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What is a Theory?


What is a theory? This is a good question. The word theory is used by different people for different things leading to disasters when these groups have to interact with each other. Finding a common definition that we all can agree on would be a great idea, but before we can do that we must understand why the divisions exist in the first place. The secrets behind the word may lie in its etymology.

Theory is an old word. The first English recording of the word dates back to the late 1590s when the word only meant a concept or scheme as a derivative of the Greek word theor (to view). In the 1610s, someone coined the definition of principles or methods of a science or art (rather than its practice) . It would take another twenty years for the current scientific meaning to come about, creating the verb to theorize along with it. As you see, the seeds of confusion began early. Twenty years isn’t that long a time frame, even back then. On top of that, every scientific field was still lumped under natural philosophy at that time. It is quite possible that the originators of both definitions knew each other, and probably studied together under the person that brought the word theory into the language.

Philosophers and scientists were already at odds with each other, and science was not even invented yet! It’s no wonder that most laypeople do not understand what’s going on.

Fast forward to today, Dictionary.com reports five separate definitions for theory. A theory is:

  1. A coherent group of tested general propositions, commonly regarded as correct
  2. A proposed explanation whose status is still conjectural and subject to experimentation
  3. A body of principles or theorems belonging to one subject
  4. The branch of a science or art that deals with its principles or methods
  5. A particular conception or view of something to be done or of the method of doing it

Definitions 3, 4, and 5 are just definition 1 reworded for specific purposes, leaving us the original two to pick from. Definition 1 is of course the scientific use of the term, while definition 2 is used by philosophers. Which definition we should be using should come from context. In matters of science and mathematics, for instance, we use the scientific theory, and we use the philosopher’s theory when philosophizing. Issues pop up with context is indeterminate, leading to many misunderstandings and arguments.

Personally, I prefer science theory, which is the definition I always use. The only real difference between science and philosophy is that science has an additional testing requirement, while philosophy does not. This additional testing makes it is very clear what you mean when you use this definition. Besides, we already have another term for definition 2, the hypothesis. Hypotheses are proposed explanations that are still conjecture and subject to experimentation.

With this said, I can claim that a theory is a set of tested true hypotheses as long there is no evidence to dispute them. All other definitions can be derived from this. Now, we just have to make hypothesis a household name to make this definition of theory stick.



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