The Great Conversation:
Hypothesis

By Gabriel Blanchard

Hypothesis may sound like a technical and advanced thing; in truth, it surrounds us.

At its root, a hypothesis is a very simple thing. It’s a supposal. “If such-and-such were true, what would follow?” Semantically, hypothesis and supposal are even related: the former comes from Greek and the latter from Latin, but both mean “something put underneath,” a base to build on. We usually talk about hypotheses in scientific contexts, but they appear everywhere.

Several of Shakespeare’s plays are, so to speak, hypothesis plays. What if a mischievous fairy could make one person fall in love with another by dropping potion in their eyes? What if a prince met a ghost that claimed to be his dead father, and accused his uncle of murder? The premises in themselves are not likely, but their likelihood is dismissed; the point of the literary hypothesis is to see what would then result if the hypothesis is granted. All fantasy and science fiction rely on this—the works of J. R. R. Tolkien are conspicuous for how thoroughly the “then” is worked out—and even realistic fiction is generally based on some sort of hypothesis of the same kind. In a sense, all fiction is: the characters are not (usually) real people, but we agree to treat them and their situation as if it were real for the sake of the book, almost “for the sake of argument.”

Hypotheses are of the same nature in the sciences, but they are arrived at and treated differently. The artist uses a hypothesis for the sake of imagination; the scientist begins with observed facts, forms a hypothesis which if true would fit into those facts, and then conducts experiments to gain further observations. From there, he can prove, disprove, or modify his assumptions. Here, the hypothesis is a placeholder more than a premise—once enough is known, the hypothesis is either dropped or ceases to be a mere hypothesis.

There are two possible outcomes: if the result confirms the hypothesis, then you've made a measurement. If the result is contrary to the hypothesis, then you've made a discovery.

Enrico Fermi

The scientific method is partly akin to mathematical axioms and postulates, exemplified in the seminal work of Euclid. The difference is that axioms have to be “just seen,” intuitively: while examples can illustrate it, we could not exactly prove that 2 + 2 = 4 to somebody who doesn’t see that that’s how numbers inherently work. But mathematical discoveries do build on basic knowledge, and hypothesis can play a role, as it did for the Pythagoreans in discovering irrational numbers.

Philosophical and political hypotheses can also be of great importance, though in these contexts they are often called “thought experiments” instead. A famous example comes from jurist John Rawls, who proposed that an ideal society would operate according to principles set down from behind a “veil of ignorance.” The notion here is that a person would have to construct a society knowing what things human beings need, but not knowing what position they would hold in said society: their ethnicity, social status, gender, and even their own preferences and ideals, would be behind the “veil of ignorance.” This, so Rawls claimed, would ensure that the design would be maximally fair, simply out of self-interest. This is related to another field of thought: agnotology, or the study of ignorance—especially the deliberately-induced ignorance and misinformation that political and commercial interests may seek to foster.

Hypotheses can have immense legal and criminal importance as well. The presumption of innocence is precisely a legally mandated hypothesis, inculcated to help protect the rights of people charged with a crime. All trials consist in warring hypotheses, both operating on the same evidence and attempting to convince a jury that their explanation of that evidence is the better one. And, circling back to literature, every mystery novel is one long articulation of a hypothesis.

Suggested reading:
Aristotle, On Interpretation
Euclid, Elements
Francis Bacon, Novum Organum
René Descartes, Discourse on the Method
Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
Luis Alvarez et al., Extraterrestrial Cause for the Cretaceous-Tertiary Extinction

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If you enjoyed this post, take a look at some of our other content here at the Journal, like these author profiles of Plato, Moses Maimonides, John Bunyan, and Simone de Beauvoir. You might also enjoy these beautiful drawings and paintings from students at the Veritas School in Richmond, one of CLT’s first partner schools.

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