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February 27, 2020 / Congau

Theory and Practice

All theories fail, and all practice succeed; no theory works as it’s supposed to, but practice always works.

These assertions are true in a sense, but they inform us about nothing since they render conclusions that are inherent in the concepts and therefore, they are in fact tautologies.

A theory is a construction made for a plastic environment where all premises and influencing factors are known. Reality, on the other hand, consists of many intercepting factors and although the theory strives to take them into account, they can never be fully known. That’s the nature of both theory and practice; they are not supposed to fit one another perfectly and so it’s hard to call a theory a failure if it was never meant to succeed.

Rather, a theory is successful if it logically predicts the outcome based on the known premises and even more so if it is able to incorporate a large number of possible contingencies.

Practice always works; that’s an even less informative assertion. It merely states that whatever exists is working in some way or else it wouldn’t exist. It can’t be used as an argument in favor of letting the world take care of itself without the interference of theories, since the conclusion would already be a part of the definition.

Even if something is proven to work by virtue of its existence, it doesn’t mean that it can’t work better or that it contains no disadvantages. The world, at least the part of it that humans are responsible for, is indeed very imperfect. It somehow works, yes, but there’s certainly room for improvement.

There is no other way to aim at improvement than to have a theory of how it might happen. Imperfection is already included in the theory and with that in mind we may be more tolerant of what really counts as a failure.

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