Monday, October 27, 2008

Tapping Philosophy: In Theory

Hi Tapping,

Thanks to everyone who came out last week for friendship. I wish I could tell you it was great personally, but I took the night off.

Moving on, this week tapping philosophy will be at Yeats brew pub in Ardmore at 8:00 on Thursday, with rides leaving from Connelly around 7:30.

The topic: THEORY!!

What are theories? What do they do? How does a person make use of a theory? Why do people have theories? What is the relationship of theory to different kinds of discourse, such as philosophy, science, and narrative? Is theory a type of parasitic or critical discourse that can only exist in relation to other modes of thinking, or does theory have its own domain?

But I hear you mumbling in the background, "There is no theory, only different theories!" It's this type of criticism that hopefully we can address using a specific example.

Let's take a look at positivism, the whipping boy of philosophy of science. With positivism, the basic idea is that one can only gain TRUE knowledge from empirical evidence. So how do you get empirical evidence? The scientific method of course!

If you don't remember, it basically works like this: Assuming an already existent body of scientific knowledge, one picks a theory and uses it to operationalize his or her hypotheses for testing or research. The results of the testing will determine whether or not the theory is true.

Contrast this sort of truth with historical fact, where historians pride themselves on the notion that there is plurality of interpretations for any given historical event. These two different methodologies seem to contrast directly in terms of how they set up truth claims, with the former seeing truth as the foundation, and the latter seeing truth as contingent upon other various factors, such as power relations, geography, socio-economic structures, etc.

Because of this methodological conflict, and skepticism towards totalizing narratives, in science today people tend to talk about theories being "falsifiable" in order to show they make no claims at an absolute progressive positivistic/enlightenment conception of truth.

This aforementioned conflict raises the question, are theories types of narratives, or are theories an entirely different category of discourse from narratives? Is "falsifiability" just PC drivel for those who can't handle intellectual rigor, or can narratives play an important role in shaping the operations of theories? What about Kuhn's Paradigm shifts? Etc.

Even in light of contemporary philosophy of science, theory in practice seems to function differently from narrative, and a theory that works seems to have properties that are absent from any interpretation, because of its relative utility and repeatability despite different conditions. One simple way to put it might be that theories can beget interpretations, but interpretations cannot beget theories.

The question of theory is important because what may ultimately be at stake is our intellectual integrity. It's easy to repeat the sounds you hear other people making without ever taking a step back to really think things over.

I look forward to seeing everyone this week.

Best,
Francis Prior

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