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About the meaning of words like is and are

  1. Apr 14, 2008 #1
    About the meaning of words like "is" and "are"

    My dictionary defines them as "exist, be present", which is not nearly good enough for mathematics and physics. Perhaps folk here can clarify the meaning of such common words in such a context.

    A musical note is usually not pure, in the sense that it is said to consist of a fundamental note and various harmonics. To some extent our ears can detect a note's composite nature, and we easily distinguish between the same note played on different instruments because they have different sets of harmonics.

    Physics uses the logical language of mathematics to do this job quantitatively. For instance a "square wave" sound note may mathematically be Fourier-analysed into an infinite series of odd harmonics whose amplitudes diminish in proportion to the inverse of the odd numbers.

    Alternatively, the "presence" of these harmonics may be demonstrated by listening to their "beats" with waves of frequencies close to these harmonics, when these are mixed with the square wave.

    Now the question arises: do such harmonics "exist"? or "are" they simply artifacts of the way our sense of hearing processes sounds, and of the mathematical dialect we use to describe and analyse a square wave? "Is" not the reality just jerky alterations in the average speeds of air molecules? Or "is" a harmonic several things at the same time? because we can devise different descriptions of what "is"?
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  3. Apr 14, 2008 #2
    I'm not sure, but I don't think they have single technical definitions.

    They can appear in predicates. For example: grass is green. The predicate "is green" tells us a property of the grass.

    They can also appear in identity relations. "Water is H2O," "Cicero is Tully".
  4. Apr 14, 2008 #3

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    Alfred Korzybski and D. David Bourland, Jr. addressed the question "To be or not to be" and answered with "not to be". They proposed a new language, E-prime, that looks and sounds like English, with one exception. The verb "to be" and all of its derivative forms do not exist in E-prime. This eliminates some evils of the English language such as passive voice, progressive aspect, and dubious support for defective verbs. This can make writing more powerful and clearer. On the other hand, "To exist or not to exist, That I must decide" just sounds clunky. Shakespeare had it right.

    Eliminating "to be" also eliminates identities (water is H2O), predicates (the grass is green) and classifications (a car is a motorized vehicle). Postmodernists might agree with this, but most scientists do not.
  5. Apr 15, 2008 #4
    Thanks very much for this illuminating reply. From it I've already found much to read on the web -- especially Korzybski's book "Science & Sanity --- to keep me busy for a while. It seems that questions I've raised in other threads here about the nature of mathematics were in fact discussed and answered a long time ago. Amazingly, it looks as if my ignorance of semantics is matched by quite eminent folk like Barry Mazur and Roger penrose, let alone some folk who post https://www.physicsforums.com/showthread.php?t=215118".

    I agree of course that "Shakespeare had it right".
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  6. Apr 19, 2008 #5


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    I think MC Buffalo summed it all up with this annoying little catch phrase:

    "What is is is."
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  7. Apr 20, 2008 #6
    But how exactly does this catch phrase sum up the answer to the question I asked in my OP:

    What is "is" here? Or does one just beg this question?
  8. Apr 20, 2008 #7


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    "What is is is".

    Here we are given the answer to what "is" means. It means however you have interpreted the word "is", it is what it is...... even if it is not.
  9. Apr 21, 2008 #8
    Well, if this is what that catchphrase means, it reveals itself to be just a circular semantic silliness, and that this MC Buffalo is a bit of a klutz, whoever he may be.

    If one said, rather, that as far as we are concerned, things are just what we chattering African apes choose to describe them to be, it puts the meaning of "is" in the anthropocentric context it perhaps better deserves to be in. Which means that E Prime could be the right language for philosophers to use, after all.
  10. Apr 21, 2008 #9


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    I think you misunderstand MC Buffalo. "Is" is. There's no way around it. "Is" exists with no exception. You and I have discussed "is" and we may both have our individual interpretation of it but, like anything we are responding to a stimulus. In this case "is" is the stimulus.
  11. Apr 22, 2008 #10
    I'm afraid I just don't understand what you're saying -- particularly ""Is" exists with no exception." . And how can Is" be a stimulus, rather than a word? Either I'm being obtuse, or you're being obscure. Probably a bit of each.
  12. Apr 22, 2008 #11


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    What it seems to mean is that the word "is" does present or "mean" a stimulus to the brains of many english speaking people because it is used by most of them in conversant, literal and lyrical contexts.

    The symbols and the sounds that represent the word "is" are proven to exist everyday in that they are passed from person to person, acknowledged and responded to almost without exception. This tends to cement the "reality" that is the word "is". There are enough witnesses now to verify the existence and the utilization of the concept of the word "is". To challenge its validity as an actual existing stimulus or even "object" in the world is to challenge the very existence of neurons and the general nervous system.

    I call the word "is" an object because every time it is used or heard or read or thought, there is, no doubt, a specific electromagnetic signature associated with it that presents a stimulus and thus a form to the world.

    Another point is that if the word "is" did not exist, it would not be used in common usage as one of the shared values and concepts of the english language.

    I would lay my money on the origin of the word "is" as coming from the Egyptian Goddess "Isis". But, it would take a bit of research to prove that.
  13. Apr 23, 2008 #12
    I'm beginning to see where you are "coming from" --- defining "is" as a concept common (or stimulus) in the thinking of many folk, and therefore a useful one, maybe--- and I have no difficulty with this view. I believe that the underlying "reality" of nature, if there is such a thing, is more ambiguous and subtle than this, as in the question of whether the harmonics of a wave are just one of the ways we describe such a phenomenon mathematically.

    As to whether "is" had any ancient Egyptian antecedents --- well, this is a nice speculation, isn't it?
  14. Apr 23, 2008 #13


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    Thank you for making the effort to try and conceptualize what I was saying. I either think what I'm saying is too hard to say so I make it so. Or, what I'm conveying is a difficult concept and it is hard to put into words. Probably the latter.

    My understanding of the "underlying reality of nature" is that reality is a subjective assessment of one's interaction with nature. Interaction implies duality and duality implies duplicity and perhaps diversity. This is why both is and isn't can dwell in the same language.

    If we look at the different ways "is" is spoken, written or thought in different cultures we may have a better understanding of the word.

    If there is a culture that has no word or symbol for "is" we need to know how they get around using it... and if there is some other symbol/word/sound that serves the same purpose. Then we might be closer to understanding what the meaning and the purpose of "is" is.
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