What is a Theory?

From Scientificmetho

== A theory is a system of learned concepts that describe, explain, predict and/or guide us in how to control the nature or behavior of a specified set of phenomena, based on a preponderance quantifiable, observed data and supported by experiments that are capable of being replicated. A theory is a self correcting, self validating, functional method of knowing the world.


A theory on proper infant care would describe what an infant is, explain its needs, help us to predict the baby's needs from cues it gives us, and provide with a means of controlling or satisfying these needs (increase pleasurable states, decrease dysphoric states), all based on observable feedback. A specific example: Crying means the baby may be wet, lets change the diaper and test the validity of this claim by observing whether her cries cease...watch for the correlation/causality error! - it may be she just wants attention, and diaper changing may provide attention as well.

One should recognize from this definition that theories act as functional tools that help us affirm or uncover knowledge, or aid us in the performance of acts. They possess a predictive power, and this predictive power in turn supports, but never proves, the theory. Theories are never said to be proven because they are inductive enterprises Additionally, they are not intended to be dogmatic statements or unassailable truths. Theories will never possess the psueodo-"certainty" of dogma - they forfeit this in the place of utility and functionality. This is not a bad thing, but a good thing, because most statements that are unquestionably true tend to be tautologies - (see tautologies) and tautologies are empty statements. Dogmatic statements are also said to be unassailably true, but we will deal with them in more depth below. For now, it is best to recognize that theories are the goal of science, not an intermediate point! We want theories because they aid us in knowing the world and controlling it, and dogma cannot do this.

All the wonderful discoveries that theories allow are possible because theories are formed by observation and make falsifiable predictions (see falsifiability) that can be shown to be either true or false. These predictions or statements give theories utility because by learning what would invalidate a theory, we can thus know what would support it by scientific experiment or observation. Going back to the baby example, if we changed the little critter and it still cried, we would then discard the "wet diaper hypothesis", and formulate a new one - perhaps a "hungry baby hypothesis". Using the hypothesis, the theory would therefore help us in finding the right answer and if we fail to disprove the hungry baby hypothesis through empirical evidence and critical examination thereof, then we have a new and useful set of actions to understand or deal with the baby - a working theory supported by a prepondernece of evidence. But even in the case of successive right answers, theories would never become dogma, because theories are open to refutation. As Karl Popper notes, "All theories will eventually be replaced by better ones."

On the other hand, if we accepted the "wet baby theory" as dogma, and the baby persisted in crying after a diaper change, or the baby's diaper were revealed to be dry, we would be forced to postulate invisible urine, or to make the claim that the baby continued to cry due to satanic possession. Most likely we would be compelled to hang the kid for blasphemy if he persisted. This methodology typified church dogma for nearly 2000 years, and the crimes were literally almost as ridiculous as in my example. And children and infants were OFTEN among those killed for Satanic possession or witchcraft. (The last two witches hung for witchcraft in 18th century Europe were charged with causing a rainstorm by washing their stockings in a river. They were 8 and 6 years old. - From Carl Sagan's, "A Demon Haunted World")

Back to theories: Because of this nature of theories, they are able to predict and control events. If I have a theory that flipping a coin will reveal the weather, it is a testable, falsifiable theory. Its utility can be measured by the veracity of the predictions. And, naturally, upon making many false predictions, it will be discarded, hopefully in favor of a theory that uses something with a real connection between some predictor and the actual weather.

Religious dogma can never predict anything, because dogma "can never be wrong." If a statement can never be wrong, it can tell us nothing, since any outcome is predicted by it. This may be confusing to you. Read it again, if necessary. You must understand that if any outcome is possible, then a prediction is useless. I will provide an example.

Example: Let's say the bible were to say "It will rain on Monday" and it didn't. Religious apologists would NEVER accept that the prediction was wrong. Instead, they would argue that it DID actually rain. (Or that you took the prediction out "of context" - a typical ad hoc argument.) They would then reinterpret the "prediction" so that it would be true, AFTER the fact. That this occurs AFTER THE FACT IS OF VITAL IMPORANTCE BECAUSE THEORY TELLS US WHAT TO EXPECT BEFORE IT OCCURS! "Predicting" things after they occur is known as a postdiction. Postdictions are useless!

Some imaginative postdictions in this example would likely be that "rain" was intended to be a metaphor meaning it rained "God's love". Or that it rained alright, but it was invisible rain. Or, how about this one - the rain fell, but only believers could see it. (An especially infuriating cop out.) Or, when God said Monday, he really didn't mean THIS Monday, he sorta meant another Monday, in the future. Or it's "Monday" that is the metaphor, not rain, and "Monday" is meant to represent some really crappy day that is going to come, but the actual day is not for us puny ones to know. Or, ok, maybe it WAS going to rain, AND it was going to rain on Monday, BUT we prayed REALLY hard, and God decided not to ruin the day after all. (He sends the rain over the heads of some Jews or Muslims.) I'm sure the reader can come up with many more cop outs, perhaps some from personal experience. From this we would have to sadly come to admit that the next biblical prophecy proffered to us could NOT serve us - i.e. continuing this example, if the next one warns of hail on Tuesday, what do we prepare for? You tell me. You must recognize the fact that you can't TELL BEFOREHAND, and THIS IS THE POINT OF PREDICTION. All I know is that a lot less people will bother to carry an umbrella the next time...

