Harrison Middleton University

Annie Dillard and the Science of Can and Can’t

Annie Dillard and the Science of Can and Can’t

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.


August 12, 2022

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

At HMU, we place a great deal of importance on asking vital questions. I continuously work towards finding helpful, insightful, deep questions which enables me to better understand an author’s perspective. Thinking in this way opens pathways to asking insightful questions of our world. Two authors help to elaborate this notion: Annie Dillard in her investigation of nature; and the idea of counterfactuals as proposed by Chiara Marletto in The Science of Can and Can’t. Both of these authors ask questions like: Are we asking the right questions? What do we know about the physical world? And, can these insights be extrapolated further?

In the chapter titled “Seeing” in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard recounts some anecdotes from a book that she had recently read. The book described various experiences of blind patients who received surgeries to help them see. Their accounts of first sight were extraordinarily mixed: some people wanted to go back to life without vision because they knew how to navigate that world with care and depth. Others reveled in the new sense. However, many of the patients used and described their new skill in astonishing ways. For example, in order to demonstrate how tall her mother was, one patient set her fingers only a few inches apart. And many of the patients described the overwhelming amazement at color. Astounded by the variety and experience of full-time color, some resorted to shutting their eyes in order to find relief. Though I cannot fully understand their experience, I imagine that it is similar to attending a circus or fair for the first time, when experience of sight, sound, smell, etc. can overwhelm the system.

Knowing that new sight often leads to insight, Dillard continues: “Why didn’t someone hand those newly sighted people paints and brushes from the start, when they still didn’t know what anything was? Then maybe we all could see color-patches too, the world unraveled from reason, Eden before Adam gave names. The scales would drop from my eyes: I’d see trees like men walking; I’d run down the road against all orders, hallooing and leaping. … Seeing is of course very much a matter of verbalization. Unless I call my attention to what passes before my eyes, I simply won’t see it. It is, as Ruskin says, ‘not merely unnoticed, but in the full, clear sense of the word, unseen.’” Moving beyond questions of vision, Dillard asks how much of our lives moves by unseen, and how can we sharpen the tools of insight?

Chiara Marletto also realizes that seeing is not necessarily an activity that involves eyesight. Her book questions the nature of our understanding of physics. She writes, “[T]he fundamental types of counterfactuals that occur in physics are of two kinds: one is the impossibility of performing a transformation; the other is the possibility of performing a transformation.” Furthermore, she hopes to unseat knowledge from its subjective, human-centered definition, into one of objectivity. Knowledge, instead of being housed inside of any single entity, is “the ability to last” or to endure over time. For example, DNA contains knowledge because it replicates itself. It has the knowledge necessary to maintain and/or change over time. So, instead of saying that humans know about DNA itself, we might say that DNA has its own knowledge which we are beginning to understand. Marletto believes the knowledge exists within the thing itself. In this way, she opens the door to directly question knowledge objectively.

Marletto’s curiosity and passion are infectious. She makes me want to see the world with new eyes, as in Dillard’s anecdote. For example, here is a short passage from her chapter “Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made On” in which she describes the reasons for revising our definitions of knowledge and physics:

“To understand what exactly physics and science are missing by relying solely on the traditional conceptions, let’s take a look at a simple example of some property that cannot be adequately captured by the traditional conception. To this end, I can evoke an imaginary masterly storyteller. As well as being dedicated to his craft, he is generous and enjoys featuring in stories that other authors write. For the sake of argument, suppose he was the best storyteller ever and was fond of writing novels by hand – say, with a green ballpoint pen. As a prolific writer, he likes always to have some blank paper at hand for when inspiration strikes, and he keeps, in a particular secret drawer of his desk, an emergency supply of blank sheets – a thick pile of them. Now, it may be the case that over the course of his whole career that special stash of paper is never used. In this case, the sheets will stay blank: this fact is something the traditional conception of physics could, in principle, predict, given the initial conditions of the universe and the laws of motion. However, the most important property of that paper is not that it will stay blank: rather, it is that something could be written on it. This property is the most important because it explains why the paper is kept there in the drawer, and why it is blank. That property is about what could be made to happen to the white paper. It is a counterfactual property: as I said earlier, it is about what could be, rather than what is. The traditional conception of physics cannot possibly capture counterfactual properties, because it insists on expressing everything in terms of predictions about what happens in the universe given the initial conditions and the laws of motion only – in terms of trajectories of apples or electrons, forgetting the other levels of explanation. But these other levels of explanation are essential sometimes to grasp the whole of physical reality. Neglecting them misses out on several aspects that are significant for a full understanding of what’s going on.”

To me, changing the question is the difference between seeing as we always have and seeing with new eyes. In fostering and promoting new ways of asking questions, new possibilities, Marletto opens doors to new insights. In a similar vein, Dillard notes:

“But there is another kind of seeing that involves a letting go. When I see this way I sway transfixed and emptied. The difference between the two ways of seeing is the difference between walking with and without a camera. When I walk with a camera, I walk from shot to shot, reading the light on a calibrated meter. When I walk without a camera, my own shutter opens, and the moment’s light prints on my own silver gut. When I see this second way I am above all an unscrupulous observer.”

Because we know that human perception is flawed (when we think in terms of understanding the total physical universe), then constantly revising questions is one obvious way to promote better understanding. (As a side note, which seems to reinforce the curious connection between these two writers…both of the longer passages quoted occur on page 32 in their respective texts. Curious indeed!)

To leave a comment, click on the title of this blog and scroll down.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top
Skip to content