Laws and Theories: Clearing the Confusion

We often hear that scientists come up with theories and then when they are verified they become laws. Well, this is what I usually hear from our teachers in all levels of educations but this is dead wrong.

They can’t be blamed entirely. It’s the way that it is conventionally understood and taught. I, too, believed this for the longest time in my relatively young life.

But this does not redeem that idea. It is definitely misleading and any serious learner should caution him or herself from believing and spreading this conventional wisdom. Why?

In the most basic sense, it is not how how science works. It is not true at the very edges of speculation and experimentation. There are also serious consequences if we choose to believe this. I will get to them at the end of the article.

There are, of course, nuances to how different philosophers of science and scientists have thought about the nature of these two concepts and how they interact. But for the purpose of this article, we will not go into details. Believe you me. There are tons of details and all of them (or most) are quite fascinating. See The Metaphysics of Science: An Account of Modern Science in Terms of Principles, Laws and Theories by Craig Dilworth.

Let’s go back to the subject at hand.

Scientific Laws & Scientific Theories: Distinction and Relationship

The main thing here is see the distinction and relationship between the two concepts: (1) scientific laws and (2) scientific theories.

Phiosopher William Whewell (the person who invented the terms scientists and physicists) distinguishes between these two concepts as shown by Dilworth in his book:

  1. Laws of Phenomena (natural laws or scientific laws)
  2. Theories of Causes (scientific theories)

Laws of Phenomena or what we can translate roughly as scientific laws are statements describing the order which phenomena follow. These are how things and processes just fall in the order to which they fall. These are basically statements about how things behave in the natural world.

One good example that Dilworth gave in his book is Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion. The Encyclopedia Britannica state one of these three laws as “all planets move about the Sun in elliptical orbits, having the Sun as the foci.”

Theories of causes or scientific theories explain why or how come things follow that order by postulating a cause or causes that make them follow that order. Kepler’s law of the elliptical orbit was given theories of causes and two of those theorists were Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein.

To keep the discussion short, we know the story of how Einstein re-imagined gravity being a property of the geometry of the space-time fabric. This gave rise to a better understanding of Kepler’s law of elliptical orbits than Newton’s theory.

These are the distinction and the relationship between scientific laws and scientific theories. The first states how things are in given conditions. The latter gives reasons as to why this happens. It answers the “how come” question.

Confusing these with the conventional wisdom of “when theories get proven they become laws” give rise to epistemological troubles. I will outline them below.

The Problem with Confusion: Meaning Diminished

The problem with calling scientific theories as “just theories” is that it diminishes their value. Science today in the Philippine setting is not given the value that it deserves, to put it colloquially. It may even be seen as “just a subject” where you learn “facts” for “grades”.

In my academic experience, the big bang theory and evolution are being derided as “mere theories”. This is from grade school to graduate school. They are thought to be just “other candidates” for the explanations of how come the universe and species evolve. This is true that they are candidates but they are the best candidates by a very, very wide margin.

If we just think of them as “other candidates” much like the theories found in myth and various supernatural beliefs, then their importance are largely diminished. It’s not only that, the myths and pseudoscience are also lifted up to a higher degree of relevance that they can cause intellectual roadblocks to understanding better.

The most subtle, in my opinion, but insidious is that it legitimizes the cherry picking of beliefs. This is bad when you want to do good science. This is not advisable if you want to do good philosophy. This may even be worse when you do this if you have a say in public policy; especially in education.

So, if it wouldn’t give you troubles, the next time you hear someone say that “it’s only a theory, not a law”. Tell him about Whewell, Kepler’s Laws, and the theories of Newton and Einstein. Gravity is both a theory and a fact (and, of course, experimental fact). But no one would likely say it in a dismissive fashion that it’s just only a theory.

References:

Dilworth, C. (2006). The metaphysics of science: An account of modern science in terms of principles, laws and theories(Vol. 173). Springer Science & Business Media.

Encylopaedia Britannica. (2018, February 1). Kepler’s laws of planetary motion | Definition, Diagrams, & Facts. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/science/Keplers-laws-of-planetary-motion

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