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Theories versus facts

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We distinguish between factual statements and theories. If the path from a statement to verifiable predictions is short and uncontroversial, we call it factual. A theory is a statement which can generate a wide scope of predictions, but only through some intermediate steps, such as reasoning, computation, the use of other statements. Thus the path from a theory to predictions may not be unique and often becomes debatable. Between the extreme cases of statements that are clearly facts and those which are clearly theories there is a whole spectrum of intermediate cases.

Top-level theories of science are not deduced from observable facts; they are constructed by a creative act, and their usefulness can be demonstrated only afterwards. Einstein wrote: "Physics is a developing logical system of thinking whose foundations cannot be obtained by extraction from past experience according to some inductive methods, but come only by free fantasy".

The statement of the truth of a theory has essentially the same meaning as that of a simple factual judgment: we refer to some experience which justifies, or will justify, the decision-making on the basis of this statement. When this experience is in the past we say that the truth is established. When it is expected in the future we say it is hypothetical. There is no difference of principle between factual statements and theories: both are varieties of models of reality which we use to make decisions. A fact may turn out to be an illusion, or hallucination, or a fraud, or a misconception. On the other side, a well-established theory can be taken for a fact. And we should accept critically both facts and theories, and re-examine them whenever necessary. The differences between facts and theories are only quantitative: the length of the path from the statement to the production of predictions.

Copyright© 1991 Principia Cybernetica - Referencing this page

V. Turchin,

Sep 1991


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