At this point, it should be clear that there is not a single type of theoretical work. I believe most theoretical work can be categorized into three broad classes: deduction, induction, and counter-induction. Deduction is deriving theoretical knowledge from previous theoretical knowledge, with no direct reference to empirical facts. Induction is the process of making a theory that accounts for the available empirical data, in general in a parsimonious way (Occam’s razor). Counter-induction is the process of making a theory based on non-empirical considerations (for example philosophical principles or analogy) or on a subset of empirical observations that are considered significant, and re-interpreting empirical facts so that they agree with the new theory. Note that 1) all these processes may lead to new empirical predictions, 2) a given line of research may use all three types of processes.
For illustration, I will discuss the work done in my group on the dynamics of spike threshold (see these two papers with Jonathan Platkiewicz: “ A Threshold Equation for Action Potential Initiation” and “Impact of Fast Sodium Channel Inactivation on Spike Threshold Dynamics and Synaptic Integration”). It is certainly not the most well-known line of research and therefore it will require some explanation. However, since I know it so well, it will be easier to highlight the different types of theoretical thinking – I will try to show how all three types of processes were used.
I will first briefly summarize the scientific context. Neurons communicate with each other by spikes, which are triggered when the membrane potential reaches a threshold value. It turns out that, in vivo, the spike threshold is not a fixed value even within a given neuron. Many empirical observations show that it depends on the stimulation, and on various aspects of the previous activity of the neuron, e.g. its previous membrane potential and the previously triggered spikes. For example, the spike threshold tends to be higher when the membrane potential was previously higher. By induction, one may infer that the spike threshold adapts to the membrane potential. One may then derive a first-order differential equation describing the process, in which the threshold adapts to the membrane potential with some characteristic time constant. Such phenomenological equations have been proposed in the past by a number of authors, and it is qualitatively consistent with a number of properties seen in the empirical data. But note that an inductive process can only produce a hypothesis. The data could be explained by other hypotheses. For example, the threshold could be modulated by an external process, say inhibition targeted at the spike initiation site, which would co-vary with the somatic membrane potential. However, the hypothesis could potentially be tested. For example, an experiment could be done in which the membrane potential is actively modified by an electrode injecting current: if threshold modulation is external, spike threshold should not be affected by this perturbation. So an inductive process can be a fruitful theoretical methodology.
In our work with Jonathan Platkiewicz, we started from this inductive insight, and then followed a deductive process. The biophysics of spike initiation is described by the Hodgkin-Huxley equations. Hodgkin and Huxley got the Nobel prize in 1963 for showing how ionic mechanisms interact to generate spikes in the squid giant axons. They used a quantitative model (four differential equations) that they fitted to their measurements. They were then able to accurately predict the velocity of spike propagation along the axon. As a side note, this mathematical model, which explicitly refers to ionic channels, was established much before these channels could be directly observed (by Neher and Sakmann, who then also got the Nobel prize in 1991). Thus this discovery was not data-driven at all, but rather hypothesis-driven.
In the Hodgkin-Huxley model, spikes are initiated by the opening of sodium channels, which let a positive current enter the cell when the membrane potential is high enough, triggering a positive feedback process. These channels also inactivate (more slowly) when the membrane potential increases, and when they inactivate the spike threshold increases. This is one mechanism by which the spike threshold can adapt to the membrane potential. Another way, in the Hodgkin-Huxley equations, is by the opening of potassium channels when the membrane potential increases. In this model, we then derived an equation describing how the spike threshold depends on these ionic channels, and then a differential equation describing how it evolves with the membrane potential. This is a purely deductive process (which also involves approximations), and it also predicts that the spike threshold adapts to the membrane potential. Yet it provides new theoretical knowledge, compared to the inductive process. First, it shows that threshold adaptation is consistent with Hodgkin-Huxley equations, an established biophysical theory. This is not so surprising, but given that other hypotheses could be formulated (see e.g. the axonal inhibition hypothesis I mentioned above), it strengthens this hypothesis. Secondly, it shows under what conditions on ionic channel properties the theory can be consistent with the empirical data. This provides new ways to test the theory (by measuring ionic channel properties) and therefore increases its empirical content. Thirdly, the equation we proposed is slightly different from those previously proposed by induction. That is, the theory predicts that the spike threshold only adapts above a certain potential, otherwise it is fixed. This is a prediction that is not obvious from the published data, and therefore could not have been made by a purely inductive process. Thus, a deductive process is also a fruitful theoretical methodology, even though it is in some sense “purely theoretical”, that is, accounting for empirical facts is not part of the theory-making process itself (except for motivating the work).
