Not to be

Allegedly being is the central question. At least if mr. Bill Shakespeare is to be believed. But what does it mean when we say that something ‘is’?

To be is probably the first verb that we learn in any language. It is one of the most used verbs as well. And yet, it is also the trickiest verb. Let’s investigate…

‘That is a car.’
Simple, sweet and to the point. Very definite and absolute too! A declaration that admits no discussion, no doubt. It is! But cars did not always exist. If king Tutankhamon had uttered this declaration it would have made zero sense.

The idea of cars had to be invented first. And not just the idea of cars needed inventing but also the components that make up a car. And the uses we put them to. Every little thing that goes into a car was invented, given a name, a definition and a purpose. All made up. By us!

A steering wheel is only a steering wheel because someone made the damn thing up. Steering wheels did not exist, not in reality and not as a concept, for billions of years and then they suddenly did. Because we made them up! Literally.

Furthermore, if events had unfolded differently in those billions of years cars and steering wheels might never have been invented. Or have been given a different name. Or definition. Or purpose.

To be sure, now that we have cars it is useful to have a name for the things. A label we can use to communicate with. All that I am trying to argue for is that we should keep in mind what the sentence ‘That is a car.’ actually indicates: a made up and arbitrary convention, a convention with incredibly fuzzy edges to boot.

A car is a car is a car.
Or is it? For convenience sake we pretend to know what a car is. And we assume that others have the same definition. But we gloss over the fact that at the edges things get really fuzzy really quickly. Can a car have 3 wheels? Does it need an engine? Is a toy car, a car? What happens when I take out the seats and make it a chicken coop? Is it still also a car? If we asked a hundred people these or similar questions, would they all agree?

So, we made up the idea of a car and of all its components. And we gave it a definition with fuzzy edges. And now we go around declaring things to be cars. Or not to be cars.

Or is it?

But that’s cars. A car is an invention. We made them up. We didn’t make up the sun, for example. Did we?

Well, we certainly made up the word: sun. And the distinction between the sun and other stars is a bit of an accident of history. And where does the sun start and end? A photon emitted by the sun that hits your retina, is that still part of the sun? And if it isn’t when and where exactly did that change?

Is it?

To be or not to be. We decide! Arbitrarily and not very well. And what is more, it is this way with every single concept, idea and definition that we have.

A tennis ball, what color is it? Yellow? Green? 52% of people say green and 42% say yellow. That remaining 6%? They believe a tennis ball to have some other color.

And so it is. Things are made up. And arbitrary. And could have been otherwise. And that goes for everything.
Every. Single. Thing.

So what?
If all of our concepts are made up, poorly defined and could have been chosen differently… how do we arrive at the truth?

Given what we have discussed so far, what does it even mean to say that anything ‘is true’?

Is it? Says who? What if I want to play football with it?
What kind of football?

We have created an entire field, a discipline even, that can tell us what is objectively true and what is not. That discipline is called science. And science only deals with what is real and what is true. But again, what does it mean to say that something is true?

Especially when the definitions that we have for all things are

  1. made up
  2. arbitrary
  3. poorly bounded

How can any structure that is made of such flimsy raw materials amount to anything solid?

How can it amount to:

Is it?
It isn’t.

To be or not to be?
It’s not even a question.

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