Page tree
Skip to end of metadata
Go to start of metadata

The Encyclopidae article on hypothesis provides an excellent opportunity for reflection on contemporary issues in scientific discourse, as well as a perfect microcosm of the aspirations, shortcomings and foresight of Enlightenment thinkers.

 The author opens the article with the definition of hypothesis used frequently in the Scientific Revolution, that it is an untested “supposition” (Encyclopidae) upon phenomena to “account for what is observed” (Encyclopidae). It is explained that these are often incorrect assumptions and that the important quality of a hypothesis is as a test subject which is then verified or rejected, and in this way the store of human knowledge expands. The author then delves into the relation between hypothesis and science, championing its effects on the field of astronomy, although to the modern reader the discoveries listed--those of Kepler, Newton and Huygen--would more likely be considered Physics and Geometry. In order to avoid a bias toward Baconian Empiricism by simply extolling the virtues of the scientific method, the author offers a dash of Descartes. The author states that while Newton and his pals may refute the use of any hypothesis in philosophy, their own theories are no more than hypothesis because only God, or “one who would be in a position to assign and demonstrate the causes of everything” (Encyclopidae) could announce the verity of a theory. Finally, the author discusses the problems of over-hypothesizing and the tendency of individuals to make claims without “incontestable proof” (Encyclopidae).

The opinions expressed in the Encyclopidae article about the relationship between the hypothesis and philosophy can be further understood by examining the Encyclopidae's understanding of the purpose of a philosopher. In the article The Enlightened Philosopher, the author points out that the Encyclopidae entry for philosopher draws a direct line between man's ability to reason and God. The philosopher is the middleman, bridging the ultimate truth of God and humanity. If one accepts the Enlightenment assertion that God is the source of reason, empiricism's rejection of philosophical hypotheses as lacking observable evidence is the equivalent of slapping a godly gift horse in the mouth. In the eyes of Encyclopidae authors, restricting the viability of man's god-given reason to solely scientific endeavors and the understanding of perceptible phenomena narrows humanity's ability to interact with God. Reasoning is worshipped and is also a form of worship for Enlightenment philosophers, a quality which plays into modern day issues of scientific terminology.

 There are two important aspects of this article for the contemporary reader to acknowledge. One is the terminology, the usage of the word hypothesis as both an untested and proven supposition. Why is this important? Consider the recent debates concerning the theory of Evolution. Critics of Evolution rely heavily on rhetoric undermining the term theory--they argue that a theory, by definition, is not absolute and can be contested with other suppositions and studies. While in broad terms this is true--a theory acts as a working model to account for the results of related phenomena, it leans on the connotations of the word rather than the scientific usage of the term.

Newton laid down Laws, while modern physicists appear to dally around in fanciful Theories about strings vibrating in the tenth dimension. Technically Newton’s Laws were superseded by Einstein's Theories of General Relativity over a century ago, but the term ‘Law’ gives the impression of absolute truth. It is this inconsistency in the strength of terms that complicates words like hypothesis and theory.

In common parlance a theory can be tantamount to no more than an educated guess or intuition, but in the scientific community it represents the result of extensive testing and observation. This problem of parlance has been going on for hundreds of years. When the author of the Encyclopidae article bemoans the tendency of his contemporaries toward over-hypothesis, he is speaking of the same issue--the degradation of all hypotheses by an over-saturation of uninformed and untested hypotheses.

To further illuminate this issue, return to the contemporary controversy surrounding the theory of Evolution and its counterpart, Intelligent Design. Proponents of Intelligent Design often take issue with the accuracy of carbon dating technology as well as what they believe is a failure to explain the actual origin of species--if everything began as simple cells, what made the first cell? Their experiments on the first issue revolve around finding situations in which carbon dating is incorrect, rather than testing unknowns and then drawing conclusions based on their findings. The results are a forgone conclusion, and therefore suspect. In fact, Enlightenment philosophers–who believed that reasoning was a gift from God–would consider this insistence on dogma in the face of overwhelming reason to be bordering on superstition. The article 01. Superstition Having No Room in The Enlightenment supports this assessment and provides further analysis of Enlightenment thinkers' ideas concerning conflicts of faith and reason. Superstition according to these thinkers is faith without reason, and superstition leads to zealotry and amorality–they believe that reason is derived from God, so denying reason would be more sacrilegious than accepting contradictions in religious cannon.

