GegenStandpunkt – Some Humble Suppositions about the Hypothesis

In the institutions that are supposedly concerned with knowledge, education and research, the following often happens: You walk in and you have a beautiful theory. What notice are you being given? "No way, that was just a hypothesis." Fine! Man is capable of learning. The next time he goes in and tells anyone who wants to know that he has a hypothesis. In fact, of course, he still has his theory. Should one conclude from this that hypotheses have something to do with science?

Submitted by rheoj on May 3, 2020

What do hypotheses have to do with science?

A person who says he has a hypothesis claims to know something. On the basis of what he already knows about his object, he comes to the conclusion that it could be constituted one way or another. When one says "I have a possible explanation", two things are claimed: 1. the supposition given has reasons, namely in what one already knows, and 2. these reasons are defective in so far as they still allow various explanations. So if one wants to have certainty, one cannot be satisfied with a hypothesis. Modern science sees things differently. It sets out from an absolute opposition of thinking to objectivity as self-evident, in that it attests all knowledge its principled provisional nature. The contradiction contained in this, to invoke the yardstick of objective explanation in order to emphasise its unachievability, is taken by bourgeois scientists as proof that hypothetical thinking is perfectly acceptable: if one cannot say anything certain about reality, one must interpret it approximately. In this way, known non-explanations are making their way into the world of science by the dozen, which not only do not lose any of their validity due to the public and apparent qualification expressed beforehand that they are by no means the last word on their object, but are conversely made respectable. Hypotheses such as "learning is behavioral change" become weighty findings which are contrasted by 5 opposing ones with the same epistemological right, i.e. by the fact that they present themselves alongside their self-doubt; perhaps learning is something completely different, but who can say that with certainty? Far from tirelessly proposing hypotheses in order to make them available to the rest of the research community for immediate refutation, so that - an absurd notion - knowledge increases or at least ignorance decreases, the bourgeois intellectual world rather shows itself to be one in which approaches justified by the hypothetical argument are presented and at the same time made immune to attack. The notion that science must be a collection of such dogmas has long since spread to the last introductory course, and contributions that do not emphasise their self-doubting character must be firmly rejected in the name of the provisional nature of all knowledge. Philosophy of science refers to this activity as the normal form of scientific thinking when it asserts that "the progress of science consists in proposing ever new hypotheses" and sets out to prove philosophically that all theory is merely hypothetical.

All knowledge is hypothetical

The theoretical engagement with the world can vary greatly: Depending on how the subject refers to its objects, one must judge its thoughts. They are knowledge, speculation or fantasy. Science does not discover different achievements of the mind in the different possibilities of dealing with the world, but a problem of thinking in general. Because they are thoughts in any case, it should not be possible to see in them whether they explain anything or are the product of imagination. It asserts that every activity claims to be knowledge and, from this assumption, accuses it of possibly not being knowledge. A very interested assertion, because the philosopher of science knows about the difference between an explanation and an invention when he lists them as different activities and at the same time claims to be unable to discover any difference in the thoughts. Any judgment given on an object is thus subject to the very principled doubt as to whether it is correct. One cannot know whether the thought is correct because it is claimed as a characteristic of every thought that it is possibly wrong. Mistakes are no longer errors in thinking, or faulty thoughts, but a conditio sine qua non of thinking in general. In this way, philosophy of science paints the picture of a science that is constantly being tinkered with and in which one can never - and this is something that Mr. Philosopher of Science now knows exactly again - be sure of having brought to light any valid knowledge. "The course of science is trial and error and trying again." (Popper) It is thus demanded of the subject to adopt a hypothetical attitude to its thinking from the outset. It should face every thought sceptically, because it cannot exclude a possible error. And this fundamental deficiency of thinking, that it can never know whether it has thought correctly, is supposed to lie, of all things, in the fact that it is the subject that thinks. Because thinking is human, it is not objective, is the reproach to any judgement of an object. A reproach that is just as unfounded as the call to doubt justified by it: Why should it be a defect that thinking is an activity of a subject? Who would do that for it instead? This is a rather cheap trick: because the subject thinks, the content of the thoughts is merely subjective. With the "criticism" that knowledge is "a product of man" and thus "all theory is the result of ideas", science separates thinking from objectivity and, after the deed is done, raises the question of how the two can come together again. They are searching for a criterion that could identify the thoughts produced independently of the examination of real objects as objective anyway, and find it in the image of the uncomprehended object itself.

