27 Observations Are Theory-Laden

An important lesson we would learn through our imagined study-abroad experience is that it is hard to speak at length about anything without making it obvious that we have a particular theory about the world. Imagine walking down the road three thousand years ago with your northern African friend, Akil:


You: Boy, is it hot today! The sun is really beating down.

Akil: It is indeed! It’s a good thing Re is so powerful.

You: Re? Oh, yeah, the sun. Why is it good that Re is powerful?

Akil: At night Re goes beneath the land to battle the forces of chaos. If he didn’t fight so fiercely, we would have many more problems—food shortages, rebellions, fighting, you name it. Re’s power helps to make sure life on the land continues as normal.

You: I agree the sun is really important. It sends energy to our planet, warming our atmosphere and giving the plants energy to grow.

Akil: You talk so funny! You make it sound like the sun is just a big disk of fire.

You: It is—or at least a big fire sphere, many times bigger than the earth. And it doesn’t move “beneath the land.” It’s just that the earth turns and makes it look as if the sun is moving.

Akil: Obviously not! (He holds his hand up against the sun—or Re.) While Re is massive and powerful, I would guess he is about a half setat in size—plenty big enough to give the forces of chaos a good fight! And I don’t know why you would think the land is moving. Do you feel it moving? In your view, why would a big sphere of fire care about us and make the plants grow and keep our life free from chaos?

You: The sun just burns. It doesn’t care about anything. It just does what it does. Look, sometimes chaos happens, right? Even when the sun is shining?

Akil: Sure. The battles go back and forth, and sometimes the forces of chaos get an upper hand but never for long. How would you explain the fact that chaos is always defeated? How do you explain how the “sun” in your view helps plants to grow?

You: It’s complicated. Chaos gets defeated just because—well, there are many different cases, but wars have to end sometime, and peace has to happen. People just get tired of fighting, I guess. Plants grow because of photosynthesis…

Akil: Foto Sin Theseus? Is he one of your gods?


We can imagine the discussion going much further and becoming ever more complicated as you and Akil try to fathom how you can both look at the one thing and see such different things. You see a massive star fueled by nuclear fusion, and Akil sees a divine person whose energy and concern for life infuses everything. In this sense, what each of you sees embodies a certain theory you believe. Philosophers call this “the theory-ladenness of observation.” It means that every observation carries some sort of theory along with it. The observation is connected to a background theory about what the observation is an observation of. More formally, we may say that “observations are theory-laden” means that the terms or concepts used in the observation have their meanings by virtue of some background theory.


Objection: But surely not all observations are theory-laden. There is a clear sense in which both we and Akil, in our imagined example, are seeing the same thing. We are both seeing a very bright disk in the sky, right? And then each of us has more to say about it. Akil says it is a sky-traveling divine person, while we say it is a huge, distant, uncaring star. But both of us will at least agree on the basic observation, right?


Perhaps this is so. But note that neither you nor Akil would count the claim “The sun is a very bright disk in the sky” as knowledge. Akil would say the claim is false, and perhaps even sacrilegious. You would insist that the claim is literally false, as the sun is not a disk, not very bright (relative to other stars), and not in the sky. But still, we might say, would you not both agree that the sun looks like a very bright disk in the sky? Perhaps, but you would both quickly explain that looks can be deceiving, and the truth is more complicated. So, if the claim is to count as an observation, it counts only as a misleading observation.


In other words, any claim that we confidently count as “knowledge” will be a claim that is tangled up with quite a lot of theory. The theory is in large part, if not entirely, a product of culture. Remember from the last chapter that, according to the scientific method, much of our scientific knowledge consists of hypotheses we have developed as we try to explain the natural world. These hypotheses do not develop in a vacuum but are drawn from our background learning, our community with other scientists, and our sense of what the scientific project is all about. In the imagined dialogue, for example, Akil’s question about why a big sphere of fire would “care” about us will seem to us like a wrong-headed question—not the sort of question we are likely to pursue as a research project—since the very idea of astronomical objects like stars having “concerns” is well beyond the sorts of questions we are encouraged to ask. This sense we have about which questions are of the right sort and which ones are wrong-headed has very much to do with what we conceive the scientific project to be. That one question Akil raises says a great deal about the great distance between his worldview and our own.


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