Free Will, Words, and Meaning
This week we are looking at the body as a translation device. In our last post regarding the body, we discussed the body as a transport device. Even as we move from one place to another, we are transporting our ideas, our history, our physical selves, our various microscopic organisms, and our atomic and quantum field from one place to another. I suggested that these smaller things drive our need and desire to move from place to place. Then, we reverse engineer our conscious awareness to justify the reason we have moved. Our choices may not be our choices. We may not be as free as we think we are.
Free will is always part of the discussion about consciousness and awareness. From Level 1, purely physical aspects of the body, to Level 5, divine and spiritual interaction and understandings, the question is always present, “How much influence do ‘I’ have in any of the decisions I make?”
I have no real good answers for the free will question, but I kind of like Martin Luther’s take. Luther was the causal agent of the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation began in 1517, when he nailed 95 statements of faith challenging the Catholic Church to the Wittenberg church door.
Martin Luther portrait by Lucas Cranach 1528
Luther said that we have no free will with regard to our relationship with the divine. All we have is an awareness or unawareness of that divine relationship. We do have a modified, localized, free will when it comes to the choices we make on the earthly plane. I like to call this “Cereal Aisle Free Will”.
Cereal Aisle Free Will
When you walk down the cereal aisle at the grocery store, you are confronted with many, many options for cereal. From the very healthy to the very sugary, it may be the most overwhelming part of the grocery store. Finally, you decide on perhaps something halfway between, like Honey Nut Cheerios. After all, there is fiber and vitamins and minerals in there. And sugar! The reality, however, is that the category of “Cereal” represents a very small, narrow sliver of all that is in our field of awareness. But because of the plethora of options, we perceive that field to be all-encompassing. Cereal is all that is when you are in the cereal aisle.
We confuse our ability to choose in the cereal aisle with our ability to choose in all realms of our existence. Luther says, “No, your choices, your free will, are extremely limited, and only to particular things of this material world. When you confuse the narrow limits of free will with your relationship with the divine and the things of God, you create huge anxieties and discord within the soul. Relent, surrender, and realize you have no choice in how God has determined your life.” I am paraphrasing here, and am far more generous than Luther probably would be on this topic.
Even if our choices are limited in most things, we still are conscious beings and consciousness requires interpretation and translation of what we sense, feel, experience, and think. So when we speak of the body as a translation device, the question is, “What is being translated to what, and so what?”
For my Master of Divinity degree, I was grateful that my seminary (Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN) required us to learn both Hebrew and Greek. It made me a weird outlier, since most everyone else hated having to learn languages for pastoral training. I have always loved language and languages, however.
It becomes immediately clear when you read texts in their original languages that translators have taken great liberties translating from the original language to the new language. Some words are untranslatable, and other words require 3 or 4 words in English. Or, some words have multiple meanings that are apparently unrelated to each other.
Greek, for instance, is an ancient language. It was ancient when the New Testament was written 2000 years ago in ‘street Greek’, or Koine Greek. Greece was a massive empire which lasted for at least 1,500 years, which meant Greek was the language of the realm for a long, long time. The language absorbed meanings from other languages it encountered during the empire.
And Now…A Moment of Bible Study
These translation issues matter, especially when we are dealing with something so personal as sacred texts and practices. This became very clear to me with a famous verse from John’s Gospel in the New Testament. In verse 3:7, Jesus tells Nicodemus, a priest or judge in the Jewish leadership, “You must be born again.” As you likely know, this phrase is a slogan for many evangelical Christian followers. The problem is that the Greek word for “again” also means “from above”. If you had heard the phrase 2000 years ago in street Greek, you would have heard something like “born again from above”.
Very, very few translations double up the meaning of the word, and instead simply choose the word “again”. The first translators of the Bible into English (called the King James Bible and translated back in 1611) decided to choose one word over the other rather than use both words. But this was not fair to the word or the meaning in Greek.
The meaning of the phrase becomes far more nuanced, mysterious, and unclear if we add “from above” back in and pair it with “again”. No wonder Nicodemus was confused by the phrase. It is likely we, the reader, are supposed to be confused like Nicodemus was when we read this phrase. Perhaps the phrase is a call and a clue to seekers, rather than a threat or command to do something. Because that is what Nicodemus is presented as in the Gospel of John – a seeker of truth and wisdom.
Translation matters, and the choices a translator makes in choosing a particular word or words matters even more. Translation also matters with our bodies as well. How the body translates the outside world to the inside world can matter a great deal when we are dealing with viruses and bacteria. When the translation from the outside to the inside becomes confused or incomplete, we might have long term effects from the virus or bacteria. Sometimes the translation becomes really wonky and the body begins to attack itself because the body can’t tell the difference between outside threats and internal homeostasis any more. Everything inside is perceived as an outside threat. This is what happens in some diseases of the immune system and we become ‘immuno-compromised”.
Little Things, Big Words
When we speak of the body as a translation device, I mean that the body takes information from the outside world and translates it in the inside world to know how to respond to the outside world. This translation of body languages goes in both directions. But we are often most aware of the translation that comes from the outside to the inside.
When I was in undergraduate college, I was a humanities student. Before college, I was advised to take the classes that science students take rather than the ‘science for humanities’ classes to fulfill requirements. This was, as it turns out, terrible advice. Those science for scientists classes wrecked my GPA at college. Just two classes tanked my GPA – microbiology and physics.
Both classes presumed a background knowledge I did not have. I could not translate between what I knew going into the classes and what was being taught. I didn’t know enough to translate. The microbiology concepts were complex and required some knowledge of chemistry. Physics required advanced mathematics. To make it even worse…I thought I knew enough going in, but not enough to simply drop the classes. My grades said otherwise.
