I saw What is the difference between a "model" and a "theory"?, where it says, like Wikipedia says, that a scientific theory is a well-tested and thoroughly researched explanation for reality, while a model sort of simplifies down a theory (perhaps) so it can make calculations. I am not a fan of the word theory because it is taken to mean a "guess" by the general public. Is there a word that combines what model and theory aim to describe, maybe mixing in their the idea of "hypothesis" as well? Perhaps it could just be called an "explanation", like "special explanation of relativity" or "darwin's explanation of evolution", but that word comes with the connotation of it being a subjective explanation, so I'm not sure what could be best. Model sounds best, the "model of the universe", or the "model of computation" vs. the "theory of computation", model feels more concrete and grounded, and that it accurately represents reality. Is there a better word?

Maybe that word is, "science"?

Is the atomic orbital a "theory" or a "science"? How about spacetime, I am not sure. Or maybe "understanding" is the right word.

Here we have:

A theory is a coherent explanation or interpretation of one or more phenomena. A model is a precise explanation or interpretation of a specific phenomenon—often expressed in terms of equations, computer programs, or biological structures and processes.

Seems pretty much the same to me there.

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    In my opinion a theory aspires to be an exact explanation, while a model is simply something that gives useful results , without claiming reality actually works that way
    – Nikos M.
    Commented Jul 7, 2022 at 18:50
  • I just can't get past the fact that the public understanding of the term is a "guess".
    – Lance
    Commented Jul 7, 2022 at 19:22
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    "Theory" means different things in different context, and I think the general public understands that. What many don't understand is that even within a single field, different authors sometimes use terms like "theory" and "model" differently. There is no single universal definition. Commented Jul 8, 2022 at 10:59
  • Philosophy has shown beyond any doubt that we can't actually know anything, so the only remaining category is "guesses".
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jul 14, 2022 at 20:56
  • Note the critical difference above is the word specific for model… Commented Jul 15, 2022 at 3:02

3 Answers 3


First — although it pains me to say it — the philosophy of science is a politically contentious issue, and so Wikipedia cannot be trusted as a source of information. Put bluntly, the distinction you cited above — that "a scientific theory is a well-tested and thoroughly researched explanation for reality, while a model sort of simplifies down a theory..." — is odd and biased. Every scientific theory is a model of reality, and while different models may have different amounts of empirical evidence and different degrees of elaboration, there's no distinction 'in kind' between a model and a theory. It's like the difference between a 'car' and a 'sports car': one may be mechanically more advanced, but they both do essentially the same thing.

As to why the philosophy of science is so politically contentious... Ugh. Another question for another day.

I'm partial to the older (out-of-use) term 'Natural Law', with the understanding that such is a law humans have constructed to capture and utilize an observed regularity in the behavior of the natural world. Like juridical laws, natural laws are our best understanding at a given time, and may change or evolve as we confront new problems. A theory, then, is something proposed as a natural law, subject to examination and analysis, and a hypothesis is a practical extension of a theory used to generate empirical evidence about the theory. All of these are models.

For what it's worth, an 'explanation' is something else entirely. It's a rhetorical process by which we argue, defend, define, or discuss one of the above models. Models that lack or resist explanation are usually dogmatic articles of faith, and science is built on a rejection of dogmatism, so most scientific efforts require explanation at every level.

  • Odd and biased? "A presupposition of most recent discussion has been that science sometimes provides explanations (rather than something that falls short of explanation—e.g., “mere description”) and that the task of a “theory” or “model” of scientific explanation is to characterize the structure of such explanations." (Mathematical and logical) models as mechanisms to bolster theories to buttress explanation seems to be the norm according to SEP and Blackwell. Math models used to support natural selection help explain evolution, no?
    – J D
    Commented Jul 14, 2022 at 20:37
  • @JD: The bias in Wikipedia is the apparent effort of the (currently dominant) editors to paint a 'scientific theory' as something stronger and more robust than a 'model', when in fact (as SEP points out) 'theory' and 'model' are at very least synonyms, and (in my view) a theory is merely a model under certain forms of empirical investigation. I could argue with parts of that SEP article (effectively, mind you), but no one asked me to do that there, and I'm not doing it here. Commented Jul 15, 2022 at 4:26
  • @JD: The problem is that Wikipedia has a strong cohort of editors who are deeply committed to scientism in its worst sense, and who edit accordingly. That introduces a fairly significant 'ontological' bias: that 'science' is 'true'; that unorthodox ideas are 'anti-science' and thus 'false'; that proponents of unorthodox ideas range from the deeply ignorant to the overtly evil; that all such must be suppressed for the good of the hapless reader. On many pages of W, 'science' is dogmatic canon, and its priests are ever-vigilant for heretics. It would be funny if it weren't so sad. Commented Jul 15, 2022 at 4:36
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    Thanks for taking the time to respond.
    – J D
    Commented Jul 15, 2022 at 12:45

Scientific truths are tentative. The positive side of theory as 'a guess' is rememberance of that. Often mathematical truths are confounded with scientific ones, for instance in regard of computation and logic.

There's a curious assumption people make that words have a single 'objective' meaning, and that it has always meant that. Words are involved in and affected by social change.

“For a large class of cases of the employment of the word ‘meaning’—though not for all—this word can be explained in this way: the meaning of a word is its use in the language” -Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations 43

"In this sort of predicament, always ask yourself: How did we learn the meaning of this word ("good", for instance)? From what sort of examples? In what language-games? Then it will be easier for you to see that the word must have a family of meanings." -Wittgenstein, in Philosophical Investigations 54

In this light, I'm a big fan of going to etymology, so we can catch the development of a word in motion.

