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24/8/2015 20th WCP: First Revelation: When Theoretical Becomes Visible

20th World Congress of Philosophy


Philosophy of Science

First Revelation: When Theoretical Becomes Visible

Hernán Miguel
Universidad de Buenos Aires, Argentina

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ABSTRACT: En las teorías científicas se postulan entidades teóricas que de
alguna manera se relacionan con lo observable. Sin embargo con el avance
científico y tecnológico, los científicos a menudo sostienen poder observar, co
ayuda de algún artefacto, las entidades que tiempo atrás habían sido postuladas
por la teoría. Esta transición de algunas entidades del reino de lo teórico al de
lo observable con carga teórica presenta características interesantes para un
análisis sobre la articulación de las teorías. En este trabajo se presenta una
descripción de tal transición en la que se pone en evidencia que además de la
aceptación de la teoría involucrada en garantizar el funcionamiento y
construcción del artefacto, la carga teórica asociada a la observación con
instrumentos, también se debe aceptar un postulado de reducción que establece
una relación entre entidades pertenecientes a distintas teorías. También se
sugiere una dificultad intuitiva en sostener una postura antirealista de entidades
teóricas frente a la posibilidad de que tales entidades puedan revelarse como
‘visibles’ con la ayuda de algún desarrollo tecnológico aceptado por la
comunidad científica.

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I. If I can't see it I can't believe it

The problem concerning the distinction between theoretical (1) and observable entities can
be put in the following terms: entities that can be detected by means of our senses in an
intersubjective way should be stated as observables, while entities whose existence seems
to be suggested by some theory, but that were not detected even through indirect methods
until that moment, should be considered as theoreticals.

Of course, as these theoretical entities are embedded in a theory which also refers to
observable entities, we can learn something about them because of their connection with
those predictions of the theory (2) which can be directly tested.

We can now extend the notion of an observable entity much further than the limits our
senses impose to us, making it possible to consider as observable even those entities that
can be detected with the aid of some device or any other reliable method. These entities are
thus observables, although they are now theory loaded.

Both ends of this distinction between observable and theoretical entities seem to be clear.
But, the harder the detection of an entity is, the closer to each other the intuitions of
"theory-loaded" and "detectable by means of predictions" become. 1/7
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In other words, theoretical entities proposed by a theory are in connection with observable
ones. From these connections we can get some relations between observable entities, these
relations are the basic stuff used to test theories. Namely, we are testing those features
which are ascribed to theoretical entities by means of their consequences in the realm of the
facts: that is, by means of the of the theory's predictions.

Unfortunately, this is also true for theory-loaded entities. Every feature of a theory-loaded
observable entity has to be taken into account when deducing predictions. However, these
predictions are not obtained only from the theory plus some isolated auxiliary statements,
but from a theoretical background which, along with the principles of the theory itself,
states a basis to derive those predictions.

As we have already said, theoretical entities, despite their status, are linked to observable
ones so that their features could be relevant to lay down empirical results where theoretical
entities are involved (at least in their explanatory role). This is the reason why the interest
arises in order to discuss whether something referred by the theory through its theoretical
terms exists indeed in nature, or these terms are only useful tools (conceptual tools) in
order to derive our predictions.

The first option expresses a realist (R) approach, while the second one expresses an
antirealist (AR) point of view.

In the second approach we can distinguish two ways of denying the existence of theoretical

(IAR) instrumentalist: theoretical terms do not denote any object in the world, but
they denote useful concepts for making calculations (predictions).
(PAR) positivist: theoretical terms are the way we briefly refer to complex empirical

There is, of course, a correlation between these approaches and the way theoretical
statements are to be considered:

(R) general statements containing theoretical terms are considered to express natural
(IAR) these theoretical statements are thought of as rules to be followed in the
process of generating predictions.
(PAR) the theoretical statements containing also observable entities, are an abridged
way to express complex empirical laws, whence these statements play the role of
correspondence rules rather than being a bridge between observable and theoretical
entities, as it can be understood within a realist framework.

