The spectrum of science to fantasy

A question long argued in the philosophy of science is the demarcation problem.  How to we distinguish science from non-science?  Karl Popper famously proposed falsifiability as a criteria.  To be science, a theory must make predictions that could turn out to be wrong.  It must be falsifiable.  Theories that are amorphous or flexible enough to never encounter this test, aren’t scientific.  This standard was famously sharp enough to cull Marxism and Freudean psychoanalysis from science.

Falsifiability has a lot going for it, but it also has a lot of issues.  For one, when we say “falsifiable”, do we mean falsifiable in practice today?  If so, then a lot of exploratory work done by scientists is non-science.  This would include Copernicus’ work on heliocentrism, Albert Einstein’s work on relativity, or Peter Higgs and colleagues’ work on the Higgs mechanism.  None of these theories were testable while these scientists were working on them.  In the case of Copernicus and Higgs, it was several decades before they became testable, that is, falsifiable.

Reportedly, Popper was actually more careful than this.  His proposed standard was falsifiable in principle.  So to be scientific, a theory must be testable in some foreseeable manner.

But even this can be problematic.  August Comte infamously predicted in 1835 that we would never know the composition of the stars.  Speculation seemed pointless.  But within a few decades, stellar spectroscopy was developed and we did actually start to learn about stellar composition.  Likewise, when Einstein, Podolsky, and Rosen published their paper in 1935 on the EPR paradox, it was criticized by many as metaphysical navel-gazing, until John Stewart Bell figured out a way to test it 29 years later.

On top of this, as Sabine Hossenfelder recently pointed out, new theories can be about existing data.  If the new theory explains the existing data better than an established theory, that is with fewer assumptions and perhaps simpler constructs, then it may replace that older theory, without ever producing its own unique falsifiable predictions.

Even more problematic, many successful scientific theories, while having reliably testable predictions, also have predictions that can’t currently be tested.  For several decades, general relativity predicted gravitational waves, but they were only actually detected a few years ago. From what I understand, aspects of the role of pressure in general relativity remain untested.

And every scientific theory is essentially a metaphysical statement, a conclusion, or series of conclusions reached inductively.  Anyone who has studied epistemology is familiar with the problem of induction, most famously analogized by black swans.

All of which means that the dividing line isn’t sharp, but long and blurry and requires a lot of judgment.  I tend to think, rather than a sharp demarcation, it’s better to think in terms of a spectrum.

  1. Reliable models
  2. Rigorous exploration
  3. Loose speculation
  4. Falsified notions

1-Reliable models, are the ones most clearly science, and represents the most successful theories, such as general relativity, quantum mechanics, natural selection, etc.  Often the predictions of these theories are reliable enough for technology to be built using them.

I considered calling 1 “settled science”, but that implies that successful theories are never overturned.  Most famously, Newton’s laws of gravity reigned for centuries, before Einstein overturned them with general relativity.  However, Newton’s laws remain reliable enough that NASA mission planners use them for most of their calculations.  Newton’s laws are no longer the most reliable model, but they remain very reliable for many purposes.  Which is to say, very successful theories, at least the mathematical components, are unlikely to ever be completely dismissed.

2-Rigorous exploration, is disciplined theoretical speculation.  As noted above, scientists have to have space to work in this realm, since too many theories in 1 began here.  But what characterizes rigorous exploration from the next category is that these theories are either extrapolations from theories in 1, or tight speculation involving one or a few assumptions, assumptions narrowly motivated to fit the data.

3-Loose speculation is where I think there start to be legitimate concerns about whether what’s happening is scientific.  In this category, there may be numerous assumptions, with each assumption an opportunity to be wrong.  Or the assumptions may be motivated by a desire for a certain outcome, not to explain the data, but perhaps to meet personal biases and intuitions.

I gave examples of 2 above.  For 3, based on what I’ve read, string theory arguably belongs in this category.  I think some other speculative notions, such as many exotic theories of consciousness, belong here too.

Many people would relegate all multiverse theories here, but I think they have to be looked at on a case by case basis, since some are either extrapolations of successful theories, or have minimal assumptions, and a strong case can be made for them being in 2.  (None are currently in 1.)

