Theory - Theories Formally and Scientifically

Theories Formally and Scientifically

Theories are analytical tools for understanding, explaining, and making predictions about a given subject matter. There are theories in many and varied fields of study, including the arts and sciences. A formal theory is syntactic in nature and is only meaningful when given a semantic component by applying it to some content (i.e. facts and relationships of the actual historical world as it is unfolding). Theories in various fields of study are expressed in natural language, but are always constructed in such a way that their general form is identical to a theory as it is expressed in the formal language of mathematical logic. Theories may be expressed mathematically, symbolically, or in common language, but are generally expected to follow principles of rational thought or logic.

Theory is constructed of a set of sentences which consist entirely of true statements about the subject matter under consideration. However, the truth of any one of these statements is always relative to the whole theory. Therefore the same statement may be true with respect to one theory, and not true with respect to another. This is, in ordinary language, where statements such as "He is a terrible person" cannot be judged to be true or false without reference to some interpretation of who "He" is and for that matter what a "terrible person" is under the theory.

Sometimes two theories have exactly the same explanatory power because they make the same predictions. A pair of such theories is called indistinguishable, and the choice between them reduces to convenience or philosophical preference.

The form of theories is studied formally in mathematical logic, especially in model theory. When theories are studied in mathematics, they are usually expressed in some formal language and their statements are closed under application of certain procedures called rules of inference. A special case of this, an axiomatic theory, consists of axioms (or axiom schemata) and rules of inference. A theorem is a statement that can be derived from those axioms by application of these rules of inference. Theories used in applications are abstractions of observed phenomena and the resulting theorems provide solutions to real-world problems. Obvious examples include arithmetic (abstracting concepts of number), geometry (concepts of space), and probability (concepts of randomness and likelihood).

Gödel's incompleteness theorem shows that no consistent, recursively enumerable theory (that is, one whose theorems form a recursively enumerable set) in which the concept of natural numbers can be expressed, can include all true statements about them. As a result, some domains of knowledge cannot be formalized, accurately and completely, as mathematical theories. (Here, formalizing accurately and completely means that all true propositions—and only true propositions—are derivable within the mathematical system.) This limitation, however, in no way precludes the construction of mathematical theories that formalize large bodies of scientific knowledge.

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