Philosophy of Science  > scientific theory

This section pertains to a small-but-important part of philosophy of science: What is a good scientific theory and how can the evolution of good theory be improved? Is a scientific theory good if it agrees with all experimental evidence and accurately predicts phenomena? Such a theory is very useful for applied science and in other ways. But it can have harmful effects if it causes misunderstandings of nature. Such misunderstandings have occurred in the past, and modern physics theory probably includes fundamental misunderstandings of nature. We will consider how misunderstandings of nature occur and what can be done to try to avoid them.

Misleading scientific theory

"Scientific theory" is defined as follows by the Princeton University WordNet.
(n) scientific theory: a theory that explains scientific observations
(scientific theories must be falsifiable)

Wikipedia provides a more specific definition.
A scientific theory is "a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world, based on a body of facts that have been repeatedly confirmed through observation and experiment."

Although both definitions state that scientific theories must be able to explain scientific observations, this essay suggests that plausible scientific theories need to meet other criteria as well, and that the plausibilities of scientific theories cover a wide range.

For about 1500 years, Ptolemy's geocentric theory of the universe was of great value in one respect because it could accurately predict the positions of heavenly bodies and the times and locations of eclipses and other celestial events. The agreement between the theory's mathematics and the observed phenomena appeared to be strong evidence that the Ptolemaic model was an accurate representation of nature. The theory was a good scientific theory consistent with the above definitions. It was consistent with the evidence of the sun and other heavenly bodies moving around Earth. It was complementary with the belief that heavenly bodies were comprised of heavenly matter which, unlike Earthly matter that falls to Earth, had an innate tendency to move in circular paths in the heavens. Although this geocentric model appeared to explain scientific observations, was useful, and satisfied people's desire to understand the cosmos, it was also a very misleading model of nature that deterred the advancement of better theories. It contributed to Earth-centered myths and slowed the advancement of human understanding of nature.

Certainly the advancement of human understanding of nature has been the main reason for the advancement of our civilization and quality of life over thousands of years. Ptolemaic theory played an important role in this advancement, and we can learn from this theory. We learn that mathematical models of nature that make accurate predictions and appear to explain observations are not necessarily accurate representations of nature. They may actually be very misleading representations that cause people to think incorrectly.

The website shows that relativity theory is probably a modern counterpart of Ptolemy's theory because relativity theory is probably based on misleading evidence that results in a fundamental misunderstanding of nature. Surely this claim sounds preposterous to readers who are unfamiliar with the quantum medium view (a.k.a. qm view) and who do not understand its agreement with the related observed phenomena. The qm view website permits an understanding of the qm view sufficient to determine that its equations predict exactly the same observed virtual phenomena that special relativity theory predicts, as well as the real absolute phenomena responsible for the virtual phenomena. The equations also predict the same observed phenomena that general relativity predicts, except they do not predict the singularities of black holes or the possibility of traveling back in time to change history.

The qm view and relativity theory are mutually exclusive theories based on fundamentally different assumptions and they have fundamentally different conclusions. Therefore, at least one of the theories is a flawed and misleading theory. This is probably just one of many cases where it would be helpful to be able to assess a theory's plausibility. We will try to identify characteristics that plausible scientific theories need to have so we can distinguish them from implausible theories. Perhaps it is possible to identify implausible theories like Ptolemaic theory without having to rely only on finding disagreements between theory and observed phenomena, which can take decades - - and actually took over a millennium in the case of Ptolemaic theory. The following is a list of possible characteristics that contribute to a theory's plausibility.

Characteristics of plausible scientific theory

Agreement with all experimental evidence and other observations
To begin with, a plausible theory must agree with the observed scientific evidence. A theory with this characteristic can be very useful for predicting phenomena, and in this sense it is a good theory. Ptolemaic theory was a good theory for predicting observations.

Variety of phenomena with which the theory agrees
Theories that agree with a wide variety of important kinds of phenomena are probably more likely to be accurate representations of nature than theories that only pertain to a single phenomenon or to a narrow range of circumstances. Certainly there is more opportunity for a theory to be falsified if it applies to many phenomena. This characteristic of a theory is less important than the adjacent criteria.

