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Thursday, July 10, 2008

All Facts Are Theory Laden

As Popper put it.

One commentator objected strongly to this notion in a previous post, so I'm going to give some examples of how important this principle is. In everyday life I think it's true, but we can "bracket" it (i.e., set the problem aside). But in science we do so at great risk. Here are a few "plain" facts as seen by late-nineteenth century science:

1) Motion occurs over a continuum.
2) Energy increases or decreases smoothly with no discontinuities.
3) Objects do not gain or lose mass except that the mass comes from or goes to somewhere else.
4) Measurements of length are stable -- a meter is a meter is a meter, in whatever circumstances we do the measurement.

Well, folks, every single one of these "facts" turned out to be false. That is, they turned out to be theories.

19 comments:

  1. Gene,

    The way I see things, I was born with five senses. Using the brain, I also was born with, I categorize things. I take all this as a piori.

    I see an apple. To me that the apple exists, as an apple, is a fact, given that my categorization system of senses fits the categorization slot I have set aside for apples. Note, I tend to set my categorization slots to be similar to how others categorize things for ease of communication with others.

    If something meets the sense factors that I have set up for an apple. To me, it's an apple. No theory involved. Now if I am hungry and a friend tells me there is an apple over yonder, and from a distance I see a bright red object on the ground, I may say "Hey, it's an apple." And head over to eat it only to find it is a red cap.

    My intial categorization was in error. My senses were not fully detecting the true facts of the situation.

    Can you say, I had a theory that there was an apple over yonder, yes. But once we leap from a situation where my senses are not fully engaged to a situation where my senses are completely 100% correctly sensing an object and categorizing it, then how I categorize it is not a theory it is a fact.

    100% accurate sensory detecton of an object takes it from the world of theory to the world of fact.

    A second quick example, based on limited sensory data, scientists recently believe they have found ice on mars. This is a theory. If they were able to send an Eskimo up to Mars to detremine if that is ice up there, he may get up there and say yes this is ice, AND ASSUMING that all his sensory data is 100% detecting what ice is categorized as, then it is a fact.


    Note: It may be possible to believe that I am 100% correct about an object, and thus think something is a fact, but I may be in error.

    Thus are there facts, that I am 100% sure of, and that are also facts, absoultely. Are there cases where I beliieve something is a fact and is not such, absouletly.

    But, the matter of whether something is a specific fact based on my categorization system, is outside of me.

    If I want to set up a categorization system that says anything red is an apple, then, outside of me, anything red is an apple. If I, however, for some reason believe blue blueberries are red and classify them as apples, then I am in error, since however reached, my blueberries are apples conclusion, is false.It was a theory based on incomplete or incorrect sensory data from me.

    So to me a theory is an opinion of what a fact is when all necessary sensory data is not available for consideraton. A fact is when 100% sensory data confirms a categorization.

    The danger comes in when we believe we have 100% sensory data for categorizaton to call something a fact, when we don't.

    Are all facts theory laden, no. Bad "facts" are theory laden.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I think you are clinging to a molecule of the initial position, RW. (I can't remember if you're the guy from the other thread.)

    All you've really proven is Descartes' point, which is fine as far as it goes. Really all you can say is, "In terms of my experience of the outside world, when my eye perceives red, then it is a fact that my eye perceives red."

    Anything you say that is not logically deducible from that--which would include the claim "I am seeing an apple"--is a theory that might turn out to be false.

    Under your approach, it seems that you are carrying around a lot of "I'm pretty sure this is a fact" pieces of knowledge. Fine; Gene happens to define that as "a theory in which I am confident."

    ReplyDelete
  3. Yeah,it was me on the other thread.

    Under your approach, it seems that you are carrying around a lot of "I'm pretty sure this is a fact" pieces of knowledge.

    I can almost go along with this.

    If I see what is actuality an apple, with my senses and I 100% believe it is an apple, then I do not believe I am theorizing. I believe I have correctly categorized an object. I do not think it is theory, to me it is a fact--if proves incorrect, it is to me then an incorrect theory with my reading my of the senses of the situation wrong somehow.

    On the other hand, I, for example, hold a theory that Keynes and Bernard Baruch, for personal benefit got FDR to manipulate the gold price higher. This may be a fact, i.e., this may have occured. But, I don't have enough information to call it a fact, rather I say "I have a theory" which to me is saying I don't have all the data, but with the data I do have I believe the 100% data will lead to this conclusion.

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  4. "I see an apple. To me that the apple exists, as an apple, is a fact..."

    Robert, I don't want to contend that your senses are not contacting reality. Nevertheless, when you designate what they have contacted as "an apple," you are forwarding a theory -- a theory that, somehow, despite all their different shapes, sizes, chemical compositions, and so on, all of the unique fruits you call "apples" share some crucial properties that justify you gathering them all under one umbrella. Clearly, to call something you see "an apple" involves a theory of what individual entities should so be designated.

    ReplyDelete
  5. "But once we leap from a situation where my senses are not fully engaged to a situation where my senses are completely 100% correctly sensing an object and categorizing it, then how I categorize it is not a theory it is a fact."

    No, Robert, your "senses" cannot "categorize" an object -- in fact, it is nonsense to hold that there is any such thing as "bare" sense impressions, but even if there were, they certainly do not "categorize" anything. To place something in a category is to employ a theory of categorization.

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  6. Gene,

    Maybe RW is worried that you are denying objective truth. So to be clear, you admit that there are facts about the universe, right?

    Your point is merely that people who think, "We go out and collect a bunch of facts, and then come up with the theory that best integrates them" is naive.

    ReplyDelete
  7. In 1500, it was a fact that there were 7 planets: the Sun, the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. In 1700, it was a fact that there were six: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. In 1960, there were nine: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. But in 2008, there are only eight planets! Pluto itself did not change when it stopped being a planet, and it was really there the whole time before it was discovered, but "the facts" about Pluto depend on our theories. Similarly, it was the fact that whales were fish in 1000 CE and it is the fact that they are mammals now. Neither designation is wrong -- they are just different theories. Theories change the facts.

    ReplyDelete
  8. "100% accurate sensory detection of an object takes it from the world of theory to the world of fact."

    Notice, Robert, that this is a theory which you are relying on for your facts -- and, in fact, it is a false theory. For instance, our senses tell us that we live in a world of continuous motion, but both reason (Zeno's paradox) and physics (quantum mechanics) tell us this is not so. Your theory, that the senses working properly yield unassailable truths about the world, is incorrect.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Gentlemen,

    Intersting discussion.

    I am going to end my participaton in this particular thread with this comment:

    If I ever fnd myself charged with a crime and, thus, a defendant in a jury trial, I am going to demand Gene is on the jury. I can only imagine what his defintion of 'resonable doubt is'.

    ReplyDelete
  10. RW said:

    I am going to end my participaton in this particular thread...

    Crash Landing 1, Wenzel 0.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Crash Landing 1, Wenzel 0.

    I guess you guy are right, you aren't dealng in facts.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Here's a fact, not a theory: Robert said he was done posting on this thread, but here he is, posting again!

    ReplyDelete
  13. I realize you're kidding Gene, but just so as not to confuse RW: It's just a theory that he violated his pledge. (For example, maybe I hacked into his account and posted that comment.)

    ReplyDelete
  14. Yes, thank you Bob.

    I was at the beach with a super model (sans laptop) at the time said post was made. It is clearly a FACT and not THEORY that it wasn't me who made that post, or this one.

    ReplyDelete
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