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There is a theory of science that says that observations are not independent of our theories. What we observe and what observations we consider relevant depends on how we conceive of what is going on. To express this view, we say that observations are theory-laden. For example, an Aristotelian might observe that when you heat a wet object it goes from moist to dry, indicating that the fire has added dryness to the object, and confirming their theory that fire is dry. In modern science there are no notions of moistness and dryness, only the amount of water on the surface of an object. A modern scientist wouldn't even observe that the object had taken on the property of dryness; he would say that the water on the object had evaporated.

Various philosophers (often those influenced by psychology) have applied this same logic to everyday facts. They would say that the world we observe is tailored by our basic concepts of things.

It is easy to come up with examples like this: a few years ago, a pedophile raped a young boy and the boy's father murdered the pedophile while he was in police custody. Whether you think the father's action is good or evil depends on various opinions about justice, the legal system, etc. In this sense, your observation of whether the father is a hero or villain depends on your concepts.

However examples like this don't really involve the structure of the world like the science example did, it is really about one's opinion, unlike the science example, which seems to be about one's view of physical reality. My question is: are there any good examples of theory-laden observations in everyday life that can't easily be understood as just differences of opinion?

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    Is there a missing negative somewhere in the first sentence?
    – g s
    Commented Jun 17 at 23:35
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    possible duplicate: philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/112911
    – g s
    Commented Jun 17 at 23:41
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    I'm also not sure what you're trying to get at with "differences of opinion". Presumably all differences of theory can be expressed as differences of opinion about the correct theory. Do you mean to exclude this sort of difference of opinion?
    – g s
    Commented Jun 17 at 23:59
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    "In this sense, your observation of whether the father is a hero or villain" that's not an observation
    – TKoL
    Commented Jun 18 at 8:25
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    @DavidGudeman some of your examples are very confusing. A human observes if Napoleon is a certain height hair color, etc. However whether Napoleon was a "hero or villain" is a judgement. Sure, someone will pop on the politics site and utter the sentence "I observe that politician XYZ is an idiot". Of course, everyone will just say "that's your judgement and summary of your opinions, not an observation."
    – Fattie
    Commented Jun 19 at 21:53

8 Answers 8

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All the observations we make with our eyes are laden with a bunch of assumptions about the behaviour of light and color.

We assume light goes straight, and that's how we infer the physical position of an object based on where it appears in our field of view. Most of the time it is the case, but sometimes it's not. Like when we look at fishes from above the water, the light is refracted when it crosses the surface and fishes are not positioned where they appear to be, which makes it difficult to grab them, until we correct our theory to include refraction and aim not for where the fish does appear to be, but where it really is. We also assume the things are the color and the shape we see them, etc.

How many of us when we were kids used to think rainbows were an actual thing in the sky, and not some light artefact, operating under the theory that if there is something to see there must be a physical object. So much so that even as an adult the idea that a rainbow could touch the ground at a physical location where a leprechaun can put his pot of gold seems, of not realistic, at least intuitive enough that we can figure it out in our mind.

A lot could be said about color perception. There is so much more in an apple being red than just the apple having the property "red", which is the theory of colors we all naively assumed to be true when we were kids and uneducated about the physics and biology involved in color sight.

If we analyse critically the many facts we accept to be true everyday, we can see that they rely on a bunch of assumptions that are rarely made explicit.

For exemple if I'm in the kitchen and I hear the entrance door open and the voice of my kid saying "I'm here!", I take it as a fact that my kid came back from school, and not a stranger, because I am assuming a stranger couldn't imitate his voice well enough to fool me, or that my kid won't open the door, shout "I'm here!" and leave without entering the house. I also assume the air carried the sound waves without altering them so much that I would confuse my kid's voice with someone else.

If I put the milk in the fridge, I'll take it as a fact that there is milk in the fridge because I assume nobody removed it or that milk does not disapear by itself.

If I wake up and see by my window it's dark outside, I take it as a fact that it's night time without looking at a clock because I assume outside is bright in day time (could be an eclipse though, but those are rare and anounced in advance, so I wouldn't consider this possbility).

If someone introduces themselves "Hi, I'm Nancy" I would take it as a fact that her name is Nancy under the assumption that people don't usually lie about their name. Unless I'm in a swingers club, where I would assume they do in order to protect their privacy.

etc.

