4 What is a medical theory?

Modern medicine has produced many successful theories concerning the causes of diseases. For example, we know that tuberculosis is caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium tuberculosis, and that scurvy is caused by a deficiency of vitamin C. This chapter discusses the nature of medical theories from the perspective of the philosophy, history, and psychology of science. I will review prominent philosophical accounts of what constitutes a scientific theory, and develop a new account of medical theories as representations of mechanisms that explain disease. An account of the nature of medical theories should illuminate many aspects of the development and application of medical knowledge. Most importantly, it should contribute to understanding of medical explanation, both at the general level of causes of diseases and at the individual level of diagnosis of particular cases of a disease. Medical researchers seek to explain the causes of diseases such as tuberculosis, while physicians seek to identify diseases that explain symptoms such as fever. A medical theory such as the bacterial theory of tuberculosis provides good explanations at both the general and individual levels. The primary aim of this chapter is to show how these explanations work. A secondary aim is to show how an account of medical theories can shed light on other aspects of medical research and practice, including the nature of medical discovery, the process of evaluation of competing medical theories, and the ways in which effective treatments of disease depend on the development of good mechanistic theories about diseases
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