One of the things I most enjoy doing is spotting holes in linguistic maps – places where people habitually circumlocute their way around a word – or, more properly, an important bundle of concepts tagged by a word – that they don’t know they’re missing.
Sometimes, filling one of these holes can shake up everyone’s view of the linguistic map near it in a way that changes their thinking. One of my favorite recent examples is Martin Fowler’s invention of the term “refactoring” in software engineering, and what that did to how software engineers think about their work.
About a year ago I invented a hole-filler that I think is useful for getting to grips with a large class of slippery problems in the philosophy of mind, knowledge, and perception. I’ve meant ever since to develop it further.
So, welcome to three new words: “cryptotheory”, “acrotheory”, and “mesotheory”. Of these, the most important (and the motivator for the other two) is “cryptotheory”.
A theory is a prediction-generating machine. It takes as input some set of observables and generates as output predictions about the not yet observed. One of the classic examples is Newton’s Three Laws of Physics. Using these, expressed in the formalism of calculus, we can put in observations of force and mass and motion and get out predictions of future force and motion.
(If you are studying something that people call a “theory”, and you can’t identify what inputs it takes and what predictions it generates, the “theory” is almost certainly bogus. I say “almost” because it’s possible you don’t yet understand the theory well enough to do that identification. On the other hand, there are a lot of bogus pseudo-theories floating around out there; caveat thinker.)
We’re used to applying the term “theory” to prediction generators which we arrived at by conscious reasoning, apply with conscious reasoning, and modify with conscious reasoning. But this is not the only kind of theory there is; today’s hole-fillers contrast it with two other kinds.
A “cryptotheory” is a prediction generator of which we are normally unaware because it is not learned but rather wired into our brains and nervous systems.
For example, your eye-brain system has a cryptotheory that if we attend to two extremely similar-seeming objects on a relatively blank field and they are of different sizes, that means the smaller one is further away. There are well-known optical illusions that exploit this. Some other illusion confusions, especially those having to do with edge recognition, seem to arise from image processing in your retina, before visual stimuli even reach the optic nerve (let alone the brain).
What reaches your attention when you see is not ‘reality’ but a mix of light measurements with cryptotheories that were useful for making snap judgments in the environment of ancestral adaptation.
Animals can have cryptotheories. In fact, every response we call “instinctive” is precisely a cryptotheory about how and when an animal has survival reasons for a snap judgment. When your cat jumps at your feet moving under bedclothes he is running a cryptotheory that recognizes certain kinds of motion as predicting the presence of tasty small prey animals.
Optical illusions, stage magic, and trompe-l’oeil art confuse us by using our embedded cryptotheories to mislead us about what is in front of us. They work when our cryptotheories yield false predictions.
By contrast, an “acrotheory” is a learned, conscious theory used in conscious reasoning – like Newton’s Three Laws. It is also useful to be able to speak of “mesotheory” – this is a learned theory applied unconsciously, as when you instantly identify a shiny moving object with wheels under it as a vehicle and instantly generate a bundle of predictions about where it is likely to move next and what will happen if you don’t get out of its way.
(The derivation of “cryptotheory” should be obvious. The terms “acrotheory” and “mesotheory” were analogized from the way the terms “acrolect” and “mesolect” are used in sociolinguistics.)
Some philosophers are fond of claiming that “All observation is theory-laden.” This claim causes more confusion than it should because neither those philosophers nor their audiences are very clear about the distinction between crypto-, acro-, and mesotheory.
It would be difficult for even a philosopher to claim with a straight face that all observation is laden with acrotheory. On the other hand, it is reasonable to claim that all observation is cryptotheory-laden and much of it is mesotheory-laden.
Before anything in your phenomenal field gets to your attention, it will have been heavily filtered and classified by a stack of cryptotheories. Some of these are embedded in the way your sense organs process their input, as we’ve already seen with the visual system; others are, for example, your brain’s habit of chunking observations into representations of persistent objects. This doesn’t only apply to vision; if we smell eau de skunk over a period of five seconds, we automatically bin that as “at least one skunk continously emitting thiols”, not as “five skunks and their thiols popping in and out of existence once a second”.
When you see a car heading towards you, several cryptotheories in your eye and brain assemble those observations into “persistent object”, then a mesotheory classifies it as “car”. You will probably jump out of the way before you have time to apply any acrotheory.
These terms are useful because they give us a way to talk about how raw stimuli arriving at our sense organs becomes knowledge of what is going on around us. Awareness of how heavily processed those stimuli are before they reach our attention can also help dispel some common philosophical mistakes. I’ll have more to say about that in a future blog post.