All theories are created equally worthless

[From Bill Powers (960223.0300 MST)]

REMI COTE 960222.0000 EST --

     Me: In my Bible, all theories are created equal, until they are
     falcified.

I agree. All theories begin the same way, as a story about nature that
we make up out of our imaginations -- a story that _might_ be true, if
nature is arranged as we imagined it to be arranged. At this stage, all
theories are created equal: they are equally worthless.

From all the stories about nature that we might create, how do we pick

the ones we end up believing? Here, I think that you and I diverge. But
since you haven't discussed this, I will just talk about two approaches
to theories, without assuming that you take either one.

My approach is very simple: If a theory proposes that something is true,
I will accept it when I have a way to test it to see if the proposal is
probably true. For example, Aristotle had a theory that men have more
teeth than women. At the time he proposed this theory, it was worth
exactly as much as any other untested theory: nothing. Somebody else
might have proposed that women had more teeth than men. Same thing. In
either case, I would want to test the theory before accepting it even
provisionally.

So how do we test this kind of theory? We look at men's teeth and
women's teeth. What we find, most of the time, is that men and women
have the same number of teeth if we count holes where teeth once
existed. So in just such an easy way, we show that Aristotle's theory is
wrong. It is no longer equal to other theories. It is particularly not
equal to the theory that men and women almost always have the same
number of teeth.

But this way of falsifying a theory is not accepted by many people. It
might have been argued in Aristotle's time (and probably was) that men
necessarily have more teeth than women, because men are superior to
women, and being the providers of food and safety, require more teeth in
order to be effective. It will do us no good to look into their mouths,
because our perceptions are fallible, and there can be many accidents of
nature that can cause teeth to be missing in both men and women. Also,
as we know, people tend to get confused in counting objects when the
number gets much greater than seven or eight, so if a person is
unconsciously trying to prove that men and women have the same number of
teeth, a miscount is very likely. Observation is unreliable; it is
better to argue from universal principles, because pure reason will
reveal the hidden truth much more reliably than gross observation can.
There are modern people who evidently still believe this.

Once this approach to theories is established, imagination takes the
place of observation. Now we are free to propose facts that have never
been observed, and even facts that _can_ never be observed. We can talk
about what our remote ancestors thought, did, and said, even though
there is no record of those things. We do this simply by imagining what
they _must_ have thought, done, and said if our theory is true. Of
course we never imagine anything that would make the theory false: the
whole point is to construct a story about the past that is consistent
with the theory we have already decided to believe, so we can then use
that story to add support to our theory. The fact that we made up this
story _in order to_ lend support to the theory is easily and happily
forgotten.

In 1437, Cenino Cennini wrote a book, "Il libro dell' arte," instructing
painters in their art. Chapter LXXX is titled "The proportions which a
perfectly formed man's body should possess." Included is this passage:

     A man is as long as his arms crosswise. The arms, including the
     hands, reach to the middle of the thighs. The whole man is eight
     faces and two of the three measures in length. A man has one less
     breast rib than a woman, on the left side.

Clearly, there is a theory here which is being supported by a made-up
fact that Cennini believed because he had to believe the theory was
true. The theory is that of how Woman was created. The Bible does not (I
think) say that men have one less rib than women, but it does say that
one rib was removed from Adam in order to make Eve. If one believes this
theory, it becomes necessary to imagine that men, ever since, have had
one less rib than women. In this style of theorizing, it is no trouble
to imagine whatever is necessary. And actually counting the ribs would
be implicitly to doubt the Word of God.

Of course, later theorists of this sort could document the fact that men
have one less rib than women, by pointing to paintings by Cennini and
his students. Once the necessary facts have been imagined, they can be
preserved and passed along the generations.

In the case of teeth and ribs, we can test the theory simply by looking
at teeth and ribs in real people who exist now. Many theorists,
realizing that the ability to look at present natural phenomena
constitutes a risk to their theories, are careful to propose only
theories that rest on uncheckable facts (or at least on facts that would
be inconvenient, expensive, or unlikely to be tested). One popular form
of theories of this kind is the sort of theory that says human affairs
are as they are because of events that happened before history began.
This approach has two great advantages. First, it enables the theorist
to make a claim about the present world (for example, language is a
means of social control). And second, it enables the theorist to make up
whatever facts from the uncheckable past are needed to support this
claim (in the most primitive prehistoric societies, the groups with
language had a clear survival advantage over those without it). One
would never, of course, say that language is a means of social control,
and then add that primitive groups with language were at a disadvantage.
One makes up facts that support the theory, not facts that contradict
it.

Once the facts have been created, they can be used just as if they were
observations. The listener unfamiliar with a field of study can hardly
tell the difference, because the theorist cites the imagined fact in
exactly the same way he would cite actual observations. The theorist
says "Because men have one less rib than women have, we can conclude
that women need a greater calcium intake than men do." This sounds just
like saying "Because women are more prone than men to bone deficiencies
..." and reaching the same conclusion. When there is no indication of
which facts have actually been observed and which have been made up, it
is difficult for the listener to know when a theory is being supported
by evidence, and when it is just a random belief being bolstered by a
fabricated story.

···

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All of this is meant to explain why I don't believe any story about the
role of fire in the downfall of the human race. Whatever led to the use
of fire happened before recorded history; any fact about this event that
is proposed is purely fictional, being made up to support an argument
that obviously was believed before any facts were made up. If you feel
that technology is a bad thing, you can always make up stories that
sound like facts in order to support that opinion. But because those
facts are not checkable, the theory is still equal to all other untested
theories, including a theory that expresses the exact opposite of your
opinion. I could say that fire was what saved the human race from
extinction, and make up vivid and detailed stories about just why this
was so. Then the winner would be whoever was the best story-teller. And
both theories would still be equal -- equally worthless.
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Best,

Bill P.