Olaf Diettrich

Research Affiliate:

Centre Leo Apostel (CLEA), Free University Brussels
Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition, Altenberg, Austria
Austrian Society for Cognitive Sciences (ASOCS), Vienna
Fellow of The Institute for Mathmatics and its Applications (IMA), Essex, UK
Research Division for Evolution and Complexity, University of Ghent


Dr. Olaf Diettrich, C. Math., FIMA
Ave. des 4 Bonniers 20
B-1348 Louvain-la-Neuve
Tel: +32(0)10 814938 or +32(0)472 890887
Fax: +32(0)10 814958
E-mail: olaf.diettrich@skynet.be

Professional record

Study of theoretical physics at Free University; Berlin (Guenter Ludwig). Dr. Dipl.-Phys. 1965-1994 Senior Research Officer at the EU-Commission: 1965-1974 in nuclear reactor physics, Nuclear Research Centre, Ispra (Italy), 1975-1994 in biotechnology, DG Research and Development, Brussels. 1994-1996 visiting professor Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition in Altenberg, Austria: physical approaches in cognitive sciences. 1994 European Cognitive Science Award. 1995 Fellow of the (UK-) Institute for Mathematics (CMath., FIMA). Since 1996 research with CLEA (VUB).

Research interests

1. Theory of science and evolutionary epistemology

The existing infrastructure of physics and mathematics (Operator theory, Hamilton-Jacobi, E. Noether, K. Gödel) is used for approaches in cognitive sciences.

In analogy to physics where observables are defined as invariants of experimental measurement operators, the constructivist evolutionary epistemology (CEE) (7) considers the perceived patterns and regularities from which we derive the laws of nature to be invariants of inborn cognitive (sensory) operators. Then, the so called laws of nature are the result of cognitive evolution and therefore are human specific. The law of energy conservation e.g. is derived from the homogeneity of time and, therefore, depends on the mental time metric generator in our brain. They nevertheless allow correct empirical predictions if the generating cognitive operators commute with the operators of human physical acting (12). Cognitive operators and the world picture they generate, therefore, do not need to develop phylogenetically in adaptation to an external world as proposed by Campbell”s “natural selection epistemology”. If the cognitive operators are extended by means of experimental operators the result can be expressed in classical terms if both commute (quantitative extensions). Otherwise non-classical approaches such as quantum mechanics are required (qualitative extensions). As qualitative extensions never can be excluded, it follows that there will be no definitive set of “theories of everything” (9). That many elementary physical systems show linear time-dependency (and therefor allow easy forecasting) is due to the fact that cognitive evolution brought about perceptional variables which are cyclic (sensu Hamilton- Jacobi) with respect to elementary human action operators (particularly to locomotion). Reality, defined as what can be neither ignored nor modified, is represented by the laws of nature. As the laws of nature according to CEE are human specific artefacts, realism is rejected (2), (16). This does not comprise any solipsistic elements. From applying the concept of mental perceptional operators to the inborn operators of mathematical thinking and their (quantitative and qualitative) algorithmic extensions it follows that there will be no definitive set of axioms, i.e. it would explain Gödels incompleteness theorem (9). If cognitive evolution made the operators of perception and the operators of mathematical thinking to commute, it would explain both the “algorithmic compressibility of the world” and the success of induction (12).

2. Non-adaptive approaches in organic evolution

This constructivistic approach can be extended to organic evolution as well (16) starting from the assumption that not only the ways we see the world and the methods we use to meet the requirements of the world are constructed, but also the requirements themselves, in so far as they are not objective but rather depend on our physical and organic constitution and therefore are 'constructed' by organic evolution. Therefore, the requirements to be met - be they cognitive or organic - are not defined by an external world but rather by their previous organic and cognitive evolution. When at all to speak in terms of adaptation, adaptation can only mean to adapt to previously established evolutionary constraints (4). A particular strategy of evolution to escape the need for adaptation, i.e. for meeting external requirements, is assimilation, i.e. modifying the environment according to internal requirements. There is an ongoing general tendency in evolution from adaptational to assimilational skills. Non-adaptive approaches are a prerequisite for a unified description of cognitive and organic evolution.

