Culture / Philosophy



File:Library Pengo.jpg

The world we inhabit cannot be described completely. It is a proteon. And each of us has a small, partially private section of it, a part that we call our life. Interacting with the world, each of us can only, in our lifetime, build up a limited amount of knowledge about it. Some of this knowledge, maybe most of it, will be destroyed when we die. Some fraction of it is passed on to others, by talking, by writing, by making things, by acting, by being observed in our actions. And in turn, some of what we know we have received from others.

We are, in this way, part of a tradition. There is a web of tradition in which of which each of us is a small part. In this web, we might distinguish certain “currents”, or schools of thought, certain more or less well defined streams of information that we can call traditions or cultures. Such a description of traditions and cultures is, of course, partially vague and always incomplete. Our culture, our web of traditions that we form in response to the protean world, is itself a proteon. The unification of all the different streams of knowledge into one system is impossible.

Inside this cultural proteon, the development of a protean diversity and plurality of views, traditions, approaches, methods, concepts and cultures is an inevitable consequence of the protean nature of the reality to which it is responding. The historicity and plurality of human culture and knowledge is thus a direct consequence of this protean nature of both reality and human beings.

So we respond to the proteon of the world by creating the proteon of our culture. And this second proteon is part of the first. The world we inhabit cannot be described completely, nor can we.

(The picture, showing books in a library, is from In the context of this post, it symbolizes the diversifying and expanding and intrinsically unsystematic nature of human knowledge.)

7 thoughts on “Traditions

  1. I just have a few questions, and I hope they don’t sound stupid. I just want to make sure I’m getting you right:

    “The world we inhabit cannot be described completely.”
    In theory? Or because we can’t describe it due to our necessarily limited knowledge?
    I assume you meant in theory, because if the world is a proteon, it’s incomplete in itself? (Or are we not talking about things in themselves? That’s fine by me. 🙂 ) But if we are talking about the world itself, would that mean we can only incompletely describe an incomplete system? And if so, how would we ever know the system is incomplete if we can only incompletely know it? It seems like the very incomplete nature of our knowing would make us uncertain about the whole, but maybe it’s possible to determine the nature of the whole from a limited POV?

    Sorry it took so long to comment on this! I just haven’t been good at keeping up with blogs lately.

    • Hello Tina, it’s me who has to apologize that it took so long. I have lots of other things to do at the moment.

      I would apply the term “proteon” in both cases, leaving it general and perhaps a bit vague. We can then make finer distinctions. There are “theoretical proteons”. They pop up in mathematics, where it can be shown for certain “objects” that every formal theory about them is incomplete, although it is often possible to extend each given theory (ending up with a more comprehensive and still incomplete one). I think that physical reality is like this as well. I suspect that physics is computationally incomplete (see If that is so than the “thing in itself” is a proteon. I don’t think that there is a fixed border beyond which we cannot go (in the Kantian sense) but there is always a rest or residuum.

      Secondly, there are cases where a complete theory is possible in principle, but it is practically intractable because doing the calculations takes more computational resources (memory or time) than are available on earth or even in the universe. For practical purposes, this case is indistinguishable from the first one above. The calculations cannot be done. There is a branch of computer science called complexity theory that deals with such problems. For example, there is a class of problems called “NP-hard”. If a problem can be shown to be in this group, it is computationally intractable except for the very simplest of cases. For example, protein folding, the process by which new protein chains take their final shape, something happening in our cells zillions of times every second, seems to be of this kind. The molecules are doing it with the tiny amount of energy and matter they have, but simulating it, i.e. describing it by means of a formal theory or algorithm and deriving or predicting the shape from the sequence of amino acids is practically impossible, except for special cases.

      Another case is non-deterministic quantum systems. You cannot predict when an atom of Uranium is going to decay. It can happen the next moment or in a billion years. On a microscopic scale, all physical objects have this kind of non-determinism. Furthermore, there are non-linear systems (like turbulences, e.g. weather systems) where the tiniest difference in the initial conditions lead to arbitrarily large differences at a later time. While in a linear system, similar initial states lead to similar end states, in a non-linear system, points in state-space that start close together are being separated, so the system will develop differently each time you run an experiment. Combine this with the non-determinism of the quantum world and you get macroscopic “systems” that become totally unpredictable and will always produce surprises (think of the weather, it may be rather predictable where you are living, but where I am living, it is chaotic). I would use the term “proteon” in such a case as well.

      Finally, there are cases where it is practically impossible to obtain all the information and where things are just too complex. There are different reasons for this, i.e. different causes for why something cannot be described and understood completely. Here the limit between what is describable and what is not may be movable to a small extent, but there is and always will be a limit to what can be done.

      Reality is a mix of all the above. It makes sense to distinguish and study the different reasons for why or how things are proteons, but for practical purposes it does not make much of a difference. So I would use the term proteon for all of these cases. We can then distinguish certain types of being protean, like “theoretical (mathematical, absolute)”, “complexity-theoretical”, “quantum-unpredictable”, “non-linear, chaotic”, “practical”, “historical (with lost information)” etc.

