Science and Its Limits and the Relationship Between the Theoretical and the Mechanical

At the suggestion of @swamidass I’m going to post portions of the book Science and Its Limits here that will hopefully help everyone get on the same page in regards to what I’ve been trying to express in my previous posts. I’m about half way through the book and so far have gleaned some portions that I think will be helpful in this regard. So I’ll start with this post about how to define theory and let others comment as to what they think about it generally and specifically about the two definitions being offered.

Theories and Models
Preceding discussion has touched on scientific theories, but the term theory has not been explicitly defined. As with science there is no universally subscribed definition of theory, although most conceptions of what a theory is cluster together rather closely. For present purposes we will use the term theory to refer to a network of propositions, some of which involve theoretical concepts, which (ideally) provides a systematic, rigorous account of some portion of the natural realm. A theoretical scientific concept we will take to be a concept that has application, if at all, to physical entities, processes or events not directly observable.
One relatively popular view is that a theory consists of a formal calculus (a set of equations), interpretation of the calculus (providing the meanings and the empirical significance of the symbols used in the equations) and a set of empirical laws (the empirical consequences deducible from the equations as interpreted). Competing with that view is one which stipulates that a theory is not complete without a conceptual model that allows us to intuitively visualize the entities, events and processes to which the other components of the theory refer. This visualization is taken to be crucial since it is, on this second view, only through that visualization that we can in any sense be said to understand what the theory describes. That understanding usually involves being able to construe the unseen, theoretical matters in terms of things with which we are already familiar. It is a reduction to the familiar.

Is that all the views he lists out? Do you agree with his definition? What book are you referring to and what page number?

Is this the excellent book by Del Ratzsch?


Hey, it’s the book you yourself suggested he read.

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That’s the only ones I’ve come across.

I’m not completely sure. It depends a bit on if I’m understanding it correctly or not. That’s why I want to see how others understand it.

Science and It’s Limits Page 74. Sorry, I got mixed up on the title. I’ll fix that now.

Yes. I’m asking to write a clearer OP so other people can follow along.

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I assume you’re referring to the last post I made. After what I’ve read in the book I can see there are some things I need to change. I could just make some corrections to make things more clear, or do a whole new post. What would you suggest?

Try editing the first post in the thread. A good OP frames and scopes the conversation with interesting information and a good invitation. Once you have a reasonable OP, we can move these posts into a different thread.

Perhaps try and focus in on a question that will provoke interesting conversation. Perhaps look up some additional information, such as definitions of “theory” used by others, to compare and contrast. With the rig information and scope, there can be a good conversation.

For example, look at: Does Science Work by Falsifiability?

It also isn’t clear what you mean by “mechanical”.

That is, thankfully, off topic. Perhaps put that on a different thread to avoid detailing @jim’s attempt to start a focused conversation.

It’s in his title. Surely the meaning of the title is on-topic.

Yeah. We just asked for a clearer OP. He should certainly remove “mechanical”

Sorry I wasn’t clear. In my comment above I was referring to the last thread I opened.

Actually this is the first time I’ve discovered a definition of theory that was not overly ambiguous, nor overly complicated. And believe me I’ve looked many times. Do you have any suggestions of where I might find more of the type of definition I’m looking for? Also I think it depends on the field of study. This seems to be more of a definition that would be conducive to physics which is in line with the issues I’m raising. So sticking with a definition tailored to physics is probably what is best for my purposes.

How about “formal calculas” instead of mechanical? I could also add concepts to theoretical to make it more specific?

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But it’s not really a definition. It’s a discussion of a few of the ways that the word ‘theory’ is used in the context of science. I like the discussion but it is not a singular definition of ‘theory’ and was clearly not meant to be that.

Peter Godfrey-Smith?

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I’m not looking for a singular definition. I’m looking for a general definition. If I was trying to prove a theory then I would need a singular definition. But that’s not the case. All I’m really trying to do is get everyone on the same page. It’s not really that complicated.

Maybe a better starting point is to ask if it would be correct to say that a theory in physics is composed of two fairly recognizable components, the mechanical formulas that describe the behavior of matter, i.e., formal calculus, and the conceptual framework associated with the formal calculus, i.e., the theoretical concept. Any objections to that for a starting point as a general definition of a theory in physics?

No instances of define or definition in a word search of his book Theory and Reality. Pretty unlikely to find something without more specific information.


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Yes, I responded on the wrong thread. Sorry :slight_smile:

I have no idea. I doubt that even physicists are that precise, in general, when using the word ‘theory.’ But I don’t know.

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Because I have some idea what “mechanical” means, even if you apparently mean something different, but I have no idea what “formal calculas” means. Apparently by “formal calculus” you mean “mathematical formulas”?

OK. Let me clarify again. I’m talking about mechanics in physics, so yes that is what I assumed the author of Science and Its Limits had in mind, mathematical formulas.