Monday, 11 May 2015

What is a philosophical problem? The irrefutable metahypothesis

By Matthew Blakeway

If we ban speculation about metahypotheses, does philosophical debate simply evaporate? 

Karl Popper explained how scientific knowledge grows in his book Conjectures and Refutations. A conjecture is a guess as to an explanation of a phenomenon. And an experiment is an attempt to refute a conjecture. Experiments can never prove a conjecture correct, but if successive experiments fail to refute it, then gradually it becomes accepted by scientists that the conjecture is the best available explanation. It is then a scientific theory. Scientists don’t like the word “conjecture” because it implies that it is merely a guess. They prefer the word “hypothesis”. Popper’s rule is that, for a hypothesis to be considered scientific, it must be empirically falsifiable.

When scientists consider a phenomenon that is truly mystifying, it seems reasonable to ask “what might a hypothesis for this look like?” At this point, scientists are hypothesising about hypotheses. Metahypothetical thinking is the first step in any scientific journey. When this produces no results, frustration gets the upper hand and they pursue the following line of reasoning: “the phenomenon is an effect, and must have a cause. But since we don’t know what that cause is, let’s give it a name ‘X’ and then speculate about its properties.” A metahypothesis is now presumed to be 'A Thing', rather than merely an idea about an idea.

The problem is the irrefutability of its existence.
X is a metahypothetical idea, and until we have a hypothesis, we don’t actually know what we are supposed to be refuting. Popper would say that it wasn’t scientific, yet it sprang from a scientific speculation. There is a false impression of truth that actually derives from a misrepresentation of axiom. “X is a thing” actually means “’X’ is a name we have given to an idea where we don’t even know what the idea represents” and the confusion between idea and thing is born. A false logical conclusion arises, not from truth, but because incoherent statements are irrefutable by their nature.

We can trace this through the history of philosophy. Most of it can be reduced to the following two questions:

• “What is X?” and
• “Does X exist?”

- where “X” is a metahypothetical idea that sprang from a scientist speculating about a cause of an unexplained phenomenon. The “X” could represent: God, evil, freewill, the soul, knowledge, etc. Each of these is a metahypothesis that originated with a scientist seeking to explain respectively: the existence of the universe, destructive actions by humans, seemingly random actions by humans, human actions that no one else can understand, human understanding.

The question “what is knowledge?” led to thousands of years of debate that ended when everybody lost interest in it. And I'm sure that the questions “what is freewill?” and “do humans have it?” are currently going through their death throes – again after a thousand years of debate. Or take the statement: “Evil people perform evil actions because they are evil.” If you are reading this blog, you will recognise that as so incoherent that it is barely a sentence, yet the individual components of it frequently pass as explanation for human actions that we don’t like. The idea of “evil” being some sort of thing is irrefutable despite being meaningless. What is there here to refute?

The sheer persistence of any proposition concerning a metahypothesis represented as 'A Thing' is illustrated by a real debate recently. The British actor, Stephen Fry,  gave an interview with Irish television in which he argued that if God exists, then he is a maniacal bastard. [To paraphrase!]

Yes, the world is very splendid but it also has in it insects whose whole lifecycle is to burrow into the eyes of children and make them blind. They eat outwards from the eyes. Why? Why did you do that to us? You could easily have made a creation in which that didn’t exist.

Giles Fraser, a Christian, responded with an article “I don’t believe in the God that Stephen Fry doesn’t believe in either.”

If we are imagining a God whose only power, indeed whose only existence, is love itself – and yes, this means we will have to think metaphorically about a lot of the Bible – then God cannot stand accused as the cause of humanity’s suffering.

I expect that you are positively itching to take a side in this debate. But resist the urge! Instead imagine that you are a Martian gazing down at the tragic poverty of the debates of Earth people. Fry is taking a literal interpretation of God and thereby is converting a metahypothesis into a hypothesis, but he is doing this purely with the intention of refuting it. Deliberately establishing a false hypothesis is a good debating tactic, but a dishonest one.

Fraser responds by taking the literal interpretation and passing it back into the metahypothetical – an equally dishonest tactic of making a debate unwinnable by undefining its terms. It’s like stopping the other team winning at football by hiding the ball. The effect of debates like this is to create an equilibrium stasis where the word “God” is suspended between meaning and incoherence. If it is given a robust definition, it becomes a hypothesis and is empirically refutable. And since its origins were in our inability to explain phenomena (the origin of the universe, life, etc.) for which we now have decent scientific explanations then it is pretty certain that it will indeed be refuted. But if the idea is completely incoherent, then it isn’t possible to talk about it at all. So the word exists – fluidly semi-defined – in the mid-zone between these two states. The concept “God” is an idea about an idea about a cause of unexplained phenomena. It is therefore itself unexplainable.

We can examine the birth of a metahypothesis in real time. Richard Dawkins asked in The Selfish Gene what caused cultural elements to replicate. He speculated that it needed a replicator like a gene:

But do we have to go to distant worlds to find other kinds of replicator and other, consequent, kinds of evolution? I think that a new kind of replicator has recently emerged on this very planet. It is staring us in the face. It is still in its infancy, still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup, but already it is achieving evolutionary change at a rate that leaves the old gene panting far behind.

The new soup is the soup of human culture. We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene’. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme.

An effect needs a cause. And since we don’t know what that cause is, let us give it a name and then speculate as to what its properties must be. It is beyond funny that the world’s most famous atheist is here caught employing the same method of reasoning that gave birth to the idea of “God”. We will now debate for a thousand years whether memes exist or not. However, the idea is incoherent despite sounding convincingly sciencey. The idea of the “soul” sounded pretty sciencey in Aristotle’s day. Dawkins speculates that the idea of God is a meme, but he fails to notice that the idea of a meme is a meme, and therefore he is trying to lift himself off the floor by his bootstraps.

So... if we ban speculation about metahypotheses, does philosophical debate simply evaporate? Maybe! But it would probably also stop scientific progress in its tracks. If you are in the mood for a brain spin, you might consider whether the idea of a “metahypothesis” is itself a metahypothesis.

Taking this further, if we cannot hypothesise about hypotheses, then does science evaporate too?


  1. A perceptive essay.

    It is our language, said Francis Bacon, which bedevils everything. It is simply incapable of dealing with being: “Yet even definitions cannot cure this evil in dealing with natural and material things; since the definitions themselves consist of words, and those words beget others."

    I myself have seen bans on areas of philosophical debate as philosophical short circuits, where philosophers most needed escape clauses. Notably Wittgenstein's: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."

    “Evil people perform evil actions because they are evil.” To me this makes good sense! How about: "Blakeways perform Blakeway acts because they are Blakeways ..." ? (assuming, naturally, that Blakeways' acts are wonderfully beneficial to humankind).

  2. In the words of Flaubert, "a small does of science leads away from religion, a large does brings us right back to it".