      Looking out of my window, I see trees whose branches are moving in the wind. To find out where each atom in these trees is would be impossible (and would probably mean destroying them). The movement of the branches is a result of chaotic weather phenomena that are non-linear, amplifying microscopic indeterminacies. The protein molecules in the leaves fold according to laws that are practically non-computable. The historical reasons why the trees, their branches, twigs and leafs are exactly where they are is lost and irretrievable (radiated into outer space in the form of termal radiation). And so on.

      What I see through my window is just a partial view of these trees. You can see another partial view of them (processed by some data compression algorithm and as a result partially inaccurate but still usefull for some purposses) here:,+30627+Hannover/@52.3865434,9.8254022,33m/data=!3m1!1e3!4m5!3m4!1s0x47b00c7a47a9a169:0x7c09204674d70602!8m2!3d52.3867!4d9.82563.

      Both views are partial, as are all possible descriptions of these trees.
      The world in itself is complete. But each description of it is incomplete and only a partial view. We can extend it. We can extend the language we are using to describe it (e.g. add graphical 3-D computer representations to it like the one used for the satellite view above). We can extend language by all kinds of notations and extend the media we are using from brains to spoken language to written language to all kinds of computer systems. We can get closer to reality, but we cannot reach it. Physicists are trying by arranging carefully designed “tabletop” experiments shielded from the “noise” of the surrounding. But you can take a hammer and smash that experiment and that is a process not described by the theory, although it is a normal process in reality. You can extend the theory to include that process, but the result is incomplete again.

      Each of these partial views contains knowledge (so in my view, knowledge is not “justified true belief” but partial (and partially vague/partially incorrect/distorted/fragmentarry/incomplete) descriptions (think of the distortions of that immage compression or interpolation used in the satelite rendering of the trees in front of my window. That is knowledge, and that is laguage. We can always get better, but we cannot get better than that.

      This reply is a rather sketchy form of what the next couple of articles in this series are going to contain.

      • I think I’m getting it—maybe partially. 😉

        So the world in itself is complete, but we are always only approaching knowledge of this reality, for various reasons? It sounds to me like the term “proteon” is meant for epistemology (for specific systems but also in the broadest sense—the world considered as a system, i.e., as it is known to us, is a ‘proteon’)?

        I’m looking forward to hearing more on this. As I was reading your reply, I thought, “I hope he saves some of this for later posts, as others might not read it here.”

        By the way, I caught the tail end of a news story about a bomb found in Hannover (I think) and residents had to be evacuated. I wondered if that affected you?

        Another by the way, there are parts of your proteon idea that sound like a segment of my novel. I wrote something very speculative that tries to describe the opposite of proteons, in similar language as your description of trees. (Mine is a dew drop reflecting a mountain landscape.) Of course in this I couldn’t go into detail, I could only bring to mind something like a square circle, something the mind can kind of grasp but not visualize. The purpose of this was to describe (speculatively) what it might be like to leave behind a human or particular perspective and literally become everything, reality itself.

        • I have to apologize that it took me so long to reply. I am currently involved in some other projects and activities so I did not have much time or energy left for this one.

          I was not personally affected by those bombs; that was just a few kilometers from here, but I was outside the evacuation zone. About 5000 people had to leave their homes until the bombs had been defused. Initially it was thought there were 5 bombs but it was only 3, although very large ones. The fuses where damaged so they had to cut them out with a high pressure water cuter. WW II Bombs are still being found time and again, this was the second case since I moved to Hannover. So people have been living all of their lives there – just a few meters away from about a ton of explosives, with a fuse that was slowly getting rusty. Reality has always more properties than our theories about it predict…

          I am going to turn all those points I was writing about in my comment into articles. It helps to write and discuss them in the form of a comment before actually writing them as a blog post.

          It is actually a very interesting question if “proteon” is an epistemological concept or an ontological concept. Initially, I considered making a distinction between a “proteon” and a “proteoid”. A proteon would be an entity for which a complete formal theory is impossible in principle (we have used the term “theoretical proteon” for that in our discussion here, I think) why a “proteoid” would be something that can be completely described in principle, although it is practically impossible to do so, e.g. for reasons of complexity. In such a terminology, “proteon” would be an ontological concept. In mathematics, there are such theoretical proteons, and I suspect that they also exist in physical reality. In practice, however, such a distinction is irrelevant, so I dropped it. This makes the term “proteon” somewhat vague, but I think there is nothing wrong with that (I think there is nothing wrong with vague concepts – if proteons exists, vagueness of language is unavoidable and useful). Theoretically, we can distinguish between “theoretical” proteons on one hand (“ontological proteons”, “theoretical proteons”, “real proteons” …) and very complex systems on the other hand that we have to treat like proteons for all practical purposes, but in practice, that does not make much difference. I am adopting a more pragmatist view here.

