As irritating as it can be to hear it is what it is uttered so often by athletes after a loss, I find this phrase appealing.
I described why in a blog post a few years back, "The profundity -- or not -- of 'it is what it is'."
Me, I like the phrase's meaninglessness. Zenlike, it points to the this'ness of is'ness (a truth'ness that will make a lot more sense to you if you're stoned or drunk, which is the best state of mind to read Church of the Churchless blog posts like this).
...The author of the Slate piece decries this sort of talk as not adding anything to what we already know about a situation. That's true. Which to me isn't a drawback; it's what makes It is what it is such a marvelously profound commentary on the human condition.
Almost always people try to make more out of something than is obviously evident.
Offhand comments supposedly have a deeper meaning. A beautiful sunset is thought to be a reflection of what life is all about. Chance meetings are considered to be part of one's destiny.
Religiosity is a prime example of humankind's propensity to prefer it isn't what it is.
For example, Jesus wasn't simply another man of his time who was crucified on a cross for running afoul of the authorities. This is the apparent physical fact, but Christians ladle a big heaping mound of blind belief on top of it, making an is into an isn't.
Given my admiration for it is what it is, I was super-thrilled to see this saying repeatedly featured in a super-intellectual book I'm reading, "The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time: A Proposal in Natural Philosophy."
(First blog post about the book is here.)
Roberto Mangabeira Unger and Lee Smolin are the co-authors, a philosopher and physicist, respectively. I'm a bit over halfway through Unger's part of the book, which runs for about 350 pages.
One of his central points is similar to what I said in my it is what it is post. In Unger's view, the main thrust of modern physics and cosmology adds on metaphysical assumptions to the plain facts science has discovered about the universe.
For example, the laws of nature are considered to be unchanging; time came into being at the moment of the big bang; a singularity of infinite matter/energy was the "source" (if this word fits with timelessness) of the big bang.
To correct what Unger calls a "gloss" on scientific facts, he repeatedly speaks about the facticity of the universe. Which is pretty much a fancy way of saying, it is what it is.
Here's some Unger quotes on this subject:
That the world is temporal, and justifies a temporal naturalism in our understanding of it, is an aspect of its being, factitiously, what it is, rather than something else.
...We cannot infer the temporal character of nature from supposed constraints on what can or must be, in obedience to the deliverances of metaphysics or of mathematics. All that we can do is to recognize the real as temporal, according to the lyrics of the country-music song: it is what it is, till it ain't anymore.
...The result is to rob the world of what, for science as well as for art, represents its most important attribute: that in all its present, past, and future particularity, it is what it is, or has been, or will be, given its all-decisive history. The real world is what is, not something else.
...Grant me that the most important fact about the universe is that it is what it is rather than something else; that the distinction between stipulated initial conditions and timeless laws, which defines the Newtonian paradigm, lacks legitimate cosmological application, and that we cannot infer the truths of nature from metaphysical preconception or mathematical abstraction.
Sure, I will provisionally grant you that, Mr. Unger. Though I want to finish your book before strongly signing on to that sentiment.
What comes to mind, of course, is that if modern science can be faulted for introducing metaphysical preconceptions and mathematical abstractions into the study of really real reality, religions are vastly more at fault.
Religious true believers don't even have demonstrable evidence to support their preconceptions and abstractions, whereas science does. Unger persuasively argues that this scientific support is insufficient, but at least it exists to a substantial extent.
Religiosity, on the other hand, simply makes blatant unsupported claims that what is, actually isn't all there is. It would have us believe in divine beings and realms that can't be shown to exist, while denying evident truths such as evolution.
So even though "it is what it is" can be used in a shallow fashion, this phrase can be a profound guide to inquiring into the nature of reality. Dude.
(Here's another sort-of-related blog post, "What if reality is completely different from how you think it is?")