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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