          What you write about your novel sounds interesting. I would like to read more about it (maybe that section itself, even if it might be just a draft version). In any case, to describe something, we have to use some kind of language. We can extend language, e.g. my mathematical notations or graphical file formats like jpg and the like. All of these different sign systems are extensions of language. We may have a very perfect computer simulation of a drop that grasps the patterns of waves on its surface, the turbulent flows inside it, the microorganisms and dust specks swimming inside it, the way it breaks and transforms light and the way it evaporates, the interface with the surface it is sitting on etc. Our simulation, i.e. description, might go down to molecular level. However, that is still not reality, it is just a description. Quantum mechanics teaches us that at any given time, there is only a finite amount of information inside a finite size system like this one. We might get it complete in that sense. But quantum mechanics also teaches us that this information does not describe the state of the system completely, it describes only a range of possible observations. The drop is in a superposition of states and can develop into different directions. We cannot predict exactly where a molecule of water will evaporate from its surface or, if it is very cold, which orientation a crystal of ice forming inside it is going to have. And even if we develop a complete set of equations describing every aspect of the drop, it might turn out that we are not able, in principle, to solve these equations, i.e. the theory describing the drop might be computationally incomplete, in principle (it would contain functions that are not computable). We would be able to solve certain special cases, but we would have to add additional information (like equation-solving methods, mathematical knowledge) again and again. The real drop does not perform a calculation; it just is what it is. (This is taking my thoughts into my own direction, of course, maybe what you are writing is going somewhere completely different).

          • No need to apologize for taking a while to reply, as I obviously have done. 🙂

            I’m glad to hear you were outside the evacuation zone for those bombs. What a crazy world.

            I can see why it might be better to keep the term in the broader sense, and maybe if it’s necessary to make a finer distinction, you could go with your new terminology.

            Below is the bit about the dew drop from my novel. It’s a bit of a spoiler, but that’s not a big deal since it’s not exactly a great source of tension in my plot. The main character is a contemporary Socrates, and this section is unusual because it’s the first time in the entire novel that I use the omniscient point of view. That happens only for one chapter…at least in this draft…we’ll see what my writing group has to say about it since they might persuade me to do something else. Anyway, since Socrates dies, my protagonist dies as well. This bit happens after his death, and I took some liberties in imagining the afterlife in a fairly unimaginable way, as a visual metaphor for something that can’t be seen (at least not in the way we see), so this description might sound like total nonsense. Maybe it’s the opposite of a proteon:

            In that moment he realized the struggle was lost. Even so, even with nothing left to gain, he missed the world in a distant way, as one misses a special object or place from childhood.
            Isaac opened his eyes, nostalgic for fear of the unknown. But it was gone.
            The light was not reason, not intelligence, not opinion, not imagination. There was nothing spoken or thought. It wasn’t number or magnitude or equality or science or truth. It wasn’t One; it wasn’t Many. Nevertheless, he accepted everything, even if it turned out to be nothing. He didn’t have a choice, he was free.
            We’d have to say that his mind and body couldn’t be separated without destruction. Maybe ‘mind and body’ could never embrace the fullest reality, no matter how we conceived them, neither as two discrete things nor as only one or the other. Whatever the case may be, in some sense, now, Dr. Isaac Fischelson had departed forever.
            The following experience can’t be comprehended, at least not with our eyes. Not even with our words. The most we can strive for is a likely story.
            The unique perspective through which his life had previously viewed the universe became lost, but this dissolution wasn’t confused or dizzy. Just the opposite.
            Imagine viewing a landscape in which the distant mountains are just as clear and distinct as a tiny drop of dew on the petal of a wildflower by your foot. Imagine capturing that tiny drop of dew in sharp focus without sacrificing the clarity of all other objects of perception, even those impossibly far away. And all this without sacrificing the clarity of the landscape as a whole. And that tiny drop of dew reflects its surrounding landscape—the sky, the mountain range, the valley, your foot, the petal of the wildflower, and so on—all things in equal clarity. It inhabits and at the same time fully discloses all things around it, so that this dew drop is both the landscape and itself. It is both everything and every particular thing in the universe, even those that have yet to appear.

    • I am tempted to interpret the initial 12 signs of the Daodejing (道可道,非常道。名可名,非常名) like this (I am not sure it is a justifiable translation, it is just my interpretation, fitting my own thoughts): “The way that can be walked is not the real way. The name that can be said is not the real way”. What I mean is that each specific action (way that we can walk) and each specific description (name that can be said) reveals only one aspect of reality, not the whole reality itself. I have the impression that Laotse had something like the proteic nature of reality in mind here, as opposed to the way the confucians tried to cover everything with rules and rituals. Such an interpretation seems to be at least partially compatible with some sections of the Daodejing as well as the Zhuangzi. The early daoists were unto something here.

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