Yesterday I was watching a YouTube video called The Mystery of Water. I think water is mysterious stuff, so I was attracted to a video with that sort of name. It was about the “memory” of water. Because apparently water can remember things. They were doing experiments with drops of water, which they let dry, and looked at the residue of the droplets that remained, and found they were all different..
I was a bit puzzled about this, because surely when you allow a droplet of water to dry, all the water evaporates, and what you’re left with is something like a tide mark made up of impurities in the water that didn’t evaporate. You’re not looking at any water at all. So how can you talk about water having a memory?
I carried on watching anyway, but came to a dead stop 21 minutes in when a “river engineer” who was talking about rivers and floods said:
“If we river engineers can successfully find a way of keeping the water in the landscape, we can save ourselves a lot of trouble, and a lot of money as well, and at the same time we can return to a kind of landscape that gives us back the thing we can – and must – call our highest good: our health.”
And I realised that this softly-spoken river engineer with a trim little moustache was a healthist. He was someone for whom the highest good was health. And he believed that it wasn’t just that we can call health our highest good, but that we must do so. Here spoke a zealot who worshipped health, and clearly felt that everyone else must worship health too.
And it seemed clear that for him, “regaining health” was something different from merely “saving ourselves trouble and money”.
He looked perfectly healthy to me. He wasn’t covered in spots or sores. He wasn’t breathing heavily. His eyes and nose weren’t streaming. So why was he talking about regaining health? Perhaps he had some form of cancer that wasn’t apparent on cursory inspection?
I was reminded of the WHO definition of health:
The World Health Organization (WHO) defined health in its broader sense in its 1948 constitution as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”
So this definition of health invokes something called “well-being”, “disease”, and “infirmity”. What’s “well-being”?
Well-being, wellbeing, or wellness is a general term for the condition of an individual or group. A high level of well-being means in some sense the individual or group’s condition is positive.
OK, what’s “disease”?
A disease is a particular abnormal condition that affects part or all of an organism and that consists of a disorder of a structure or function.
Or “infirmity”? According to Google that is
physical or mental weakness.
So when we ask what “health” is, we’re told it’s “well-being”, and when we ask what well-being is, we’re told that it’s an “in some sense positive condition”. And we have learned nothing at all. Or we go round and round in circles, using different words which all mean more or less the same thing, but also quite possibly mean nothing at all.
Of course we can always say that “Well, everybody knows what’s meant by health. You don’t really have to define it. We know what it is.” But is even that true either? Is health a subjective condition or an objective condition? Is it for the patient to tell the doctor that he is unwell, or is it for the doctor to tell the patient that he is unwell? Can health be measured? If so, what are the units of health? And in what sense is “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being” different from, say, “happiness” or “joy” or “peace”?
Perhaps if he had been asked to define what he meant by “health” the river engineer could have come up with something a bit more robust or informative that “well-being” or “vitality” or “positiveness”. But I doubt it. I doubt if he would have been able to define it any better than any of the definitions found in the WHO or Wikipedia or Google. But nevertheless he was telling us that this ill-defined “health” must be our highest good. It’s like telling people that they must eat strawberries, and then being unable to say what strawberries are, or how to tell them apart from raspberries or gooseberries or blackberries.
To the extent that “health” is an undefined word, it’s also a meaningless word.
In this respect, it seems to me that the “idleness” of Idle Theory is a much more well-defined concept than ill-defined “health”. The idleness of some living thing is defined as
I = 1 – Pm / (Pi – Pe)
where Pm, Pi, and Pe are all power terms (e.g. watts), and power has the physical dimensions of ML2T-3, where M is mass, L is length, and T is time. Idleness can range from 0 to 1, or 0% to 100%, with 0% idleness the threshold of death. Pm is its resting (idle) metabolic rate, Pi is the rate at which it can acquire energy (e.g. by eating), and Pe is the rate at which it expends energy while acquiring energy (e.g. by chewing).
Idleness is a physical quantity like power or energy or work or force or acceleration or velocity or mass or length or time. All these terms are highly defined in the language of physics. They can all be measured. They can often be measured very, very accurately. And they all have numbers attached. I weigh 63 kilograms, and I’m 1.75 metres tall, and I’m 69.5 years old.
But “health” is something undefined. It has no dimensions. And there is no number associated with it. You never hear anyone being described as “75% healthy”. You never hear anyone reply, on being asked how they are, “Oh, about 29.”
Ill-health is usually associated with infirmity or weakness of some sort. Those suffering from diseases of any kind are very often unable to do as much work as they usually can. They have to work longer to achieve the same result, and so their idleness falls. Or they may also be in pain, and pain is a form of work, and so pain reduces idleness. The course of a disease is very often one of gradually falling idleness while sickening, and then gradually rising idleness while recovering. Breaking a leg or an arm will usually see a very sudden sharp decrease in idleness followed by a slow recovery over several weeks or months.
So, in principle, tightly-defined “idleness” can be used in place of ill-defined “health”.
And anyone who works in “Public Health” should be asked what they mean by “health”, and when they are unable to define it, they should be told to please stop talking about it, since they clearly don’t know what they’re talking about.