Status of Impossible Abstract Requirements

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What happens in situations where an abstract requirement can't be met? What do we do when we would like to keep certain theories but those theories are left in limbo?

Occasionally methods ask us certain requirements which cannot be met. For example, supposing a surgical theories need testing, how would we apply a double blind trial? A surgeon cannot be blinded nor can the patient not know they are being operated on. Surely we do not outright reject surgical theories on the basis they cannot be tested in this way? Do we develop some alternate? Is there an tacit internal agreement between surgeons?

In the scientonomic context, this question was first formulated by Hakob Barseghyan, Liron Cohen and Charlotte Brown in 2018. The question is currently accepted as a legitimate topic for discussion by Scientonomy community.

In Scientonomy, the accepted answer to the question is:

  • A method becomes employed only when it is deducible from some subset of other employed methods and accepted theories of the time.

Scientonomic History

Acceptance Record

Here is the complete acceptance record of this question (it includes all the instances when the question was accepted as a legitimate topic for discussion by a community):
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Scientonomy8 March 2018We talked about this during the seminar and came to the conclusion we could not immediately answer the question.Yes

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Accepted Theories

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Suggested Modifications

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Current View

In Scientonomy, the accepted answer to the question is The Third Law (Sebastien-2016).

Mechanism of Method Employment

The Third Law (Sebastien-2016) states: "A method becomes employed only when it is deducible from some subset of other employed methods and accepted theories of the time."

The Third Law Sebastien 2016.png

The initial formulation of the law, proposed by Barseghyan in The Laws of Scientific Change, stated that a method becomes employed only when it is deducible from other employed methods and accepted theories of the time.1p.132 In that formulation, it wasn't clear whether employed methods follow from all or only some of the accepted theories and employed methods of the time. This led to a logical paradox which this reformulation attempts to solve.2

This reformulation of the law makes explicit that an employed method need not necessarily follow from all other employed methods and accepted theories but only from some of them. This made it possible for an employed method to be logically inconsistent and yet compatible with openly accepted methodological dicta.

In all other respects, this formulation preserves the gist of Barseghyan's original formulation. According to the third law, a method becomes employed when:

  1. it strictly follows from some subset of other employed methods and accepted theories, or
  2. it implements some abstract requirements of other employed methods.

This restates Barseghyan's original suggestion that accepted theories shape the set of implicit criteria employed in theory assessment. When a new theory is accepted, this often leads to the employment of an abstract requirement to take that new theory into account when testing relevant contender theories. This abstract requirement is then specified by a new employed method.

The evolution of the drug trial methods is an example of the third law in action. For example, the discovery of the placebo effect in drug testing demonstrates that fake treatment can cause improvement in patient symptoms. As a result of its discovery the abstract requirement of “when assessing a drug’s efficacy, the possible placebo effect must be taken into account” was generated. This abstract requirement is, by definition, an accepted theory which stipulates that, if ignored, substantial doubt would be cast on any trial. As a result of this new theory, the Single-Blind Trial method was devised. The currently employed method in drug testing is the Double-Blind Trial, a method which specifies all of the abstract requirements of its predecessors. It is an apt illustration of how new methods are generated through the acceptance of new theories, as well as how new methods employ the abstract requirements of their predecessors.1pp. 132-152

In Barseghyan’s explication of the Aristotelian-Medieval method, he illustrates how Aristotelian natural philosophy impacted the method of the time. One of the key features of the Aristotelian-scholastic method was the requirement of intuition schooled by experience, i.e. that a proposition is acceptable if it grasps the nature of a thing though intuition schooled by experience. The requirement itself was a deductive consequence of several assumptions accepted at the time. One of the assumptions underlying this requirement was the idea that every natural thing has a nature, a substantial quality that makes a thing what it is (e.g. a human's nature is their capacity of reason). Another assumption underlying the requirement was the idea that nature of a thing can be grasped intuitively by those who are most experienced with the things of that type. The requirements of the intuitive truth followed from these assumptions. The scholastic-Aristotelians scholars wouldn’t require intuitive truths grasped by an experienced person if they didn’t believe that things have natures that could be grasped intuitively by experts.

The third law has also proven useful in explicating such requirements as Confirmed Novel Predictions (CNP). According to the hypothetico-deductive method, a theory which challenges our accepted ontology must provide CNP in order to become accepted. However, the history of CNP has been a point of confusion for some time. By the Third Law, one can show that the requirement of CNP has not always been expected of new theories. When Newton published his Principia, CNP were not a requirement of his professed method, yet they were still provided. On the other hand, Clark’s law of diminishing returns had no such predictions. This is because Newton’s proposal of unobservable entities, such as gravity and absolute space, challenged the accepted ontology of the time, while Clark’s simply accounted for the data already available. Thus, in utilizing the Third Law, one can discover both when certain criteria become an implicit rule and under what conditions they are necessary.

Related Topics

This question is a subquestion of Methodology and Methods.


  1. a b  Barseghyan, Hakob. (2015) The Laws of Scientific Change. Springer.
  2. ^  Sebastien, Zoe. (2016) The Status of Normative Propositions in the Theory of Scientific Change. Scientonomy 1, 1-9. Retrieved from