It is what it is

It is what it is September 2, 2020

What does it mean? Taken at face value, it is a meaningless tautology, but it has acquired an idiomatic meaning in current language usage. Here is a common definition:

“The situation, circumstance, or outcome has already happened or been decided or established, so it must be accepted even if it is undesirable.”

Take the current state of the world, for example, with the deluge of disasters we are enduring: Trump, pandemic, anti-racist demonstrations, and in the western US, a disastrous combination of tinder dry forests from a summer drought, and a thunderstorm season with thousands of lightning strikes that have ignited some monster fires.

Nothing can be done to erase these realities. Not even the Almighty can change it. It is what it is. We can, and we must, take actions to change what all of these realities are, to something better in the future. But right now, we’re stuck with them.

On one of my daily walks recently, I expanded the little one-liner as follows:

It is what it is and it was what it was.

It isn’t what it was and it wasn’t what it is.

But I can’t tell if it isn’t what it wasn’t.

I quoted this to a couple of pretty smart people a few days ago, and after thinking about it, they challenged the last line, saying that it contradicted the second line which asserts that “it isn’t what it was,” and therefore “it isn’t what it wasn’t” must be false.

Let’s examine the literal meaning of each line. The first line contains no information. It is just a statement of reality, past and present. The second line informs us that reality has changed from what it was at some time (undefined) in the past to what it is now. The two statements on line 2 are redundant, of course. Another tautology. The third line takes some work.

First, what is “it?” It could be, quite literally, anything. From the complex state of the world described above to a number. So, let’s simplify this down to its barest elements: A binary state; 0 or 1.

We will assume that “It” was 0 and is now 1, Let’s test all three statements.

It is (1) what it is (1) and it was (0) what it was (0).

It isn’t (0) what it was (0) and it wasn’t (1) what it is (1).

But I can’t tell if it isn’t (0) what it wasn’t (1) FALSE. I know that it cannot be because the second line says so. With binaries, it either is or it isn’t.

But what if more than two states can exist? What if the value of “it” can be 0, 1 or 2? Let’s test the three statements again, making the same assumption that “it” was 0 and is now 1. So “it” isn’t 0 or 2, and “it” wasn’t 1 or 2.

The first two lines are the same:

It is (1) what it is (1) and it was(0) what it was(0).

It isn’t (0) what it was (0) and it wasn’t (1) what it is (1).

But the third line has two possible outcomes:

But I can’t tell if it isn’t (0) what it wasn’t (1) It isn’t.

But I can’t tell if it isn’t (2) what it wasn’t (2) It is.

What if the numeric value could be any number? Then the number of possible states where it isn’t what it wasn’t is infinite. The only cases where we can say definitely that line 3 is false is where only two states are possible…0 and 1, black and white, Trump and sanity, etc.

In the real world, there could be many, almost an infinite number of states that “it” could have been or could be. We cannot say what it will be, even if we know what it was and what it is. All we can say is:

It is what it is.

 

 


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