Only One Theory per Scientific Field

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This article proves that there is only one dominant theory per scientific fie.d.

Submitted: May 04, 2012

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Submitted: May 04, 2012

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Only One Theory per Scientific Field

Throughout the history and philosophy of science, many philosophers have created methodologies for the propagation of scientific theories. Thomas Kuhn had a large impact on this field. His theory of incommensurability is fatal for both the methodologies of Karl Popper and Imre Latakos. Popper and Latakos both assumed that at a point in time, there could be many different co-dominant theories in a given scientific field; but because of incommensurability it is seen that that there are only one dominant theory in a field. The major reasons for there being one dominant idea per scientific field are that a newer idea gives the most accurate results and has the ability to explain new phenomenon that the old idea is unable to explain. The new theory also has the ability to predict newer phenomenon which the old theory is unable to predict. In history where “two dominant theories” are seen -- the most likely cause for it is politics and nationalism. Even if, old scientific ideas are used, it is mostly because of simplicity. From this, one can state that in a field of science, there is only one dominant scientific theory.

Incommensurability is an idea created by Kuhn, which roughly means that two scientific theories from different paradigms are incompatible with each other. The reasons for this is twofold, firstly two theories employ language which just cannot be understood in another theory (Godfrey-Smith, 2003, 91). An example of this is spacetime in Modern (Einsteinian) Physics does not exist and cannot be understood in Classical (Newtonian) Physics (Knight, 2007, 1192). The second reason for the existence of incommensurability is that scientists who practice different theories from different paradigms have different values. This means that they have different standards for what is considered scientific and might also have different standards of acceptance of new theories.

Popper’s methodology of scientific ideas has two different aspects. One was scientific demarcation and the other was the values that scientists should have. Popper stated that scientific ideas can be proven wrong. If a certain theory can fit into all circumstances, then it is unscientific. He also stated that a scientist should have a tentative attitude towards a theory and should be prepared to dispose it as deemed necessary, thus at a given time there could be many different theories (Godfrey-Smith, 2003, 62). Theories are compared through corroboration. The difference between corroboration and scientific confirmation is that corroboration is akin to a academic transcript, while confirmation is similar to a letter of recommendation. Just because a theory had stood up in the past does not guarantee in Popper’s view that it will have the same success in the future.

Lakatos’ ideas were similar to Popper, but one of his unique ideas was the notion of Research Programmes. A Research Programme has two components, a hardcore with the foundational theorems that cannot be changed and the periphery that contains theories which are derivatives of the central hard core (Godfrey-Smith, 2003, 104). There can be many different research programmes at a given time and they are compared through seeing their progress -- whether or not it is being developed or whether it is slowly lacking empirical content as time progresses. Examples of a different Research Programmes are Aristotelian Physics, and another is Newtonian Physics. 

Both Popper and Lakatos held that there could be several co-dominant scientific theories in a certain field. They disregarded the fact that within the field, one theory might have the ability to give more accurate results. This example is seen in difference between Aristotelian physics and Newtonian physics. Both theories predicted that an object when dropped from a certain height will drop towards the ground, but Newtonian physics predicts the time and acceleration which Aristotelian physics was unable to describe. Another example that can be seen is in chemistry. Both VSEPR and Crystal-Field theory predict the shape of a certain molecule, but the Crystal-Field gives more empirical content by theorizing about the colour of the molecule. From these example on can see that there is not need to have multiple theories at the same time because of the older theories are unable to give results with more empirical content. Furthermore, the incommensurability between Newtonian and Aristotelian physics is such there is not chance of developing Aristotelian physics to rival Newton’s because there is no mathematics and also Aristotelian physics makes basic assumptions which are nonsensical in Classical Physics such as Earth being at the centre of the universe. Both theories are not interchangeable (such as the lack of a concept of gravity in Aristotelian physics) and the difference in their accuracy means that a rational scientist would utilize Newtonian physics instead of Aristotelian physics. This is a blow the both Popper and Lakatos who believed that many different scientific theories can and should be used.

A new theory usually arises because of the old theory was unable to explain a new phenomenon that arose such as Newtonian physics inability to explain blackbody radiation (Kragh, 1999. 51). To explain this Quantum Mechanics was theorized. Quantum mechanics was clearly incommensurable with Classical Physics because in Classical Physics a wave and a particle were discreet entities, but Quantum mechanics employed a new term called wave-particle duality where a particle and a wave were the same time. From this one can clearly see Kuhn’s first instance of incommensurability where the basic terms used are completely incompatible with each other. Since Classical Physics was unable to explain blackbody radiation one can see that is not wholesome. Popper and Lakatos’ methodologies of choosing between multiple theories are illogical because of the incompleteness of Classical Physics with regards to blackbody radiation. Lakatos’ idea of research programmes is also not valid because if a theory is unable to explain a certain phenomenon, then that theory clearly wrong and there is absolutely no chance of reviving it in the future because all later theories will take into account blackbody radiation. From this one can again see that there can be only one theory at a given time.

