Posted by Damon O'Hanlon
But what if I told you theory was actually very simple. So simple, in fact, that anybody could understand theory, and use it to their advantage all the time?
Read this post from top to bottom and you'll understand all of the following:
- What is a theory? How is a theory different from an ‘idea’ or ‘concept’?
- How do people use theories to understand the world?
- Why are some disagreements resolvable while others seem to be irresolvable?
- How can you use theory to better understand the thinking of others?
- And more…
Ready to jump in? Remember, have no fear. Absolutely everyone can understand theory. First though, we’ll need to clarify a common misconception.
Isn't a theory just an idea? Isn't any idea a theory?
In casual speech, the word ‘theory’ is often used interchangeably with the word ‘idea’. Now, this association can be hard to sort out because of the broad way that ‘idea’ is usually defined and used. For instance, an idea can refer to any of the following:
So you can see that the word ‘idea’ is tossed around pretty loosely. Can the word ‘theory’ really be used in the exact same way?
You probably have a sense that the terms 'theory' and 'idea' can't be used interchangeably, and for good reason. Any old idea that slips into your noggin is not a theory, and a theory is more than just an idea.
So then, what is a theory?
A theory is a simplification of the world, one which takes a certain format. Why simplify the world? Well, the world is a massive and complicated place. There's no way you could encompass the entire world in your mind. There’s just too much to it, too much going on. Nevertheless, theories can still help us identify certain aspects of the world, and understand certain relationships going on in the world.
The Format of a Theory
The basic format is very simple. A theory is an assumption and a conclusion that goes along with it. You assume one thing, and then you conclude another. An assumption alone doesn’t make a theory. Neither does a conclusion all by itself. It's the pair together that makes a theory.
Now, a theory could have more than one assumption, or more than one conclusion, or multiple assumptions and conclusions. Keep in mind though, a theory is always a simplification. No matter how complicated it gets, it will never cover everything that actually goes on in the real world. And the more complicated a theory gets, the harder it is to hold in your mind with clarity.
In logical or philosophical terms, the assumption (or assumptions) are often referred to as the axiom (or axioms). Don’t get too tripped up on this terminology. Just remember that whenever you see the word ‘axiom’, it's safe to think ‘assumption’.
But wait — aren't assumptions a bad thing? After all, when you assume…
Assumptions have gotten an unfair reputation. An assumption by itself is neither intrinsically good nor bad, and assumptions play an important part in our everyday activities. In fact, many kinds of planning and thinking would become impossible without making assumptions.
As a basic example, imagine a mom and dad discussing a possible trip to the grocery store:
Mom: We're out of avocados. Should we go to the store tomorrow?
Dad: Sounds good. We’re out of milk, too. You want to meet at the store after we get off work?
Mom: It’s a date.
Consider all the assumptions underlying this brief, 33-word conversation. There's no discussion about whether milk or avocados are needed. It's just assumed. No one asks whether there’s enough money for milk or avocados, and certainly no one wonders if the store even has such things as milk and avocados. While these are all assumptions, they all feel comfortably reasonable, and the fact that both parties share the assumptions makes the resulting conversation progress smoothly.
If there were absolutely zero assumptions going on, there would be a virtually limitless number of questions that would need to be asked and answered, ranging from boringly mundane to outright ridiculous, in order to make the conversation possible. For example:
- Do both people have clothing to wear to the store?
- How do we know the store will be open?
- What if the store is completely out of food?
- What if ‘tomorrow’ never comes?
So, if assumptions are necessary, why do they get such a bad rap? Well, when assumptions aren't shared, things do go a bit haywire. Let’s change our example dialogue just a bit:
Mom: We're out of avocados. Should we go to the store tomorrow?
Dad: What? We have three avocados left.
Mom: No, we’re out.
Dad: Check in the back of the refrigerator.
Mom: Oh, there is one avocado back here. I thought we used the last three avocados in the salad last night.
Dad: Oh yeah, I forgot we almost used them up in the salad. We probably should buy more tomorrow.
In our second example dialogue, everything gets off-track because the starting assumptions held by both parties don’t match. (Mom assumed more avocados were needed, while Dad assumed there were plenty left.)
So while assumptions play a key part in most any conversation, the assumptions tend to go unnoticed when everything goes smoothly. But when things do not go smoothly, we have to bring our attention to the assumptions and (in many cases) correct them. Thus, we only notice assumptions when they're bad, or when they cause trouble, or when we don't share someone else’s assumption. This leads to a positive bias where we think assumptions are always bad.
