Review of 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 fifth. 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 becomes annoying.

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 our refrigerator. 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 I might.

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 vision.

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 blindness.

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 a mirror.

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, always seeing.

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.