3. Non-linear genetics

Genomic mutations may not only affect the phenotype but also the epigenetic system (ES) which is interesting particularly in the light of the double role of the ES: on the one hand, the ES is the instance that regulates gene expression. On the other hand, the ES itself is the outcome of genes which have been expressed by means of the ES of the parental organism. Changes in the ES may occur not only as a result of genomic mutations but also as a result of the structure of the ES's own predecessor (4). This relation meets the mathematical criterion of non-stable recursive processes. Therefore evolutionary processes may develop their own dynamics which can be a further "dimension" of the evolutionary process, in addition to the well known mutation-selection process. This inherent evolutionary dynamic which does no longer rely on mutating genetic blueprints is a prerequisite for a consistent description of organic and social evolution. (17)


  1. Diettrich, O. (1989) Kognitive, organische und gesellschaftliche Evolution. 216 pages. Berlin, Hamburg: Parey.
  2. Diettrich. O. (1991) Realität, Anpassung und Evolution Philosophia naturalis, 1991, Band 28, Heft 2.
  3. Diettrich, O. (1991) Induction and evolution of cognition and science. In Gertrudis Van de Vijver (Ed.): Teleology and Selforganisation. Philosophica Nr. 47/II.
  4. Diettrich, O. (1992) Darwin, Lamarck and the Evolution of Science and Culture Evolution and Cognition, 1st Series, Vol.2, No. 3.
  5. Diettrich, O. (1993) Biotechnology and Social Perception. In R. von Schomberg (Ed.) Science, Politics and Morality. Kluwer Academic Publishers, Series A: Philosophy and Methodology of t he Social Sciences.
  6. Diettrich, O. (1993) Two-way adaptors. Nature, Vol. 362, 22 April 1993, p. 690.
  7. Diettrich, O. (1994) Cognitive and Communicative Development in Reality free Representation. Intellectica, 1994/1, 18, pp.71-111.
  8. Diettrich, O. (1994) Kognitive und kommunikative Entwicklung in realitätsfreier Darstellung Kognitionswissenschaft, 4, pp. 57-74.
  9. Diettrich, O. (1994) Is there a theory of everything? On the evolution of physical and mathematical knowledge. Bulletin of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications, Vol 80, p. 166-170.
  10. Diettrich, O. (1994) Heisenberg and Gödel in the Light of Constructivist Evolutionary Epistemology. Ludus Vitalis, Vol. II, Nr. 2, pp. 119-132.
  11. Diettrich, O. (1995) Das Weltbild der modernen Physik in evolutionärer Sicht. In Delpos, M., Riedl, R. (Eds.) "Die evolutionäre Erkenntnistheorie im Spiegel der Wissenschaften", 300 p., WUW-Univ.-Verl.
  12. Diettrich, O. (1995) A Constructivist Approach to the Problem of Induction. Evolution and Cognition, Vol. 1, No.2.
  13. Diettrich, O. (1995) Kognitive Evolution als geschlossenes System. In Proceedings of the 7th Workshop of the German Society for Systems research (DGSF e.V.) "Systemtheory: Concepts, Perspectives, Projects". In Newsletter der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Systemforschung e.V., Ausgabe 6 (1995), Heft 1.
  14. Diettrich, O. (1997) Kann es eine ontologiefreie evolutionäre Erkenntnistheorie geben? Philosophia naturalis, Band 34, Heft 1.
  15. Diettrich, O. (1997) Sprache als Theorie: Von der Rolle der Sprache im Lichte einer konstruktivistischen Erkenntnistheorie. Papiere zur Linguistik, Nr. 56, Heft 1.
  16. Diettrich, O. (1998) Some Relations between Organic and Cognitive Evolution. In: van de Vijver, G., Salthe, S., Delpos, M.(Eds), Evolutionary Systems. Kluwer, Dordrecht, p. 319-340.
  17. Diettrich, O. (1998) The Paradigm of Reason. in Englert, Y. (ed.): Philosophical Pluralism in European Decision regarding Bioethics., EC DG XII Biotec Programme Project 960656.
  18. Diettrich, O. (2001) A Physical Approach to the Construction of Cognition and to Cognitive Evolution. Foundations of Science, special issue on "The Impact of Radical Constructivism on Science", vol.6, no.4: 273-341.
  19. Diettrich, O. (2001) Virtual Reality and Cognitive Processes. In: Riegler, A., Peschl, M. F., Edlinger, K., Fleck, G. & Feigl, W. (eds.) Virtual Reality. Cognitive Foundations, Technological Issues & Philosophical Implications. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, pp. 203-219.
  20. Diettrich, O. (2004) Cognitive Evolution. In Antweiler, Chr., Wuketits, F.M. (eds.) Handbook of Evolution, Weinheim. Wiley-VCH. Vol. 1. p 25-75
  21. Diettrich, O. (2006) The Biological Boundary Conditions for our Classical Physical World View In Gontier, N., Aerts, D., Van Bendegem, J-P.(eds.) Evolutionary Epistemology, Language and Culture. A Non-Adaptionist, Systems Theoretical Approach. Springer, pp.67-93
  22. Diettrich, O. (2008) Gott und die Welt. Zum Verhältnis von Wissenschaft und Religion. Neue Zeitschrift für systematische Theologie und Religionsphilosophie 50: 1-15.

Last update: November 2009