But I would include Tegmark’s mathematical universe hypothesis in 3, along with a lot of other philosophical metaphysical speculation.  This is often stuff that, strictly speaking isn’t impossible, but has non-data motivated assumptions and is the hardest to imagine ever being testable.

4-Falsified notions, the last category, is, simply put, fantasy.  Generally for this stuff to be reality would require that one or more theories in 1 be wrong.  Astrology, paranormal claims, creationism, intelligent design, and a lot of similar notions go here.  If it’s presented as science then it’s fake science, pseudoscience.

Only 1 represents a reliable view of reality.  But as noted above, this is science, and nothing is immune from possibly being overturned on new data.

2 represents what I often refer to as candidates for reality.  Many will be right, others wrong, but we can’t currently know which is which.

3 might, in principle, turn out to be reality, but the probability is very low, low enough that the skeptic in me tends to just assume they’re wrong.

And 4 is the province of honest entertainers or dishonest charlatans.

It’s worth noting that even putting theories into these categories takes judgment, and many might sit on the boundaries.

But I think the main takeaway is that just because something isn’t in 1, doesn’t mean the only other option is 4.  It’s not just reliable science or fantasy.  There’s a space for exploratory science at least.  I’m actually pretty sure science as an overall enterprise wouldn’t work without that exploratory space.

Unless of course I’m missing something?  Am I being too permissive with these categories?  Not permissive enough?  Or just missing the ball entirely?

28 thoughts on “The spectrum of science to fantasy

  1. I actually like your scheme … and, of course, people will discuss how one draws the lines between the four categories.

    Re “If so, then a lot of exploratory work done by scientists is non-science. This would include Copernicus’ work on heliocentrism, Albert Einstein’s work on relativity, or Peter Higgs and colleagues’ work on the Higgs mechanism.” In the development of any scientific theory, one has to postulate it first, as you note. One can make an argument that the math requires such and such or the evidence requires such and such. You are not offering proof at this stage, you are offering a target. Poppers short definition of science “speculation and criticism” basically requires the communication of the speculations in order to attract the attention necessary for the criticism.

    And, Einstein himself regard some of the speculations around him, such as some in quantum theory, as being “fantasy,” that is not based in reality. It is a common trope for scientists to characterize other scientists speculations as being fantasy. Whether they are or are not is determined by whether they survive the criticism. Obviously attempts to refute that fail offer confirmatory support.

    I think your scheme might help non-scientists to keep score but I am not sure that is wise or needed. It seems, such as in the topics of climate change and the theory of evolution, that people who choose not to believe are impervious to facts or arguments and, thus choose religious faith (no evidence needed) over ordinary faith (based upon evidence).

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks Steve. I agree that this kind of scheme isn’t going to do anything for people who are firmly anti-science. A creationist or flat Earther isn’t going to look at this, realize how far down the list they are, and mend their ways. No, they’ll just say the list is bogus.

      This is more aimed at the crowd concerned about which theories are or are not scientific.

      The problem, as you noted, is that people often characterize their rivals’ theories as fantasy, and are motivated to find whatever philosophy puts their own theories on the science side and their rivals on the other side. Human nature I fear. But criticism has a way of keeping us more honest. Sometimes.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t think you’re being too permissive. This is a wonderful way to think about science. There absolutely needs to be some space for exploratory science, as you call it. But I really like what you said about #4: falsified notions, the part where you said these would require at lease one reliable model from #1 to be wrong. That’s really why a lot of pseudoscience falls apart, in my mind. Even if I wanted to, I just can’t reconcile something like astrology with everything else we know currently about our Solar System or space in general.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks James.

      I didn’t discover astrology until long after I had a basic knowledge of the solar system. So right from the beginning, it seemed dubious, the idea that where Saturn happened to be in the sky made any difference down here. Now knowing history, I can see how people might have bought it when we thought Saturn actually passed over us, but I can also see why astrology fell from repute in the 17th century.