Assumptions aren’t just part of interpersonal communication. We use assumptions inside of our own heads all the time. For instance, every night when planning for the next day, most people probably assume that in the morning, when they put their keys in the car ignition and turn, the car will start. This allows them to conclude that they can be at work by a certain time, or that they can use their car to pick up the kids after school.
It's not true that the car will always start. The battery might have gone dead, or the starter could be bad. But assuming that the car will start allows us to make all kinds of useful conclusions.
It is possible to have assumptions and conclusions that ultimately are not useful. After all, there are no rules about what kind of axioms you may start with. There’s a limitless number of possible starting assumptions, leading to a limitless number of possible conclusions.
We can argue about the validity of the various theories, but the point here is that the types of theories possible are much broader than we usually imagine.
In any case, assumptions aren't really provable or disprovable. Assumptions don't come from logic. Assumptions come before logic. People’s axioms are not changed by logical arguments or offers of conflicting evidence. Axioms are formed at an intuitive level; you either agree with them, or you don't. This is why arguments will often proceed until the underlying assumptions are revealed, at which point everything comes to a standstill.
Take the classic example of religion versus science. (For convenience, we'll use one-dimensional caricatures, The Scientist and The Pastor.)
The Scientist and The Pastor would be unlikely to resolve their differences. This is not because either is illogical. Both The Pastor and The Scientist make sense within the boundaries of their own theory. Rather, they would be unable to resolve their differences because they have different starting assumptions. The Scientist assumes that man possesses the ability to understand the universe and that we all live in the same universe, so he might say that, if there is a God, it should be readily apparent to everyone. This argument would be ineffective with The Pastor, who begins with the starting assumption that God is and always has been beyond the flawed rational understanding of man.
Perhaps The Pastor might say to The Scientist that, if there is evidence of God, it can be seen in the curiosity which He has instilled into every man's heart so that we may find Him. This line of thought wouldn't sway The Scientist because he doesn't share the starting assumption that God exists, and so he likely has some other explanation for where curiosity came from.
This is related to another interesting facet of theories—
Theories often contain within themselves rules for what does and does not count as evidence
Let’s expand our Scientist and Pastor examples to illustrate this:
Briefly, here are a few more things to keep in mind about theories.
- Just because you agree with an axiom or two doesn't mean you agree with someone's ultimate conclusions. In these cases, dig a bit deeper and you will likely find additional axioms which you and the other person do not share.
- One person’s axiom might be another person’s conclusion.
- It is possible for different sorts of axioms to lead to similar conclusions. For instance:
To Freud, everyone is born with an innate sex drive. It is a part of a biological imperative to reproduce. This is one of Freud’s assumptions, and if you don't agree with it you’re almost certain not to agree with Freud’s final conclusions.
Freud concluded that, when society tries to suppress the sex drive, the result is that all that pent-up sexual energy gets manifested in strange and inappropriate ways (sexual frustration). Basically, all that repression leads us into neurotic behavior.
The mid-20th century theorist, Michel Foucault, had a different theory of sexuality. Foucault starts by assuming that people were not born with an innate sex drive. In fact, we are not born with anything. Everything about us is defined and produced through the society in which we live, even things as basic as our understanding of the human body.
Because Foucault believed that the society in which we are born produces our perspective, he concluded that in the Western world all the repression around sexuality is actually what makes it so exciting. Sex is effectively treated like a secret, and this secretiveness leads to people’s intense interest.
Theories are wildly useful things. By not fearing assumptions, and instead understanding them, we can get a better sense of how various people (including ourselves) think—whether it’s buying the milk or trying to understand basic human nature. It’s also handy because it gives you better relative insight: Without understanding theory, you might’ve disagreed with something but not understood exactly why. Now, after some careful thought, you'll be able to say, “Well, this person assumes [this], which I don’t. Instead, I assume [that].”
You’ll also become comfortable thinking flexibly, and you'll end up doing less finger-pointing. The lazy fallback, “You’re assuming [such-and-such]!” stops sounding like a valid criticism, and starts sounding hypocritical. After all—we are all assuming things. Is it to so hard to imagine yourself thinking with a different set of assumptions?
A special thanks to Dodge Grootemaat for helping me think flexibly and with sensitivity while writing this post.