Here’s how I heard the story. Philosopher A (let’s call him “Jocko”) is talking to Philosopher B (let’s call her Xena).
Jocko: What do you think is the most beautiful place on earth?
Xena: The Lofoten Islands, duh.
Jocko: That’s the place. I’ll bet you I can arrange for us to have a conference there.
Xena: I’ll believe that when I see it.
Jocko: If that’s the case, I am 100% certain that you will believe it.
And so, here we are. Or rather, here they are. A bevy of brilliant philosophers. And here I am, the lucky faculty spouse. Perq #1: I get to tag along for the ride. Perq #2: I don’t have to do any philosophy.
To get from our home in Providence, Rhode Island, to this island in northern Norway, in the Arctic Circle, we took four flights and two taxis. The total journey in real time (not accounting for time zones) lasted 24.5 hours. No one ever said philosophy was easy.
On our first flight, from Providence to Newark, I watched the preppy student-type guy across the aisle reading a book and taking notes in a little turquoise journal. He was taking a lot of notes, filling a page or two every few minutes. I couldn’t catch much of what he was writing, just a few stray phrases. “I believe,” “it’s important,” “humility.”
What book could possibly generate such interest? Something about it ( the layout of the page? The fact that the chapter heading I could see was “Next of Kin”?) suggested that it was either a novel or a memoir. As soon as I made the guess, I had to know if I was right.
I kept watching until he turned to a page spread with the author and title printed on top. Anna Quindlen. Many Candles, Lots of Cake. Bingo.
On this same leg, the flight attendant was very pretty and young, her long, black hair worn loose and a little messy, a much more casual style than I usually expect from people who have her job. I couldn’t stop looking at her.
I wasn’t just attracted. I was also intrigued. She was obviously ethnically Asian. But was she Japanese? Chinese? Or something else? I guessed Japanese, but I didn’t really know, and this bothered me. People who are Japanese and Chinese have no trouble recognizing the differences. I don’t like to think of myself as ignorant in this way.
When she came down the aisle, I caught a quick glimpse of her nametag. I didn’t have time to read her whole name. But I did notice that her last name was relatively long, maybe six or seven letters, and that it started with an I. From my limited knowledge of Chinese and Japanese names, I decided that my guess had been right. But maybe if I had guessed Chinese, I would have found some evidence to support that conclusion.
This is what I do when I’m bored. I make guesses about things, and then try to prove that I’m right. Temperature, time, distance, weight, the name of a song, the meaning of a word in a foreign language. That sort of thing. The actual fact of the matter isn’t what I care about. It’s showing that I can find clues, draw inferences, and get it right.
Among the passengers on the leg from Newark to Oslo were eight or nine generously tattooed men in their thirties, several carrying guitar cases. Obviously they were members of a head-banger band, come to Norway for a gig. I say obviously, but I didn’t know for sure until Passport control in the Oslo airport.
I happened to be behind one of the guys when I heard him him tell the Norwegian border-control guy, “I’m with [indistinct]. [Indistinct] tomorrow. I’m handling security.” Right again! Maybe. Unless those indistinct utterances completed the sentences so they said, “I’m with The International Society of Salt-Water Aquarium Enthusiasts.” And “I’m getting my wisdom teeth out tomorrow. And even if I did fill in the blanks correctly, that would only tell me that I correctly guessed the story the guy told about himself. How do I know he wasn’t lying? Or speaking in code?
While I was busying myself with these idle speculations, David was doing his homework for the conference. The branch of philosophy that brings us here is epistemology, the study of knowledge. How can we know our beliefs are justified? What counts as reliable evidence? That sort of thing. His own particular corner of this corner of philosophy is disagreement. He’s an expert on why he shouldn’t trust his own view too much if someone equally smart and well-informed has a different opinion. (And for this we get to go to the Lofoten Islands!)
As the trip dragged on and on and I got more and more tired and stiff and bored, I kept telling myself it was worth it. After all, how many people ever get to visit the most beautiful place on earth? But is it really the most beautiful? Maybe the jaw-droppingly gorgeous photograph Jocko pasted into the invitation he emailed to David was a fake. And even if it wasn’t a fake, why should I believe that just because that one incredible view existed somewhere in the Lofoten Islands, the rest of the place wasn’t a dump.Or maybe everything had been spoiled since the picture was taken. Those breathtaking cliffs removed to make room for a Wal-mart. I wouldn’t know until I actually saw for myself. Seeing would be believing.
As I write this, we have been here for twenty-one hours. In that time, we have seen some jaw-droppingly beautiful vistas – from the third plane (from Oslo to Bodo) and the fourth plane (from Bodo to Svolvaer), from the “maxi taxi” that took us to our hotel, while walking around town, and from a boat ride we took up Troll Fjord this morning. The beautiful vistas aren’t just occasional sights that take you by surprise when you crest a hill or turn a corner. They’re everywhere you look. In every direction.
Do I believe that Jocko and Yolanda are correct when they claim this the most beautiful place on earth? In order to form a truly informed belief, I would first have to visit every other place on earth and make a comparison. But until I am able do that, I will say this. In terms of amount of jaw-dropping natural spendor per square inch, this is place is about as good a candidate for the title of Most Beautiful Place on Earth as any place I have ever seen.