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  • The word "assumption" fits best with the explicit statement of the operative theory. When making conscious arguments or efforts to reason we try to comprehend our working assumptions. Hermann von Helmholtz argues that the inferences we use when processing our visual perceptions are similar to the process of drawing a conscious inference but the process occurs rapidly and automatically without conscious efforts to reason. He argues that our visual perceptions arise as the product of a process called unconscious inference. Life seems to be laden with unconscious filters acting like theories. Commented Jun 19 at 16:39
  • @SystemTheory "The word "assumption" fits best with the explicit statement of the operative theory" I would agree if we weren't able to make those premises we take for granted explicit and eliminate or work around them. In other words, the fact that we haven't put the theory into words yet has no bearing on the fact that we assume it to be true, even if not explicitely.
    – armand
    Commented Jun 20 at 0:33
  • The term unconscious inference is more fitting because we are born without the mature capacity to generate conscious inferences and to explicitly state working assumptions. But we must have innate unconscious inferences operating below our consciousness to map raw sense data into conscious perceptions. Furthermore there would be so many stated assumptions operating at once that the conceptual mind would swamp the perceptions of sense data without unconscious inferences operating in real time. Conscious experience can update unconscious filters so new learned inferences operate automatically. Commented Jun 20 at 1:21
  • @SystemTheory you're wrapping together cognition biases and unexplicit assumptions, which are two different things IMHO.
    – armand
    Commented Jun 20 at 1:37
  • My use of terms is not just semantic confusion. An assumption refers to something we make explicit. In physics, when we treat massive bodies like particles, to simplify the math, we call this the particle assumption. We state our assumptions for purposes of clarity in communication, or we can fail to state our assumptions. But when we process sensory information there are no explicit assumptions. We perceive a 3D world of objects with size, location, position and we only recognize our unconscious inferences when we become conscious of 2D field of vision, neural structures, etc. Commented Jun 20 at 15:30
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For me, this calls to mind the story of Wittgenstein and how natural it is to come to the "observation" of a geocentric cosmos.

"Tell me," Wittgenstein's asked a friend, "why do people always say, it was natural for man to assume that the sun went round the earth rather than that the earth was rotating?" His friend replied, "Well, obviously because it just looks as though the Sun is going round the Earth." Wittgenstein replied, "Well, what would it have looked like if it had looked as though the Earth was rotating?

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    Humans were too stupid to be able to imagine / visualize a ball of rock 8000 miles across spinning 100 million miles away from a million mile wide hydrogen bomb that has been exploding for 5 billion years. Pathetic!
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jun 19 at 11:14
  • Much wisdom in the LW quote. We moderns assume that geocentrism is false, heliocenrrism true. And forget geocentrism — the sun rises every morning in the east and sets every evening in the west — is and has always been sensorially true. Which is in a very real way a more true truth than theoretical truth. I v much doubt whether even among capable physicists, many can do the work of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton starting from first principles. For most of us heliocentrism is true by authoritative fiat
    – Rushi
    Commented Jun 19 at 12:24
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    @Rushi for most of us, most things are true by authoritative fiat, but that doesn't make them actually authoritative fiat. A little history of astronomy, for example, will demonstrate how complicated geocentrism became when when they kept on carefully observing the planets: Ptolemy's spheres within spheres within spheres got really complicated. Kepler's laws profoundly simplified "the world" while still matching observation. (Ockham for the win!) Thus... not authoritative fiat.
    – RonJohn
    Commented Jun 19 at 14:09
  • @RonJohn There is also Dirac: It is more important to have beauty in one's equations than to have them fit experiment Many more eg Hermann Weyl My work always tried to unite the true with the beautiful, but when I had to choose one or the other, I usually chose the beautiful And now witness the beauty of Ptolemy Not that I'm less a fan of William of Ockham [From someone who loves the rising and setting sun!]
    – Rushi
    Commented Jun 19 at 14:19
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    @Rushi "A truth that's told with bad intent beats all the lies you can invent" maybe in this case?
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jun 19 at 22:29
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In (analytic?) philosophy, and maybe elsewhere (but I've only seen the phrasing here), they will talk about things like "folk psychology" or "folk ethics," as if there are default, mass-appeal theories like this. For example, in the epistemology of modality, there are claims like:

Margot Strohminger (2015) uses practical examples of modal knowledge to challenge the idea that we cannot perceive possibility. For example, at least in some instances we seem to be able to see that we can climb a tree (even if we have not yet climbed it), or that we can reach a certain mug (even though we have not yet tried). In Strohminger’s view, one literally perceives the possibility, rather than seeing something first and then making a (possibly tacit) inference on the basis of what one sees.

One might characterize the modal perceptualist(?) as reading ordinary can-talk as observationally theory-laden: it is "implicit" in thinking that I am able to do something like, "I can climb the tree," that modality as such is perceivable, or if one thought, "I have the ability to climb the true," there is a theory of reified modal objects ("abilities") that gets laden into the picture.

