Naming the invisible

Published 20091223/Last updated 20131218 with the quote from Stefan Zweig under “additional information.”

… as imagination bodies forth The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing A local habitation and a name.    —SHAKESPEARE, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, V.i.14–17  (taken from Johnson’s Where good ideas come from)

Here are some observations and quotes about the immaterial border between visible and invisible, substance and idea, rational and irrational… I don’t know as yet where this will take me, but it has a clear link with another subject that has fascinated me for years, i.e. the origin and the ecological function of the idea of God. Eventually, all the material below will be reworked into something on that subject. In the meantime, I’ll continue assembling “evidence” and provide just the sketchy outline below.

The basic idea is that humans do invent words and symbols that bridge the gap between the physical reality (our physical and biological environment) and our minds. The quotes from Graham and Kantor (2009; below) all go in that direction: first name an object, and it almost becomes real or, at least, naming makes it possible to talk about objects as if they existed, whether they actually exist or not.

The next step is the invention of symbols that are the graphical representation of words. As Glasner writes, The words of the language included the names of the gods themselves (Glasner, 2003).

Obviously, there are also objects the existence of which is somehow between reality and irreality, because they are very rare, invented (the Piltdown man) or mythical, such as the “Bahamut” (see below). But the border between them is fuzzy. This reminds me of a book by Krzysztof Pomian (Der Ursprung des Museums: Vom Sammeln). I could not locate it on my shelves, but found it! Pomian has the view that collections and museums are at the origin of science (at least natural sciences) because they make visible the invisible, i.e. crystals or exotic animals, but also many other extraordinary things… Museums make visible the not necessarily obvious links between similar and not so similar objects ; what is put into a collection becomes a carrier of meaning representing the invisible (See, for instance the living museum.) Incidentally, we have here an illustration of the links between science and “religion”

Bahamut. Secondary source: Juno no BLOG, see references for link. Original source: illustration of Bahamut for The Book of Imaginary Beings by the graduate students in the Department of Illustration and Art of the Book at the Vakalo School of Art and Design in Athens, Greece.

After words and symbols, which are somehow static representations, we have stories and myths, which are constructions that use words and symbols and link them to take them into an additional, more dynamic dimension. I was recently reading a biography of J.R.R. Tolkien (by Humphrey Carpenter), and I was surprised to read that Tolkien considered the Silmarillion as his most important contribution. Tolkien also expressed the opinion that the Lord of the Rings is just a story, without any allegorical element and he was apparently very upset when someone described the Lord of the Rings as the struggle between good and evil! Carpenter writes (quoting Tolkien): And just as speech is invention about objects and ideas, so myth is invention about truth.

Possibly, everything that does not exist in nature, including all human inventions such as music has a mythical/divine i.e. sacred component  (see quote by Barbara KIng, 2007, below)? Even if myth does not necessarily have be resorted to, the invention of ideas and concepts (zero) and objects as well (the wheel) that do not exist in nature has close links with consciousness and pure intelligence and eventully brings us back to the links poorly understood between mind and matter. Let me quote Laozi (Lao-Tse) after Deacon (2012, p. 18):

Thirty spokes converge at the wheel’s hub, to a hole that allows it to turn
Clay is shaped into a vessel, to enclose an emptiness that can be filled
Doors and windows are cut into walls, to provide access to their protection
Though we can only work with what is there, use comes from what is not there.

and the following passage from the same author (p. 21)

The thought is about a possibility, and a possibility is something that doesn’t yet exist and may never exist. It is as though a possible future is somehow influencing the present. The discontinuity of causality implicit in human action parallels a related discontinuity between living and non-living processes. Ultimately, both involve what amounts to a reversal of causal logic: order developing from disorder, the lack of a state of affairs bringing itself into existence, and a potential tending to realize itself. We describe this in general terms as “ends determining means.” But compared to the way things work in the non-living, non-thinking world, it is as though a fundamental phase change has occurred in the dynamical fabric of the world. Crossing the border from machines to minds, or from chemical reactions to life, is leaving one universe of possibilities to enter another.

