Why do we call "A or B Theories of Time" instead of "A or B Hypotheses of Time" when the concepts are not yet proven by empirical evidence?

We know,

hypothesis: a supposition or proposed explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for further investigation.

theory: a supposition or a system of ideas intended to explain something, especially one based on general principles independent of the thing to be explained.

The concept of "A/B Theories of Time" is not yet confirmed by empirical evidence and yet described as a theory. Is this an accident or is there a deeper philosophical reason?

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    Originally, they were not scientific theories but philosophical ones and in philosophy the distinction theory/hypothesis is not so relevant. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Sep 25 '20 at 13:24
  • It looks like this is a simple essay and certainly not in the scientific literature. But more to practicality, even scientists improperly use the term "hypothesis" and "theory." – Stuart Robbins Sep 25 '20 at 19:40
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    In common parlance among non-scientists the word theory is often used in regards to both theories and hypothesizes. – Swami Vishwananda Sep 26 '20 at 4:35
  • Excellent question which explores the linguistic borders of science, philosophy of science, and metaphilosophy! – J D Sep 28 '20 at 7:50

Short Answer

'Theory' is used by both scientists and philosophers, and the nature of space and time is still very much the domain of the philosophy of science, as opposed to science proper.

Long Answer

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the vernacular 'theory' comes from Latin:

1590s, "conception, mental scheme," from Late Latin theoria (Jerome)

The language communities of science took that term, and adopted it to their own needs as often done by technical disciplines when creating their own technical language to eliminate linguistic ambiguity. Thus, closely related parallel usage remains. The nature of time is still very much a topic for discourse in the philosophy of science and as such propositions about the nature of space and time are very much alive metaphysically. Argument of what is the essence of space-time is still a question for the philosophy of space and time, and while physics deepens our conceptual understanding, it does not replace it.

Words often vary historically in meaning and multiple senses often emerge to be used in slightly different ways. The nature of time, despite its use as a fundamental unit in physics, is still highly metaphysically charged. As one of the SI base units, time is taken as a conceptual primitive. Philosophy is still a means by which primary concepts in other fields are examined, and time is no different. When one asks "what is time?", one has left physics proper and entered into the discipline of philosophy of science. Time is not only used as a primitive in physics, but in chemistry, biology, and any science derived from or related to them. Psychologists have an interest in the neurobiological origins of time because time is related to perception. One very famous philosopher who has a very specific reading of time is Daniel Dennett who in his Consciousness Explained devotes an entire explanation in Chapter 6, Time and Experience. Philosophy of mind is greatly interested in the relationship between the phenomenological and what Dennett calls heterophenomenological (read objective) aspects of time. Even if one grants that empirical studies of how the brain behaves while the mind experiences time inform, they wouldn't be able to account for the experience and conceptualization of time fully.


Technically speaking, the term 'hypothesis' refers to a claim derived from a theory, particularly one that is subject to testing. A theory is (as a rule) too broad and general to be tested in and of itself. A hypothesis becomes an exemplar of the theory — an expression of the theory as applied to a specific context — which can then be put into practice. For instance:

  • Theory (evolution): living creatures slowly change over time, adapting to environmental conditions though a process of selection.
  • Hypothesis (bird/dinosaur connection): the last remnants of dinosaurs led to modern birds after a process of selective evolution.

The main difference is that a theory stands on its own, describing a fundamental process in general and abstract terms, while a hypothesis is a speculation about how a theory applies to a real-world context. In the given case, a claim about the philosophical nature of time is best thought of as a theory, since it doesn't seem to based in some broader, more fundamental claim.

Of course, the two terms are often conflated in colloquial language (and sometimes even in scientific language). Someone investigation the bird/dinosaur lineage might think of it as a theory because she is deriving further hypotheses from it (hypotheses about, say, bone morphology), and because she is taking evolution as a pre-given 'fact', not thinking about it as a more general theory. Language is messy and imprecise. It wouldn't necessarily be wrong to talk about A/B-hypotheses, but A/B-theories seems a better fit.

  • You might try to mean “law” instead of the term “hypothesis”. In reality, science we know hypotheses come first which are falsifiable speculation on a observed fact in reality. Then only the tested hypotheses are declared as theories. How come hypotheses come from theories when we had been knowing the opposite? – Sazzad Hissain Khan Sep 26 '20 at 13:40
  • @SazzadHissainKhan: I can't identify what philosophy of science perspective you're working form (aside from the oblique reference to Popper), and no phil-sci perspective I'm aware of puts hypotheses as primary. In reality, we make speculations based on reality, yes, but those are generally referred to as 'theories'. hypotheses don't arise until we have a theory to test. – Ted Wrigley Sep 26 '20 at 15:48

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