Geologist Thomas C. Chamberlain wrote an important paper titled, “The Method of Multiple Working Hypotheses” in 1890. Though he discusses the usefulness of using several hypotheses within a scientific field, this concept can be applied to entire paradigms, as well. Completely different worldviews such as biblical creationism and secular naturalism can benefit from each other, regardless of their contrasting philosophies of science. Questions can be brought up that might not have been considered because of one’s particular paradigm, and thus study can become more rigorous and research strengthened by those with an opposing viewpoint. As a result, multiple working paradigms benefit the progress of science.
Thomas C. Chamberlain, late 19th century geologist and founder of the Journal of Geology, wrote a fascinating and important paper regarding the approach to science. In his writing, he supports a pluralistic perspective of answering the “How?” questions; he suggests that it is beneficial for the progress of science to have multiple working hypotheses for any given idea within a paradigm, hence the name of his article. Chamberlain says that there are “two fundamental studies,” the first of which is primarily acquisition of knowledge and the study of previous accomplishments. Students fall into this category—they are memorizing facts, reading textbooks and articles, etc. The second kind of study has the goal of discovering “new truth.” It involves creative thinking applied to a specific discipline with the hope of finding something new. And while it can be entirely new research that has not been done before, Chamberlain is sure to point out that this mode of study can apply to past material and data, as long as the research is unique and independent.
In the early development of the sciences, it was relatively easy for a scientist to be generally familiar with most of the disciplines ranging from botany to physics to geology—since the scope of knowledge was quite limited. So, these individuals were often assumed to be “wise men, or aspired to be thought so, all that was known, as a justification of their claims” (pg. 838). As a result, when new discoveries were made, people often turned to these individuals for their respective explanations. These scientists would then quickly come up with a solution to the problems presented. Consequently, Chamberlain suggests, “too often a theory is promptly born and evidence hunted up to fit in afterward” (pg. 838). General theories were proposed, but would not necessarily have a lot of data to back them up—and yet they quickly became widely accepted in the scientific community. They are held to, not because they are the most logical, but because they are the longest held. Chamberlain likens it to a blind love and says that “all too often they put under strain the integrity of the intellectual processes” (pg. 840). This becomes problematic, of course, as the scientific community becomes complacent and no longer thinks outside the box. Of Chamberlain’s two fundamental types of studies, only the former is being done; the quest to discover new truth is now hindered by this blindness.
As soon as an adequate solution is proposed, the scientific community accepts it and moves on, rarely stopping to consider alternatives. There becomes a tendency towards bias. Partialism quickly dominates and the new theory “then rapidly rises to a position of control in the process of the mind and observation, induction, and interpretation are guided by it” (pg. 840). The scientific method, of which has been instilled in the minds of young people since their elementary years, has been assumed to be the ultimate method of scientific inquiry. However, Chamberlain argues that his method of multiple working hypotheses is not just a “proposition to be established,” but instead it is to be “used as a means of determining facts” (pg. 842). That is, it should be for the purpose of guiding investigation. Or, as he succinctly puts it, “the hypothesis is a mode rather than an end” (pg. 842). When this distinction is made, it becomes less easy to have an attachment to a hypothesis, thus promoting better scientific research since it is no longer a rigid, ruling idea. It is the preferred method, as it “distributes the effort and divides the affections” of scientists (pg. 843). New research and ideas, as a result, are more diverse and held to by a variety of people—encouraging the community to work together for many ideas instead of giving too much attention to the favored hypothesis. This increased impartiality ensures that as new ideas come along, that they are not overlooked. Of course, in some areas of study this may not be practical, Chamberlain concedes, but generally it is a useful method.
Chamberlain’s proposal of this method is quite important, and too often overlooked. His article was published in 1890, and this applies even more so today. Though this paper is about the importance of having multiple working hypotheses, it can also be applied on a broader scope. In 1962, Thomas Kuhn’s book titled “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” introduced the idea of paradigm as applied to the scientific community.