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  3. No disagreement from me! 😉

    Tegmark calls your #1 “consensus reality” — stuff we generally all agree seems (provisionally) correct. I might suggest a middle one: Thoughtful, Informed Speculation. Not as careful as a rigorous, but not loose, either. Some of the Penrose stuff, for instance, seems kinda middle to me.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Ah, I’d forgotten about Tegmark’s term. All I could remember was Baggott’s “authorized version of reality” or something along those lines. “Consensus” works too. But I like “reliable” because it allows me to keep something like Newton’s laws in, even though the consensus is now that they don’t represent ultimate reality.

      On Penrose, yeah, this is the judgment part. In my mind, based on the talk’s I’ve watched him give, I have him pretty solidly in 3. But maybe if I’d read him at length I’d feel differently.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Penrose is definitely a mixed bag. He’s revered rightfully for his mathematics work, but he’s not afraid to venture out on some limbs. (I just checked his book, Cycles of Time out from the Cloud Library.)


        1. I’ll say this for Penrose. In the talks I watched, he was pretty honest that his views on consciousness come from a strong feeling that it must be that way. (I saw Tegmark exude similar honesty about why he thinks the MUH is true.) I respect that he didn’t pretend it was something else.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. A couple of thoughts.

    I’m beginning to doubt some Occam’s Razor or Principle of Parsimony as necessarily a good standard. It seems our minds generally want to look for simple connections so the argument that simpler is better may actually be playing to a blind spot in our cognition. I also can’t see necessarily there should be an expectation that the everything in the world should be explainable in a simple way.

    By exotic theories of consciousness, I assume you are referring to theories such as neural identity theory and functionalism. They seem exotic to me.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The thing about parsimony, is we can always create a more elaborate theory. If we abandon it as a standard, I’m not sure what prevents us from replacing general relativity with string theory, since as string theorists point out, they make all the same predictions.

      On theories of consciousness, it all comes down to how many assumptions and whether those assumptions are motivated to fit the data. With that in mind, I put GWT in 2, although further back from 1 than the neuroscience theories it builds on. IIT on the other hand, has a lot of axioms (assumptions), so I think it belongs in 3, although closer to the 2 border than a lot of more speculative stuff.


  5. Hi Mike,

    Science is interesting to me to the extent that it reveals something true about the universe. I agree completely that science cannot proceed without the wiggle room you describe in your closing, and I think that in many ways it is too slow in some areas to offer this room to maneuver. So, while overall I like the system you’ve created, I also think it has a bias against reviewing the big picture.

    My concern with your description of Category 3, for example, is that we know several of our theories in Category 1 are incomplete. And we don’t need new data to know that, either. That doesn’t mean anything goes, obviously, but it makes the need for some wiggle room all the more necessary. Some of the greatest advances have come at the cost of notions we’ve held dear for a very long time, and I don’t personally expect that to change. To your previous post on quantum mechanics, something we’re loath to relinquish has to go…

    I think eventually something in Category 3 will be proven correct if science is to proceed in being anything but a refinement of what is already known. I personally think, for instance, that something beyond an assumption narrowly motivated to fit the data will be required if we are to ultimately reconcile General Relativity with Quantum Mechanics.

    So while the skeptic in you may choose to consider all of it dead on arrival, that attitude, generally-held, would make it all the more difficult for the right idea(s) to actually make it far enough through the process to be fairly reviewed–or more importantly, for the right thinker(s) to be afforded the career space in which to generate those ideas.

    An ancillary result of this approach is that ideas not in conflict with Category 1 theories are also dismissed, or simply not brought forward, because they are not understood as being the legitimate product of those theories. And I do think this has a braking effect on scientific innovation.


    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Michael,
      I understand where you’re coming from. I guess the question for me is, how do we do that exploration productively?

      Reality is vast, far vaster than we can imagine. But as vast as it is, it represents an infinitesimal slice of logically possible realities. So, when we project well beyond our current ability to do reality checks, we encounter an enticing array of the possible. But all but a vanishingly small portion of those possibilities will not be reality.

      Consider the proverbial looking for a needle in a large haystack. If we consider 1 to be the parts of the haystack we’ve explored so far, and 2 to be extending beyond that area in a careful methodical way, then 3 ends up being randomly poking around in the haystack in hopes of getting lucky. It’s conceivable it might work, but statistically we’re going to have to do a lot of poking before we luck out, and the chance of any one poke being the lucky one is very low.

