“It’s Just a Theory” — What’s a Scientific Theory?
by Max Andrews
A theory is distinct from a mere scientific explanation. Scientific explanation requires a causal explanation, which requires a law-governed explanation. Natural law describes but does not explain natural phenomena. Newton’s law of universal gravitation described, but did not explain, what caused gravitational attraction. Theories unify empirical regularities and describe the underlying process that accounts for these phenomena. Within theories are axioms, a small set of postulates, which are not proved in the axiom system but assumed to be true.
A theory goes beyond natural laws and scientific explanations in explaining the scientific explanations. A theory refers to a body of explanatory hypotheses for which there is strong support. Theories are a conjunction of axioms (of the laws of nature) and correspondence of rules specified in a formalized ideal language. This ideal language is composed of three parts: logical terms, observational terms, and theoretical terms. The logical terms were initially treated as analytic claims (particularly under the hypothetico-deductive model). Observational claims were to be unproblematic, understood as referring to incorrigible sense-data and later to publicly available physical objects. Correspondence rules were used to connect theoretical language to observational claims.
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Tracing the structure of theory back to David Hume, the logical language of a theory was considered to be analytic. In the nineteenth century there was an agreement that Baconian induction was an overly restrictive method, and that the hypothetico-deductive method was superior, given that scientific certainty was being recognized as unattainable and not as certain as it once was thought. Explanations were derived from deduction. Also, the logical connection between these laws is not simply “They work together” since that would be too broad and vague, nor would it necessarily entail “logically implies.” A theory cannot be captured by the notion of logical derivation alone. Since Humean and logical positivist methodology philosophers have recognized that these strong logical connections are not as strong as they would have considered. The logical connections are merely deriving observable consequences from the set of laws that explain. According to the hypothetico-deductive model, evidence supports the hypotheses that it entails. A hypothetico-deductive argument runs the risk of yielding the absurd result that any observation supports every hypothesis, since any hypotheses is a member of a premise set that entails that observation. This is the idea that theories and hypotheses are confirmed by their observed deductive consequences…
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