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Theory: Tested Hypothesis
Theory is the highest form of knowledge
a sentient creature can aspire to.

To the man in the street, theory is an untested idea: lame-brained, more likely than not. In science, theory is the highest epistemological state rational man can reach. Theory is cybernetic, always being refined, occasionally revolutionized. So long as disproof is diligently and honestly sought, theory zeroes in toward the truth. Yes, I say “toward.” Zeno’s paradox holds in this case: you can never actually get there. Neither do you need to. Approximate is more than good enough. Deceiving yourself about the possibilities of exactness is less than good enough. If we keep it up, I fear it will be catastrophic.

There’s a mistake right there. I leave it as humor. Zeno’s paradox does not apply. It’s rather the case that knowledge and truth are of different logical types. The truth is the set of events in space/time; knowledge is our description(s) [see Thinking as Mental Modeling (posted at pkTools 2009 May 23)] of patterns that we see there. The first is territory: the second is map; the map can never be the territory (unless you’re Steven Wright: on his map “one mile equals one mile. …. I live at E-4.”

As Gregory Bateson argues, a theory can never be “proved.” The best it can do is be in accord with all known evidence. What conflicting evidence or better hypothesis may appear tomorrow no one can know.

A couple of years ago I sat in on a friend’s class at the local community college. “But that’s just theory,” a woman complained. My line above, “theory is the highest epistemological state rational man can reach,” adds only the word “rational” to my response. No one wanted to hear that. I failed to sense understanding even from the professor. No. We want the Truth. We want it easy. Predigested. Delivered down our throats by indefatigable parents who never expect us to grow up and let them get on with their own feeding.


The man in the street’s “theory” is the scientist’s “hypothesis.” An hypothesis is an idea which hasn’t yet been tested or is only initially being tested.

thanx ucr

Isaac Asimov gave a good example. I paraphrase. A man stands in his yard. He has the crazy idea that if he starts walking in a net-straight line, he’ll eventually return to his starting point: from the other direction! Talk about lame-brain! That’s as far from common sense as you can get. But were he able to do so, swimming, climbing, crawling as necessary, somehow sustaining himself and correcting for deflections, he will indeed rearrive at his yard and from the other “direction.” His hypothesis graduates to theory: traveling over the surface of the planet, the result is the same (almost) as if the earth were spherical!

Now the new theory has to be tested further. One example in its favor is merely a start. Others have to be allowed, even challenged, to do the same. Still the man (and his new colleagues) need to stretch their imaginations afresh, looking for disproof. The theory becomes comfortable once other tests show the same conclusions: send a rocket away from the earth and take a photograph. There, it’s curved. Supporting evidence. Go half-way to the moon. There: it’s oblately spheroid. (Actually, if you thought it was a sphere, that corrects your hypothesis, improves your theory.)

The theory is now as solid as you could wish. Still it is not “proved.” It’s still based on a whole stack of assumptions not provable. Perhaps some demon put you into a trance where you only believed that you had traveled over the surface. The same or other demons could have deceived your colleagues in their tests. Maybe God doctored the photographs from space. Maybe the astronauts too were deceived. Even science is based on faith: a faith that evidence and reason can be trusted. And that if you can’t detect the demon, maybe there is no demon.

2012 02 05 A dozen years after I posted the above I find this good simple summary online: Theory / Hypothesis.
2013 07 23 And today’s link added above to is excellent.

I’ve been enjoying materials from a few other web sites recently where theory is occasionally discussed. and are examples. Jay Hanson’s Brain Food newsletter from inspired an addition to this module which I now wish to expand. So I’ll move that material to a new module.

This needs to bud and bud again, even before I’ve returned to do a better job with any part of it: theory especially. In particular I shall make separate files for theory and for hypothesis. Then I’ll split a file from Hypothesis exampling an untested theory of my own: Budget: an asymmetrical flow: though diagnosis influences budget, once budgeted the budget will influence the diagnosis far more than the symptoms will determine the diagnosis and influence the budget.

Diagnosis < — — — — > Budget
institutional structure, executive flow chart

My hypothesis is as yet untested because I just thought of it this hour. Yet, if I didn’t believe evidence would be easy to find (and unnecessary to manufacture), I wouldn’t (I hope) have both thought of it and taken it seriously enough to jot here.

Were my hypothesis tested, and were a preponderance of evidence found to support it, it would promote to Theory.

All such promotions are temporary, provisional, subject to further review, analysis, new information. (Unfortunately, mis- and dis-information can also be new.)

I’ve just mentioned elsewhere but must repeat here, state-run NASA has just been caught censoring its scientists, instructing them to stroke the public’s confusion about theory by emphasizing that evolution is “just a theory.” Is science possible under a government? Governments butter their bread with superstition, with fear, with ignorance.

One thing seems clear: big science is possible only with government. But then the big scientists get treated like school children. Oh well: they asked for it.
@K. 2001 03 28


Delivered: Straight lines
Yeah, we want a greased shot straight onto God’s lap. But God may not have a lap. Neither is a straight line what so many of us have been told. (Actually, a “straight line” is what ever you define it to be.) Mathematicians change their definitions. Some schools start catching up within mere years; others not for decades: perhaps not for centuries.
Bucky Fuller told a small group of us, “‘A straight line is the shortest distance between two points’ … and the shortest distance between two points is a zigzag.” He waited for the jaws to drop. “Think of a lightning bolt. It’s in a hurry to neutralize its charge. Do you think nature would choose an inefficient path?”

Paraphrase: the limits of pk’s accuracy
I work the best I can without adequate reference to a library. That includes my own, the better part of which is, and has been for years, jumbled three deep in a shed intended to house my friend’s tools. Before my most recent disasters, I had half of it organized on shelves in a non-waterproof Florida room. Many of those are now so mildewed they can’t be opened let alone read.
I can’t be sure I own the Asimov I refer to and wouldn’t spare the time to search its pages if it were here on my desk. A paraphrase is better in an emergency. Whether we have twenty days or twenty decades to go before we have to pay the ultimate price for our foolishness I can’t know. But the emergency is now. If it’s not too late already. If it is, then it doesn’t matter what any of us do. I still chose to do the same thing: amuse myself — as though it could help us.
By the way, I hear that Auerbach wrote his Mimesis in prison without any reference to books. Yet it’s dense with quotes. All from his head.

K. Teaching Thinking Tools Reason

About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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