From this you should see that theories are not only useful, they are also self correcting. False theories, such as my coin flipping weather predictor, are discarded when they fail to pass experiments or when they record a poor track record of predictions - too many anomalies or unpredictable events lead us to see the inefficiency of the theory, and therefore its apparent invalidity. On the other hand, remember that even the strongest supported theories are never proved! They are always open to being disproved. "Certainties" are only found religion, not science. (However, we have already witnessed the efficacy of these "certainties", haven't we?)

Why Bother to Put so much Effort into Explaining what a theory is?

The gross misconception of the word "theory" has driven me to include this word in my philosopher's dictionary. This misconception has led to a disdain for theories - and this disdain is best typified in the childishly ignorant statement: "It's only a theory". To say something is "only a theory" denotes a vast ignorance bordering on idiocy that must be corrected, otherwise, there will be people who believe themsleves to actually be informed on science when they are clealry not.

The word "theory" can and has been used in false and deceptive ways. Creationists invariably do this, seeking to promote and exploit the common notion that a theory is a mere speculation and that the word theory is an antonym of fact. This is a farcical misconception. Scientists use theory to denote a structure of ideas, confirmed by preponderance of evidence, that explains a body of observations and thus explains some aspect of nature. Theories and facts are NOT mutually exclusive and mutually antagonistic. As stunning is this may come to creationists, theories and facts are complementary!: Theories explain facts, and facts support theories! Therefore, the rhetorical statement "This is only a theory" denotes a stupendous idiocy that can best be explained as follows:

Since the word "theory" can be properly defined as "a structure of ideas confirmed by a preponderance of evidence", then by using the laws of substitution, which allow for the replacement of one term with an identical term, we can replace the word "theory" in the statement "this is only a theory" with it's own definition, without changing its meaning whatsoever. In this manner, the true moronic nature of the criticism becomes self apparent- It now reads, without any change save substitution: "This is only a coherent and intelligent structure of ideas based on a preponderance of quantifiable evidence and supported over and over by experiment."! I would then counter that the critic needs to come up with a better mode of unfolding truths than a systematic examination and explanation based on a preponderance of evidence! A meaningful rebuttal in unlikely to follow.

The common beliefs about theories are understandable when one considers how little of science is understood by the common man. Since theories do not and can not make absolute statements, they would seem to the uninitiated to be inferior to church dogma, since dogma makes absolute statements of "truth". While remembering my previous refutation of the validity of dogma, I would add that this criticism would be valid IF we could verify that dogma was true - which by their very nature is not possible! Without verification, a dogmatic statement has no value - i.e., If I tell you it is absolutely true that the ocean you are about to swim in is shark free, this statement would be of no value to you if I could not then provide the evidence that I base my assurance on. (You would say: "How can you be sure?") It does no good for the truth value of the statement if you in turn state that "Proof is not necessary, I trust you" - for your faith does nothing to prove the statement true, it only serves to disavow the normal requirement of proof. Make sure you grasp this before moving on. In truth, you are swimming at your own risk. And the church does not point to proof - in fact, it basically threatens compliance with hellfire, or insults the intelligence of doubters. (See my logic page and the Ad Bacullum fallacy - i.e. the logical fallacy of threats)

This disdain for theory is due to the misconception of the principle of falsifiability. The Principle of Falsifiability states that theories. in order to be scientific must have confirmable (not fluid) positions and make specific predictions that are open to being disproved, or they have no predictive value. Citing a body of thought as having no falsifiability is a criticism, not a compliment. A predictive system that can never be wrong isn't good science, its bad religion.

Falsifiability seems to imply a weakness to dogmatists - if something can be disproved, why should we place our trust in it? However, falsifiability - the possibility of a theory being disproved - is a strength, not a weakness. Since falsifiability states specific predictions or experiments that would repudiate the theory, theories that we fail to disprove are useful and quite likely true. As good approximations of the truth, they have value and are able to help us describe, explain, predict and control phenomena. Theories offer us verifiable, quantifiable results. For example, a theory on weather prediction allows a farmer to know in advance when to plant his crops. If the theory is successful, it efficacy is shown by an abundance of crops. If not, the farmer will discard it at once, or face starvation. (Unless of course, he is a soviet farmer under DOGMATIC leadership - then he has to keep using the failed practice - and everyone starves.)

