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Semblance as translation

[ by Charles Cameron — an MIT physica professor works in language games on biology ]

two solar machines
Both a tree and a solar panel absorb and transform solar energy, and dump heat into their environment. How would a physicist explain why only the tree is alive?


I’m posting this because of one sentence:

When you refuse to let go of two things that are divergent in the way they cause you to talk,” he says, “it forces you in the direction of translation.

I found it in an intriguing article, How Do You Say “Life” in Physics?

After a brief intro to MIT physicist Jeremy England, the article touches on interdisciplinary translation — which, when you think about it, is a very Koestlerian sort of bisociative process:

Different fields of science, too, are languages unto themselves, and scientific explanations are sometimes just translations. “Red,” for instance, is a translation of the phrase “620-750 nanometer wavelength.” “Temperature” is a translation of “the average speed of a group of particles.” The more complex a translation, the more meaning it imparts. “Gravity” means “the geometry of spacetime.”

Then we get theological, with a twist:

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth …” Here, the Hebrew word for “create” is bara, the word for “heavens” is shamayim, and the word for “earth” is aretz; but their true meanings, England says, only come into view through their context in the following verses. For instance, it becomes clear that bara, creation, entails a process of giving names to things; the creation of the world is the creation of a language game. “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” God created light by speaking its name. “We have heard this phrase so many times that by the time we are old enough to ponder it, we easily miss its simplest point,” England says. “The light by which we see the world comes from the way we talk about it.” That might be important, thought England, if you’re trying to use the language of physics to describe biology.

Finally, we get the basic bisociation laid out in plain words:

As a young faculty member at MIT, he neither wanted to stop doing biology, nor thinking about theoretical physics. “When you refuse to let go of two things that are divergent in the way they cause you to talk,” he says, “it forces you in the direction of translation.”


I hadn’t thought much about translation as a form of semblance until now, but it opens vistas..

An interesting article.

The tree and the solar panel — there’s much food there for analogical thought.

6 Responses to “Semblance as translation”

  1. david ronfeldt Says:

    This casts light on “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” I’ve long wondered about this, as a kind of information theory about God.

  2. Charles Cameron Says:

    That verse itself is a vastly interesting topic, David.
    One line of inquiry goes via word to verb to reverberation or vibe or wave; another goes from word to tao, which CS Lewis among others thought was the best word to translate logos in Chinese; a third from word to Vac, goddess of speech in the Vedas; there’s logos as the stoics inderstood it, the ordering principle, and logos as Hebrew dabar, a word of command; word may mean torah, law; word may mean breath and / spirit, prana; word may mean name, and name may be an invocation or the essence of meditation.
    I have CH Dodd and CK Barrett on my shelves, but they’re as old as I am, and as far as I know, no commentator on John’s gospel has had a wide enough comparative knowledge to explore all the possibilities I mentioned above.
    I have a couple of my own unpublished writings where I get a bit deeper into some of these aspects, and would be happy to forward them if anyone was interested — just leave a note.

  3. david ronfeldt Says:

    that’s helpful and illuminating, charles. yes, i’d like to see your draft writings (if not too long…).
    two follow-up questions: (1) do the Torah or Koran contain similar in-the-beginning concepts? i gather not. (2) any connection between this concept and eden’s tree of knowledge?
    thanks again.

  4. Charles Cameron Says:

    The incipit of the Quran is the word Bismillah, “In the name of God” just as it is Bereshit, “In the beginning” in Genesis 1.1, and considering that according to my meditative tradition Name and Word are identical, the Quran begins with Name just as John begins with Word.
    Interestingly, too, there’s a correspondence between the dot (dagesh) in the word Bereshit in Genesis and the dot (nuqtah) under the word Bismillah in the Quran.

    Although the Torah itself suggests that certain hylic entities coexisted with God at the beginning (water, darkness), by separating out the diacritical dagesh from the word [it is the dot in the first letter]


    It has been said that the whole of the Qu’ran is contained in the Fatiha, the first chapter; that the whole of the Fatiha is contained in the Bismillah which begins it, and the bismillah is contained in the dot under the ba.

    [there’s much of curious interest in the rest of each of those linked pages, btw]
    There’s even a similar kinship between the stone at the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the stone in the Kaaba in Mecca, which according to at least one legend will come to join its sibling at the end of time.

  5. Grurray Says:

    ” it becomes clear that bara, creation, entails a process of giving names to things”
    I recently read this book related to the subject:
    It’s about how some students and teachers at the Moscow School of Mathematics in the early 20th century came under the influence of an Orthodox cultish philosophy called Onomatodoxy. Their work on set theory presaged Godel’s incompleteness theorems and also quantum physics and lots of other things.
    They believed that by defining sets of numbers (naming them in other words), they brought them into existence. This gave mathematics religious significance because God was the set of all sets.
    The operations of set theory- projections, correspondences, unions and intersections- were the mechanisms by which God interacted with the world. Similar to biblical theology of “kairos”. Chronos was the Greek word for horizontal time, but kairos was vertical time. The intersection of kairos with logos is where divine meets reality.

  6. Charles Cameron Says:

    I’d seen references to the book, but didn’t havw the funds to purchase it. It sounds right up my street — and yours, I presume?

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