The Word Is Not the Thing

by | Apr 24, 2023 | Resilience

The current state of understanding of the operation of the human body is woefully incomplete.

By Dave Hendry, Co-Founder, eSavvyHealth 

In college, I mostly studied three subjects: physics, mathematics, and philosophy. Surprisingly, I found the same fundamental truth expressed in all three: the words and symbols that we use to try to describe and explain what we experience and understand are not the same as the things we are trying to describe.

Each subject has its own way of talking about the difference between the words and the things. In physics, there are theories—invented explanations of how the natural world works. It is central to scientific inquiry that such explanations are approximations—our best guesses—and that they are mostly short-lived, lasting a few years or a few decades, almost never as long as a century. Newton’s genius was exceptional, generating theories that lasted nearly 240 years. He was recognized as right in 1687, and wrong in 1927. No one has yet come close to beating that record1.

Newton’s theory of gravity was a successful explanation of the motion of the planets—until Einstein came up with a better theory. 

Mathematics is a subject that is very self-aware of its artificial nature—it is by its own definition an abstraction, a symbolic representation of selected aspects of reality. A geometric triangle, for example, is made of lines that have no thickness. Such lines do not exist in the real world. And even though an equation might say that Jack’s 3 apples are “equal to” Jane’s 3 apples, those apples are never identical.

“3 apples” is not exactly the same as “3 apples.”


Philosophers of ancient Greece, as well as their modern counterparts, spent a lot of time talking about the difference between what a thing really is, its essence, and the words we might use to describe its characteristics—its color, form, weight, etc. In that view, how we think about the characteristics of something is determined at least as much by what we choose to pay attention to as by what the thing actually is.


  • Safe 
  • Valuable 
  • Efficient 

How we think about the characteristics of something is largely determined by what we choose to pay attention to.


  • Dangerous 
  • Destructive 
  • Costly 

What does any of this have to do with being healthy?

Just this: the current state of understanding of the operation of the human body is woefully incomplete. It’s not the body—the thing itself—that is incomplete or wrong. But the theories about it, the abstractions of it in the form of words and models, the descriptions of its characteristics, these are often quite flawed.

There are a few primary reasons for this. For one, the body is extremely complex. There are hundreds of factors acting simultaneously, biochemical reactions which are both the cause and the effect of other reactions, and there are external influences like food and substances in the environment, all interwoven with our own decisions and emotions. “Complex” is an understatement.

Second, as we’ve often discussed, the feeding and treatment of the human body is big business. It’s currently an industry which brings in trillions of dollars annually in the US, dwarfing even national defense. And most of those dollars are spent on the basis of what people can be led to believe will improve or maintain their health. In such an environment, theories can easily become commodities to be bought and sold.

Third, although science is the best method yet devised for unearthing truth, it is still a messy, trial-and-error process, subject to the imperfections of the human beings who engage in it and who study and interpret findings. A recent article in the Atlantic quoted English epidemiologist Michael Marmot, who made this point very well:

“Scientific findings do not fall on blank minds that get made up as a result. Science engages with busy minds that have strong views about how things are and ought to be.” 

Where does that leave us, then? Trying to find our own way through a maze, with no map or compass to steer by? Not quite. Because it’s the “words”, the theories, abstractions, and descriptions, that are flawed, not the thing. The human body itself is quite remarkable for its functionality, adaptivity, and general sturdiness.

Our approach at eSavvyHealth starts with that idea: your body will naturally operate so as to be healthy and whole. That leads to an immediate conclusion: if the body is not healthy, the cause in most cases lies in external influences. This reasoning has led us to identify five factors that you’ll want to know how to manage to allow the body to survive according to its design.



Physical activity

Medical treatment

Environmental exposure to toxins and pathogens

The more you pay attention to your body—to what makes you sleep better, makes you feel better, gives you more energy, helps you avoid illness—as you make decisions related to each of these health influences, the better your chances of finding your way out of the maze. At eSavvyHealth we very carefully choose our words with the goal of sharpening, rather than dulling, your ability to do just that.

Dave Hendry

Dave Hendry


Dave Hendry is co-founder of The 5 Fundamentals of Health and Fundamentals of Health Alliance. He has an extensive CV in research, education and curriculum development.

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