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Reading and Writing Theory

Ralph Waldo Emerson was an American philosopher with a practical and down to Earth view of reality. He encourages us to read, make experiments, reflect on things, note things down, and then follow up with further experiments. Much of Emerson’s writings read like a handbook in how to read and write theory.

All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

When reading and writing theory we must neither be too timid and respectful of others, nor too full of ourselves. The goal is neither to learn everything that others have come up with, nor produce the one and only solution to everything. Rather, we’re in search of explanations that can help us navigate the world. We read, write and experiment in order to hammer out a theory for ourselves that we can use in the present, and expand upon for further discoveries and further progress for ourselves and others.

Theories are not facts

Theories are frameworks for action, including further reading and speculation. They are not facts, and must not be confused with facts. We must pay attention to this distinction when reading theory. In fact, the most enjoyable part of reading someone’s theory on a subject is often the facts tossed into the story as supporting evidence. These are facts that we can check for ourselves, and that we must keep in mind when developing our own particular angle on things.

We use facts to determine the validity of a theory. Any theory that breaks with observed facts can be tossed out. Any theory based on some theoretical construct must be treated with suspicion. Such theories can act as inspiration, but they must not be taken too seriously.

There’s a whole range of theories on optics that break with the fact that light diffracts exclusively at the exit of a prism. There’s no diffraction of light at entry into a prism. All theories on optics that break with this fact can be tossed out, and any attempt on our part to make a theory of our own must explain this phenomenon.

In astronomy, there are theories that talk of the Oort cloud as if it is an established fact. However, the Oort cloud is a hypothesis. It cannot serve as fact. Likewise, we have black holes, dark energy, curved space, big bang, and an expanding universe, all based on a combination of observations and theory. They are not facts. The facts are the observations, raw and untreated. The red-shift, the raw images, the detected signals. Those are the facts that must be explained, and it is in this context that we should read other people’s theories.

We must also be weary of observations that seem excessively precise or convenient. The Higgs Boson was confirmed in an experiment designed expressly to find it. Some of Einstein’s predictions have been confirmed in experiments similarly designed to return positive results.

There’s no reason to toss out theories that don’t fit the most precise and convenient results of experimental science because the real world is a messy place. All sorts of factors combine to produce noise. There are external factors inherent in the world itself, and there are psychological and political factors.

Politics in science

When Halton Arp discovered that quasars are closer to us than their red-shift suggests, he concluded that the red-shift of quasars is due to their young age, rather than to their recession speed. But if red-shift can be due to factors other than recession speeds, all sorts of things would have to be recalculated. A lot of people would find themselves in error, having based their work on the presumption that all red-shifts are due to recession speed.

Halton Arp’s finding was a threat to a lot of people. He was therefore labeled a heretic and dismissed from his position as astronomer. That’s contrary to the reward granted to those who can confirm current dogma. They get promoted. They win prices. All sorts of positive attention is heaped upon them. Needless to say, we get a lot more confirmations than proof of error. Inconvenient facts are simply ignored.

This doesn’t mean that we should dismiss all modern findings as too precise and too convenient. Some findings require less precision than other findings. Some are used in modern engineering. Others are not. Findings that are used directly in engineering can’t readily be dismissed. However, findings that are taken into consideration, but not used directly, can be dismissed as not sufficiently conclusive. We don’t have to treat all findings with equal reverence.

Theory directs our attention

Another aspect of theory is that it can be useful even if it turns out to be in error. Theory directs attention towards certain aspects of reality that can in turn be investigated.

Einstein explained a lot of observed facts with his theory. He even made some predictions that turned out to be true. His theory was in this respect useful. It encouraged astronomers to look for things to confirm his equations. However, no amount of confirmation will ever prove that space-time is curved. It merely demonstrates that equations that treat space-time as curved have a better fit to reality than those that treat space-time as flat. But there are other ways to get this type of curvature. If there’s an aether, we get similar results by treating the aether as something that vary in composition and density relative to where massive bodies are located.

Fringe theories

One way to separate facts from theory is to read fringe theories, because authors of such works must not only defend their positions, they must also point out weaknesses in established theories. I found this useful when I was looking into economic theory. It was enlightening to read books on Austrian economics because the authors keep pointing out errors in established theories. Not only do they defend and explain the Austrian School of thought, they gave me insight into Marxism and Keynesian theory as well.

Similarly for science, it can be enlightening to watch YouTube videos by the Electric Universe, and to study Stephen Hurrell’s work on dinosaurs and James Maxlow’s work on expanding planets. Fringe science must constantly be defended from orthodox views, and authors do this by pointing out oddities that are ignored or passed by in silence by more established scholars.

Furthermore, there’s no point in studying every theory in great detail. Once we get the general idea, we can leave it at that until we have reasons to study certain aspects in greater detail. We don’t need to read Das Kapital in order to have an informed opinion about Marxism. We don’t need to read Einstein’s papers in order to know his basic ideas.

It’s not important to know everything in detail. What’s important is to have a good overall understanding of the world so that we can take advantage of what we know, and navigate efficiently towards an even better understanding. To do this, we need to do what Emerson suggested. We need to act, read and think, and we must make it a habit to note down our thoughts and discoveries as we go.

This is not an idea unique to Emerson. Rather, it’s an observation that he made about men he admired. It’s a habit that comes naturally to anyone determined to figure things out. Emerson recommends it because it’s a recipe for success.

Making sense of things

If we go through life without ever noting things down or thinking about them, we can only act according to instincts. We’ll typically agree with whatever a majority of people agree with. We’ll live our lives according to traditions and habits. We’ll invest in what’s popular, and we’ll do what we’re told. The result of this will be mediocre at best, and much around us will appear strange and unpredictable. Things will seem to happen for no reason at all.

However, if we pay attention to details, note things down, and make it a habit to predict outcomes of current events, we’re likely to achieve above average returns on our investments, and we may even come up with a theory or two of our own, supported by facts and useful for further thinking and elaboration.

Ralph Waldo Emerson by Josiah Johnson Hawes 1857.jpg

Ralph Waldo Emerson

By Josiah Johnson Hawes – Public Domain, Link

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