2. When theoretical 'things' become visible...

Our analysis should explain a very interesting fact: technological developments allow us to
"observe" things which had been proposed by some theory before these developments were
achieved. (3) X-rays, electrons, neutrons, etc. are detectable nowadays with the aid of
certain devices whose way of functioning is described and supported by some other theory
currently accepted by the scientific community.

The fact that we trust in such a theory constitutes the theoretical load of the observation.

This commitment with the theory which "rules" the functioning of the detector allows us to
observe a brand-new world full of things and processes. 2/7
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- ¿What kind of things and processes are you talking about? -shall an instrumentalist say.

- ¿What kind of instrumentalist should be this one? -one might ask.

The problem is rather serious:

For the instrumentalist, the tensiometer's needle doesn't indicate the value of the patient's
blood pressure, it is only a useful number in order to calculate whether the patient must
take or not a certain medicine of which, similarly, it would be nonsense to say that it is
composed by molecules of a certain drug, and so on...

Instrumentalists talk as if certain things existed but they do not really believe it. Besides,
with the technological developments their way of talking in their calculations resembles
more and more the talk of a realist. Furthermore, according to their view, the existent
world, made of observable things, is separated from the inexistent one, made of theoretical
concepts used as calculation tools, by a boundary line emerged from the shape, design and
limitation of our senses.

Then, the ontology of an instrumentalist dog has more sounds than that of an
instrumentalist scientist.

On the other hand, the theory load associated with an observation consists in the acceptance
of a theory. And what does this mean to an instrumentalist if not the acceptance of a
calculation rule? Then, some objects seem to exist if and only if the instrumentalist thinks
that certain theory is a correct calculation rule.

3. To Reduce, to Reveal, to Observe.

3.1 True Epistemology in Science Fiction.

Suppose that once upon a time in the history of science (no matter what this means to us) a
theory was proposed to describe the movements of the "swallow-crabs". Swallow-crabs are
a kind of migratory crab, half a crab and half a swallow. To explain how swallow-crabs
keep the heading during their undersea navigation, it is proposed that every swallow-crab
has two navi-needles. This navi-needles determine the direction in which swallow-crabs
will move. Both navi-needles head North during April and May, and head South during
September and October. The rest of the year, the navi-needles point in opposite senses so
that in such a case there is no privileged direction for the swallow-crab to move.

This theory has at least two more predictions other than the latter explanation. If a swallow-
crab is located in the middle of its migratory way during January, it will stay there and will
not complete its way home until April. We can also deduce that if a swallow-crab is
restrained to move in an East-West path (a pipe, for instance) during April, it will not begin
to move any direction.

Let us continue with our story and say that this theory successfully explained during the
next two hundred years the behavior of migrating flocks (or should I say shoals) every

A certain day, a scientist proposes that navi-needles are neural discharges along the
swallow-crab's dorsal nerves. One effect of this discharges is to activate the legs in the right
direction (already known).

Later, a device was designed to detect nervous pulses and its direction of propagation. It
was called "the navi-needlescope". After that, with the addition of a scale to measure the 3/7
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pulses and their direction, we get the navi-needlemeter.

Its designer was awarded with the Nobel prize for Biology that year.

Actually it was possible to confirm that swallow-crabs experiment pairs of neural

discharges on dorsal nerves during April and May; each discharge of the pair at each side
of its back. The direction of propagation of these pulses is North. During September and
October, instead, the direction is South. And the rest of the year, both pulses propagate
randomly heading North, South, East and West. Finally, this pulses activate the muscular
system of swallow-crabs so that they move in the direction resulting from the addition of
both pulses.

Neural pulses are electric polarization pulses and owing to a wide development of the
theory of electricity in those years it could be possible to built up the above mentioned

Now, in order to "observe" the navi-needles we must put a detector over the swallow-crab
and the device will immediately display the intensity and direction of the navi-needles.

The scientific community has accepted the theory of electricity that describes and supports
the functioning of these detectors. Therefore we can trust them and finally accept that we
are observing the navi-needles.

Two independent conditions have to be fulfilled in order to consider that navi-needles can
actually be detected and observed by means of these detectors, and then to consider them as
observable, although theory loaded:

1st) The development of the theory of electricity to such an extent that there is a consensus
for its acceptance as a support of the analysis of neural pulses.

