5.14.2006

My Theory of Theory

I’m teaching a half-day class in June to a group of teachers as part of a character academy. I’ve set up their tech for a few years (DVD, LCD, etc.), but this is the first year I’ve proposed to teach a class. I picked game theory as the topic. In case you don’t know, that’s a mathematical theory of conflict and cooperation. It has applications in economics or any other subject involving decision-making.

I figure that my first problem is to briefly describe what a ‘theory’ is in a non-threatening way. I have my own way of thinking about it that probably isn’t standard, but should be useful in this situation. Namely, a theory is a set of ideas. A good theory is one that you find useful.

This simple definition isn’t what you’ll find in the dictionary, and for good reason. Its implications would be controversial to most scientists, I suspect. But it’s good for putting people at ease. A theory is just a tool that you can pick up, look at, try out, and if it’s useful put in your toolbox. There’s no obligation to believe the truth of the theory. That is, a theory is not an empirical statement about the world—it’s a statement about ideas.

Using this definition, you could perhaps generate discussion between people who are different sides of the evolution battle. A believer in a literal genesis story can call that his theory and a biologist can call Darwinism her theory. The former is useful to the believer by providing some emotional comfort (I imagine), and the latter useful to the biologist because she can understand why antibiotics weaken over time. So rather than the fundamentalist trying to disprove or supplant Darwin, he can simply declare it not useful to him as a theory (so it’s not a good theory for him).

The problem some would have with this is that the worth of a theory is relative. But isn’t that the case anyway. I’m sure the standard model of quantum mechanics is a great theory for those in the field. But the equations don’t mean that much to me, despite trying to read Penrose’s new book, so it’s not a good theory for me. On the other hand, my theory of theory, which you’re reading, has been very useful to me, so it’s a good theory (for me).

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