Borderline cases might include "folk" reactions to philosophical questions: a naive theoretical response to, "The universe is so large and repetitive!" includes, "So human life is pretty insignificant, after all." Is there a tacit or "inlaid" presupposition, here, about repetitiveness and significance? Is a resulting feeling of insignificance a sort of "emotional, but theory-laden, perception"? (How often is e.g. cognitive-behavioral therapy a way to bring to the foreground a person's subconscious assumptions such as are built into dealing with everyday life, and then to challenge these assumptions on both an abstract/intellectual as well as a concrete/practical level?)

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    Your quoted example of perceiving the possibility directly, rather than making an inference, is what I would call non-dual perception. It is what animals do much of the time, although they can end up stuck in unquestioned patterns which I would call 'theories'; that is why traps work. Humans accrete theories like a sweater collects burrs, and some landscapes have a lot more thorny things than others. Basically no one is free of these 'theories' as far as I'm concerned. Nonduality just gives one the vision to start picking them off.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jun 18 at 10:47
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    +1 "Modal perceptualist". I'm a visual thinker. Sometimes I see things before I do them. Thre seems to be an analogy between visualizing and doing to hypothesizing and then inferring to a certain conclusion. If those visualizations are motivated by theoretical descriptions, for instance, then this would be a route to theory helping me to see possibility to actually observing what has not been observed before. Thus the set of one's observations are aided by imagination built on literal linguistic theory. Interesting.
    – J D
    Commented Jun 20 at 22:48
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Regular life is our daily life: What we see, what we hear, how we handle the standard situations in life.

In these situations we operate mainly on the basis of algorithms inherited from evolution and acquired from experience. These algorithms determine our non-conscious mental processes.

Hence decisions in "regular life" are not theory-laden.

Added due to some comments: Broadly speaking, asking about being theory-laden is a concept from epistemology, while acting in regular life falls into the domain of pragmatics. The concept of “a priori” belongs to the domain of epistemology, not to pragmatics.

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    you imply many, not all, decisions are not a priori, and then state that they are non conscious, though i don't see how that follows, but it's the main inference, from not being conscious decisions, to not being theory laden, that i am really questioning; though much conscious "theorising" does not lead to action, it seems too strong to infer that it never can, perhaps even in tandem with non conscious learning
    – andrós
    Commented Jun 18 at 7:50
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    This is helpful to me. You draw a distinction between theories that we have some awareness we might be using, and ordinary unconscious priming. I lump them all together, because both are equally a hindrance to self-awareness.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jun 18 at 10:51
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    @ScottRowe The whole point (theory?!) of theory-ladenness is precisely that the distinction of academic theory vs common sense knowledge is artificial, nonsense. All our involuntary common sense (ok maybe 98%) is the carefully slogged out theory of some assiduous predecessor. Especially if ur someone who values raw self awareness you may want to remember Ramana Maharshi: You read the newspaper. Do you see the paper (and the ink)? To see the news is to be under our concepts, to see (very different tho same verb) the paper is to be aware.
    – Rushi
    Commented Jun 19 at 7:35
  • @ScottRowe Millions of ppl hate Trump (or Netanyahu or Putin or Modi or whoever). How many of those assiduous haters have met their pet? IOW how much of that hate is justified and how much primed by (theories of the) media?
    – Rushi
    Commented Jun 19 at 8:25
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    @Scott Rowe - As I boy I had no formal mystical training. I would not recognize myself or others as mystics at that time. Anyway, I would experience peak performance on academic tests or during sports activities in a trance state that modern athletes call "being in the zone" or "the zone". The human body must be like an ego-seed that enters this world with innate cognitive abilities. When the ego-seed interacts with the world it incorporates knowledge: it eats the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Ego-seed with bodily memories alters its conscious & subconscious cognitive maps. Commented Jun 19 at 16:11
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0.3 cents.

In social science this theory-ladenness is related to the social construction of reality. In the sense that parts of reality are constructed and/or perceived through social structures, relations and concepts.
One can even take theory-ladenness and social construction to interrelate directly, in the social construction of science.

In its simplest form, the social construction of science means that there is no direct [and/or unique] link between nature and our ideas about nature [..]

(emphasis, additions, mine)

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  • I'm familiar with the rhetoric surrounding the idea, I'm looking for solid examples. Commented Jun 19 at 16:16
  • According to social constructionism view it is hard to find (ordinary life) examples which are not socially theory laden. Eg from use of everyday language, to legal terminology, to gender roles ..
    – Nikos M.
    Commented Jun 19 at 16:30
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    Sometimes we learn other people's learning. We haven't got time to learn it all ourselves. Because we can model others in our minds, we can model their theories just as well. But someone else can't learn to ride a bicycle for you, AI will have us beat, there. Imagine how theory-laden they will be?
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jun 21 at 10:21
  • @ScottRowe a theory-laden AI sounds weirdly interesting..
    – Nikos M.
    Commented Jun 22 at 14:31
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You ask:

Are there good examples of regular life being theory-laden?