I mentioned music above as something that “does not exist in nature”. This is not everyone’s view. Mark Changizi (2011) argues that speech and music as well do in fact mimick natural sounds, and that our innate capacity to interpret natural sounds (nature, distance, movement etc) is the basis of human speech. In addition, music and dance are extensions of speech in that they imitates natural sounds (movements of people and objects).

The temptation, once we have given names to more or less real entities, is to see them as causes, or involve them in the explanation of causes. In the risky business of forecasting, I mentioned that the description of the sequence of  mechanism (how things happen) through which phenomena occur is often given as an explanation why something happens, for instance in geophysics. Many other sectors could be added, including in the socio-economic sphere (think of the genocide in Rwanda!) Explanations are always too shallow, but they are so by necessity because the causes of causes of causes… (infinite prior causes)  eventually leads us to admit ignorance.

This is why I very much like the passage on the Bahamut from Borges’  Book of Imaginary Beings:

God made the earth, but the earth had no base and so under the earth he made an angel. But the angel had no base and so under the angel’s feet he made a crag of ruby. But the crag had no base and so under the crag he made a bull endowed with four thousand eyes, ears, nostrils, mouths, tongues, and feet. But the bull had no base and so under the bull he made a fish named Bahamut, and under the fish he put water, and under the water he put darkness, and beyond this men’s knowledge does not reach.

The text provides a perfect explanation of both science and religion (also refer to the quote by Kraemer et al.)  We can explain only up to a point “how” things happen, and sometimes “why”.  At some stage, the explanations become less and less rational, and we resort to invented causes, speculation and guesses. We are mostly unable to say where exactly the causes, the concepts and the word switch from the tangible reality to something more immaterial or just outright fantasy. Could there be a tipping point? This is certainly a point worth exploring. I suggest that there is indeed a tipping point, but that it can be influenced by superstition, faith, social pressure, or even threats of various kinds… which provides an easy transition to organised religion.

References and quotes


Jorge Luis Borges, 1957. Book of Imaginary Beings (translated by Margarita Guerrero, Norman Thomas di Giovanni). The original edition was apparently followed by others, incl. translations and expanded translations; see wikipedia. I came across the Bahamut in an Italian translation (Il libro degli esseri immaginari, Adelphi Edizioni, 2006, 261 pp.) and the quoted English text is from Aharon’s Omphalos. I assume it is originally taken from the di Giovanni translation. It seems that the common source of all descriptions of the Bahamut is Lane, 1883. Lane’s account conveys a strange sense of  no-panic rational obviousness: there is problem of stability of the earth, and god very factually solves it by putting something strong under it. It’s not that the earth is falling, it’s just unstable.  After the first fix, there remains another problem, and god solves that too, recursively, until we reach the stage where we have water, supported by darkness. It is said that the knowledge of mankind fails regarding what’s under the darkness. It is not said, however, that the knowldge of God fails at the same stage.

Juno no BLOG, click here or copy link:

Humphrey Carpenter, 2002. J.R.R. Tolkien, une biographie. Christian Bourgeois Editeur, 318 pp. French translation from the original English version, expanded and corrected by Vincent Ferré. The quote above was obtained from a web source based of an approximate back-translation from French into English.

Mark Changizi, 2011. Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man. BenBella Books, Dallas. 246 pp.

Terrence W. Deacon, 2012. Incomplete nature: how mind emerged from matter. W.W. Norton & Cy, London & New-York. 602 pp.

Jean-Jacques Glassner, 2003. The invention of cuneiform writings in Sumer (translated from 2000 French version by Zainab Bahrani and Marc van de Miereop). John Hopkins University Press,  page 216: Be that as it may, the mystery of the invention of writing remains intact.. and we can only make conjectures about the cultural upheavals that it indicates. The Mesopotamian world is a world where all is sacred. Nothing could escape that sacrality , so we cannot guess how many prohibitions had to be transgressed in order to enable the manipulation of signs that were so saturated with meaning, and potentially so dangerous. Were the signs not able to make visible words of the language and the mental acts of naming? The words of the language included the names of the gods themselves ! To be able to imagine a world based on visibility, out of a system that was convinced that the essence of that world and its supernatural forces were invisible, one had to produce a way of thinking that connected the visible to the invisible. Writing was one expression of that way of thinking, but it was not the only one: another was ritual.

