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.


Montaigne and Scholasticism

The essays of Montaigne show, in their structure, an echo of the scholastic treatise. The authors of a scholastic treatise first compiled the opinions and teachings of earlier authors before explaining his own position on the topic. Montaigne often also starts with citations of several classic authors, before developing his own ideas. Perhaps the mottos or citations at the start of some modern essays are a reflection of this tradition.

Vagueness and Being Human

The inherently creative nature of human beings means every exact description of what it means to be a human being is incomplete. As a result, any concept of the human that is attempting to be general must be vague. The human being can always develop, so it can develop out of the scope of any given description. So either  we get a partial exact description or one that seems to be general but where the concepts involved have incomplete definitions (vagueness being a form of incompleteness, on the level of the definitions of the concepts used).

Fixing ourselves or others into roles that are strictly and formally defined, is thus dehumanizing.

We are partial, we are vague. That is what makes us human.

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.

Philosophy vs. Analytic Philosophy

Many scientists and science-minded people today seem to believe that philosophy is useless, and they are right: for what they are doing, you do not need philosophy. As long as you are doing “normal science” (in the Kuhnian sense), you just apply a method or set of methods. You do not have to refelct on your method and you don’t have to enter a meta-level and look critically at what you are doing. In times of scientific crisis, scientist will turn philosophers (think of the people who started quantum mechanics as an example). But most scientists will move through their professional lives without any need for philosophy.

In those fields however whose topic is the human mind and its products in the widest sense, like societies and cultures, languages and art, history and politics and so on, you need the philosophical mode of thinking all of the time. Philosophy comes in when formal theories and formal methods fail and collapse. In the humanities and historical fields where a philosophical, reflexive and critical mode of thinking, of looking at what you are doing from a meta-level, is required all of the time, analytic philosophy has nothing to offer. In these fields formal methods and formal theories are almost useless because human creativity breaks the borders of any formal description of cognition, society or culture all of the time.

Analytical philosophers, by trying to turn philosophy into a science and into an ancilliary science of the sciences, make philosophy irrelevant because scientists don’t need it most of the time. Scholars, on the other hand, have no use for it.

Moreover, for real life application, for business or just for mastering your everyday life, the formalisms of analytic philosophy are useless as well.

So analytic philosophy, useless for life, useless for the sciences, and useless for the humanities as well, turns into a case of pathological science that only keeps itself alife by mechanisms of power.

Instead of trying to get into the academic system of analytic philosophy, philosophers interested in doing actual philosophy should look for a job (any job – perhaps part time) and do their philosophy in private (or in public, outside the academic world) or look for niches inside the academic world that are not under the domination of the analytics.

Why Philosophy is Going to Stay

In a nutshell, philosophy deals with those subjects that cannot be completely formalized. The sciences are about areas of knowledge for which complete formal theories are possible. Scientism includes the belief that what is formalizable and what is real is the same, i.e. everything can be described in terms of formal theories. Analytical philosophy is trying to turn philosophy into a science, but if everything can be formalized, philosophy is (as some scientists state) unnecessary, so analytical philosophy is making itself obsolete.

However, if, as I think, reality cannot be completely formalized, science is inherently incomplete and philosophy is not going away. Especially, human cognitive processes cannot be completely formalized in principle. Each formal description of such processes is incomplete and partial. Cognition develops historically (something formalizable systems don’t do). Cognitive science then turns out not to be a science but a historical discipline. Human thinking does not follow fixed laws.

As a result, there is no complete and at the same time exact formal description of cognition and of its products, like society, culture, and even science itself, cannot be described completely in terms of a single formal theory. Philosophy is not going away. As long as you do “normal science” in the Kuhnian sense, you don’t need philosophy, but if you are working in any field of the humanities, or psychology or “social sciences”, you permanently need philosophy. Here, you do not have a fixed methodology. You have to be reflexive and look at what you are doing from a meta- (and meta-meta-…level) all of the time. You have to look at what you are doing critically all of the time. In the sciences, you also have to do that, but only occasionally, if you bump into anomalies and you have to shift your paradigm.

In mathematics, there are entities for which we can prove that a complete formal description is impossible. If such entities exist in mathematics, there is no a-priory reason why they should not also exist in physical reality. Human beings and their societies and cultures seem to be such entities for which a complete formalization is impossible. If that is so, philosophy is not going to go away.