Friday, June 27, 2008

So what is is?

A recent president tried to avoid some legal issues by asking what is is. This is sad, but I thought I would get some mileage out of that statement to start this post about things. One of the mistakes that I notice people make routinely is to grant existence to a lack of something. As one of my Intel officers used to like to say, "The lack of information is not information". That is to say that the absence of a thing is not a different thing.

One of the most obvious examples is vacuum. Vacuum is the absence of matter. One "creates" vacuum by removing everything from an area. Vacuum has properties and can be measured, but it is not a thing. We say that vacuum fills the void between the stars, but of course vacuum does just the opposite. It does not fill the void.

Let's another try an example, darkness. We talk about darkness all the time. We talk about how it comes into a room. How darkness falls on the landscape. How the darkness can stalk us, or surprise us. We talk about how the darkness robs our vision. The interesting thing here is that there is no such thing as darkness. I know your saying but it does get dark. There is darkness under my desk/couch/foot, what have you. That is true, but darkness is not a thing, rather it is the absence of light.

Final example, cold. Cold, like darkness and vacuum, is not a thing, but the absence of heat. This is perhaps more surprising to us as we experience cold fairly directly. This is especially true if you live fairly far from the equator. Cold is not a thing though, that is why we don't have a machine that creates cold. Wait Pat, now I have you, my refrigerator creates cold, doesn't it? No it doesn't, your refrigerator moves heat. It moves it from inside to the outside (you know those hot coils on the back of the fridge). Cold is the absence of heat.

Does that change anything? Yes and no. Obviously it changes things, like how a refrigerator works. But it doesn't change the fact that you put Ice Cream in the freezer, cause you want it cold. There are times however when we get ourselves in trouble thinking that we understand a thing, that really isn't a thing at all.

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