L. Graham and JM Kantor, 2009: Naming Infinity, a true story of religious mysticism and mathematical creativity. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 239 pp.

  • P.  91: When I name an object with a word, I thereby assert its existence (Andrei Bely, symbolist and poet and former mathematics student of Dmitri Egorov, in his essay “The magic of words”.
  • P. 96: In the early twentieth century mathematicians were perplexed by the possibility of new kinds of infinities. Georg Cantor suggested these new infinities and made them seem real by assigning them different names.
  • P. 100: One observer of Grothendieck’s work wrote, “Grothendieck had a flair for choosing striking evocative names for new concepts; indeed, he saw the act of naming mathematical objects as in integral part of their discovery, as a way to grasp them even before they have been entirely understood.” Ineffable concepts that are sometimes linked to mystical inspiration and resist definition must be named before they can be brought under control and properly enter the mathematical world. The mentioned “observer of Grothendieck’s work” is A. Jackson in Comme appelé du néant, Notices of the Am. Math. Soc. 51(10):1197; (no year given in main source.)
  • P. 191: The idea that a “name” has more in itself than the mere word assigned is very old and goes back at east to Plato’s Cratylus; the concept has reappeared many times in succeeding centuries. After all, logos is a central concept in western culture.

Edward William Lane, 1883, edited by Stanley Lane-Pool. Arab Society in the Time of the Thousand and One Nights. Published by Chatto and Windus, London. Reprinted in 2004, Dover Publications.

Ross Kraemer, William Cassidy and Susan L Schwartz, 2003. Religions Of Star Trek.

Kindle Loc. 2217-24: Religions often emphasize, therefore, the necessity and the  utility of transformation, both for the individual and the  group, toward an ideal state of existence and a new understanding   of reality. They do so in the conviction that these  goals are in agreement with divine or eternal will, however it is  characterized. In other words, religion seeks its goals based  upon special knowledge, information, experience, and wisdom.   In this it is not so different from science and shares  much in common with humanism. The question really is this:  What is the source of the knowledge, information, experience,  and wisdom from which the teachings are derived, and  whence does it derive its authority? This is where the battleground   is often located in modern discourse. How does this fit in the context of Star Trek? The lasting and  growing popularity of Star Trek suggests that the distinction between   scientific/humanistic transformation and religious/spiritual   transformation is breaking down. That is, the writers  and producers of Star Trek, in their creative treatment of religious   themes in Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager,  and the most recent movies, are using scientific and humanistic   frames to discuss transformations that have traditionally  been understood through the lens of spiritual and religious  concepts.

Barbara J. King, 2007. Evolving God: A Provocative View on the Origins of Religion

Kindle Loc. 371-73: To sum up our definitional musings, then, religion is all about practice and emotional engagement with the sacred, as defined by one’s social group; it is not necessarily about a set of beliefs concerning supernatural figures, though it may be that, too.

Additional information

20131218: Stefan Zweig – Gesammelte Werke: Die Ungeduld des Herzens, Schachnovelle, Brennendes Geheimnis, Marie Antoinette, Der Amokläufer, Maria Stuart, Sternstunden … Auszüge aus Die Welt von Gestern. Erinnerungen eines Europäers.

