Failure Does Not Necessarily Mean a Theory is Wrong

Many use a metaphor of the type “theory T has failed to explain phenomenon P” or “the field of F has failed…”

For example:

The modern materialist approach to life has conspicuously failed to explain such central mind-related features of our world as consciousness, intentionality, meaning, and value.1Description of Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False

The enterprise of achieving it artificially—the field of ‘artificial general intelligence’ or AGI—has made no progress whatever during the entire six decades of its existence. 2David Deutsch, “Creative blocks”

…Where Artificial Intelligence Went Wrong…At the beginning of AI, people were extremely optimistic about the field’s progress, but it hasn’t turned out that way. 3Yarden Katz, “Noam Chomsky on Where Artificial Intelligence Went Wrong”

Why Symbolic AI Failed: The Commonsense Knowledge Problem4Hubert Dreyfus,

What Is Wrong With These Metaphors?

People who use them often jump straight into the philosophical and/or scientific and/or technical reasons why T or F might be wrong, and why their alternative way may be correct.

However, it is not necessarily true that a theory is wrong merely because it hasn’t produced a particular result. In fact, it can’t produce a result. It doesn’t produce anything. “Producing” and “failing” are things that people do. Using the metaphor on a theory or framework shifts the blame onto inanimate abstractions.

This can obscure the true reason as to the so-called failure. Science typically requires experiments, and experiments often require technology. Just developing the technology for a single project could require vast amounts of money and time and people. And then the theory might be wrong or need to be updated and you spend a bunch more resources on the tech.

Projects are notoriously ridden with failure just by their nature. It doesn’t even matter what the project is about.

The Theory vs. the Project

My point is that a theory may be correct, yet not have been proven or involved in a successful implementation simply because of project management and funding.

This can go on indefinitely…it all depends on the organizational contexts which produce the interest in a theory, the management of projects, and funding for those projects.

Likewise, project shenanigans could make a wrong theory seem correct by veiling it with project-related implementation successes.

Rocket Science

Imagine if the US hadn’t spent spent $156 billion (in 2019 dollars)5 on the Apollo Project leading up to the 1969 moon landing. With less money, it might never have been finished, at least not as early. In this alternate history, someone might have declared in 1970 that the field of rocket science had failed to get us to the moon and therefore we needed a new discipline.

It’s perfectly fine to try starting an alternative discipline. But it is not necessarily true that a theoretical framework has failed to do anything if management and funding has prevented exhaustive experimentation and successful implementation cycles.

Projects Fail All the Time

Around the world, millions of projects are failing right now. Some of them may be successful by certain metrics, such as generating revenue or generating publications, but unsuccessful in terms of implementing full examples of a theoretical framework. Some might be doomed from the start as a result of bad planning. Some may be death march6 projects.

If the project is confused with the theoretical framework, people might avoid the framework for decades fearing that it was the cause of failure when in fact the cause was pathological project management.

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