In mathematics, theory is used informally to refer to a body of knowledge about mathematics. This knowledge consists of axioms, definitions, theorems and computational techniques all related in some way by tradition or practice. Examples include group theory, set theory, Lebesgue integration theory and field theory.
The term "theory" also has a formal usage in mathematics, particularly in mathematical logic and model theory: A theory is set of statements closed under certain rules of inference. In particular the set of well-formed formulae consisting of certain axioms and all theorems provable from said axioms is a theory. Gödel's incompleteness theorem states that no theory (formalized using a consistent set of axioms in First-order logic), that defines the concept of natural numbers, can include all true statements.
In the hard sciences, a theory is a model or framework for understanding. In physics, the term theory generally is taken to mean mathematical framework derived from a small set of basic principles capable of producing experimental predictions for a given category of physical systems. An example would be "electromagnetic theory", which is usually taken to be synonymous with classical electromagnetism, the specific results of which can be derived from Maxwell's equations.
The term theoretical to describe certain phenomena often indicates that a particular result has been predicted by theory but has not yet been observed. For example, until recently, black holes were considered theoretical. It is not uncommon in the history of physics for theory to produce such predictions that are later confirmed by experiment, but failed predictions do occur. Conversely, at any time in the study of physics, there can also be confirmed experimental results which are not yet explained by theory.
For a given body of theory to be considered part of established knowledge, it is usually necessary for the theory to characterize a critical experiment, that is, an experimental result which cannot be predicted by any established theory.
The word ‘theory’ derives from the Greek ‘theorein’, which means ‘to look at’. According to some sources, it was used frequently in terms of ‘looking at’ a theatre stage, which may explain why sometimes the word ‘theory’ is used as something provisional or not quite real. The term ‘theoria’ (the noun) was already used by the ancient Greeks.
In the humanities, theory is often used as an abbreviation for critical theory or literary theory, referring to continental philosophy's aesthetics or its attempts to understand the structure of society and to conceptualize alternatives. In philosophy, theoreticism refers to the overuse of theory.
Humans construct theories in order to explain, predict and master phenomena (e.g. inanimate things, events, or the behaviour of animals). In many instances, it is seen to be a model of reality. A theory makes generalizations about observations and consists of an interrelated, coherent set of ideas.
A theory has to be something which is in some way testable; for example, one can theorize that an apple will fall when dropped, and then drop an apple, to see what happens. Many scientists, but not all, argue that religious beliefs are not testable, and thus not theories, because they are matters of faith.
According to Stephen Hawking in A Brief History of Time, "a theory is a good theory if it satisfies two requirements: It must accurately describe a large class of observations on the basis of a model that contains only a few arbitrary elements, and it must make definite predictions about the results of future observations." He goes on to state..."Any physical theory is always provisional, in the sense that it is only a hypothesis; you can never prove it. No matter how many times the results of experiments agree with some theory, you can never be sure that the next time the result will not contradict the theory. On the other hand, you can disprove a theory by finding even a single observation that disagrees with the predictions of the theory."
There are two uses of the word theory; a supposition which is not backed by observation is known as a conjecture, and if backed by observation it is a hypothesis. Most theory evolves from hypotheses, but the reverse is not true: many hypotheses turn out to be false and so do not evolve into theory.
A theory is different from a theorem. The former is a model of physical events and cannot be proved from basic axioms. The latter is a statement of mathematical fact which logically follows from a set of axioms. A theory is also different from a physical law in that the former is a model of reality whereas the latter is a statement of what has been observed.
Theories can become accepted if they are able to make correct predictions and avoid incorrect ones. Theories which are simpler, and more mathematically elegant, tend to be accepted over theories which are complex. Theories are more likely to be accepted if they connect a wide range of phenomena. The process of accepting theories, or of extending existing theory, is part of the scientific method.
Further explanation of a scientific theory
In common usage a theory is often viewed as little more than a guess or a hypothesis. But in science and generally in academic usage, a theory is much more than that. A theory is an established paradigm that explains all or many of the data we have and offers valid predictions that can be tested. In science, a theory can never be proven true, because we can never assume we know all there is to know. Instead, theories remain standing until they are disproven, at which point they are thrown out altogether or modified to fit the additional data.
Theories start out with empirical observations such as “sometimes water turns into ice.” At some point, there is a need or curiosity to find out why this is, which leads to a theoretical/scientific phase. In scientific theories, this then leads to research, in combination with auxiliary and other hypotheses (see scientific method), which may then eventually lead to a theory. Some scientific theories (such as the theory of gravity) are so widely accepted that they are often seen as laws. This, however, rests on a mistaken assumption of what theories and laws are. Theories and laws are not rungs in a ladder of truth, but different sets of data. A law is a general statement based on observations.
Some examples of theories that have been disproved are Lamarckism and the geocentric universe theory. Sufficient evidence has been described to declare these theories false, as they have no evidence supporting them and better explanations have taken their place.
Often the statement "Well, it's just a theory," is used to dismiss controversial theories such as evolution, but this is largely due to confusion between the scientific use of the word theory and its more informal use as a synonym for "speculation" or "conjecture." In science, a body of descriptions of knowledge is usually only called a theory once it has a firm empirical basis, i.e., it
- is consistent with pre-existing theory to the extent that the pre-existing theory was experimentally verified, though it will often show pre-existing theory to be wrong in an exact sense,
- is supported by many strands of evidence rather than a single foundation, ensuring that it probably is a good approximation if not totally correct,
- has survived many critical real world tests that could have proven it false,
- makes predictions that might someday be used to disprove the theory, and
- is the best known explanation, in the sense of Occam's Razor, of the infinite variety of alternative explanations for the same data.
This is true of such established theories as evolution, special and general relativity, quantum mechanics (with minimal interpretation), plate tectonics, etc.
Theories exist not only in the so-called 'hard sciences' but in all fields of academic study, from philosophy to music to literature.
Unfortunately, the usage of the term is muddled by cases such as string theory and "theories of everything," each probably better characterized at present as a bundle of competing hypotheses for a protoscience. A hypothesis, however, is still vastly more reliable than a conjecture, which is at best an untested guess consistent with selected data, and is often a belief based on non-repeatable experiments, anecdotes, popular opinion, "wisdom of the ancients," commercial motivation, or mysticism.
A good example of a non-scientific "theory" is Intelligent Design. Likewise, other claims such as homeopathy are also not scientific theories, but pseudoscience.