In Search of a New Philosophical Term

I am looking for a new philosophical term. A short (perhaps one, two or three syllable) word for an entity that exists but cannot be described completely by any single formal theory (or algorithm). I believe human beings, their societies and cultures are such entities, but I think many physical systems are such entities as well. The word “system” actually does not fit here because it has a connotation of something systematic, that is something that can be captured completely by some theory. I am thinking of physical entities for which the set of equations describing them cannot be solved except for special cases, i.e. where the mathematical description contains functions that are not turing-computable. In mathematics, such entities are known, entities for which it can be shown that every formal theory of them is incomplete. You may always be able to extend a given theory, but the resulting theory will be incomplete again. Such entities cannot be exhaustively described in terms of a formal theory. If physical “systems” of this kind exist, they cannot be perfectly simulated by any algorithm. They would generate new information (new with respect to any given theory). Something as simple as a set of three bodies moving around each other might already be such a system (it looks like the “three body problem” cannot be solved exactly. Kurt Ammon called (a certain kind of) such objects “creative systems” but I want to avoid the term “system”. Any suggestions? It might be a synthetic neologism, but should capture the idea in such a way that it has a chance to catch on.

Much of science is built on the tacit assumption that everything can be described in terms of formal theories. Everything is a “system” in this sense. But this is just a hypothesis and I think it is wrong. In mathematics, there are mathematical entities that are not completely formalizable (i.e. they have more true properties than can be derived in any single theory about them). If such things exists in mathematics, there is no a-priori reason they cannot exist in physical reality as well. What exists and what can be formalized is not necissarily the same. I want a short and crisp term for the unformalizable. The hypothesis that everything that exists is formalizable is built into our language. There is no short, simple word for the non-formalizable (yet). There is a large range of possibilites we cannot see because our language has been restricted.

The Language of Use

It is interesting to see to what extent the ideas of use, of exploitation, or resources are permeating our language. Our civilization is a parasite of our planet and it is about to destroy our biosphere and this civilization is permeating our language and our concepts and categories.

If we try to say that something has a value in itsself, we are using the concept of value that comes out of the language of use. If we say something is useless, we are using a term derived from the term “use”. The concept of “open domain” still has the idea of use inside it. We seem unable to speak or think of something that is just itself and not getting its value from what we can do with it, without using terms and concepts that come from this language of use.

We have to try to develop a totally different way of talking and thinking. We have to develop a language of the useless and valuable-in-itself that is not derived from the parasitic ontology of our growth culture, a language that does not view the useless as something negative.

Some Ideas about Evolution


Some draft notes on some ideas about evolution:

In sexually reproducing species where genes can be exchanged and where partial solutions to problems dispersed in a population can come together in some individual, evolution should not be thought of as a linear process.

Instead, evolution may be viewed as co-evolution of genes within a species. Just like in a symbiosis, varieties of the organisms taking part in it will select each other if they fit together to produce an overall system that works well, the genes within a species may be seen as co-evolving species if the species has sexual reproduction, enabling those genes to be combined in different ways. An organism can thus be viewed as a simbiosis of on-gene-species that co-evolve.

Even single genes might be the result of coevolution if a process of crossing over, as the analogue of sexuality on the level of single genes, allows them to exchange bits of genetic sequences that code for different domains of proteins.

For a new feature to evolve, what is needed then is an initial coupling of co-operating genes. This initial coupling, i.e. their co-operation in producing some functionality in the phenotype, might be very weak. But as soon as it is there, mutual selection of gene variants that fit together might set in, resulting for the population to quickly “zoom in” or “converge” on an optimized version of the new feature. One can think of this as a process of mutual filtiering of gene variants.

For example, in a wind-polinating plant species, there is a co-evolution between the genes controlling the properties of the pollen and the properties of the pollen-catching organs of the female flower. While in this example, you literally have some “mutual filtering” of genes, the idea can be applied much more widely.

As a result of a co-evolution of genes starting with simple genes, new features may evolve very quickly, within a few generations, while the resulting forms might then be stable for long times since “aberrations” (diverging from the optimal cooperation) will be selected away by the other genes belonging to the group of co-operating genes. The whole group of genes forms part of the evolutionary environment of every gene takeing part. This stability will last as long as the environmental conditions remain stable or until a genetic innovation creates a new coupling of features that will drive the process somewhere else.

New genes might be included into the process even if they offer only tiny optimizations. It is even possible that pieces of genetic material that at one point where non-coding, like introns, become coding, even if their protein products have only very tiny effects initially, and then develop into important genes by being “guided” in a co-evolutive process of mutual filtering of gene variants.

The co-operating and co-evolving genes will together form some aspect of the phenotype. As a result, in many instances properties of organisms will not be controlled by a single gene but by a multitude of genes.

The genes coding for a feature might be replaced by others in such a cooperation. Some genes might be drawn into a cooperative complex and others disappear from it. As a result, similar phenotypical features in closely related species might have a very different genetic basis (comparable to the reimplementation of a feature in a software system where the surface remains similar although the implementation might become completely different). If a feature is lost in evolution due to an environmental change, but the overal structure remains, it might be redeveloped later on the basis of other genes (e.g. secondary shells in some sea turtles).

