The Status of Normative Propositions in the Theory of Scientific Change

Zoe Sebastien


The scope of the Theory of Scientific Change (TSC) encompasses any and all changes that occur in a given scientific mosaic, the set of all methods employed and theories accepted at a given time by a given scientific community. Currently, theory is defined as a set of propositions that attempts to describe something. This definition excludes normative propositions from the scope of the TSC. Normative theories, such as those of methodology or ethics, have been excluded since including them appears to give rise to a destructive paradox first identified by Joel Burkholder. There are many historical cases where employed scientific methods are known to conflict with professed methodologies. This seems to violate the third and zeroth laws of scientific change. By the third law, employed methods are deducible from accepted theories. But, this seems impossible in cases where methodologies and methods conflict. Under the zeroth law, all elements in the scientific mosaic are compatible with one another. But, that seems to be clearly not the case if methodologies and methods conflict with one another. In this paper, I argue that normative propositions such as methodologies can be included in the scientific mosaic as accepted theories without generating a paradox and that neither the third nor zeroth laws of scientific change need be violated. I outline my solution to the paradox of normative theories and conclude by describing some new and exciting avenues for future research that are now open.

Suggested Modifications

[Sciento-2016-0001]: Accept the following reformulation of the third law:

  • The third law ≡ a method becomes employed only when it is deducible from some subset of other employed methods and accepted theories of the time. 

Consequently, accept that there is no paradox of normative theories: when an employed method and an accepted methodology are logically inconsistent with one another; it merely indicates that the employed method isn’t a logical consequence of the accepted methodology. By the third law, the employed method still follows from some accepted theories, but not from this particular methodology.  

Reject the previous formulation of the third law; it can remain in use for educational purposes. 

[Sciento-2016-0002]: Provided that the preceding modification [Sciento-2016-0001] is accepted, accept the following taxonomy for theory, descriptive theory, normative theory, and methodology:

  • Theory ≡ a set of propositions.
  • Descriptive theory ≡ a theory that attempts to describe something.
  • Normative theory ≡ a theory that attempts to prescribe something. 
  • Methodology ≡ a normative theory that prescribes the rules which ought to be employed in theory assessment.

Modify the definition of theory acceptance to make it possible for both descriptive and normative theories to be accepted:

  • Theory Acceptance ≡ a theory is said to be accepted if it is taken as the best available description or prescription of its object.

 Reject the previous definitions of theory, methodology, and theory acceptance.



theoretical scientonomy; method; methodology; theory; normative theory; descriptive theory; the third law; the first law; scientific mosaic

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