Theories are supported by evidence, dogma must be taken on faith, and no verification is possible. Since it is impossible to verify dogma, (i.e. dogma must be accepted on faith) It is clear that theory is SUPERIOR to dogma. In short, dogma postdicts (see above comments on postdiction), science predicts. In religion, prediction is useless since ANY possible outcome is predicted by dogma (i.e. - If God can do anything, whatever happens is predicted.) If any possible outcome is possible, then there is NO predictive value. A good example would be the direct statement by Jesus that he would return to earth during the lifetime of those whom he spoke to. Considering that 2000 years have passed since then, this would seem to invalidate Christianity. However, christian dogmatists counter that this statement can be interpreted to mean a return at any time while there are still believers. This best serves to illustrate the complete inability of dogma to claim to predict ANYTHING.

Dogmatists fail to appreciate that this ability to reject a theory when it is rebuked by failed experiment or low prediction rate is a boon for mankind. The ability to reject untruths is vital. Dogma does not offer this at all. More important, theories are not merely answers, they are also tools to GAIN more answers. Dogma is served up to believers as the final word, meant to assuage the mind. If Dogma fails, it can offer no correction, not even a hint of how to next proceed. All that can be done, and all that has been done historically is to quell critical thinking by threat, or to reinterpret new meanings into obtuse old passages that were purposely encoded and intended for people long dead and buried.

While the creator of a theory may have an understandable sense of proprietary towards protecting his theory, science proper does not support invalidated theories, even if they are created by Einstein. (In fact, it would be a physicist's dream to knock him down, just like a young pitcher dreamed of striking out Mickey Mantle) Dogma, on the other hand, is supported to the death, and its advocates are supported, not criticized, by the church. In fact its supporters may become violent when their faith is shook. And any means are considered proper when defending dogma - emotion, introspection, faith, dreams - none of which are objectifiable, falsifiable, experimental, or accepted in any other realm of thought, as Freud pointed out.

...it is precisely those elements which might be of the greatest importance to us and which have the task of solving the riddles of the universe ...that are the least well authenticated of any. We should not be able to bring ourselves to accept anything of so little concern to us as the fact that whales bear young instead of laying eggs, if it were not capable of better proof of this." (43, Future of an Illusion) Nothing can stop believers from bending reality to suit their dogmatic needs - even the possibility of their own awareness of this bias may called into question. Accordingly, personal faith, introspection, or rhetoric can not serve to prove dogma to themselves. And, as Freud notes "Your faith can do nothing for me." When one considers that the dogmatist, in all cases, must originally point to empirical, objectifiable proof - i.e. religious documents, epiphanies or theophanies, (for how else do we come to know anything save through the senses?) the claim that one must accept dogma on faith alone falls to pieces under the heavy weight of hypocrisy. Remember, even Moses needed a burning bush. Why don't theories become laws?

Good question. Let's look at the question considering the theory of evolution, because it is within the context of debating evolutionary theory that this question usually arises. Why isn't evolution called a law, if the evidence for it is so good? Because laws are generalizations that describe phenomena, whereas theories explain phenomena. For example, the laws of thermodynamics describe what will happen under certain circumstances; thermodynamics theories explain why these events occur. Laws, like facts and theories, can change with better data. But theories do not develop into laws with the accumulation of evidence. Rather, theories are the goal of science.

Lastly, consider the origin of the word "theory" It is from the Greek, "theoros", - based on the words "thea" which means a viewing and "oros" which means seeing. Theories have the power to see - dogma only offers us blind acceptance. Theories are self correcting and help us to add new knowledge to the world, dogma only can repeat the past, and if it is in error, then it can only repeat error.

Theories are instruments, not answers to enigmas, in which we can rest. We don't lie back upon them, we move forward, and, on occasion, make nature over by their aid." - William James, Pragmatism, (21) There never comes a point where a theory can be said to be true. The most that one can claim for any theory is that it has shared the successes of all its rivals and that it has passed at least one test which they have failed. A. J. Ayer (1910-89), British philosopher. Philosophy in the Twentieth Century, ch. 4 (1982).

Theory must operate on time at the cost of a deliberate distortion of present reality. Jean Baudrillard (b. 1929) The Ecstasy of Communication, "Why Theory?" (1987).

Now, what in fact does theory mean to us? The place of theory in analysis, if we state it in one word, is that of truth. This does not mean that theory states the truth, but rather that it functions in service of truth. It determines, in us, consciously or unconsciously, a particular mode of analytical action. Juan David Nasio, quoted in Five Lessons on the Psychoanalytical Theory of Jacques Lacan

The wise man regulates his conduct by the theories both of religion and science. But he regards these theories not as statements of ultimate fact but as art-forms. J. B. S. Haldane (1892-1964), British scientist. Closing words of "Science and Theology as Art-Forms" in Possible Worlds and Other Essays (1927).

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