Kindle Loc. 37582-97: Mit derselben Herdenhaftigkeit, wie unsere ganze literarische Gruppe dichtete, hatten wir damals Dichtern, Schauspielern, Sängern ihre Unterschriften abgejagt, die meisten von uns allerdings diesen Sport wie ihre Dichterei zugleich mit der Schule aufgegeben, während sich bei mir die Passion für diese irdischen Schatten genialer Gestalten nur noch steigerte und gleichzeitig vertiefte. Die bloßen Signaturen wurden mir gleichgültig, auch die Quote der internationalen Berühmtheit oder Preisbewertung eines Mannes interessierte mich nicht; was ich suchte, waren die Urschriften oder Entwürfe von Dichtungen oder Kompositionen, weil mich das Problem der Entstehung eines Kunstwerks sowohl in den biographischen wie in den psychologischen Formen mehr als alles andere beschäftigte. Jene geheimnisvollste Sekunde des Übergangs, da ein Vers, eine Melodie aus dem Unsichtbaren, aus der Vision und Intuition eines Genies durch graphische Fixierung ins Irdische tritt, wo anders ist sie belauschbar, überprüfbar als auf den durchkämpften oder wie in Trance hingejagten Urschriften der Meister? Ich weiß von einem Künstler nicht genug, wenn ich nur sein geschaffenes Werk vor mir habe, und ich bekenne mich zu Goethes Wort, daß man die großen Schöpfungen, um sie ganz zu begreifen, nicht nur in ihrer Vollendung gesehen, sondern auch in ihrem Werden belauscht haben muß. Aber auch rein optisch wirkt auf mich eine erste Skizze Beethovens mit ihren wilden, ungeduldigen Strichen, ihrem wüsten Durcheinander begonnener und verworfener Motive, mit der darin auf ein paar Bleistiftstriche komprimierten Schöpfungswut seiner dämonisch überfüllten Natur geradezu physisch erregend, weil der Anblick mich so sehr geistig erregt; ich kann solch ein hieroglyphisches Blatt verzaubert und verliebt anstarren wie andere ein vollendetes Bild. Ein Korrekturblatt Balzacs, wo fast jeder Satz zerrissen, jede Zeile umgeackert, der weiße Rand mit Strichen, Zeichen, Worten schwarz zernagt ist, versinnlicht mir den Ausbruch eines menschlichen Vesuvs; und irgendein Gedicht, das ich jahrzehntelang liebte, zum erstenmal in der Urschrift sehe, in seiner ersten Irdischkeit, erregt in mir ehrfürchtig religiöses Gefühl; ich getraue mich kaum, es zu berühren. 

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14 years ago

Ca me rappelle une discussion que j’ai eu quand j’étais adolescent avec une copine qui voulait me prouver que l’âme existe. Elle m’expliqua que, d’après une expérience pseudo scientifique, on avait pesé un type avant et après sa mort et qu’il y avait quelques gramme (ou micro grammes je ne me rappelle plus) de différence. Je lui ai expliqué que s’il s’agissait vraiment d’âme, il ne devrait pas y avoir de différence car l’âme est immatérielle par définition. Ca ne l’a pas ébranlé dans sa croyance de l’âme.

Une autre fois j’expliquais à un ami qu’il était difficile de croire en Dieu de façon rationnelle, car on le voit pas et on ne peut le toucher ni le sentir (par l’odorat). Dernièrement, on a découvert l’existence de trous noirs massifs, pas en les voyant à travers les télescopes car c’est impossible (il ne laissent pas échapper la lumière), mais on observant le mouvement étrange des étoiles dans la zone proche de ces trous noirs. Finalement, on peut tout voir, il suffit d’avoir une théorie ou une révélation, c’est selon!

14 years ago

Effectivement, Riad… on ne peut rien prouver, ni dans un sens, ni dans l’autre! Dans ce cas, mon approche est de me simplifier la vie et de ne pas inventer d’hypothèse inutiles. Et pour ceux qui crient que l’evolution est avérée, il n’y a pas de raison de croire que l’âme n’a pas évolué comme son support organique! Une âme, mon chien? ben oui, pourquoi pas?

14 years ago

Dernièrement, je déjeunais avec un collègue très croyant (mais pas si pieux à mon avis). Je lui racontais que j’avais mangé du crocodile au Kenya et que ça avait un goût mi poulet – mi poisson. Il avait l’air étonné (offusqué est plus proche de son sentiment) que je ne mange pas Halal (casher). Pour l’embêter, je lui ai fait une réflexion qui ne lui a pas plu du tout. Je lui ai expliqué que si il était musulman c’est parce que ses parents l’étaient et qu’il avait été conditionné dans ce sens et que, si par hasard il était né en Chine ou de parents chinois, il y aurait de fortes chances qu’il apprécie de manger du chien et qu’il soit bouddhiste. Il m’a répondu que j’étais trop rationnel et il continua de manger sa salade.

