Why Are There Theories?

Why Are there Theories?

Tibor R. Machan

Over the years, especially since the Internet became prominent and widely used, my own ideas have received a lot of challenges. Some of these come from people with different positions on this or that but quite a few actually come from people who find advancing theories to be mistaken. They often just wish to pick and choose from among the innumerable ideas circulating and find fault with formulating a system or general position. They champion adopting the smorgasbord as the model for how one ought to think about the world. Rhyme or reason are shunned as somehow obsolete, old fashioned and instead a hodgepodge of ideas is favored, never mind internal contradictions, inconsistencies, etc.

This disposition is not all that surprising. After all, among the hundreds and hundreds of “isms” that have been advanced throughout the history of ideas, there has rarely emerged one that received universal or even widespread ascent among those who work to get it right. One reason is pretty clear–the standards of adequacy for theories in all sorts of disciplines or regions of human interests were initially impossible to satisfy. Platonism contributed to this by insisting that the right viewpoint or theory had to be complete, final and timeless, something that is impossible to achieve since human beings, who concoct the theories are mortals and cannot show that the views they hold will forever be adequate.

But even once this is granted and a less demanding criteria of success is invoked, a lot of people wish to cast the idea of a coherent, consistent even if provisional viewpoint aside and just stick to this idea of a hodgepodge. But that just cannot work at all.

As mindful beings, humans are in need for ideas about the world in which they carry on so as to navigate it with some measure of success. Like the maps we use to travel around–they may never be completely accurate, final, incorrigible or such but they have to be workable, help us get about. In time the less successful get identified as such and get updated, properly modified but, of course, never finished forever.

For those who find this inadequate there really is no relief. The world is no static geometrical plane, no formal system that is complete. Some of the best theorists have made note of this–I think Kurt Godel’s incompleteness proof is really about this, a critique of the Platonist idealism that demands of a good theory that it be perfect, finished. But, as that wise saying has it, the perfect is the enemy of the good!

If this idea were properly deployed, I believe there would be fewer skeptics, pessimists, cynics, most-modernists, and such among us and many more of us would be doing work on the provisionally successful ideas that can be identified (if the impossible isn’t being demanded) instead of taking up arms, intellectually, against those who are hard at work trying to figure things out.

One sign of misguided thinking along the lines I have in mind is when someone keeps putting up obstacles against a set of pretty good ideas with the preface, “But isn’t it possible that such and such could happen and require you to give up your ideas?” Up to a point there is nothing wrong with this tact but if it continues on and on, without some indication of what will suffice for the skeptic, the exercise is basically pointless. Most theorists put up with these sorts of objections because they realize that they may have missed something their theories needed to address. But that approach can become pathological.

I like what Professor Gilbert Harman once wrote about this matter. He warned that we must “take care not to adopt a very skeptical attitude nor become too lenient about what is to count as knowledge” (Gilbert Harman, Thought [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976], 145). Following this advice would, I am confident, help repel those who want to give up on reason and good sense in the approach to understanding the world and one’s place in it.

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