An analogous 18th century situation is Margaret Cavendish’s critique of Micrography, where she begins by stating “I have neither studied nor practiced that art” (2068), essentially qualifying all of her dissention as opinion rather than true hypothesis, which requires one “know all the circumstances relating to the phenomenon” (Encyclopidae). Her critique lies outside of any knowledge of the science, in fact she admits that lenses can properly reproduce images, “I do not say that no glass presents the true picture of an object” (2068). Instead of refuting the technology entirely, her argument centers around the possibility for error, that the devices “may and do oftentimes present falsely the picture of an exterior object” (2068). She dismisses the use of such technology as a waste of time--she believes all observations of import are made by the naked eye. She relates its use to children playing with their hobbyhorses, calling it more “worthy of reproof rather than praise” (2069). It is worth taking some of her negativity with a grain of salt, the Royal Society was very much a boys club and this essay the product of a visit during which they denied her entry to the group.

Cavendish’s assertion that because something can be wrong--in this case, imperfect lenses represent objects by imperfect proportions--does not prove that all of these tools are without merit as it does not even prove that the tools are systematically misleading. Further, her statements that if someone who had never seen milk before looked at it in a microscope they would not be able to “discover the interior parts of milk” (2070) is presented untested and without any knowledge of microscopes. Much like Intelligent Design experiments on the accuracy of carbon dating, it is hard to doubt the results of Cavendish handing another layperson milk and a microscope and asking them to find curds and whey. One cannot even describe her suppositions as an hypothesis, because Cavendish does not have the requisite knowledge to make such a claim.

Margaret Cavendish does inadvertently bring up the second noteworthy issue of both the article on hypothesis and Intelligent Design, that of the root of knowledge. While Cavendish’s science is abhorrent, her approach has some logical merit. If, as the article states, the goal of a hypothesis is to describe observations of “natural effects and phonomena” (Encyclopidae), and as D’Alembert describes at length in the Preliminary Discourse, “Nothing is more indisputable than the existence of our sensations” (3) how does one verify data that results from modifying our sensations? How can one ever be sure that an image, a facsimile of reality is representative? The eye itself is a lens, so perhaps all observable data has a phase shift, a skew, rendering it irreconcilable with absolute truth.

In the face of this conundrum, the Encyclopidae article, like Intelligent Design, turns to God. However, instead of explaining the currently inexplicable with God, like Intelligent Design, the article states that without perfect, absolute data, all human attempts at scientific truth are essentially hypotheses. Only God observes at the level of absolute scientific truth. The best humanity can achieve is models--flawed, but serviceable replicas. For a more in depth analysis of Enlightenment ideas concerning the relationship between science, reason, and God, the look no further than the article "DON'T BE AN ILLOGICAL SAVAGE...BELIEVE IN GOD"--the Encyclopidae-ic definition of the indefinable in less than 2000 words. Of course, the idea that only God perceives absolute scientific truth is a double edged sword. While it may seem to imply an amount of willingness to accept reason that contradicts religious cannon, it can also be used to blatantly reject all scientific evidence that contradicts cannon because God knows more about the physical world than humanity, so any idea that appears to be in opposition to God's word must be a misunderstanding of evidence by puny-minded humans.

One can only model what has been tested and observed and in this lies the logical inconsistency with the second argument of Intelligent Design--it assumes that Evolution as a model of an observable phenomena requires an explanation of the creation of the first cellular organism. It does not. Evolution describes what happened after the first cell started to create other cells by itself, and while the theory will undoubtedly benefit from knowledge of that cell’s origins, the phenomena are independent.

Consider the end portion of the Encyclopidae article, which states that a hypotheses can be considered false or irrelevant “if they explain nothing” or “if they produce as a consequence certain difficulties that are more important than those one intended to resolve” (Encyclopidae). It is not useful, nor relevant to hypothesize that a model is inaccurate without presenting a superior alternative. It is not useful, nor relevant to hypothesize that God did it, because that does not encourage further inquiry. The obvious counterpoint to that last statement is that perhaps further inquiry is not necessary or good and God made it that way to give people time to consider how to be better rather than how to think better. Obviously, this counterpoint does not match up with humanistic Enlightenment ideals and is not included in the Encyclopidae article.

This Enlightenment fueled drive toward the expansion of knowledge creates another contradiction within the article with respect to that knowledge’s roots. “It is necessary that a hypothesis not contradict any of the first principles that serve as a foundation for our knowledge” (Encyclopidae). In essence, the only way to build is upwards, stacking facts on facts in order to see the furthest. What are these first principles of knowledge?

In the field of mathematics for example, the first principles of knowledge would be Euclidean axioms or arithmetic axioms like one plus one equals two. What the author of the Encyclopidae failed to realize is that these axioms are assumptions. They cannot be proven, and by building on top of them, one creates structures that are easily destroyed. It should the constant imperative of hypotheses to reevaluate the givens, the facts taken for granted. The assumption that one can only build upwards is faulty, the dimensions of knowledge and its possibilities must be considered a set of N + 1--one can build endlessly in endless dimensions. In a way, contradicting this assumption is exactly what the authors of the Encyclopidae hoped to achieve, the expansion of human knowledge throughout the ages. What they could not have hypothesized was the direction of that expansion.