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The Non-Relative Value of a Theory

Many people believe that a theory is all about explanation. And that we can judge a theory by how much the explanation makes sense. To us. They may even use terms like rational and logical to describe the theory they prefer. And they could be spot-on, even if the theory is wrong. For if the gauge of correctness is a fit with all the other thoughts we hold, what is illogic in one mind is fully logical in another.

It is for this reason that I have reservations about skeptics and atheists speaking of themselves as being more rational and reason-driven. These groups will point out the absurdities in the other position, in effect, saying, see, according to our other thoughts, these here thoughts under the spotlight just don’t fit.

What is missing from simple theorizing is the crucial component beyond mere explanation. Explanation goes only so far. A strong theory, a good theory, allows for testable predictions. And is supported by the results of those tests.

And with this additional, essential element to theories — Bam! — suddenly theories are not potentially equally reasonable. Consider evolution and Creationism. One allows for testable predictions galore, and has passed thousands of such tests, the other . . . (cue sound of crickets).

What seems rational to one mind can seem irrational to another. But put the ideas to a test, and you then have a way to objectively determine the worth of each. In a sense, by doing so you will place both minds on the same playing field.

Of course, some people will shun tests, saying that science operates under its own biased presumptions, so will yield biased results. These people are beyond hope, frankly. All you can really do is explain that a scientific test merely confirms a hypothesized pattern in nature. If you don’t believe in science you are basically refuting that there are measurable regularities in our universe. If that were the case, we could understand nothing about it. Nothing. So tell these people to go ahead and cherish their void of understanding.

Per usual, a news release got me started on the topic.

The news: Einstein’s Theory of Relativity (the General form vs. the Special) has passed another test.

While airplane and rocket experiments have proved that gravity makes clocks tick more slowly — ­a central prediction of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity — a new experiment in an atom  interferometer measures this slowdown 10,000 times more accurately than before, and finds it to be exactly what Einstein predicted.

The result shows once again how well Einstein’s theory describes the real world. [bold mine]

The real world.

So no, the value of Einstein’s theories is not in how far-out and mind-bending the thoughts they generate are, nor in how much they support what we want to believe. Certainly, that is some of the appeal, and yes, the on-the-frontier-element makes some theories more exciting than others. But the true gauges of theories such as Einstein’s, that which gives them real weight, are the predictions they allow us to make and test. In the case of relativity, these tests have been passed with greater and greater precision.

Passing tests: this is where we should place our emphasis when evaluating theories.  When thinking scientifically, we move from the more subjective to the more objective.