Scientists and science enthusiasts can get exasperated by the conflation of definitions between the scientific conception of a theory and the colloquial definition. In the latter, a theory is sometimes considered no better than a guess, and at best what a scientist would call a hypothesis (an educated formulation of a mechanism or explanation). People will say things like “evolution is just a theory” as if that attests to some shortcoming of evolution. In the scientific conception, a theory is the gold standard. It is a set of inferences, explanations, predictions, and interpretations that bring together (sometimes disparate) data, evidence, and observations into a cohesive whole. Theories are what scientists use to make predictions in order to formulate new hypotheses and design new experiments. But what is the nature of a theory? And what is the ontological status of a scientific theory? In what way is a theory true?
For those who may be paying attention to my recent posts, I am currently reading the collection of essays Metametaphysics, which talks about how metaphysics ought to be done. There is a lot of discussion about whether problems in ontology, such as mereological sums (if there is a tablewise arrangement of atoms, does some “new” object that we call a table come into existence, or is that just a shorthand way we talk about such tablewise arrangements of atoms?), are just semantic. In other words, when I say that a table is nothing more than a tablewise arrangement of atoms, and you say that a table is something above and beyond the tablewise arrangement of atoms, are we simply just using the word “table” in different ways, thus resulting in the differences in how we conceptualize what a table is? Here I am going to discuss (more so than review) the first three essays in this collection.
Metametaphysics, edited by David J. Chalmers, David Manley, and Ryan Wasserman, Copyright 2009, Oxford University Press, 540 pages
Essay 1: “Composition, Colocations, and Metaontology” by Karen Bennett
Essay 2: “Ontological Anti-Realism” by David J. Chalmers
Essay 3: “Carnap and Ontological Pluralism” by Matti Eklund