern.
Water cycles in and out of the great ocean,
along its way experiencing a more or less
vivid picture of the world around it, but always,
The author spends hundreds
of pages describing
the perceptual powers of water, but he never
explains their purpose or value. He never claims,
for instance, that water can get excited
about what it sees, or even interested in it.
He never claims that water can share its incredible
experience with anything besides water.
In the end, this is a book about loneliness.