Not too long ago, I briefly entered into a discussion about the term theory and how I thought it was being abused. The inspiring subject was a comparison between the much beloved Big Bang theory and an upstart idea from two scientists that the Big Bang didn’t happen – that the universe has always been here.
I reminded readers and commentators that the Big Bang was just a theory, not a hypothesis, and as such was not actual fact. Given this, fans of the theory shouldn’t be in an uproar when researchers propose something that might be a better fit.
But as I was preparing to write this piece, to ramble on about how so many scientists have latched on theories with such gusto that they might as well be fact, I found my layman’s preconception about theories needed updating, themselves. Leave it to scientists to take perfectly reasonable terminology and mangle it to a form that would leave linguists arguing for years.
All anyone can agree with is that theories can change – they aren’t immutable. But a theory to a philosopher is not the same as a theory to a physicist and, like so many terms, what is meant depends entirely on context. To a philosopher, a theory is an idea, or maybe collected ideas, proven or not, that form a framework or model of reality. To a physicist, a theory is a framework consisting of collected postulates (or basic suppositions serving as starting points), for use in preparing experimental predictions. Similar, but with entirely different purposes. When one pokes holes in a theory, the action might be received differently by different schools of thought.
There is one related term, though, that makes the concept interesting. The word theoretical. Found at the end of Wikipedia’s listing for “Theory,” their definition of theoretical tells us “acceptance of a theory does not require that all of its major predictions be tested, if it is already supported by sufficiently strong evidence.” So, depending entirely on an entirely subjective determination of evidential strength, a theory may be allowed for all intents and purposes to be treated as fact.
It may actually be that this is where the religious and the atheists collide. That neither side is willing to grant evidential strength to the other side’s theories. Both sides have terminology to hide behind, but what it really comes down to is stubbornness. I can’t solve a societal problem that’s thousands of years old, but until both sides are willing to accept the other has a possible theory, there will be no effort to reconcile those theories that would be acceptable to either side.
I find that to be such a shame.