In organisms that have a culture, i.e. learned behavior that is passed from one generation to the next (e.g. migratory birds learning a route of migration by following the flock), this learned behavior can become part of a genetic coupling as if there was an underlying gene causing it. One could think of it as a virtual gene becoming part of the coupling of a group of genes or even starting a new coupling. In this way, invented and culturally transmitted behavior can trigger new spurts of evolution (and as a result, the behavior might become genetic by the selection of genes that make its learning easier).

In the evolution of humans, such processes might have played a role in driving the development of the human brain. However, the direction taken by evolution here was not towards the development of specialized behaviors but towards de-specialization, through alternating increases in the complexity of culture (including language) and in the cognitive capacity of the brain. The trigger might have been a rather unspecialized body with a versatile hand that enabled the development of a large diversity of behaviours.

Language development might have started only based on general intelligence (plasticity) without any language-specific adaption in the brain or in any other structure (note that all the organs involved have another function initially (the tongue, lips, teeth etc.). Even the glottis, although already used for communicative sound production in apes, initially might just have had a function in coughing, i.e. cleaning the bronchial tubes. Secondary adaption to language lead to a more elaborate fine motor skills of the speech organs, higher resolution of the auditive system in the range of language frequencies and volume, and probably a higher processing capacity of some brain areas. There might also have been some specific adaptions to handling complex grammar, but I guess these are overestimated in classical Chomskyan linguistics. In any case, language was invented first and then the neural system, auditive system and speech organs adapted to it. It did not emerge at once as a fully developed whole by a single genetic mutation. In any case, there might have been a co-evolution of a group of genes optimizing the language skills and thus the bandwidth of communication. The culturaly invented language might have played the role of the phenotype of a virtual gene (or a piece of environment) in this coupling of cooperating genes.

(The picture, showing an old anatomical drawing of the human larynx, is from

Notes on Language and the Semiotic Revolution

Some draft notes in connection to my recent article, to be worked out into proper articles:

The case of the Piraha language (see, for example, shows that a simple culture can do without a lot of the logico-semantic machinery that was long thought to be both universal and essential. “…Piraha˜ culture constrains communication to nonabstract subjects which fall within the immediate experience of interlocutors. This constraint explains a number of very surprising features of Piraha˜ grammar and culture: the absence of numbers of any kind or a concept of counting and of any terms for quantification, the absence of color terms, the absence of embedding, the simplest pronoun inventory known, the absence of “relative tenses,” the simplest kinship system yet documented, the absence of creation myths and fiction, the absence of any individual or collective memory of more than two generations past, the absence of drawing or other art…”

It seems likely that the ancestors of this small group probably had a more elaborate language and that this language might be the result of some process of simplification (maybe caused by cultural factors, maybe by a desaster that was survived only by some children, I don’t know) and is not a remnant from an earlier time, but it is interesting that the human brain is capable of so simple a culture and language that is laking all of these things. For example, there is no universal quantification in Piraha (i.e. no possibility to express sentences about all instances of some set, like “All people are mortal”. This indicates that universal quantification (for example) is not “hard-wired” into our brains. It is part of our culture. If that is so, it must have been invented at some point in history. (I think Kant thought of it as something a priori, and Hamann thought Kant was wrong because we get it through language – to be explored in more detail…).

If such semantic or logical devices are not genetically hard-wired into our nervous systems, they must have been historically invented at some point and are completely part of culture, and there must have been a time when all human cultures and languages where as simple as the one of the Piraha, or even simpler. So the “semiotic revolution” that seems to show up in the archaeological record, a sudden increase in the complexity of cultures (around 100.000 years ago in southern Africa and then spreading) could have been a completely cultural development.

Anthropologists often seem to asume that it was a biological/genetic change. The assumption seems to be that cognition evolved biologically step by step, with genetic changes in the brain enabling hominids to think in novel ways. Instead, the bulk of this development could have been completely cultural. Once a certain intelligence threshold is passed (at a far earlier point in time, I think even before the development of Home Erectus), language is invented and then bit by bit, new semantic and syntactic constructs are (culturally) invented. During this development, the cognitive capabilities, i.e. the range and types of thoughts that where possible, where extended, not by biological changes but by cultural inventions. At some point (and this might well have been the invention of universal quantification) cognition became markedly more complex because the expressive power of language increased.

The Piraha show that this is possible. The assumption that these changes where genetic then turns out to be pure speculation. It is just as well possible the semiotic revolution was purely cultural. There is also no reason to believe that other populations of humans (e.g. the Neanderthals or the Denisovians) had inferior cognitive abilities in genetic terms. They might have had simpler cultures. And the fact that they mixed with the people coming out of Africa indicates that it does not make much sense to view them as separate species. (The assumption that these where separate “species” then appears totaly arbitrary and a remnant of 19th century “scientific” racism).