My Theory About Theory

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.

 

Is knowledge for knowledge’s sake to be our undoing?

“You humans are too clever for your own good,” Indy, a grey tiger catIndy announced one day as he casually batted at a motorized ball. The ball was hollow, with a battery-powered motor mounted off-center inside, causing it to roll along the floor in a kind of wobble that Indy just adored to chase. He had just finished wearing himself out and his heart wasn’t into chasing any more.

“What, because we created a wobbling ball?” I asked.

“Well, no, I like the ball,” he admitted, “but you have a history of inventing yourselves into a corner. Your physicists decide something is doable, then your engineers set out to prove the physicists right. They come up with a working application for it and show how it can be used for the good of mankind, but some aggressive person figures out how to use it for less honorable purposes.”

“You’re not going on about pressure cookers again, are you?” Indy had been peeved over how someone would take something so fundamental in the production of tasty morsels and turn it into a weapon of mass destruction, as terrorists so effectively demonstrated so infamously at the Boston Marathon.

“No, well, yes, but no, I wasn’t thinking of that. Take atomic energy, for instance. How clever of you to imagine a new energy source, figure out how to tap it, then twist it into a bomb. I can’t wait to see how your famous military minds figure out how to weaponize solar energy.”

“Is that what you’re worrying about?” I asked, deciding not to touch on the many discussions of solar power satellites and how they could be misused.

“No, I’m thinking about 3D printing (via Wikipedia). Such a clever application that might usher in a new era in industry and turn the commercial world on its ear. Imagine a future where you don’t buy a new frying pan, but simply print a new one in the kitchen.”

“Yeah, I admit that’s kind of cool. Sculpture would become a new kind of art. But 3D printers are a bit expensive, aren’t they?”

“Oh, sure, but so were computers, and now look at them.” Indy had a point. “Wired had an article a few months back about how close we are getting to having 3D printers for the home. And a well-meaning engineer has already figured out what was inevitable. He used a 3D printer to create a $25 gun made with 3D printing (video from Forbes). Like you don’t have enough guns in the world.”

“And that bothers you…”

“Oh yeah! I don’t know a single cat who is in favor of guns. I don’t care what laws you talk about. How long to you think it will be before anyone can arm himself with a gun, given a recipe and a common 3D printer?”

“Kinda makes the debates over gun control moot, doesn’t it?”

“Makes me glad I’m an indoor cat,” he replied, “Maybe someone will think of a way to make a Kevlar vest in my size.”