Practical Notes Quotations Skepticism

Hypothetical Skepticism

G.K. Chesterton, “About Relativity”, As I Was Saying

A somewhat similar use has been made lately of the word “hypothesis.” There has been a correspondence in The Times about the nature of belief, or unbelief, or incidentally of make-believe. This was enriched by a somewhat pompous letter from a very superior person, who said he was entirely Modern; and proceeded to set forth as much as he could understand of the early sceptical sages of ancient Hellas, to whom I have referred; and proceeded to adorn the theme with things so exclusively modern as the exact meaning of dialectic in the dialogues of Plato. But his scepticism was much more archaic than Plato; indeed it was the sort of nihilistic nonsense that Socrates existed largely in order to chaff out of existence. The form it took here was the repeated suggestion that a Modern person cannot believe in anything except as a hypothesis. In other words, that he cannot believe in anything at all. For you cannot believe in a hypothesis; you can only give it a fair chance to prove itself a thesis that can be believed.

Now, even the Modern Man is not necessarily a madman; and this would hopelessly ruin and destroy every modern use of hypothesis; especially the whole scientific idea of a hypothesis holding the field. It would merely mean ensuring that what is called a working hypothesis would not work. For a man could not even construct a hypothesis if he could only construct it out of hypothetical things. There can be no hypothesis if there is nothing but hypothesis. Anybody can see that, if he will merely consider any actual example. For instance, the Darwinian theory of Natural Selection was a hypothesis; and it is still only a hypothesis. Popular science insists on repeating that it is a hypothesis that has been confirmed; with the result that responsible science is more and more treating it as a hypothesis which has been abandoned. But it can be quite rightly treated as a reasonable hypothesis, by anybody who believes in it, if he can support it with other things in which he believes; or preferably things in which everybody believes. He is quite entitled to say, “We suggest that a monkey, probably living in a tree, became the ancestor of a man, apparently living in a cave, by a process of adaptations beginning with slight varieties of features in his family, by which it survived only in those cases where the features favoured the finding of food. It may not yet be finally confirmed by the fossils found in the rocks or the habits of the monkeys still found in the tress; but we still think it the most probable hypothesis and confidently await proof.” But he could not even say that, if he were compelled to explain his suggestion in some such form as this: “We suggest that a monkey (if there are any monkeys) living in a tree (if there are any trees) became the ancestor of a man (if we may risk the speculative supposition that there is such a thing as a man) through certain variations enabling certain types to find food (granted the truth of the traditional dogma that food is favourable to life), and we look to the hypothetical fossils which may or may not be found in the hypothetical rocks which may or may not be found in the world; or to the behaviour of monkeys we cannot actually believe in, in trees we cannot actually believe in, and faintly trust to a larger hope that something may somehow make some sense out of the whole caboodle. But even if something does happen, by which this hypothesis seems to fit in better with all the other hypotheses, we can never believe it even at the end as anything except the hypothesis that it was at the beginning; because the good kind gentleman in The Times tells us it would not be Modern.”

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