A paradigm, Kuhn proposes, is essentially a worldview through which a community of scientists do research. Paradigms change as new theories are introduced and embraced by scientists. However, the scientific community should not be so hasty in abandoning a particular theory for another. For example, when the theory of plate tectonics was introduced in the 20th century, it became accepted within just a few decades. While this is definitely a positive example of the rapid change in theory, there can also be dangers in the entirety of a scientific community clinging to a singular idea. It is good to have not only a wide variety of hypotheses and theories, but also entire paradigms. Even if an entire worldview seems outrageous to one side, it is still beneficial to the scientific community as a whole. Like Chamberlain remarks, “the reaction of one hypothesis upon another tends to amplify the recognized scope of each. Every hypothesis is quite sure to call forth into clear recognition new or neglect aspects of the phenomena in its own interest” (pg. 846). A wide variety of thinking encourages hard questions that help each side hone their own arguments. To return to the ideas of Kuhn, competition between what he terms “research programs” encourages the development and progress of science.
These same principles can be applied more specifically to the debate between materialistic naturalism and biblical creationism. It can become easy for either position to become dogmatic about their views and look down on those who disagree, saying they are stupid or foolish for believing what they believe. For example, George McCready Price, an early Adventist creationist, believed that his specific hypotheses on the Ice Age had to be correct because he upheld Scripture and thus must be right, instead of exploring other mechanisms for dramatic climate change. Conversely, strict Lyell-following uniformitarianists failed to consider the possibility that the Channeled Scablands could have formed as a result of huge, cataclysmic floods because their thinking was limited to slow, gradual processes.
Leonard Brand and Art Chadwick, both influential creationists, wrote a book on “Faith, Reason, and Earth History.” They pose the question: can there be an “alternative, nonnaturalistic philosophy [that] could also be successful in guiding the scientific process?” (Ch. 5). It is unfortunate that this must even be asked; as long as scientists are doing good research and accurately reporting their findings, they are doing “good” science. Their philosophy does not inherently inhibit their ability to study the world. (Of course, there are extremists on both ends of the spectrum who are dishonest and not researching well—but they are excluded from this discussion.) Oftentimes, both sides are attacking each other’s philosophy of science rather than their scientific results and conclusions. Their perspective is narrowed due to their philosophy. Inviting questions from those of opposing viewpoints will only benefit the progress of science. It will never hinder the search for truth. It, in fact, does the opposite: good questions, regardless of where (or from whom) they came from can be a catalyst for discovery. This can be seen throughout history. For example, Thomas Edison and Nicola Tesla had disagreements, with one dismissing the other’s work—however, both made many major contributions and their names are still remembered to this day for their inventions. Brand and Chadwick make an excellent point:
Science will be benefited if scientists with differing philosophical views are encouraged to be active in science. Neither has anything to fear from the other as long as both are (1) active in the scientific process and engaged in quality research, (2) honest with the data, and (3) taking an active part in the scientific community, publishing their work, attending meetings and presenting papers, and talking with their peers about their work. No quality control is quite as effective as knowing that when one presents a paper, others—including some who disagree—will be ready to point out the mistakes that may have been overlooked. Also, scientists in each group are likely to recognize some types of data that the other might overlook (Ch. 5).
The review and debate between groups strengthens each other. Because of this, neither side needs to be dogmatic as research and data benefits all parties.
Chamberlain’s emphasis on the importance of multiple working hypotheses should be an idea that is applied not only to hypotheses and theories, but also to entire scientific paradigms. The same principle applies to people of differing world views such as biblical creationists and secular naturalists. The cooperation of individuals from varying perspectives and scientific understandings allows for a broader range of questions and viewpoints that can be presented. People in either group can become too attached to their own particular ideas, which could potentially blind them to new discovery. Science should not be hindered because of disagreements in philosophy of science. Instead, different viewpoints should be celebrated for their contributions to the body of scientific research. For this reason, creationism is ultimately beneficial for the progress of science. Regardless if one holds it to be true, it furthers scientific progress by its very nature—it proposes different questions that might not be considered in the conventional, mainstream scientific community.
Brand, Leonard, and Arthur Chadwick. Faith, Reason, & Earth History : A Paradigm of Earth and Biological Origins by Intelligent Design. Andrews University Press, 2016. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=cat02007a&AN=cedar.b1460961&site=eds-live.
Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. International Encyclopedia of Unified Science : Foundations of the Unity of Science ; v. 2, No. 2. University of Chicago Press, 1974. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=cat02007a&AN=cedar.b1 072353&site=eds-live.
T. C. Chamberlin. “The Method of Multiple Working Hypotheses.” The Journal of Geology. 1897, 837–48. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=geh&AN=1918- 005748&site=eds-live.
The views expressed in this article reflect those of the author.