Re: What is a theory? LO3693

Michael McMaster (
Sun, 12 Nov 1995 15:06:32 +0000

Replying to LO3659 --

John says some interesting things and asks even more interesting
questions about theories. I consider this conversation crucial to
our work because the whole are is so neglected - not say rebelled
against - in business generally.

> One question I have is what is a theory?

I think there are at least two useful operational distinctions to
make here. One is consistent with the mathematical use that John
presents. This has the rigour and structure for experiment and
usefulness. The second stems from the first but makes it available
to everyone. I use the operational definition as "an explicit set of
propositions that can be tested against experience". Hence anyone
can have - and, more importantly, share - a theory about anything and
its only use will be pragmatic and its test one of experience.

> In mathematics, a theory consists of a set of axioms, and rules of
> inference.

> Each of these descriptions sound similar in some respects, however, the
> people who have suggested these various descriptions refuse to accept that
> the mathematical definition of axioms and inference covers all other
> descriptions - unfortunately they haven't been able to articulate to me
> WHY they're different.

I think the difference that doesn't want to be articulated is the
avoidance of rigour that the "sloppy" definitions allow.

> The second question I have is how do we construct new theories?

> Learning (to me) is all about the construction of new theories to deal
> with situations in the real world. These new theories are often
> constructed as a result of invalidating assumptions in existing theories.
> For example, Einstein's theory of relativity arose by firstly invalidating
> the assumption that the speed of light was constant as assumed by
> Newtonian physics.

I have just put down a book "Einstein: Philosopher Scientist" where
he is talking about theory. He differs with your interpretation of
invalidating assumptions. What he says is "conceptual systems are
logically entirely arbitrary" and "the relations between the
concepts and propositions among themselves are of a logical nature".
He is saying that he did not "invalidate assumptions" but that there
are only made-up constructs and, when the ones that existing physics
provided didn't work, he made up new ones. Having said that, it may
often be a useful tool to "invalidate assumptions" to begin a
rethinking process.

> Questions here include:
> - what are the "generic" components of theories
> - how do we reuse these components across theories
> - how do we know whether we can/cannot use these components (i.e. the scope
> or context of a component)

John Holland's recent book "Hidden Order" says quite a bit about this
at a level below theories. He uses complex adaptive systems work or
genetic algorithms to create sub-hypotheses and have these recombine
and compete for generation of new rather than mere maintenance of the
old. Whether or not the result is produced, it's a useful way to
break up our attachment to a scientific logic that is merely an
inheritence from a bunch of very ancient Greeks.

> In organisations, I see strategic planning as being one mechanism for
> developing new theories. The question I have is what is more important,
> the theory developed, or the analysis that produces the theory?

The above thinking dramatically changes the nature of strategic
thinking. (I think strategic planning is a non-sequiter.) Einstein
has something relevant to say abou this as well. "A theory can be
tested by experience, but there is no way from experience to the
setting up of a theory."

Strategy becomes a matter of deciding the questions to ask and then
creating structures from information will emerge, from which theories
will emerge, and organisations which are consistent with the
questions and the responses.

Michael McMaster