Theory (n.) 1590s, "conception, mental scheme," from Late Latin theoria (Jerome), from Greek theōria "contemplation, speculation; a looking at, viewing; a sight, show, spectacle, things looked at," from theōrein "to consider, speculate, look at," from theōros "spectator," from thea "a view" (see theater) + horan "to see," which is possibly from PIE root *wer- (3) "to perceive." Philosophy credits sense evolution in the Greek word to Pythagoras.

Earlier in this sense was theorical (n.), late 15c. Sense of "principles or methods of a science or art" (rather than its practice) is first recorded 1610s (as in music theory, which is the science of musical composition, apart from practice or performance). Sense of "an intelligible explanation based on observation and reasoning" is from 1630s.

It began as a process of reasoning in contemplation of a topic or subject, in Greek thought. With the rise of science, it began to mean a systemisation. Increasingly it has taken on a more specific technical sense of a particular model and it's specific predictions. But that is the most recent development of the term. It's notable that 'theoretical' always means something like 'a guess'.

There are different modes of explanation, and in everyday discourse they may involve unfalsifiable elements. Science has been about progressive constraint on what explanations are considerex good. There just aren't hard boundaries with model and theory, without giving context. I think of Plato's mode of explanation when he related the solar system to musical notes and Platonic Solids, "As the eyes, said I, seem formed for studying astronomy, so do the ears seem formed for harmonious motions: and these seem to be twin sciences to one another, as also the Pythagoreans say" (in The Republic). Consider also reductionism, and What's the "opposite" of emergence?

Kuhn's analysis of paradigms, gets at how there are systems of theories, which constitute the picture of a scientific practice in era by it's practicioners, and that this can change discontinuously. This can be linked to worldview (Which philosophers and philosophies discuss "worldview epistemologies"?) and Foucault's picture of epistemes as the guiding unconsciousness of subjectivity within a given epoch. I mention these, because understanding what commitments a given theory/model/explanation/hypothesis is making, is still in a process of being examined and understood, and changing. In the end, we must relate them to our whole meaning-cosmology (Can the Universe make sense at all?), and so to situating ourselves in the cosmos - and so, to what we ourselves are. You simply cannot 'cut off' a hypothesis or model from who we are, in a deeper sense. It comes down to when you feel a given 'Why?' question has been satisfactorily responded to: "Why ask why" and its scions

I would say then, don't expect words to do the work for you, try to be clear and say what you mean.

"It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience." -Einstein, in 'On the Method of Theoretical Physics' lecture

Which is paraphrased as: State things as simply as possible, but not more simply.

  • Maybe words should have a single objective meaning? One of the first things that happens when a new field develops is to nail down the terms and usages. But weird things happen when we import words. The Spanish word on a box of brake pads in the Auto Parts store is... (Can't make myself write it.)
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jul 14, 2022 at 21:03
  • @ScottRowe: Hofstadter described 'Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking'. A correspondance or picture theory of where meaning comes from doesn't work, it makes language users into Chinese Rooms. Science is principally constituted of, defined by, it's contextual refinements of terms. & advances will follow, by careful speech. Language develops, & embodies collective-intelligence advances in so doing, by organising salience landscapes. See: 'Language, thought, cognition' philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/91087/… Also, 'frenos'...?
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Jul 15, 2022 at 0:06
  • I agree that humans principally think by analogy. But analogies don't have to have words involved. Visual arts and music riff on things that are in no way verbal. Words stand for things though, and if the signposts blow in the wind, it's not too helpful. Where I live, the names of streets change every few blocks. It seems utterly demented. London is also like that. Where I grew up, streets and roads usually had the same name for a county or more. Interstate highway designations can span the continent. If you are communicating in a technical field, lives can be at stake. (The word was 'pad'.)
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jul 15, 2022 at 1:27
  • On words having a single defined meaning: existentialcomics.com/comic/170
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Jul 19, 2022 at 11:41
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    @ScottRowe: Mind begins outside of abstract conceptual thought - but it's a mind that belongs to no one. Analogies are the core of abstracting conceptualising comparing, that we use to generate overlays on top of experience to make sense of it, but that distance us from it. Begin by returning to this very moment itself, which is no-mind, & so universal mind. "When love & hate are both absent, everything becomes clear & undisguised. Make the smallest distinction, however, and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart. If you wish to see the truth, then hold no opinions for or against anything"
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Aug 17, 2022 at 14:53

Yes. The stronger terminology is scientific law. A law purports to be more credible than a theory. From WP:

Scientific laws or laws of science are statements, based on repeated experiments or observations, that describe or predict a range of natural phenomena.1 The term law has diverse usage in many cases (approximate, accurate, broad, or narrow) across all fields of natural science (physics, chemistry, astronomy, geoscience, biology). Laws are developed from data and can be further developed through mathematics; in all cases they are directly or indirectly based on empirical evidence. It is generally understood that they implicitly reflect, though they do not explicitly assert, causal relationships fundamental to reality, and are discovered rather than invented.2

For instance, one might read about the laws of gravity. It's my impression, however, that the terminology isn't as popular as it once was out of a recognition of fallibilism. On page 213, Rom Harre states in his article "Laws of Nature" in Blackwell's Companion to the Philosophy of Science:

Most philosophers now believe that the laws play no part in the genesis of natural regularities or the natural tendencies that are displayed in them.

This is a shift in language usage in the scientific community by which one observes that the "theory of evolution", which is perhaps one of the strongest supported theories in the history of science, is still a theory and not a law. Scientists have gotten more sophisticated in realizing that scientific language is itself a model of physical reality. Such a belief would be consistent with broader metaphysical views that argue for representational theories of the mind.

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