The one thing that always stood out to me was from my microbiology class was how cells in the body communicated within themselves and to other cells. The act of translation is the transmission of information from one way of saying a thing to another way of saying it. This requires some third party to transmit the information from one party to another.
mRNA and Body Languages
The translation of a book from French to English requires a third party, either a human being or an adept software interface, to transmit the information from one language to another. What happens in the body between neurons, cells, organs, and tissues is very much an act of translation. Here I am, again, as in our discussion of the body as a transport device, using translation as an analogy for the translation that takes place in a cell.
One of the ‘third party’ translators in the body got a lot of news coverage back in late 2020 and into 2021. That ‘third party’ was called ‘messenger RNA’, the primary innovation in the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines. RNA stands for ‘ribonucleic acid’. mRNA is like an old school administrative assistant in a factory that knows shorthand, which was a way of taking accurate notes quickly back in the 1940s and 50s. Imagine RNA as the foreman on the factory floor. DNA, who is like the head manager of the factory that employs the assistant, lives in the nucleus of a cell. The foreman, RNA, notices a problem on the floor and tells mRNA to let DNA in the nucleus know. DNA transcribes instructions to the messenger RNA, who takes notes in shorthand, and then translates the message to RNA on the factory floor, the cell’s plasma, where protein chains are formed. Once the DNA information, which has been transcribed to the mRNA has been translated to the factory workers, the building of protein chains can begin. Protein chains control and influence all sorts of systems throughout the body. mRNA is like a translator between what the DNA wants and the factory floor where protein chains are built, which can bring about what the DNA wants.
Translation as Immunity
This happens for many, many things within the body, but one of the most important places where this translation work happens all the time is the immune system. When the immune system is confronted with a new virus, like COVID19, it does not have a language for the translation to take place between the DNA and the protein chains in order to generate protection against infection.
As a result, the protein chains which build T cells, B cells, and other cells of the immune system which comprise the body’s defense against microscopic attack cannot be built. But, if you could introduce new language to the body somehow, and help teach the body to translate, then you can ratchet up a quick defense against new attacks. mRNA is the translator for this new language for the protein chain code introduced by the vaccine. This is what the mRNA vaccines do; they create a way for translation to take place in the cells to train the immune system to resist the infection.
As translation devices go, this is incredibly sophisticated – both on the part of the body and on the part of the scientists who figured out how to train the body to translate new languages.
Translations Seen and Felt
At the microscopic level, we see translation events take place everywhere within the body. A different kind of translation happens at the level of experience as well. For those who have experienced trauma to both body and mind, the body translates that experience into stresses and tensions throughout the body as patterns. Trauma is held in the body as an unchanging pattern, which is translated by the brain to signify danger, pain, and distress.
This happens throughout time as well. Particularly in abusive relationships, an external behavior pattern is set in place over time. The body then remembers the pattern even if the relationship is no longer active. Or the trauma could be a singular event that triggers the setting of the pattern, say, a bad car accident, or witnessing a violent act. Rather than transforming the experience over time and integrating it into resilient recovery, the body remembers the pattern of trauma and throws the person back into that psychic space whenever anything resembles the pattern.
When we give credence to the body as a translation device, we begin to recognize there is a language, or rather languages, that the body uses to remind, reinforce, and re-experience what happened before. Physical and emotional experiences mean something to the body as much as words mean something to our conscious experience. Fighting disease, overcoming trauma, recovering from injury are all translation processes the body uses to bring us into the present moment.
The body, in its own way, has already made some meaning of any particular event, traumatic or not. This is why learning to listen to the body is so important. We have to learn a new language and then translate what the body has already translated. We also need to remember that we at once lose information and add information in any act of translation. New translations tell new stories, and new stories transform how we understand experiences we have had.
Translating from the Body to the Mind
As a middle-aged white man, I come from a culture that often ignores the signals, the languages, of the body for the sake of personal interest, fitting in, and avoidance of pain. It is likely this isn’t just a cultural thing or even a male thing. However, there are cultures that take the languages of the body way more seriously than we do. Those cultures are much better translators of what is happening within our skin than we are.
For an illness like Covid (which I have had three times now), there is the translation that takes place at the level of mRNA. Then there is the experience of the body in the throes of illness. Illness translates to the conscious mind in many ways, not all of them accurate or correct. This is why my mother always told me “Never make big decisions when you are sick”.
There are translation errors when the body is struggling and suffering and those errors become mistranslations in the mind and in our thinking. Personally, my life never seems worse than when I am sick. Parsing what is a legitimate translation of my experience and what is the translation error caused by the illness is almost impossible.
Signal from Noise in Bodies
So this isn’t so much a matter of ‘listening to the body’ in a spiritual wellness, new age idea as it is a nuanced way of reversing our traditional way of thinking about what the body is doing. Perhaps, the signals we are receiving from the body are interpretations and meanings the body has already made about an experience. The translators have already done their work. There is translation that has already happened in the body, and the move from the bodily translation to the conscious meaning is like the move from ‘street Greek’ to English. A lot gets lost in translation, and new meanings are made when we translate from one language to another.
Listening and seeking meaning is the core of any exercise in translation. While it can be a huge error to anthropomorphize the behavior of cells and microscopic activities, it is a good exercise to imagine what languages the body is using when we translate experience into consciousness. The body does not speak one language, and the brain devotes a lot of energy and attention to translating many languages into actions within the body.
Once the outside gets inside, like germs want to do, and once the outside impacts what we experience inside, the inside becomes an athenaeum of languages with many texts to be translated, a library filled with translators attempting to create understanding for the reader of what is going on now that the outside has gotten in.
In the next post, I will talk about the cacophony of selves and how translating their noise becomes our story.
Thank you for reading!
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