Wednesday, June 29: Symbols, Rituals, and Language

Humans use symbols to refer to entities, actions, and concepts that may not be immediately present or available. Symbols make it easier to think and communicate about their referent. We’ll present examples of symbols and rituals (symbolic behavior). Then we’ll consider language, which is a kind of communication that uses symbols. While humanity’s nearest animal relatives are apparently smart enough to use symbols and language if we teach them, they do not do so in nature. We’ll talk about the differences in the ways that animals and humans communicate. And we’ll ask: does religion require symbols?

About our presenter:

Nelson M. Hoffman is a physicist working at Los Alamos National Laboratory, in the Plasma Theory and Applications Group of the Computational Physics (XCP) Division. He earned a B.A. in Physics from Rice University in 1970, and a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of Wisconsin in 1974. His research interests are mainly in the areas of laser-driven fusion and plasma physics, currently emphasizing ion-kinetic models for transport in laser-driven capsule implosions, and gamma-ray diagnostics of such capsules. He has authored or co-authored more than 75 technical publications, which have garnered more than 1000 citations. He is a member of First United Methodist Church of Los Alamos. For several years, he has been intrigued by the features of the universe referred to as “cosmological fine tuning,” the origin of life, and the origin of humanity, and their plausible links to the creative acts of the God of the Bible. Recently, he has been studying the history of science, and the ways that Judaeo-Christian theology, together with Greek philosophy and Roman law, played a crucial enabling role in the origin of modern science.

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