A System of Logic, by John Stuart Mill

Chapter XIV.

Of The Limits To The Explanation Of Laws Of Nature; And Of Hypotheses.

§ 1. The preceding considerations have led us to recognize a distinction between two kinds of laws, or observed uniformities in nature: ultimate laws, and what may be termed derivative laws. Derivative laws are such as are deducible from, and may, in any of the modes which we have pointed out, be resolved into, other and more general ones. Ultimate laws are those which can not. We are not sure that any of the uniformities with which we are yet acquainted are ultimate laws; but we know that there must be ultimate laws; and that every resolution of a derivative law into more general laws brings us nearer to them.

Since we are continually discovering that uniformities, not previously known to be other than ultimate, are derivative, and resolvable into more general laws; since (in other words) we are continually discovering the explanation of some sequence which was previously known only as a fact; it becomes an interesting question whether there are any necessary limits to this philosophical operation, or whether it may proceed until all the uniform sequences in nature are resolved into some one universal law. For this seems, at first sight, to be the ultimatum toward which the progress of induction by the Deductive Method, resting on a basis of observation and experiment, is tending. Projects of this kind were universal in the infancy of philosophy; any speculations which held out a less brilliant prospect being in these early times deemed not worth pursuing. And the idea receives so much apparent countenance from the nature of the most remarkable achievements of modern science, that speculators are even now frequently appearing, who profess either to have solved the problem, or to suggest modes in which it may one day be solved. Even where pretensions of this magnitude are not made, the character of the solutions which are given or sought of particular classes of phenomena, often involves such conceptions of what constitutes explanation, as would render the notion of explaining all phenomena whatever by means of some one cause or law, perfectly admissible.

§ 2. It is, therefore, useful to remark that the ultimate Laws of Nature can not possibly be less numerous than the distinguishable sensations or other feelings of our nature; those, I mean, which are distinguishable from one another in quality, and not merely in quantity or degree. For example: since there is a phenomenon sui generis, called color, which our consciousness testifies to be not a particular degree of some other phenomenon, as heat or odor or motion, but intrinsically unlike all others, it follows that there are ultimate laws of color; that though the facts of color may admit of explanation, they never can be explained from laws of heat or odor alone, or of motion alone, but that, however far the explanation may be carried, there will always remain in it a law of color. I do not mean that it might not possibly be shown that some other phenomenon, some chemical or mechanical action, for example, invariably precedes, and is the cause of, every phenomenon of color. But though this, if proved, would be an important extension of our knowledge of nature, it would not explain how or why a motion, or a chemical action, can produce a sensation of color; and, however diligent might be our scrutiny of the phenomena, whatever number of hidden links we might detect in the chain of causation terminating in the color, the last link would still be a law of color, not a law of motion, nor of any other phenomenon whatever. Nor does this observation apply only to color, as compared with any other of the great classes of sensations; it applies to every particular color, as compared with others. White color can in no manner be explained exclusively by the laws of the production of red color. In any attempt to explain it, we can not but introduce, as one element of the explanation, the proposition that some antecedent or other produces the sensation of white.

The ideal limit, therefore, of the explanation of natural phenomena (toward which as toward other ideal limits we are constantly tending, without the prospect of ever completely attaining it) would be to show that each distinguishable variety of our sensations, or other states of consciousness, has only one sort of cause; that, for example, whenever we perceive a white color, there is some one condition or set of conditions which is always present, and the presence of which always produces in us that sensation. As long as there are several known modes of production of a phenomenon (several different substances, for instance, which have the property of whiteness, and between which we can not trace any other resemblance) so long it is not impossible that one of these modes of production may be resolved into another, or that all of them may be resolved into some more general mode of production not hitherto recognized. But when the modes of production are reduced to one, we can not, in point of simplification, go any further. This one may not, after all, be the ultimate mode; there may be other links to be discovered between the supposed cause and the effect; but we can only further resolve the known law, by introducing some other law hitherto unknown, which will not diminish the number of ultimate laws.

In what cases, accordingly, has science been most successful in explaining phenomena, by resolving their complex laws into laws of greater simplicity and generality? Hitherto chiefly in cases of the propagation of various phenomena through space; and, first and principally, the most extensive and important of all facts of that description, mechanical motion. Now this is exactly what might be expected from the principles here laid down. Not only is motion one of the most universal of all phenomena, it is also (as might be expected from that circumstance) one of those which, apparently at least, are produced in the greatest number of ways; but the phenomenon itself is always, to our sensations, the same in every respect but degree. Differences of duration or of velocity, are evidently differences in degree only; and differences of direction in space, which alone has any semblance of being a distinction in kind, entirely disappear (so far as our sensations are concerned) by a change in our own position; indeed, the very same motion appears to us, according to our position, to take place in every variety of direction, and motions in every different direction to take place in the same. And again, motion in a straight line and in a curve are no otherwise distinct than that the one is motion continuing in the same direction, the other is motion which at each instant changes its direction. There is, therefore, according to the principles I have stated, no absurdity in supposing that all motion may be produced in one and the same way, by the same kind of cause. Accordingly, the greatest achievements in physical science have consisted in resolving one observed law of the production of motion into the laws of other known modes of production, or the laws of several such modes into one more general mode; as when the fall of bodies to the earth, and the motions of the planets, were brought under the one law of the mutual attraction of all particles of matter; when the motions said to be produced by magnetism were shown to be produced by electricity; when the motions of fluids in a lateral direction, or even contrary to the direction of gravity, were shown to be produced by gravity; and the like. There is an abundance of distinct causes of motion still unresolved into one another: gravitation, heat, electricity, chemical action, nervous action, and so forth; but whether the efforts of the present generation of savants to resolve all these different modes of production into one are ultimately successful or not, the attempt so to resolve them is perfectly legitimate. For, though these various causes produce, in other respects, sensations intrinsically different, and are not, therefore, capable of being resolved into one another, yet, in so far as they all produce motion, it is quite possible that the immediate antecedent of the motion may in all these different cases be the same; nor is it impossible that these various agencies themselves may, as the new doctrines assert, all of them have for their own immediate antecedent modes of molecular motion.