In the second paper, we also used a deductive process to understand what threshold adaptation implies for synaptic integration. For example, we show that incoming spikes interact at the timescale of threshold adaptation, rather than of the membrane time constant. Note how the goal of this theoretical work now is not to account for empirical facts or explain mechanisms, but to provide a new interpretative framework for these facts. The theory redefines what should be considered significant – in this case, the distance to threshold rather than the absolute membrane potential. This is an important remark, because it implies that theoretical work is not only about making new experimental predictions, but also about interpreting experimental observations and possibly orienting future experiments.
We then concluded the paper with a counter-inductive line of reasoning. Different ionic mechanisms may contribute to threshold adaptation, in particular sodium channel inactivation and potassium channel activation. We argued that the former was more likely, because it is more energetically efficient (the latter requires both sodium and potassium channels to be open and counteract each other, implying considerable ionic traffic). This argument is not empirical: it relies on the idea that neurons should be efficient based on evolutionary theory (a theoretical argument) and on the fact that the brain has been shown to be efficient in many other circumstances (an argument by analogy). It is not based on empirical evidence, and worse, it is contradicted by empirical evidence. Indeed, blocking Kv1 channels abolishes threshold dynamics. I then reason counter-inductively to make my theoretical statement compatible with this observation. I first note that removing the heart of a man prevents him from thinking, but it does not imply that thoughts are produced by the heart. This is an epistemological argument (discarding the methodology as inappropriate). Secondly, I was told by a colleague (unpublished observation) that suppressing Kv1 moves the spike initiation site to the node of Ranvier (discarding the data as being irrelevant or abnormal). Thirdly, I can quantitatively account for the results with our theory, by noting that suppressing any channel can globally shift the spike threshold and possibly move the minimum threshold below the half-inactivation voltage of sodium channels, in which case there is no more threshold variability. These are three counter-inductive arguments that are perfectly reasonable. One might not be convinced by them, but they cannot be discarded as being intrinsically wrong. Since it is possible that I am right, counter-inductive reasoning is a useful scientific methodology. Note also how counter-inductive reasoning can suggest new experiments, for example testing whether suppressing Kv1 moves the initiation site to the node of Ranvier.
In summary, there are different types of theoretical work. They differ not so much in content as in methodology: deduction, induction and counter-induction. All three types of methodologies are valid and fruitful, and they should be recognized as such, noting that they have different logics and possibly different aims.
Update. It occurred to me that I use the word “induction” to refer to the making of a law from a series of observations, but it seems that this process is often subdivided in two different processes, induction and abduction. In this sense, induction is the making of a law from a series of observations in the sense of “generalizing”: for example, reasoning by analogy or fitting a curve to empirical data. Abduction is the finding of a possible underlying cause that would explain the observations. Thus abduction is more creative and seems more uncertain: it is the making of a hypothesis (among other possible hypotheses), while induction is rather the direct generalization of empirical data together with accepted knowledge. For example, data-driven neural modeling is a sort of inductive process. One builds a model from measurements and implicit accepted knowledge about neural biophysics – which generally comes with an astounding number of implicit hypotheses and approximations, e.g. electrotonic compactness or the idea that ionic channel properties are similar across cells and related species. The model accounts for the set of measurements, but it also predicts responses in an infinite number of situations. In my view, induction is the weakest form of theoretical process because there is no attempt to go beyond the data. Empirical data are seen as a series of unconnected weather observations that just need to be included in the already existing theory.