Hence: “Empirical testing”

Philosophy of science, however, does not want the scepticism it expresses against possible certainty to be misunderstood as a call to stop pursuing theory; on the contrary: science now demands empirical evidence as the criterion of theory, which is not intended to prove the correctness but the justification of thoughts. This leads to the contradiction that with "reality" precisely that which one claimed to not be able to know about is introduced as a testing instance. Philosophers of science claim in all seriousness that the uncomprehended object itself, when compared with the thoughts made about it without considering it, must vouch for the correctness of these theories: "It is impossible to gain an insight into the constitution and laws of the actual world by pure thinking and without empirical testing (by means of observations)". (Stegmüller) This theoretical absurdity of wanting to measure thinking by the "reality" that is completely incommensurable to it cannot be practiced. Not even if one takes into account what is meant here by "theory" and "reality" or "experience". The philosopher of science dissolves the former into propositions that do not judge, but express some arbitrary individuality of a thing, as, for example, in the famous white swans; science here is checking whether this is the case. The philosopher of science imagines it as follows: that swans are white has not been ascertained at some point, but is due to an "idea" - "theories are ideas, discoveries, to which there is no rational path from the observations made". (Stegmüller) One formulates a hypothesis, "it could be that swans are white", and then checks the "idea" against reality, and lo and behold, one actually finds a white swan. In this idea of science, reality is not the starting point for reflection, but rather "verifies" theory in a rather peculiar way: the "empirical evidence" that the scientist wants to observe for the purpose of testing his theoretical assumptions is from the outset nothing more than the accumulation of instances of the theory. For this reason, "empirical testing" does not ask about the correctness of the content-based judgement of reality, but rather about whether what the hypothesis declares to be its empirical indicator exists in reality or not. The sheer existence of a circumstance, that's all it is, the "solid empirical basis" of a test of theories. It is therefore impossible for even the craziest speculation about the character of these circumstances to "fail", simply because this is not even up for examination. (And the illusion that this is a matter of "testing" only comes about because Popper and his philosophical comrades-in-arms confuse the efforts of their colleagues in the various scientific disciplines with guesswork about such things as "what color is a swan?". The theory that "all ravens are white" could indeed be refuted by "empirical testing" if a scientist were to establish such theories. But nobody does that.); Admittedly, it is not "verified" either; for theories in the circles of these philosophers of science are regarded as "universal quantifications", that is, not as judgements about the swan, but about all swans at all times and places. A distinction that has above all the one scientific-theoretical advantage: such "universal quantifications" cannot, by definition, be "finally confirmed" because it is simply impossible to test all empirical instances of the bold assumption that "all swans are white". Thus the theory is just "provisionally confirmed", if it has the certificate of empiricism - it remains just what it should be: a hypothesis; it should certainly be able to become "falsified", the hypothesis: a black swan and the whole swan theory would be refuted. However: decades of "empirical testing" have not succeeded in killing off even one theory in the humanities in such a way that it would have dropped out of the canon of respectable possible doctrinal opinions. This is because the relevant philosophers of science have expanded their disinterest in refuting a wrong "hypothesis" into a whole set of survival strategies of theories as hypotheses: "observation" can be doubted on principle with exactly the same arguments as the theory that "tests" it; the hypothetical character of the "universal quantification" is made a positive component of the theoretical statement, so that probability statements, middle-range theories, and much more populate the world of science. The result of "empirical testing" is thus the hypothesis, unscathed in content and enormously confirmed in its hypothetical form. Under the illusion of a "test on empirical evidence" the mind is assigned a realm of freedom in which it is allowed to put forward as many as crazy theories, since the claim to validity is well taken care of in principled doubt. "All securities in knowledge are self-fabricated and thus worthless for the comprehension of reality. This means: We can always obtain certainty by immunising any components of our conviction against any possible criticism through dogmatisation, thus protecting them against the risk of failure." (Albert) Thus, conversely, every thought that insists on being right is from the outset discredited as hubris. Whoever makes this accusation makes himself very small, but in return demands of all others to imitate this pose; and this in the name of knowledge, which certainly can only be hypothetical. "This is just a hypothesis!" thus becomes a powerful argument that no one calls irrelevant. It has become customary at universities and elsewhere to reject unloved and not shared thoughts with this universal objection, for the mastery of which no philosophy of science needs to have been studied. And in the rare cases where the moral of relativisation is not taken to heart, the accusation regularly arises that this would be violence.

The self-righteousness of doubt as a commandment for tolerance

The argument of the hypothesis achieves a lot: the demand for relativisation is the attack on every statement and, precisely in this way, accomplishes a self-incrimination that prohibits the attack on one's own theory. The fundamental doubt about the right results of thinking does not serve to reject one's own theory, but to justify it: it is just as possible as any other. Under the cloak of scientificity hides the rule of etiquette for the humanities. Every thinker has to act in such a way that he underlines the principally provisional and thus harmless nature of his judgements by referring to his subjectivity. Thinking is encouraged to constantly consider itself as a mere supposition about reality. Of all people, those who claim nothing more for the validity of their arguments than the argumentation itself are accused of violence. The idea of hypotheses is by its very nature nothing more than the illusion of the justification for the moral imperative of tolerance in science. This commandment of democratic exercise of power, known from the sphere of politics, which demands voluntary self-limitation of conflicting interests, is also the appropriate procedure of a democratic science, which is very satisfied with its subordination to the practical course of the world managed by those in charge. Whoever does not pursue this subordination to "testing by empirical evidence", even on a purely formal level, is relegated to the realm of political ideology as an abuse of science. But someone who takes this line to heart has his freedom in the commentary he adds to world events. In this, in democratic science, the useful application of the hypothesis is very unhypothetical.