Was Heraclitus Right?

The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth. - Niels Bohr

Heraclitus (535-475 BC) is justly famous for his observation: "You cannot step twice into the same river". A few of my recent experiences reminded me of his remark.

One of the highlights of Iceland is seeing the icebergs float out to sea at Jokulsarlon. My first visit was both rushed and magical, so I vowed to return. The second time around the icebergs were still there, but the magic was not.

In Berlin I really enjoyed a dish of tagliatelle. Wanting to repeat, I returned but could not find the item on the menu. Then I chanced on the dish on the front page of the menu and ordered it happily. Ten minutes later, the waiter told me it was not available. Two nights later I returned for another try, assured myself the tagliatelle were in stock and ordered it. However, it was not as tasty as I remembered.

Photographing the same subject the next day, or even an hour later, is chancy. All too often, I cannot take the shot I originally intended. Even a large building can be obscured by a crane, truck, or scaffolding.

While the first macchiato coffee and the first chocolate are a delight, the second is never as good.

We were captivated listening to an organist improvise in the amazing Kaiser Wilhelm church in Berlin. We returned for a scheduled concert some days later, but did not experience the same magic as the improvisation we heard the first time.

There being no other possibilities, we ate three times in a row at a mediocre smorgasbord restaurant in the wilds. On the second evening, I developed an unexpected craving for plain white rice, taking two large helpings. I thought, surely, I can have it the next day, but Heraclitus obviously visited the kitchen: it was gone.

I had by far the best meal of my last South American trip in San Pedro de Atacama. I returned on my last day to the same restaurant, but although the veal fillets were the same, I now noticed that they were over-salted. In addition, this heavy dish was not as suitable for lunch as for dinner.

Each of these cases confirmed Heraclitus, and I cannot think of a substantive counter-example.

Various reasons explain the above experiences. Novelty and surprise work only the first time. On the second occurrence we may have too high expectations, having had little or none the first time. Our memory tends to exaggerate the pleasure of a past experience. We change, if only because we have had the experience in question. Also, our tastes vary over time, as does our mood. Finally, the thing itself may change, or the circumstances may be different.

Heraclitus' message is: do not expend your energies trying to recreate a past moment, instead make the most of the present one; explore its newness. My experience is that magic cannot be repeated. I need to look elsewhere to find it again.

Heraclitus not only grasped a profound truth, he also found a neat and poetical way of expressing it. What about the literal truth of his statement? Strictly speaking, you cannot step twice into the same river, because even if only a few seconds separate the two immersions, the water molecules that encounter your body will not be the same, nor will your body, which will have aged a fraction. Yet does it matter? In human terms the difference is purely academic. So while Heraclitus is right in general, in many instances the differences are so minute as to be of no consequence to human beings. Washing our teeth and getting dressed are examples where the experience differs so little that we may safely ignore Heraclitus. Of course, we are likely to have different thoughts at each repetition.

Discovering it some years ago was a culinary revelation. Now we go to the same Neapolitan pizzeria every week and invariably order two capricciosas. We cannot recreate the original experience, but we enjoy the pizza reliably, so this is a partial repudiation of Heraclitus.

Given the quote from Bohr, what might the opposite of Heraclitus' dictum be? Maybe it is this, "To do the same thing and expect a different result is the definition of insanity". Whenever I hear this maxim, my mind always goes, "Yes, but..." Even that thoroughly obedient moron, the computer, occasionally disobeys. We do the same thing we did a million times before, but this time we get an error. The year-2000 bug fest is a prominent example. Other examples are chess (even if your move is a blunder, it may win you the game if your opponent does not reply correctly), squash (the same stroke may or may not win the rally) and water wearing down a stone. Any context where chance can enter the proceedings - and that's just about the whole of life - is a possible counter-example to what I like to call the anti-Heraclitus position. Not convinced? Try entering the wrong PIN three times in a row on your credit card.

Buying lottery tickets is another example, as someone has to win sometime. Then there is the "idiot effect". A successful scientist pointed out that only an idiot will be wildly enthusiastic about the 100th idea after 99 previous instances of wild enthusiasm followed by failure. Yet it may take that many. Perseverance in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles can pay off. A surprisingly tiny variation in how we do something may be enough to finally succeed.

As Bohr intimates, the anti-Heraclitus position also captures an important truth. Which is right, or more right? This is the wrong question. Everything depends on the context. Any sufficiently general statement about life must flounder on some counter-examples. This is even true in chess, where there is no element of chance. Ask a grandmaster for a general comment regarding chess strategy and they will always say, "It depends on the position".

Overall, it seems that our lives are not lived in the spirit of Heraclitus. My week, and probably yours too, is riddled with habit and repeated patterns. We do the same thing and expect the same result, but this is what we want. On the other hand, we also seek novelty and variety, and here Heraclitus holds out hope.

Tad Boniecki
September 2015

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