Pierre Duhem on Experiments and Theory

pierre-duhem

It is impossible to leave outside the laboratory door the theory we wish to test, for without theory it is impossible to regulate a single instrument or to interpret a single reading. We have seen that in the mind of the physicist there are constantly present two sorts of apparatus: one is the concrete apparatus in glass and metal, manipulated by him, the other is the schematic and abstract apparatus which theory substitutes for the concrete apparatus and on which the physicist does his reasoning. For these two ideas are indissolubly connected in his intelligence, and each necessarily call on the other; the physicist can no sooner conceive the concrete the concrete apparatus without associating with it the idea of the schematic apparatus than a Frenchman can conceive of an idea without associating it with the French word expressing it. This radical impossibility, preventing one from dissociating physical theories from the experimental procedures appropriate for testing these theories, complicates this test in a singular way, and obliges us to examine the logical meaning of it carefully.

Of course, the physicist is not the only one who appeals to theories at the very time he is experimenting or reporting the results of his experiments. The chemist and the physiologist when they make use of physical instruments, e.g., the thermometer, the manometer, the calorimeter, the galvanometer, and the saccharimeter, implicitly admit the accuracy of the theories justifying the use of these pieces of apparatus as well as of the theories giving meaning to the abstract ideas of temperature, pressure, quantity of heat, intensity of current, and polarized light, by means of which the concrete indications of these instruments are translated. But the theories used, as well as the instruments employed, belong to the domain of physics; by accepting with these instruments the theories without which their theories would be devoid of meaning, the chemist and the physiologist show their confidence in the physicist, whom they suppose to be infallible. The physicist, on the other hand, is obliged to trust his own theoretical ideas or those of his fellow-physicists. From the standpoint of logic, the difference is of little importance; for the physiologist and chemist as well as for the physicist, the statement of the result of an experiment implies, in general, an act of faith in a whole group of theories.

References:

1. Duhem, Pierre Maurice Marie. The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1954. Print.

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