Ability to explain logical physical causes for the phenomena it predicts
Plausible theories should be able to explain the causes of the phenomena they predict. The more kinds of phenomena a theory can predict, and the more it can explain the phenomena in terms of logical physical causes, the better. Newton's laws are mathematical relationships and statements that have been of great value because they accurately describe/predict a variety of important observed phenomena. Newton recognized that the mathematics and statements did not explain the causes of the phenomena. (The qm view provides an explanation that is consistent with Newton's assumptions and laws.)

A commonly suggested criterion is simplicity. Of course simplicity is desirable if a theory can be made simple. Copernican theory is not simple because it involves complex phenomena. Planet orbits are elliptical, not circular as Copernicus thought, and the orbits all differ in their ellipticity. Widespread acceptance of the theory was slowed because the theory raised questions that could not be answered. For example, what keeps the planets on their orbits? The answer is complex. Kepler helped answer the question 50 years after Copernicus introduced the theory, and Newton added to the explanation and complexity 100 years later. We still do not have a complete answer.

Consilience with related plausible theory
A theory that is consistent with existing, plausible, scientific theory is more likely to be a plausible theory. (The qm view is consistent with the assumptions and conclusions of all Newtonian and Galilean physics. It is an expansion of "classical physics.")

Sound Assumptions
Certainly, good theories need to rest on sound assumptions. (The constant light speed, c, assumption of relativity theory is questionable because there has been no plausible explanation for the speed of a photon being constant relative to all observers who are in constant‐velocity motion relative to one another. It is also questionable because the qm view explains why constant light speed, c, is a complex illusion.)

Logical Conclusions
Good theories should result in logical conclusions. (Relativity theory leads to the conclusion that absolute standards of time, distance, and mass in our universe are impossible because observers moving relative to one another cannot agree on observed times, distances, and masses. In the qm view, all the observers can have the same absolute standards of time, distance, and mass, and their observations agree with one another.)

Current need for good Philosophy of Science

Any theory that meets the first criterion above could be a good, useful scientific theory that also causes incorrect thinking and ignorance about nature. Ptolemaic theory is an example. Had the above criteria been used to assess the plausibility of Ptolemy's theory over the centuries of its prominence, they might have encouraged the search for a better theory and hastened its acceptance. Perhaps satisfaction with Ptolemy's theory due to its usefulness made people less inclined to question the theory.

Possibly, satisfaction with modern physics theory overrides any concerns that the theories may be causing misleading ideas about nature. There appears to be little concern in the physics community that current orthodox theory cannot explain so much important observed phenomena such as photons that appear to be both particles and waves and appear to have the same speed, c, relative to all sources and observers of the photons. There does not seem to be much concern that physics theory might be going down roads into imagined realities. How realistic is theory that says it is possible to go back in time and change history? Is a theory realistic that permits people and other systems of mass/energy to exist in more than one universe? The tendency to overlook or accommodate the implausible aspects of our theories and beliefs probably slows the advancement of science and human awareness. Certainly, science that does not try to accurately assess the plausibilities of its theories is less scientific than science that tries.

Surely, an objective of science should be to improve the advancement of our understanding of nature. If the plausibilities of all our scientific theories were to be assessed according to an agreed on list of criteria, this would indicate for scientists and those supporting science research where there is room for improving our theories. It would also indicate for the general public which theories are more plausible and which are less plausible. It would probably lead to better public understanding of science and the scientific process, which impacts all our lives and should be applied more in other areas of society.

Encouraging good Philosophy of Science

It is hard to understand why the eminent physicist, Richard Feynman, would say, "Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds." It is understandable that people busy with experimental and theoretical physics could think that philosophy has little practical value in their work. And perhaps it has little short-term, practical value in applied physics or for physics professors and students trying to teach and learn what is known.

Physics is certainly of great practical value with or without philosophy of science. But isn't it of greater value with good philosophy of science? It helps us realize the uncertainties of our theories and knowledge (which students should also be taught). It helps us keep aware of Newton's "great ocean of truth," which still lies mostly undiscovered before us. It helps realize how much more our understanding of nature can be improved by good science.

Science has been a powerful evidence-based technique that resulted in great improvements in human abilities and knowledge over many centuries. It helped people by solving many of nature's mysteries and making life more understandable and controllable. Much of the improvement in the past was due to people's curiosity and skepticism of conventional wisdom. As the advancement of science and scientific theories continues, good philosophy of science can help improve the plausibilities of our theories of nature. Presumably Feynman and most other scientists would agree.

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