Confirmation of predictions made using a theory is very important because it shows how accurately it describes the natural world. The perihelion of mercury was an example where Newtonian Physics predicted a new planet called Vulcan (Knight, 2007, 1020). Einsteinian Physics predicted that there was no such thing as Vulcan, but there was a curvature of space, and this was the reason for the phenomenon. It was confirmed that indeed Einsteins’ theory was correct. This once again shows that Popper and Lakatos’ methodologies which included several competing theories at the same time were wrong because the prediction made by the older theory was incorrect. Furthermore, there was no chance of including bending of space in Newtonian physics because it is foundationally based on a Cartesian space. Logically one would use a theory which gives better correct answers. Popper’s methodology about having multiple theories is wrong because at any given time, there are only a few theories to choose from and always one gives more satisfactory answer than the other. Lakatos’ methodology is wrong because it states that a theory can nominally survive even if a newer theory has surpassed it in all aspects such as accuracy, more empirical content and predictive capabilities. But this thinking has clear limitations because by the time, one of the old theory’s statements are explicitly or implicitly wrong, then there is absolutely no reason to develop an incorrect theory and there becomes a large change that in the future that predictions made by the older theory will not be correct.

Not only does a new theory have to have to have its predictions confirmed, but a theory can also predict newer phenomenon. This is seen in quantum mechanics where there is a hypothesis about multiple worlds (Albert, 1994, 60). It predicts that a person can be at two different places at the same time. This sort of reasoning is not seen in classical physics because it states a velocity and location at be known exactly. In Newtonian physics, there is only a discreet particle at a given time. Furthermore Newtonian physics failed in explaining many phenomena such as blackbody radiation and the speed of light always being constant in all conditions, the chance that Newtonian physics predictions about unconfirmed new phenomenon becomes low. Incommensurability is the reason for the inability of Newtonian Physics to include the aforementioned concepts. There is an extremely high chance that the predictions of a new theory will also be wrong when using Newtonian Physics, Using these historical evidences, one can clearly see that it will be better to use a theory which is better than an old theory.

Popper and Lakatos’ methodologies are susceptible to redundancies. It is mostly seen that a new theory accounts for all phenomena described in an earlier theory. This is seen where General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics can also be utilized to learn about concepts such as momentum and inertia. For example Newton’s law of every action having an opposite and equal reaction can be described using quantum mechanics/relativity (albeit it is quite mathematically intensive) and also adds new concepts such as quantum tunnelling because in Quantum Mechanics everything in seen as an probabilistic electron cloud and as such a “solid” object can “tunnel” into another “solid” when thrown against a solid surface (Knight, 2007, 1095). Lakatos’ and Popper’s ideas where several theories can exist at the same time is also not a practical proposition because of the redundancy. If a better theory with more empirical content can predict the same phenomenon that was explained by an old theory then there is no need for the old theory at all. There is absolutely no need for the Newtonian Physics to survive as a Research Programme.

Outside of the scientific realm, both Popper and Lakatos disregarded that politics and nationalism can play a role in the development of scientific theories. This is clearly seen with the French supported of the ideas of Descartes with regards to his physical theory and the British supporting Newtonian Physics. It is clearly seen that both countries different views on describing the natural world originated from the nationality of their respective theorizers (Gascoigne, 1989, 4). Furthermore, another example of this type of scientific nationalism is seen the theory of the origin of rock petroleum. Russian scientists proposed that petroleum originated from deep in the centre of the Earth, and hence petroleum could be found almost anywhere ("Hydrocarbons in the Deep Earth?"). Rival Western scientists stated that petroleum originated from the fossils of marine creatures millions of years ago, and thus petroleum is predominantly found in or near coastal regions. From these examples it can be seen that arguments against there being several dominant theories in a major field is caused not because of objective reasoning of which theory is better, but there is biased attitude towards the nationality of the originator. Kuhn’s notion of there being one dominant theory is held up because the nationality of the scientist who proposed a theory is not a rational standard at all.