      I’m not saying there’s no value in doing 3, but I think it should be seen as a brainstorming stage, one that we filter for possible 2 items. Where things go wrong, I think, is when people publish 3-theories and evangelize them as something other than loose speculation. Often these types of theories are emotionally comforting, which means we need to be more on guard than usual.

      All of which is to say, I think we have to be patient. Believe me, I want answers as fast as anyone, but I want reliable ones, or ones that at least have a reasonable chance of proving reliable.


  6. Mike, I hope you don’t mind, but here is a quote from my book: The Immortal Principle: A Reference Point; pages 152 & 153.

    “According to the universal theory of (A), consciousness is not reality, consciousness is the form through which reality (R) is expressed; and that form is a physical, material universe consisting of matter, energy and space. That is an important distinction to make about consciousness for two reasons. First, current models are predicated upon an architecture grounded in realism and second, consciousness is conflated with mind by all researchers, regardless of whether those individuals studying consciousness are materialist, or idealists.

    Panpsychists takes a broader position by positing that consciousness should be defined as likeness or “what it feels like to be something”, but even panpsychism is hamstrung by the infamous mind/matter dichotomy. Without a universally accepted definition, a definition that eschews subject/object metaphysics, and one that corresponds to reality/appearance metaphysics, a metaphysics that makes no ontological distinction between mind and matter, consciousness will remain a mystery forever, relegated to the theatre of debate within the circles of academia and mysticism.

    To add further clarity and meaning to the term consciousness, a concise and succinct definition has to be developed, one that is not ambiguous or misleading, and one that is broad enough to be inclusive. According to this metaphysician:

    Consciousness is the form through which the objective reality of power is both experienced and expressed.

    But what is that form, exactly? That form is a physical, material universe made up of the aggregate of matter, energy and space. In a Value centric universe, consciousness is the form, and the form itself is the experience. This is an architecture that irrevocably reduces to panpsychism. Furthermore, the discrete systems of a Value centric universe do not have phenomenal experience as such, because the physical properties that make up those systems are the experience. For example: mass, spin and charge are the physical properties that define elementary particles; and mass, spin and charge is the experience of those same elementary particles. On the other end of this broad spectrum of physical systems; the physical properties that make up the quantum system of mind is the experience of mind, an experience that is radically indeterminate. This ground-breaking, all inclusive definition and ensuing explication of consciousness corresponds concisely with reality/appearance metaphysics and is in full compliance with the universal theory of (A).”

    One final comment: In agreement with Sabine Hossenfelder, I assert that the explanatory power of any theory should take precedence and superseded its predictive power. Universal consciousness, in the form of a physical, material universe, with its unique feature of a limited degree of self-determination intrinsic to every system explains the otherwise indeterminate randomness we see in the natural world. For example: the only reason mathematical models cannot predict when a radioactive isotope will decay is because intrinsic to the properties of that system, a radioactive isotope has a limited degree of self-determination within an otherwise deterministic system. Universal consciousness, in the form of a physical, material universe, with its limited degree of self-determination is the driving force behind the process we call evolution and the natural selection within that process that gives rise to diversity, novelty and uniqueness we observe within the natural world without evoking teleology. WOW……. I don’t know about you Mike, but that’s beautiful.

    No response required here Mike, I just thinking out loud today…


    Liked by 2 people

    1. Very nice bit of writing Lee. And good to see an excerpt of your ideas. As we’ve discussed before, I can’t say panpsychism strikes me as a productive outlook, but the language and craft are excellent.

      On Hossenfelder, don’t know if you saw my post about hers. What would you say distinguishes “explanatory power” from prediction? It seemed to me she was making a distinction between prediction and retrodiction, but both are typically referred to as “prediction”. So we can say that GR predicted the precession of the perihelion in Mercury’s orbit, even though that precession had been observed long before GR was formulated.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. “What would you say distinguishes “explanatory power” from prediction?”