Yes. Consider an MRI image. You and a doctor have very different observations of the same phenomenon.

When the image is brought up on a computer, and both you and the physician are looking at the image, you both have access to the same 3rd-person phenomenon. Ceteris paribus, you both see the same light produced by the monitor. However, the theory of interpreting MRIs, let's say, understanding what particular anatomical structures look like, what abnormalities look like, what the probabilities of particular abnormalities given what they look like, and so on, will give the physician an advantage in interpreting the state of affairs of the body so imaged.

With semantic theory-ladeness, the presumptions manifest themselves as claims about meaning. You and the doctor may both see nodules, but you might be certain you "see" a growth that appears to be on the lower tip of the lungs whereas the doctor may see he might "see" possibly a gastrointestinal stromal tumor or more likely an adenocarcinoma. Thus, we note that what you and the doctor see are very different things with different meanings. There is a difference in location, a difference in certainty, and a difference in events itself. It may seem silly to second guess a doctor, but people second guess all sorts of experts: climate scientists, evolutionary biologists, and doctors and dentists, on a regular basis.

But to boot, there may actually be a perceptual difference in what is perceived, because the expert in this circumstance has a trained eye. He doesn't just see light and dark spots, splotches, bunches, and swirls, he sees histological nuance so that his literal attention and perception functions differently. And a GP of 10 years of practice may not even be as expert as her colleague, the histologist of 40 years of practice in observing. We often suffer from observational blind spots when we don't know things even exist. A certified arborist can have meaningful perception of a tree in a way the average person cannot. A soil scientist can measure and describe the soil in ways the average farmer cannot. A computer scientist can glance at code and see functional design patterns and separation of concerns where the introductory programmer might not.

These differences are based on our theoretical apparatuses because one cannot see or understand observations independent of the effects that having complex language constructs provide. Highly religious people see religious events, and scientific people see scientific events. That's why when people witnessed "Our Lady of Fatima", some saw God at work, and others normal celestial mechanisms, and still others may have considered it beings from an H.G. Wells novel. We can all agree it's a piece of overcooked toast, but otherwise see very different things.

Fighting against this philsophical urge to accept the Myth of the Given was a defining moment in the philosophy of science and brought about the end of logical positivism and observation statements; and there's a lot of empirical evidence to support the idea that we construct our realities within certain parameters. Pareidolia is just one example of how a belief in the tuatha de danann can quite literally lead the visual system towards literally observing them.

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  • We make the world in our image.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jun 21 at 2:42
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A person with prejudices against a group, for example somebody with racist tendencies, would probably be more likely to notice the race of somebody doing something, be it positive or negative. Whereas a person without those tendencies could miss to observe this.

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  • Why was this downvoted? It was a credible attempt to actually give an example. Commented Jun 19 at 16:17
  • People often don't see the gorilla.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jun 21 at 2:48
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One day, Alfred Korzybski was giving a lecture to a group of students, and he interrupted the lesson suddenly in order to retrieve a packet of biscuits, wrapped in white paper, from his briefcase. He muttered that he just had to eat something, and he asked the students on the seats in the front row if they would also like a biscuit. A few students took a biscuit. "Nice biscuit, don't you think," said Korzybski, while he took a second one. The students were chewing vigorously.

Then he tore the white paper from the biscuits, in order to reveal the original packaging. On it was a big picture of a dog's head and the words "Dog Cookies." The students looked at the package, and were shocked. Two of them wanted to vomit, put their hands in front of their mouths, and ran out of the lecture hall to the toilet.

Korzybski remarked:

You see, we have just demonstrated that people don't just eat food, but also words, and that the taste of the former is often outdone by the taste of the latter.

Wikipedia

Now ask yourself why don't we hear more about Korzybski on sites like this one?
Is it possible it's something to do with the fact that he has no entry on SEP or IEP, ie. his reputation as a propah philosopher is not... ahem... propah?

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  • I wouldn't want to see the evaluations his students gave at the end of the term. They would probably stink. Sometimes you can make your point a little too well. And, obligatory: This does not provide an answer to the question :-)
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jun 21 at 2:45
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    Didnt quite get your second sentence @ScottRowe
    – Rushi
    Commented Jun 21 at 3:01

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