Question: When is it appropriate to assign the property "hypothetically observable" to a thing?

The set up is that someone is discussing an object that they claim has some sort of existence. Maybe it is claimed to be made of an unknown and undescribed type of matter or stuff, maybe it is claimed to exist in some alternate dimension or universe. I'm being quite loose with the language here.

I am concerned with the best usage of language, especially regarding delineating what is scientific/empirical and what is not.

To call a thing "hypothetically observable" seems to require at least some basic explanation about how that thing might be observed. I can't just say "unicorns are hypothetically observable because they are biological organisms." There is no evidence of their existence, so the statement is somewhat meaningless. It would be ok to say "if unicorns are biological creatures, then they are hypothetically observable." Since we know that biological creatures satisfy known physical properties required for observation. Of course, the unicorns may live in a far away galaxy and such observation might never occur, nevertheless, it is hypothetically possible, say, if we were to build a suitable spaceship and travel to their planet.

Consider: "proto-electro-ino particles are hypothetically observable because they are a type of matter." It may very well be the case that "proto-electro-ino" particles are a predicted by a future theory, at which point they could be called hypothetically observable. And once they are observed, we would call them "observable." However, in absence of any theory, it is meaningless to call them real observable things. No one would know what you are talking about!

  • If you are going to be half this fussy, only effects, and not objects are strictly observable, right? We can deduce the existence of objects from the observation of the effects, and the theory that explains the effects in terms of those objects. So the very best use of language would not have gotten you here to begin with. I observe a squarish red spot on my retinal map and the best explanation I have is that there is a grain silo. Is the silo observed? Given that, why be half this fussy? – jobermark May 31 '16 at 16:42
  • Sure, we could say that we only observe our perceptions and beyond that it's imagination. But in science, something is said to "exist" when it (or its effects) is observed. So if someone is to claim that something is "hypothetically observable", what exactly does that mean? Does it mean "I am pretending it is observable", "I have a reasonable explanation on how it might be observable", or "I have a strong theory that states it is observable"? Certainly it can mean either case, colloquially, but which is best philosophically? Maybe this not a question appropriate for philosophy.SE? – jdods May 31 '16 at 17:07
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    It is a reasonable question. I am just trying to feel out the boundaries of the question, and better understand the motivation (perhaps at too much length). I almost asked the exact opposite -- "Weren't those unicorns I hallucinated last night observed?" You are totally fair to assume "This is hypothetically observable" means there is a scientific hypothesis under which there would be effects best explained by presuming the existence of this object -- but only if your interlocutor is acting in the spirit of modern science. – jobermark May 31 '16 at 17:11
  • If you would type something to that effect, I would accept it as an answer. I think that is the issue at hand. I'm fine to discuss anything, even pure imagination. But if empirical reality is to be part of that discussion, then my view is that we need to be extremely strict about what we call "empirical" or even "empirical in principle". Even acting in the spirit of a careful metaphysician, one should be able to distinguish between the classes "observable", "hypothetically observable due to theory", "no theory is known to predict observation". – jdods May 31 '16 at 18:06
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    Google "gedanken experiment" for lots of discussion about what you're asking. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heisenberg's_microscope is perhaps the most well-known example. – John Forkosh Jun 1 '16 at 5:49

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