        That’s a really compelling question Mike. The short answer is that prediction and explanatory power are the same thing, and I would hope that you agree. Let’s look at a literal example of where the prediction of a mathematical model collides with the explanatory power of that same model. GR predicted the existence of black holes, which empirical evidence corroborates and yet, the explanation that GR provides for the existence of black holes may, or may not be correct.

        Predicated upon my theory, a theory which is grounded in the ontology of reality/appearance metaphysics (RAM); even though GR predicted the existence of black holes, GR’s explanation of that phenomena is not correct. According to my metaphysics, the what, where, when, how, and why of black holes is not the same and does not conform to the explanation provided by GR. There is another explanation, an explanation that is superior and an explanation that literally fits better with the empirical evidence that has been gathered through scientific observations. That’s just one example of explanatory power, an explanation that collides with prediction.

        So, what distinguishes explanatory power from prediction? Explanatory power has the ability to express the true nature of reality whereas, all too often we get lost in the mathematics and we can’t see the forest because of all the trees. I believe Sabine wrote a book about that….


        Liked by 1 person

        1. Lee,

          “The short answer is that prediction and explanatory power are the same thing, and I would hope that you agree.”

          I think explanatory power and prediction are closely related. To recall Hossenfelder’s definition:

          Explanatory power measures how much data you can fit from which number of assumptions. The fewer assumption you make and the more data you fit, the higher the explanatory power, and the better the theory.

          We know how much “data you can fit” by how many of the theory’s predictions (and retrodictions) are borne out. So my way of describing this would be that explanatory power is the ratio of reliable predictions to the number of assumptions.

          But it’s not a precise thing, because not all assumptions are equal, and I’m a little skeptical of attempts to completely quantify that, which means it’s unavoidably a matter of subjective judgment. (A fact no one is really comfortable with.)

          Hossenfelder did write a book called Lost in Math. (Which I have to admit I haven’t read.) But based on her blog posts, I think her position is that we can’t judge theories on math alone. (Which I think we all agree on.) But I’m pretty sure she still sees math as crucial.


          1. Mike,
            In my previous post I meant to write… The short answer is that prediction and explanatory power are “not” the same thing, and I would hope that you agree. Simple typos can drive me crazy sometimes…. but I do agree that both prediction and explanatory power are closely related.

            Hossenfelder’s definition is an excellent depiction, one that I am in full agreement with. Now yours, I’m not so sure Mike. Your definition preferences predictive power as the designated standard whereas, Sabine preferences explanatory power as the designated standard. Sorry Mike, I’m going with Sabine on this one…



          2. Fair enough Lee. But then the question is, how do you know how well a theory “fits the data”? If you don’t use its predictions (and retrodictions) to do that, then by what measure do you judge its explanatory power?


          3. For the record: My theory of black holes makes fewer assumptions than GR and I can fit more data into that model than GR can fit into its model.

            I would like to believe that someone within the scientific community will come to the same conclusions that I have some day. I once heard Neil deGrasse Tyson in an interview make an assessment of black holes that tilted in that direction. Unfortunately, the venerated theory of GR stands in their way.



          4. Looks like our recent posts passed each other on the internet highway.

            “If you don’t use its predictions (and retrodictions) to do that, then by what measure do you judge its explanatory power?

            Through pragmatism: I’m not an instrumentalist Mike, I’m a hardcore pragmatist.

            pragmatist | ˈpraɡmədəst |

            1 a person who is guided more by practical considerations than by ideals: hardheaded pragmatists firmly rooted in the real world.

            2 Philosophy an advocate of the approach that evaluates theories or beliefs in terms of the success of their practical application…

            I consider both math and predictive power to be ideals. Plus, GR with its fabric of space/time is not the real world, it’s an useful intellectual construction just like the math use to justify its validity.



          5. I’m a pragmatist too. Typically a pragmatist would judge a theory by how useful it is (a very instrumentalist approach). But how do we judge its usefulness? How do we determine which theories are pragmatic and which aren’t?


          6. “But how do we judge its usefulness?”

            Individually, that is determined by what the solipsist self-model wants out of the deal. Collectively, that is determined by what the collective wants out of the deal, such as a stairway to heaven or the creature comforts provided by technology. Usefulness is all about “the deal” Mike.

            “How do we determine which theories are pragmatic and which aren’t?”

            I don’t think a hypothesis which postulates a stairway to heaven is a pragmatic theory whereas, a theory which developed the math that ultimately lead to the technology of an electric device used to drill out cavities in my decayed tooth would be pragmatic.



          7. Lee,
            If I were going to keep Socrates-ing this, I’d ask what about a theory enables a technology of useful electrical device. I think you can figure out that if we keep zeroing in on this, it eventually leads to predictions, or retrodictions. I don’t think there is any explanatory power without it.

            But if you see another path, I’d be interested in knowing about it.


          8. Mike,
            I don’t disagree with your conclusion, for there cannot be any explanatory power if a theory excludes predictions. Nevertheless, as Hossenfelder eloquently asserts, predictive power is important but, it should not come first in a hierarchy, explanatory power should come first.

            This is why the notion of hierarchy and Sabine’s definition are so important: Whatever comes first in a hierarchy is sovereign within that hierarchy, and I think that is the fulcrum concept that is overlooked in this debate about predictive power verses explanatory power. I’ve read many of the comments posted on her site. By and large it’s clear that the scientific community do not get her concepts, and it is clear to me as an observer that she is extremely frustrated, but that’s another story.

            There is a place at the table within the scientific community for theories that should not and will not lead to further technological development, theories like consciousness. But before any progress can be made on that front, researchers are going to have rethink the ground rules that shape that progression, and that means understanding the importance of hierarchy when it comes to predictions and explanatory power.

            “The fewer assumptions you make and the more data you fit, the higher the explanatory power, and the better the theory.”

            Postulating that consciousness is universal is a single assumption, an assumption I or anyone else can use to plug in the massive amount of data at our disposal. In contrast, an assumption that postulates that consciousness is limited to human beings, or vertebrates with brains, or drawing the line on vertebrates with fish, or drawing the line at organic material, or somewhere else is a theory with many, many different assumptions, all of which lead to absurdity.

            Reductio ad absurdum is reduction to absurdity or explicitly, argument to absurdity. This form of discourse rests on the truth that if the inevitable conclusions from a set of premises are absurd then it follows logically that at least one of the premises that produced them is absurd. Therefore, the fewer assumptions one can make, and the more data you can fit, the higher the explanatory power, and the better the theory.



          9. Lee,
            “By and large it’s clear that the scientific community do not get her concepts, and it is clear to me as an observer that she is extremely frustrated, but that’s another story.”

            I haven’t found her recent videos / posts particularly clear or well argued. I suspect I’m not the only one.

            “Postulating that consciousness is universal is a single assumption,”

            The problem is that assumption, at least stated that way, is pretty vague. For a physicist, including Hossenfelder, to accept it as an alternative to GR, they’d want it mathematically.


          10. Mike,

            “The problem is that assumption, at least stated that way, is pretty vague.”

            This assumption isn’t vague: Consciousness is the form through which the objective reality of power is both experienced and expressed. But what is that form, exactly? That form is a physical, material universe made up of the aggregate of matter, energy and space. In a Value centric universe, consciousness is the form, and the form itself is the experience. This is an architecture that irrevocably reduces to panpsychism.

            “For a physicist, including Hossenfelder, to accept it as an alternative to GR, they’d want it mathematically.”

            I’m sure there is a mathematical model that could be developed. After all, physicists crafted a mathematical model for wave function, a hypothesis that has “absolutely” nothing to do with the true nature of reality. But here’s the main thrust of my argument Mike: Physicists don’t have to choose between GR and a model grounded in universal consciousness. GR can remain intact, as can many other constructs that have demonstrated their usefulness for technology.

            A theory of consciousness would fundamentally not be used for the advancement of technology. It would be a mind blowing, revolutionary development used for the advancement of the human race. Is that ideal pragmatic? Probably not. And I know as a skeptic yourself, you would scoff at the notion as does Eric Schwitzgebel and any other skeptic.

            To close this out: As a hard-core pragmatist myself, here’s what I think: As a species, homo sapiens are better off clinging to the fairy tales and fantasies of anthropocentrism that sustain the species. Enjoy the rest of your Memorial day weekend Mike. It’s been nice chatting with you.


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