If you don’t know what it is, give it a name

  • What is sleep?
  • What is an electron/photon?
  • What is money?

I find it forever fascinating how utterly clueless we (Homo Sapiens) are, about almost anything. A different sort of person marvels at how much we know, but I marvel at how little we know.

Which sort of person you are, I find, depends on how curious you are–ie, how easily satisfied that you know enough about something, anything. To oversimplify for the sake of some easy labels, the first sort might be called intellectual, the second practical. Every joke you’ve ever heard about intellectuals applies to me.

The most boring branch of college philosophy, as I recall hazily, is epistemology, the logos of episteme, ie knowledge. You read and write endless stupid essays on whether we really know that the chair we’re sitting on is a chair, whether we can be sure that we are not brains in a vat, and so forth. Able-bodied twenty-year-olds tune out and go to the keg party, as I did.

But there are infinitely more interesting questions to ask, and they get more fascinating with age. Today I want to give you a sample of just three. They have two things in common: 1) the practical types are likely to roll their eyes because, you see, the answer is too obvious to merit the question, and 2) nobody who does ask the question, least of all the experts, has the foggiest notion of what the answer might be.

800px-Puma_Sleeping1) What is sleep?

The practical person says ‘Make sure you get enough of it.’ Thank you, and I do. I’m really good at it, or I was until I had children.

But what is it we’re getting ‘enough’ of? With food, it’s easy to tell. Chemical energy goes in, changes shape into bodily functions and waste. But with sleep, it’s a mystery.

Some animals do it standing up, others lying down, some for minutes a day, others for months on end. All of us go through different phases in our sleep and we should probably have different names for each phase. We can measure some brain waves and chart them. We can follow people who don’t sleep enough and observe their immune systems and reaction times and such. We can, in short, describe what sleep does to us.

But can we say what it is? I’ve been asking some neurologists lately, and the answer is No. You can answer with semantic layers (“rest”, eg), but each layer leaves you more frustrated. We just don’t know. If we find out, that might be one of the greatest breakthroughs in human consciousness ever.

2) What is an electron/photon?

The practical person says ‘If this light switch works, you see the electrons and photons in action, okay?’ Indeed, he might whip out all sorts of measuring devices for both. But we didn’t ask what electrons and photons can do. We asked what they are.

I love this example because it illustrates how we soothe our ignorance with labels. First we called “them” (we were/are not sure whether they are separate things or aspects of the same thing) waves. Waves, of course, are something we think we understand because we’ve skipped stones in ponds and all that. And somebody discovered that if you shoot electrons/photons through two slits, this happens:


A wave pattern, in other words. Aha.

Then somebody else discovered that when you shoot electrons at a metal plate, photons are knocked out, like this:


Particles, in other words. Aha.

And so we have the answer: “wave-particle duality“. It is Orwellian in its beauty. Rather than admit that we don’t know what it is (a “bundle” of energy? A “quantum”?) we take two things we know and mix them together with a hyphen.

This example goes far beyond electrons and photons, by the way. We follow this approach with all subatomic particles–ie, we bash them together, see another flying off, and instantly … name it. Bosons, muons, leptons. My favorites are the quarks which can be (and I kid you not) up, down, top, bottom, charmed or strange. Those guys in the hadron colliders have a great sense of humor.

800px-BanknotesWhat is money?

I actually found myself in the amusing situation once of teaching (to a class of journalism students) a lecture on this question. What you do, in case it ever happens to you, is that you say you don’t know, but at a high intellectual level, for two hours.

Again, the practical person says ‘I know it when it’s in my bank account’, or describes things that money does.

It does three things, by the way: It acts as a

  1. medium of exchange (so we don’t have to barter)
  2. unit of account (so we can keep track of value)
  3. store of value (so we can save value over time, lest it rot as bananas do)

Great. We can describe other aspects of it. It has velocity. It has a multiplier effect. And so on.

But what is it? It is not cowry shells, although it once was. It is not gold or silver, although it once was (and still is in many names for money, such as Geld or argent). But even though the queen promises to pay me x pounds of sterling, she would not actually give me any metal if I showed up at Buckingham Palace. Other times money is cigarettes (post-war Germany) or sex (ditto). Often it is just paper (above). But almost all of the time, nowadays, it is just debits and credits on a computer screen. (!)

The key moment for me occurred when I was talking to an economist about this, and finally he said:

you have to understand that all this money isn’t actually … there.

He meant it can go pouff if people don’t believe it’s there (see: etymology of credit). It can reappear when people believe it might be there.

