Keynote Speakers – Kobus Marais

Professor of translation studies in the Department of Linguistics and Language practice of University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa. He published two monographs, namely Translation theory and development studies: A complexity theory approach (2014) and A (bio)semiotic theory of translation: The emergence of social-cultural reality (2018). He also published an edited volume with the title Translation studies beyond the postcolony (2017) with Ilse Feinauer and two edited volumes with Reine Meylaerts, namely Complexity thinking in translation studies: Methodological considerations (2018) and Exploring the implications of complexity thinking for translation studies (2021). His research interests are translation theory, complexity thinking, semiotics/biosemiotics and development studies.

The Thermodynamics of Semiosis


Both natural sciences and social sciences/humanities are still working on a unified explanation of life and conscious thinking. Most participants in this debate tend to fall into reductionist positions, the natural sciences towards eliminative materialism and the social sciences/humanities towards idealism/constructivism. This means that scholars in the natural sciences assume metaphysical positions that dictate a physical-mechanical explanation of reality while scholars in the social sciences/humanities assume metaphysical positions that dictate ideational/constructivist explanations of reality. Thus, natural sciences assume the existence of energy/matter and social sciences/humanities assume the existence of ideas. In addition, the social sciences/humanities quite often posit some kind of homunculus or added “spirit” to explain the ideational.

The question is whether it is possible to provide a view of reality that explains the emergence of ideas in a way that does not contradict the laws of physics, both quantum and classical. Terrence Deacon (2013) is an example of a scholar who is trying to explain the emergence of life, sentience, semiosis, and intention in a way that is fully aligned with the laws of physics. His main aim is to demonstrate that life and semiosis emerged from physical interactions and does not contradict the laws of physics while they are simultaneously not reducible to physics

In this presentation, I argue the case that the social sciences/humanities should reciprocate this movement from the physical to the ideational by exploring the nature of the ideational in terms of physics. In the social sciences/humanities, there are insights into the ideational, but this is quite often seen as removed from the physical, which maintains the dualism (Maran, 2020). In my own work, I participated in this debate by conceptualizing translation in terms of the semiotic work that is performed to create meaning by constraining the possibilities of semiotic material (Marais, 2019). This conceptualization is built on the Second Law of Thermodynamics and its implications for any kind of work.

This presentation consequently constitutes two moves. In the first, I investigate the Second Law of Thermodynamics and problems concerning entropy and negentropy in semiosis. I draw upon Deacon’s and Pattee’s (2001; 2007; Pattee & Raczaszek-Leonardi, 2012) work on the physics of information to explore aspects of a synthesis between matter, life, and self-conscious consciousness. In the second move, I explore ways of explaining the ‘downward causation’ of ideas on matter. For a unified theory of mind and matter, it is as important to explain how mind emerges from matter as it is to explain how mind causes new types of matter to emerge, e.g., alloyed metals. I try to synthesize the insights from Deacon’s work on thermodynamics, constraints, and emergence with insights from extended cognition (Clark, 2008; Clark & Chalmers, 1998), semiotics (Deely, 2001; 2009) and ecosemiotics (Maran, 2020) to explore the role of mind in the emergence of new material forms.

I explore the thesis that, concerning ideas and culture, one needs a complex conceptualization to relate the complex interplay between material bodies, the immaterial ideas that emerge from them and the complex sets of relationships that emerge through their interaction. I propose that one could link the natural and social sciences/humanities through the Second Law of Thermodynamics and the ubiquitous tendency towards equilibrium as well as the requirement for work to constrain energy in order to create anything. As such, the presentation is speculative, explorative and incomplete – like everything else that is subject to the Second Law.

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