The significance of competing hypotheses must be considered when discussing knowledge production in the Natural Sciences. Experimentation in the Natural Sciences ideally comes from combining the inductive and deductive modes of reasoning—the former to produce ideas and hypotheses, and the latter to verify them. In the process of induction, it is possible to identify a variety of hypotheses from the same set of data; it is this quality that has led to the need for a number of different methods to choose hypotheses. One’s choice of hypotheses, as well as one’s rationale, influences the validity of knowledge produced thereafter through the scientific method.
Optimally, a hypothesis should be able to closely explain actual observations, disparate observations, and unexpected data. Considering these three factors, one can generally weigh hypotheses against one another to determine which is the most reliable to depend upon when conducting an experiment. However, in the process of doing so, a number of limitations present themselves. Those which I will primarily focus on are the cognitive biases, which restrict one’s ability to critically consider hypotheses from an objective perspective.
the first approach: occam’s razor;
A common means of determining the best hypothesis is Occam’s Razor, which relies on the Principle of Simplicity in its position that the simplest hypothesis which explains the greatest scope of evidence is most likely to be accurate. In the words of Einstein, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” As a method, it offers comprehension and prevents misunderstanding by both laymen and fellow experts. The choice of a simpler hypothesis facilitates communication of theories and eases further study. At it’s best, Occam’s razor allows for the elimination of extraneous or invalid hypotheses, and can be considered a guideline for ensuring that the conclusions drawn from testing are relevant and accurate. The reliance on personal preference on the subject of the “simple” can result in unnecessarily complicated or fundamentally illegitimate ideas gaining precedence.
However, a key fault of Occam’s razor lies in its propensity for oversimplification. In the Natural Sciences, a field which aims to describe the world and its processes, its necessary to recognise that the object of study is complicated. The natural world is full of complex processes that cannot be qualified with the simplest explanation. Over-reliance on the law of parsimony could be considered unscientific in that it refutes both logic and intuition in favour of the explanation which best suits individual purpose. Another downfall of Occam’s razor is encouragement of subjectivity—the definition of what a simple explanation is depends on the person establishing a hypothesis. When too many variables are present, as is oft the case in the early stages of establishing a theory, application of Occam’s razor can lead to inappropriate elimination of key ideas, impeding a hypothesis’ efficacy.
the second approach: multiple hypotheses;
A fitting alternative to Occam’s razor is the use of multiple hypotheses in experimentation, where a range of possibilities are considered when analysing qualitative and quantitative observations. Such a method seeks to facilitate the intuition necessary for the development of the Natural Sciences, encouraging an open-minded and multifaceted approach to scientific discovery. Too often, the reference to a single possibility restricts the bounds of experimentation. When more are considered, they not only increase the productivity of a study, but also encourage the observation of connections between multiple factors and allow for a holistic understanding of the subject of study.
Despite their efficacy in establishing interactions between causes and factors, there are a number of faults that lay in the method of using multiple hypotheses. The practicality of using multiple hypotheses is often limited by resources, making them difficult to test. Without the benefits of unlimited funding, scientists are placed in a position where they must evaluate the most valuable or productive hypotheses to pursue. Beyond a limitation of multiple hypotheses as a method of establishing knowledge, it is a more general factor influencing the production of all scientific knowledge, a process which requires significant time and resources. Another issue with multiple hypotheses is yet another more relevant to the scientists who carry out testing. There is a tendency to allow specific hypotheses to take supremacy when more than one are in consideration. Such a predisposition entirely contradicts the intentions of using multiple hypotheses, and requires scientists to remain aware of their practices and motivations.
Occam’s razor can be considered most efficient in the case of multiple well-established competing theories, by eliminating extraneous details of an idea. However, when it comes to establishing the fundamental elements of a theory, multiple hypotheses allow for a variety of factors to be established and stricken. Using both methods in the appropriate context allows one to arrive at a well-founded conclusion; in fact, it’s quite representative of the marriage between reason and intuition in the Natural Sciences. Through first intuitively establishing a variety of well-founded hypotheses, and then considering them logically using Occam’s razor, we arrive at the most probable and best supported hypothesis (or even hypotheses, if the circumstances permit).