Keith Douglas

Due to the length of this column, I will do responses to it and the previous together, in the next column.

Today we discuss naming again, this time with a question of whether names are arbitrary or not. Consider one of Shakespeare’s most famous lines,

That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

This seems plausible enough. At first and likely even at nth glance the sound or marks on paper that are associated to the flower are arbitrary. But one should not move from one to all without considering more data.

One way in which naming can be more than arbitrary is about connotation and “affective association.” My title for this column deliberately will suggest to some readers the famous lectures and book by Saul Kripke, Naming and Necessity, for example. So no, names are not arbitrary. If I had called the column “Xonk,” perhaps some of you would read that as “Zonk,” and hence perhaps think of the character from Doonesbury (Zonker).

But affective connections and “loose associations” (which is not to say that affective connections are necessarily in any way loose) are not the only possibility for connections. Consider the name Homo sapiens and the system of ideas it fits into. The binomial nomenclature due to Linneaus is meant to go beyond names like “thrush” and “gorilla” but to suggest some sort of pattern in nature. Unfortunately, Linneaus wrote before evolutionary biology was established and so the possibility of an evolutionary pattern represented in the naming was lost, at least for the time being. (Since it has been over 170 years since the evolution revolution, it does appear that many biologists do not seem to be inclined to reassign names, at least at the species level. Other names, such as for domains, kingdoms, phyla, classes, orders, families: yes. New discoveries, also yes.)

On the other hand, an initial perusal of textbooks of chemistry will show that chemists at least appear to name almost everything in their purview in a very interesting way. This is ultimately, in a way, due to the influence of Lavoisier, who appeals to the French follower of Locke, Condillac, to make his case for the importance of names. In chemistry, then, starting in the late 18th century, an attempt to name molecules to reflect important patterns began.

But what are those patterns? At first they were purely compositional: The name “stannic chloride” told the reader (or listener) that this was the “higher chloride” of tin. Note there, however, the interesting legacy name. Elements that had been known since antiquity, particularly, had variable names across European languages and hence lent themselves to different roots and suffixes of molecules containing them.

A problem, however, arises when the pattern is not sufficient to distinguish between two items of interest. Chemists thus adopted names for molecules based not merely on composition but on structure: The arrangement of atoms in space. They have also reworked the way to name molecules in other respects several times. For example, the modern name for what I mentioned earlier is tin (IV) chloride.

There is an important philosophical lesson here that is very often under-appreciated. We have been told, by some philosophers, that the debates over realism are pointless, that they have no practical consequences. If understanding in chemistry is regarded as practical, then this statement is absurd. When one distinguishes between two molecules based on shapes one cannot see or take a photograph of (until the electron microscopes of the early 21st century), one is explicitly adopting a realist attitude. One wonders, however: If the calculational tools of the 1960s and on were available to the 19th century chemists, would some regard the notion of isomerism we have been remarking on as merely a “tool to aid calculation”? Interestingly, this concern about realism was actually debated at the time on another chemical subject — the periodic law — with the great Mendeleev saying that a realistic attitude was necessary to make the sort of discovery he is famous for to this day.

I return to naming. Naming also applies to people. My given name, Keith, is taken from a small town in Scotland. But it seems relatively unknown what the name of the town means. So am I named in an unknown way, or named simply for the town? My parents say I am named “something Scottish,” and that’s the end of it, which makes for an interesting thought. Maybe human names are arbitrary?

Once again we should avoid overgeneralization. My departed Inuk friend, Raven, is named in a very interesting way. Actually, she’s named in a very interesting way in several different very interesting ways. First, consider the way I introduced her, “Raven.” If she’s an Inuk, why is her name Raven — i.e., in English? The brutal and racist history of the conquest of the Americas is part of it, no doubt. But if she wants us to work together to end that legacy, why doesn’t she introduce herself as Tulugaq, and avoid the colonialism?

Ah, but then there is also a “nomen est omen” tradition amongst many Native American groups. Names are meant, as they are in the case of chemistry, to be descriptions. So in order to tell everyone who listens, her name is translated so that one may understand one is not just dealing with her, Raven, but the type “raven.” (To learn about that type, read or listen to stories about Raven, the character, in Inuit, and, in her case, also in Cree and Dene tales.)

Does that risk a self-fulfilling prophecy? Some people do not like “labels” for people because they will feel compelled to live up to the name assigned. But categories are indispensable to cognition and communication, so this, taken absolutely literally, is a non-starter. Raven’s name also points to a possibility to consider. It sounds banal when put this way, but: Raven’s name can be changed. In fact, it was: from Raven to Raven. She participated in a naming ceremony to adopt a new name at approximately puberty. But she deliberately adopted the name she had during childhood. Now that she was considered a woman, she chose to reinforce what it was to say of her.

If we name (or label) someone or something, sometimes we can be wrong, and sometimes we can be right. Sometimes we’re close: Chemists know the story of carbohydrates, which are not literally the result of carbon being hydrated, but the name gives a clue to their composition and so sticks. So, names are far from arbitrary. Since that’s so, why is the mistake of thinking otherwise tempting? And it is that question I leave as the first puzzle for this column. (HINT: Have I presented all the facts? Think of the other fields of linguistics. I have talked about semantics, largely.)

I also propose a second puzzle: If systematic naming is so useful, why do chemists also use names that are unsystematic (e.g., water, not dihydrogen monoxide; ammonia, not hydrogen nitride)? Why do other fields not use it? My own field of IT security seems to love introducing very unsystematic names. “Bashdoor” is sort of descriptive. “Heartbleed” has no descriptive value whatsoever. Even the first is better known as “shellshock,” which also talks about “shells” but doesn’t say which one.

Our third puzzle: Is it possible, even in principle, to give a systematic name to everything in a given domain? If yes, what sort of domain?

(Bonus puzzles for philosophers of chemistry: Name a human DNA molecule — one of yours perhaps — using the IUPAC rules. Draw a philosophical lesson from this exercise.)