Sunday, June 19, 2011

Epistemology Provençal

In a recent travel piece in the New York Times, novelist Nicholas Delbanco described a trip he and his wife made to Provence, where they’d spent an extended honeymoon forty years ago. Hilary and I have been to Provence several times but not since 1990, and I was curious to see how the return visit struck him. (For what it’s worth, many years ago I read and was impressed by one of Delbanco’s early novels, Small Rain, which was set in the south of France somewhere.)

There were not many surprises. Things have changed, Delbanco says, but there’s still plenty of beauty and culture to be enjoyed, especially if you move further up into the hills with bigger wads of cash in your pocket. Even the Luberon Valley, he tells us, has not been utterly ruined by the outlandish popularity of Peter Mayle’s books—which inspired our visit in 1990.

What did surprise me was the digression Delbanco made, early on in the piece, to ponder the issues associated with seeing things anew that you already think you know pretty well:

It’s difficult to know, in the wake of Heisenberg and Einstein, what is absolute, what relative, and why. Do we change as witnesses, or does that which we witness change, or both; does it alter because of the viewing, and is our estimate altered by the consciousness of sight? Think of a train track and moving train; does the world pass by while we sit still, or is it the reverse? These problems of philosophy and mathematics are personal riddles also; was it always just like this, and did we fail to notice? For we have changed more than the landscape, no matter how the locals complain that the landscape has changed.

What I find odd about this passage is that Delbanco is presenting as “philosophical riddles” questions that most of us know the answer to intuitively. More understandable, but also more distressing, are the references to physicists whose opinions have little to do with the issue.

Most of us realize when we look out the window of a train that the train is moving with respect to an earth that’s pretty much staying put. When the engineer builds up a head of steam, we lurch ahead; when he puts on the brakes, we stop.

Delbanco’s real (and more interesting) concern is to focus our attention on the conundrum of a seemingly static personal point of view in the midst of an ever-changing world. No matter how old we get or how radically we change, we seem to remain, in some basic sense, “ourselves.” When we return to a place (or run into an old friend) this change/no change is thrown into relief as distant memories collide with the immediacy of new experiences. The event can be rich with pleasant nostalgia or tinged with a dreadful sense of lost or disparagement. It all depends.

What does all this have to do with Heisenberg and Einstein? Absolutely nothing. Einstein is the father of relativity, as everyone knows. Heisenberg formulated the slightly-less-famous “Uncertainty Principle,” which suggests that when observing sub-atomic particles, we can be sure of their speed or their location, but never both. Or something along those line.

Yet centuries before Heisenberg had outgrown his crib, philosophers were telling us that we can never really be certain of anything.

A better way of framing this issue would be to say that certainty is a feeling rather than an attribute of truth. When we say, “I’m certain the door was locked when I left the house,” what we mean to say is, “I’m confident I locked the door before leaving the house.” After all, we’ve all been certain of things that have turned out not to be true.

By the same token, the uncertainty and relativity of which physicists speak is less germane, with respect to return journeys, that the fact that with time, everything changes. We change, the landscape changes, the people change, the prices change. You never step in the same river twice, and if you remain standing on shore, reluctant to take the plunge, the “winds of time” flutter by just the same, and you continue to change in spite of yourself. In the end, nothing is absolute.

Why harken back to Heisenberg or Einstein when we’ve got Heraclitus to draw upon?!

But Delbanco’s description of a region that has retained much of its appeal also carries an unspoken message of maturation. The things we respond to remain the same—food, wine, lavender, rosemary, history, comfort. (He speaks with affection of “the insouciance of youth” but the rooms the couple stay in cost $600 per night.) The question is, As we age, do these “romantic” aspects of travel sink in further, resonate more deeply?

I would agree with Delbanco (though he doesn’t come right out and say so) that they do. But we also begin to learn, as we age, that you don’t have to travel as far as you thought to find them.

No comments: