Friday, August 08, 2014

Editorial: Why Use Theory?

Theory is often disparaged, placed in opposition to practice or reality, or considered a waste of time. These comments ignore the very real value of theory and cause people to doubt why it is worth using theory at all. But theory used well is the best way to discover new things, apply our knowledge beyond the routine, and better understand practice and reality.

Theory Is Predictive

At its root theories are ways of predicting what will happen, often what will happen in response to what we do. This is the most important purpose of a theory, to take what we know and extend it to things we do not know. In this way theory is a guide to our behavior. If I want to make a game which immerses players into a fantasy world, theory can tell me which decision are likely to help and which will hinder.

Through intuition and habit we can often predict, perhaps even very accurately. The assumptions and pre-judgements underlying those intuitions and habits make up an unconscious theory, something which may be difficult to express. But if we could express this unconscious theory we might identify where it falls short and where our finely honed intuition has discovered something more broadly applicable.

The work of building a good theory is to express and refine the intuition of experience and trial and error. If you want to decide on a course of action or predict the outcome of a situation you will be using a theory, the only question is whether you want to consciously know what that theory is or not. Sometimes intuition is all we have time for, but if we have the time choosing the right theory to use can make all the difference.

Theory Reveals Patterns

Theories take large amounts of information and condense it into something more manageable. In this respect theory shows the patterns in the situations it is used to predict. These patterns might be shown in the form of an explanation. Or perhaps the theory does not claim to answer why things happen, merely indicating what to expect.

In any case, patterns are powerful things. We can recognize patterns and use them to decide when to apply a particular theory. We can see when a pattern breaks and decide that the associated theory is no longer applicable. And we can use the edges of patterns to guess at what might lie outside our experiences.

Good Theory Is Testable

When we try something new, theory predicts what we will encounter. That prediction may or may not be accurate, but if we cannot tell if that prediction holds then we might as well not have bothered. A useful theory describes something more than what we put into it. And sometimes that means we find that the theory has flaws or doesn't apply in this case.

Improving theories comes from recognizing these limitations, revising the theories involved, and better understanding when we should apply which theories. By putting multiple theories into practice at the same time we can compare them and determine which suit the situation better. This lets us assemble those theories into a broader theory of its own that predicts which approach we should take.

Assembling Theory

A theory of theories is one way in which we can build theory, but there are many ways to combine these building blocks. Theory is built from conceptual tools: procedures, analogies, classifications, etc. Some of these tools can be theories of their own, simpler or narrower than the theory you are building towards.

By assembling these pieces you can construct a theory suited to your particular problems. But it is important to keep this theory testable. By testing out your assembled theory you will then find if it works and where its pieces fail. This in turn feeds back into the constant process of refining your theory, a process synonymous with understanding.



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