2nd) To set up a new statement relating the navi-needles with neural pulses. I will call this
statement "reduction postulate".

This postulate is a different kind of statement than the others. Earlier statements belong to
the theory of navi-needles and swallow-crabs. But this new one is a kind of connection
between two theories: that of swallow-crabs and that of neural pulses.

This statement represents a connecting law describing a factual relation between pulses and
navi-needles. (Although a positivist would affirm that we only redefine certain terms.)

The theory of swallow-crabs, with its navi-needles, is reduced to that of neural pulses and
together with the developed detector reveals the image of navi-needles. 4/7
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As in a photo lab we face a revelation of the navi-needles in the detector. The boundary
line between theoretical and observable entities has been shifted drawing aside the veil that
yesterday hid the navi-needles and showing us the success in having conjectured them two
hundreds years before.

3.2 Mendel's navi-needles

As the audience can imagine there are real stories with these features in the history of
science. For example, let's take the reduction of Mendel's theory to that of molecular

Currently we observe the sequence of nucleotides in the DNA and detect the genes
determining the characters of a plant.

The genes proposed by Mendel (4) are obviously theoretical when considered in the frame
of his theory, but can be detected with the aid of the microscope developments and the
commitment with the following additional statement: "The genes are nucleotide

Now, we can say that we observe the genes if we accept the two following items:

1) theory of tunneling microscope.

2) additional statement: "The genes are nucleotide sequences"

It is not a novelty that genes become theory-loaded observable entities. 5/7
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But it should be noted that we usually speak of "theory-load" in relation to the acceptance
of item (1) while we do not pay attention to the item (2).

I have named the item (2): "reduction postulate".

And it is my opinion that an entity that has been labeled as theoretical because it was
postulated in a given theory with a certain explanatory role will change its status into a
theory-loaded observable one under the following condition:

a technological development is achieved, based on an accepted theory and in addition it is

used for the detection of an aspect related with the entity in question by means of a
reduction postulate.

I accept that the entity will still be theoretical when it is classified within the frame of the
original theory. But this new criterion may cast light on the way scientists refer to
observation in a generalized manner. It also shows how scientific and technological
developments are taken as a shift of the demarcatory line between the observable and the

4. Conclusions

I want to point out that when an entity is classified in the frame of the theory in which it
was originally proposed, it continues being anchored to the conjecture in the theoretical

This internal feature which consists in keeping its theoretical condition inside its own
theory does not contribute at all in analyzing the process by which scientists announce (and
believe) that they have finally observed the entities whose existence was proposed before.

Instead, in order to obtain an explanation of this process we should look into the relation
between these theoretical entities and the other theories.

I tried to show that it is necessary to state a reduction postulate in addition to the

acceptance of what we usually call "theory load", for the entity (previously theoretical) to
be considered observable by the scientific community.

Finally I suggest that this process, and the consequent acceptance of the existence of the
entity in virtue of its observability, generates an intuitive bias respect to the way antirealists
treat theoretical entities.

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(1) In the present work I will use "teoretical entity" to refer those unobservable entities
appearing in scientific speaches and embedded in propositions of some theory. I will use
this terminology yet one can rise the reasonable objection that some theoretical entities
(proposed by the theory) can be observed: for instance, the east coast of India whose
existence can be inferred from the round Earth's theory (in conjuction with other auxiliary
statements) before Columbus trip's time.

(2) No prediction can be obtained from the theory alone. Although is a commonplace
assestment that are necessary auxiliary statements to obtain them, there are a few more
considerations to be pointed out. See Hempel, Carl. "Provisos: A Problem Concerning the
Inferential Function of Scientific Theories." in The Limitations of Deductivism. Grünbaum,
A and Salmon, W. (1988) Berkeley and Los Angeles. University of California Press. 6/7
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(3) I am grateful to Samuel Cabanchik for his comments by the end of 1996 that made me
pay attention to the process that takes place when an entity "crosses" the boundary of our
clasification from theoretical to theory loaded observable.

(4) We are talking of the theory as it was rediscovered in 1900. It seems that Mendel had
never proposed the existence of a pair of genes. See Mundo Científico Vol. 4, N 34, pp

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