When does something stop being a “self-consistent idea” and become scientific fact?

by ancientcampus1 min read2nd Oct 201212 comments


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Topic: When does something stop being a “useful theory” and become something we can believe? 

[Preface - Hi! This is essentially my first time posting here. If I did something wrong, let me know. I've read about 1/3-1/2 of the major sequences, but feel free to reference a specific article if you think it helps answer the question]


We see something in the world that appears mysterious to us, and we come up with an idea (“idea X”) that explains it. For X to be fact, it should:

1) be internally consistent with itself, as well as with all its implications. i.e. if X, then Y, and if Y, then Z. If we know Z to be obviously false, then we know X must be false.

2) be externally consistent with reality as we know it. We can’t find something in reality that makes X clearly unture.

3) Explain things we have already observed (that’s why we’ve come up with idea X in the first place)

4) preferably, “make beliefs pay rent” – we should be able to use X to make predictions of the future, otherwise it doesn’t hold much value.


(By the way, if you disagree with 4 let me know, I’d love to hear your take. I’m not being sarcastic. Truth is still truth, even if there isn't any utility in believing it.)


So, lets say we’ve got a Generic Tribe of Primitive Peoples. They experience an earthquake. It’s the first earthquake in 50 years. They ask Wise Old Jim what all the commotion was. Jim, who is 57 and the only one who’s seen one before, thinks for a while, then says, “I’m not sure, but here’s one possibility: That’s George the Giant, who lives on the other side of the mountains, rolling over in his sleep. He does that occasionally.”


Now, this story about George is:

1) internally consistent (it makes sense that giants would sleep for a long time, and roll over occasionally.)

2) externally consistent (George is on the other side of the mountains, which is mysterious uncharted territory. He’s heavy enough to rumble the earth all the way over here. No-one can think of anything they’ve seen to make his existence unlikely.)

3) explains the earthquake

4) It lets us know that the world isn’t ending, that nothing major has changed, and that this is a natural occurrence which will probably happen again years later. All of which are true.


[In this scenario, there is not in-reality a giant on the other side of the mountains, but they have no way of crossing the mountains to do the obvious empirical test to confirm it.]


So… what are these folk doing wrong? Is this theory supported and useful enough for them to accept it into their belief system? Should they develop some kind of falsifiable hypothesis? If so, what?


Even if *you* can think of a solid test, what if the whole tribe tried to think of a test, but couldn't think of a good one that would confirm or reject the theory? Should they accept this theory or not?

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