And that may be the appropriate note to leave this post on, in the second year of our Great Recession. Everything you lost was … faith-based to begin with.

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10 thoughts on “If you don’t know what it is, give it a name

  1. Good food for thought.

    But then, what is food?

    Regarding thought: The Platonic Socrates would say that virtue is knowledge, but knowledge can’t be defined. Where does this leave us, Andreas?

  2. Hi Andreas/Cheri

    > sleep is an intriguing evolutionary puzzle – why on earth does it make sense to be unconscious for so long when there are predators around?

    > re knowledge and virtue – we have lost knowledge of some of virtue’s original meaning, in translations through languages and time. It originally also connoted the ideal of being a man of action as well as morally good (same root as man – vir, virile etc)

    > Re naming what isn’t understood – there is a great counter example of changing a zeitgeist by calling attention to something that was very common but had no name – Betty Freidan – starting the US feminist movement by describing the plight of women in the 50s/60s as suffering from the “Problem That Has No Name”


  3. Cheri, I’m just in the part of “The Trial of Socrates” where Stone shows the old man, and in particular this bit of reasoning, to be ridiculous. I’ll wait till I’ve read the whole book, and then I’ll go Socratic on you.

    Jag: Because I happen to know the English root (the German root is different), I’ve always had trouble calling women virtuous. (Do you know of an equivalent word, from the root for ‘woman’?)

    Betty Friedan: Very clever observation. 😉

  4. I would like to describe something in this category.

    I live in a ‘hip and liberal town.’ This is the sort of place where groups of children wearing soccer jerseys will stone you if you recycle (rather than compost) your napkin. Anyhoo, no one was hurt today (or stoned, literally). But, without the slightest nod to irony, our local p.o.s. Newspaper reported today that a seventy five year old maple tree fell and crushed two Priuses.


    If a maple tree falls in your neighborhood is it more likely to crush (a) a smaller maple tree (b) a pickup truck on blocks (c) the pool boy (d) two Priuses (e) none of the above?

    • In my current neighborhood, the maple tree is likeliest to crush a combination of a blue Prius and a lemon tree, and the tremor would make a garage collapse that has been primed by decades on the Hayward fault.

      That, in effect, gives away my zipcode (which I’ll only be having for another couple of days).

      In my next neighborhood, the tree is likely to crush a Prius and one or two pool boys. That gives that one away as well.

      I have never lived in a neighborhood where any pickup truck would have been endangered, and I have once or twice lived in neighborhoods where other trees, thought not of the maple variety, were most at risk.

      Mostly, I regret to say, I’ve lived in neighborhoods where there was no maple or other tree to fall in the first place.

      Interesting demographic litmus test.

  5. I have thought of money as being a certain amount of work converted into an abstract numeral value. Obviously that breaks down when you look at people making millions as well as companies. At the higher levels it just turns into a number that at some point someone accepts in exchange for something else.

    But, a friend of mine expressed this quandary in a more practical term. How do you know whether or not something is worth the money or not? Her answer is to compare it to the amount one would have to spend on a dinner. That bicycle is equal to twenty steak dinners, it’s far too expensive. So in a very practical sense, money to her is a number ascribed to how much food costs. 5 = sandwich. cd = 2 sandwiches? GM = one billion eighty million sandwiches?

    In the end it is surprising to me how stable money is. I know there are large powers at work to keep it stable, but even so, for something so abstract and fluid, it’s hard to believe basically the entire human race agrees to play along.

  6. Tibbitts, you are doing some rather profound thinking, perhaps without even being aware of it:

    Your first theory–“a certain amount of work converted into an abstract numeral value”–is essentially Karl Marx’s Labor Theory of Value. It turned out to be wrong, but it took a lot of economists a lot of time to figure that out.

    Your friend then elaborated with, in effect, the “medium of exchange” and “unit of account” explanations, which is 2 out of 3 correct.

    Hats off!

    Also, great animation!

    • Wow…. I had no idea!

      I just was trying to figure out “what the value of a dollar” is, because I didn’t want to be one of those people who didn’t know the value of a dollar! lol.

      It never occurred to me people would try to figure out how much 1 dollar is “supposed” to be worth. I have never been terribly interested in economics, aka I never read about economics and try to avoid it in most cases, but I might just have to investigate the whole money system more.

      About all I know about the value of the dollar is that some group call “The Fed” tries to keep it somewhat stable by changing interest rates. It’s sort of hard not to know that considering how much it is in the news.

      Anyways, thanks for a mind expanding post! 🙂 And thanks for the kinda comments on my animation, I appreciate it!

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