Re: What is a theory? LO3729

Jim Michmerhuizen (
Wed, 15 Nov 1995 22:12:08 +0001 (EST)

Replying to LO3721 --

On Mon, 13 Nov 1995, Michael McMaster wrote:

> Replying to LO3672 --
> Jim says
> > On this analysis, the "theory" cannot be evaluated separately from the
> > process that produces it. (We can distinguish them in discourse and
> > thought, of course, but they do not as it were lead separate lives.)
> The validation of a theory can *only* be evaluated separately from
> the process that produces it - in my operational definition.

Good point. I think my "evaluated" was the wrong word: I was trying to
express _something_ about how a theory might "depend" on its generating
process. Specifically, how in some circumstances the process that
generates a theory also supplies, implicitly, the detailed semantics --
the "referents" for the terms in which the theory is expressed. Where
such a relationship holds -- it often doesn't -- the theory will have only
limited application outside or apart from its generating process.

But of course -- and this is what I ignored, and you pointed out -- to
achieve genuine usefulness, a theory has to be able to "transcend" its
generating process. It has to refer, in a sense, to the rest of the world
too. And thus, as you go on to say:

> The
> validation of a theory is pragmatic. Does it produce better results
> than its alternatives? Einstein became well known (read, paid
> attention to) when he predicted the location of a star during a
> coming eclipse and, in an expedition to South Amerca to test various
> expectations, his was closer than those based on Newtonian and common
> physics definitions (theories) of the times.
> And, Jim, yesterady I was reviewing Plato with my philosopher mentor
> and Plato says of the theories of what will turn out to be referred
> to as his physics and of the physics of others "It is a likely
> story".

That sounds like a reference to the Timaeus. Yeah, I've been struck
myself by how some of the dialogues bear on this thing about 'story'.
First of all, the dialogues themselves _are_, obviously, stories: they are
narratives, dramas, with characters and stage directions, flashbacks,
soliloquys. Some of them contain other stories, nested like chinese
boxes. The Protagoras is a structure worthy of Borges.

Second of all, there are the kinds of explicit references that your mentor
friend was alluding to. One of my own favorites is in fact in the
Protagoras. Near the beginning of the dialog, Protagoras (a famous
travelling sophist) is asked whether virtue can be taught. The question,
of course, comes from Socrates:

"Protagoras, I do not believe that virtue can be taught. But when I hear
you speaking as you do, my skepticism is shaken and I suppose there is
truth in what you say, for I regard you as a man of wide experience, deep
leaning, and original thought. If then you can demonstrate more plainly
to us that virtue is something that can be taught, please don't hoard your
wisdom but explain."

And Protagoras answers: "I shall not be a miser, Socrates. Now shall I,
as an old man speaking to his juniors, put my explanation in the form of a
story, or give it as a reasoned argument?"

Many of the audience answered that he should relate it in whichever form
he pleased.

"Then I think," says Protagoras, "it will be pleasanter to tell you a

And no one objects. Clearly, for that audience, stories could hold
wisdom. Not just hairy old tribal lore, but _rational_ stuff, the kind
that they might have gotten from some real downhome Socratic dialog. If
it comes right down to it, I don't think _I'd_ go that far. But it seems
pretty clear that, in the passage quoted, Plato did.

Now it's true that the alternative Protagoras offers here is not a
Newtonian _Law_. The choice he offers is between a) story, and b)
reasoned argument. But even that is remarkably suggestive, isn't it.

     Jim Michmerhuizen
     web residence at
. . . . There are far *fewer* things in heaven and earth, Horatio,  . . . .
 . . . . .       than are dreamt of in your philosophy...        . . | _ .