Tesugen

Unscientific theories

A while back I thought about something that I called metaphorical abstraction. It was about abstracting things as metaphors, to get rid of their complexity.

In this context I mentioned feng shui and how I felt that it labels things as, for instance, possessing negative energy, because it’s a convenient and meaningful way of pointing out bad things in the way your home is furnished, instead of going into the complex details of what’s really the problem (which probably is impossible anyway).

So: hide that complexity behind a meaningful, working metaphor. Metaphorical abstraction.

Today I realized that scientific theories really are metaphorical abstractions. A scientific theory is an attempt at describing some phenomenon, which has been subjected to several experiments to see whether the theory seems to hold.

You can only prove a theory wrong, not prove that it’s correct: there might still be some experiment that nobody has thought of, which would invalidate the theory. If enough tests of the theory have been made, all successful, and by different people, trying to reproduce other people’s tests, the theory is considered as proven—or in other words, considered as unlikely to be proven wrong.

Theories that work for people, but that haven’t been subjected to formal tests, might be called unscientific theories. What’s important is that they work and that they are meaningful.

When I’m sick and I say that I got sick by not having enough clothes on, some people remark that what’s actually happened is that my immune system has been weakened and that I’ve been exposed to a virus. “Put on some clothes or you’ll get a cold” is a metaphoric abstraction (ever since the scientific theory about how exposure to low temperatures makes you sick was proven wrong, I bet).

Scientifically proven (quote-unquote) theories are no doubt very important, but what I think is interesting is how we, individually as well as collectively, form theories about the world around us, and what characteristics those theories have that are to the greatest benefit to us. In a sense, we constantly expose our theories to tests, each time they are retrieved and put to use.

Know of any books about this? Please let me know.

The above was posted to my personal weblog on July 28, 2003. My name is Peter Lindberg and I am a thirtysomething software developer and dad living in Stockholm, Sweden. Here, you’ll find posts in English and Swedish about whatever happens to interest me for the moment.

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