While it is clear that Relativistic and Quantum Mechanical physics gives some of the most accurate results, opponents of one dominant theory per field might argue that Newtonian Physics is regularly used in science, such as utilizing Maxwell’s electrodynamics in proposing a new type of integrated semiconductor, or a new light emitting diode. The main reason for using archaic scientific theories is their simplicity. It would be too difficult use Quantum Mechanics to describe the movement of an electron through a circuit. As mentioned, this is one of the reasons that Crystal Field Theory is retained to describe the vivid colours observed when a ligand attaches to a metal. This in no way means that scientist in question believes that Classical Physics gives superior answers to scientific questions than Modern Physics. There is also a large chance that the scientist in question is not very well acquainted with Modern Physics because of its sheer difficulty. Ultimately all scientists reason older theories using the most modern methods. This is seen when chemists still describe chemical bonds using VSEPR Theory, but ultimately reason that their descriptions using Quantum Mechanics. For example in VSEPR theory, there is a type of atomic orbital called a “sp orbital,” but it is similarly more accurately described quantitatively as C:\\Users\\Owner\\AppData\\Local\\Temp\\ (Knight, 2007, 1093). These examples show that the everyday usage of several scientific theories does not determine that a person sees them in equal light. This proves that Popper’s and Lakatos’ methodologies of assuming several different scientific theories at once are incorrect. Ultimately there is only one dominant scientific theory which even using an old theory is reasoned towards.

One can argue that in the field of psychology there are two dominant theories. One theory is called Skinnerian and the other is modern psychology. Upon closer inspection, it can be seen that Skinnerian psychology is now only developed at a few specialized institutes while modern psychology is taught and elaborated at all research universities. The institutes that practice Skinnerian psychology can be easily described as fan clubs of the theory (Rutherford, 2009, 69). Even though no one has proved Skinnerian to be incorrect, the theory countered the values of democracy and personal freedom held by scientist, and thus when Noam Chomsky published his magnum opus, on literary theory, Skinnerian theory was shoved aside. In this instance, it is even seen that even when another competing theory is not implicitly deemed wrong, the values held by scientists led them to favour one theory greatly over another one, and thus even in psychology there is one dominant theory.

In the history of physics, it is seen that research programmes might be kept alive because sheer curiosity even through that theory has been decisively supplanted as seen in the horoscopes in the newspaper everyday keeping the Aristotelian physics alive. Popper and Lakatos’ methodologies basic assumption of several different theories at once is incorrect because in the example in psychology it is seen that one dominant theory is prevalent – even if one theory is practised (such as the horoscopes) it is not done in a scientific light, but because of a personal interests or for entertainment purposes. Through this one can see that Kuhn’s notion of values leading to incommensurability of ideas and thus one dominant scientific theory.

From all above examples it can be seen that Popper and Lakatos’ methodologies had merits and weaknesses. They are correct in their assumption that all theories are a model of the reality. Popper’s idea of scientific values also plays an important role in the development of certain ideas over others as seen in psychology. Where Popper and Lakatos are incorrect is their idea that many different ideas can be prevalent at the same time. This is wrong because event through there can be many different choices; there is always one theory which is much better than the others either because of better results or values. Ultimately, time and human intuition is finite and thus it is easier and more efficient for one to utilize the best possible theory. If there were no limit on the amount of time one had, then Popper’s idea would be a good option. Finally, to answer Lakatos’ “Research Programmes”, it is clearly evident that the superior Research Programme already accounts for the all the previous phenomenon. Incommensurability plays the biggest role in determining that there is only one dominant theory.

 

 

 

Works Cited:

Albert, David. "Bohm's Alternative to Quantum Mechanics." Scientific American (1994):

58-67. Print.

 

Gascoigne, John. Cambridge in the Age of the Enlightenment: Science, Religion, and

Politics from the Restoration to the French Revolution. Cambridge: Cambridge

UP, 1989. Print.

 

Godfrey-Smith, Peter. Theory and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2003. Print.

 

"Hydrocarbons in the Deep Earth?" EurekAlert! Web. 18 Apr. 2012. <http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2009-07/ci-hit072409.php>.

 

Kragh, Helge. Quantum Generations: a History of Physics in the Twentieth Century. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1999. Print.

 

Knight, Randall Dewey. Physics for Scientists and Engineers: A Strategic Approach. Boston, MA: Addison-Wesley, 2007. Print.

 

Rutherford, Alexandra. Beyond the Box: B. F. Skinner's Technology of Behavior from

Laboratory to Life, 1950s-1970s. Toronto: University of Toronto, 2009. Print.

 


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