Names and Definitions

Original Post: 10 April 2012
Posted Here: 5 December 2017

drving down the streetYou are driving down the street on your way to get some groceries. As you approach a cross street, a car pulls out right in front of you. What’s the first thing that you do? Hit the brakes! Our survival instincts are powerful. The second thing you do? Give that driver a name! We also have a powerful urge to define things.

My new The American Heritage Dictionary of the American Language defines “define” as “1a. To state the precise meaning of (a word or sense of a word, for example.) b. To describe the nature or basic qualities of; explain.” When we define something, we set limits as to what it is and what it isn’t. Defining is important to our survival as well as to our peace of mind. Part of the process involves giving the thing of interest a name. We need to define whether that snake in the yard is a garter snake or a copperhead. Part of that definition is giving the thing a name. Naming that driver improved our peace of mind by giving us the illusion that we’d done something.

When astronomers found that stars in galaxies were not orbiting as predicted by the Law of Gravity, they needed an explanation. The explanation was not that the Law was wrong, but that there was some unseeable form a matter that was responsible for what was being observed. They called it “dark matter” and began trying to find out what this dark matter was. They still haven’t, but at least they’ve given it a name. It’s a start in finding the explanation.

In science you find that something’s name and it’s definition are often confused. We use the feeling of satisfaction at naming something to mask the fact that we still haven’t defined the item of interest. We still don’t know what energy and mass are. But we’ve named them. We know what they do (energy can do work; it causes changes), but knowing what something does is not the same as knowing what it is. A name is not a definition.

We can do all sorts of calculations involving energy and mass, many of which allow us do things of importance (calculating fuel efficiency, calculating heat flow, designing refrigerators and air conditioners,  e = mc^2, etc.) But we still don’t know what energy, mass, or even matter are. We have given whatever they are names and we feel better. But we shouldn’t let ourselves be deluded into thinking that we know what something is, that we’ve defined it, just because we’ve given it a name. Who was that *** in the car anyhow?

Keep reading/keep writing – Jack