14 years ago

There is no such thing as Science. Put differently: I doubt you can ever find a clear-cut way to tell rationality from emotion or even from sheer nonsense.

All our mind can do is produce models of the reality… provided reality is not itself a model. What our models are really useful at, we have no clue. I guess this is what the Bahamut has to tell us. Or the Silmarillion for that matter.

There was a paper in Scientific American a few months ago about magicians. The classical view is that the magician hides his trick from the victim. Using eye-tracking systems, however, it seems that the victim has often his eyes pointed right on the trick. The trick works because it relies on a higher cognitive mechanism.

In the same way, our environment is probably full of structures and features that are our brain is blind to. It would make no sense in that case to look better, or do better experiments as any well-trained scientist would advocate.

See also Wigner’s “Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics”, Feyerabend’s “Against Method”, and Van Orman Quine’s “Simple theories of a complex world.”


14 years ago

My point is that science and religion are but the same thing, stemming indeed from our taste for the type of “explanations” which I call models.

Here is a nice one from Van Orman Quine. “As an empiricist I continue to think of the conceptual scheme of science as a tool, ultimately, for predicting future experience in the light of past experience. Physical objects are conceptually imported into the situation as convenient intermediaries not by definition in terms of experience, but simply as irreducible posits comparable, epistemologically, to the gods of Homer . . . For my part I do, qua lay physicist, believe in physical objects and not in Homer’s gods; and I consider it a scientific error to believe otherwise. But in point of epistemological footing, the physical objects and the gods differ only in degree and not in kind. Both sorts of entities enter our conceptions only as cultural posits.” (Two dogmas of empiricism)

About causality, I can of course only agree that I am writing now because you wrote before (and also maybe because a bird diverted once the attention of your great-grand-father for two seconds, preventing him from dying under a cart in his youth, which enabled him to have children). Yet, the concept of cause is dependent on the concept of time. Time is basically what causes things to be, and this works also for pull-like teleological causes.

Actually the case of time and causality is typical: there is no way we can envision causality differently if we do not change simultaneously our understanding of time. Try modifying the notion of time and everybody will object on the score of causality, and vice versa. A scientific theory (an explanation) is a set of beliefs that hold more tightly to one another than to reality. It is not very different from the Silmarillion or Starwars in that respect: it simply makes sense as a whole.

Of course there are facts, but the analysis of facts can never be objective. You always analyze facts based on prior beliefs. If you measure something against time, you cannot challenge the idea of time. If you measure the mass of the electron you take it for granted that such a thing exists. etc. etc. etc.

We already discussed this: I typically throw away half of the data I measure because they simply don’t make any sense. Perhaps we could build an alternative and coherent understanding of reality based on another fraction of the same experiments. Perhaps an understanding where there would be no place for time and causes.


14 years ago

Pour Riad, son anecdote me rappelle une expérience de Fredéric Hohenstauffen, roi de Sicile, grand arabisant, esprit très curieux et auteur d’un ouvrage sur la chasse au faucon qui fait encore autorité, dit-on. Il voulait aussi savoir de quoi l’âme avait l’air et a ainsi enfermé quelques types dans des tonneaux. Au moment de leur mort il fit ouvrir le bouchon pour essayer de voir l’âme s’échapper. Il ne vit rien…

14 years ago

Pour René,je te conseille de lire le chapitre ‘Divination et esprit scientifique’ du livre “Mésopotamie, L’écriture, la raison et les dieux” de Jean Bottéro (Folio 1987). Ce chapitre montre comment les Sumériens faisaient des listes et des classements. Ce qui tombe maintenant sous le sens n’était pas du tout évident à l’époque lorsque l’on ne distingue pas le surnaturel (pour nous) du naturel.