We need not extend our illustration to other cases, as, for instance, to the propagation of light, sound, heat, electricity, etc., through space, or any of the other phenomena which have been found susceptible of explanation by the resolution of their observed laws into more general laws. Enough has been said to display the difference between the kind of explanation and resolution of laws which is chimerical, and that of which the accomplishment is the great aim of science; and to show into what sort of elements the resolution must be effected, if at all.159

§ 3. As, however, there is scarcely any one of the principles of a true method of philosophizing which does not require to be guarded against errors on both sides, I must enter a caveat against another misapprehension, of a kind directly contrary to the preceding. M. Comte, among other occasions on which he has condemned, with some asperity, any attempt to explain phenomena which are “evidently primordial” (meaning, apparently, no more than that every peculiar phenomenon must have at least one peculiar and therefore inexplicable law), has spoken of the attempt to furnish any explanation of the color belonging to each substance, “la couleur élémentaire propre à chaque substance,” as essentially illusory. “No one,” says he, “in our time attempts to explain the particular specific gravity of each substance or of each structure. Why should it be otherwise as to the specific color, the notion of which is undoubtedly no less primordial?”160

Now although, as he elsewhere observes, a color must always remain a different thing from a weight or a sound, varieties of color might nevertheless follow, or correspond to, given varieties of weight, or sound, or some other phenomenon as different as these are from color itself. It is one question what a thing is, and another what it depends on; and though to ascertain the conditions of an elementary phenomenon is not to obtain any new insight into the nature of the phenomenon itself, that is no reason against attempting to discover the conditions. The interdict against endeavoring to reduce distinctions of color to any common principle, would have held equally good against a like attempt on the subject of distinctions of sound; which nevertheless have been found to be immediately preceded and caused by distinguishable varieties in the vibrations of elastic bodies; though a sound, no doubt, is quite as different as a color is from any motion of particles, vibratory or otherwise. We might add, that, in the case of colors, there are strong positive indications that they are not ultimate properties of the different kinds of substances, but depend on conditions capable of being superinduced upon all substances; since there is no substance which can not, according to the kind of light thrown upon it, be made to assume almost any color; and since almost every change in the mode of aggregation of the particles of the same substance is attended with alterations in its color, and in its optical properties generally.

The really weak point in the attempts which have been made to account for colors by the vibrations of a fluid, is not that the attempt itself is unphilosophical, but that the existence of the fluid, and the fact of its vibratory motion, are not proved, but are assumed, on no other ground than the facility they are supposed to afford of explaining the phenomena. And this consideration leads to the important question of the proper use of scientific hypotheses, the connection of which with the subject of the explanation of the phenomena of nature, and of the necessary limits to that explanation, need not be pointed out.

§ 4. An hypothesis is any supposition which we make (either without actual evidence, or on evidence avowedly insufficient) in order to endeavor to deduce from it conclusions in accordance with facts which are known to be real; under the idea that if the conclusions to which the hypothesis leads are known truths, the hypothesis itself either must be, or at least is likely to be, true. If the hypothesis relates to the cause or mode of production of a phenomenon, it will serve, if admitted, to explain such facts as are found capable of being deduced from it. And this explanation is the purpose of many, if not most hypotheses. Since explaining, in the scientific sense, means resolving a uniformity which is not a law of causation, into the laws of causation from which it results, or a complex law of causation into simpler and more general ones from which it is capable of being deductively inferred, if there do not exist any known laws which fulfill this requirement, we may feign or imagine some which would fulfill it; and this is making an hypothesis.

An hypothesis being a mere supposition, there are no other limits to hypotheses than those of the human imagination; we may, if we please, imagine, by way of accounting for an effect, some cause of a kind utterly unknown, and acting according to a law altogether fictitious. But as hypotheses of this sort would not have any of the plausibility belonging to those which ally themselves by analogy with known laws of nature, and besides would not supply the want which arbitrary hypotheses are generally invented to satisfy, by enabling the imagination to represent to itself an obscure phenomenon in a familiar light, there is probably no hypothesis in the history of science in which both the agent itself and the law of its operation were fictitious. Either the phenomenon assigned as the cause is real, but the law according to which it acts merely supposed; or the cause is fictitious, but is supposed to produce its effects according to laws similar to those of some known class of phenomena. An instance of the first kind is afforded by the different suppositions made respecting the law of the planetary central force, anterior to the discovery of the true law, that the force varies as the inverse square of the distance; which also suggested itself to Newton, in the first instance, as an hypothesis, and was verified by proving that it led deductively to Kepler’s laws. Hypotheses of the second kind are such as the vortices of Descartes, which were fictitious, but were supposed to obey the known laws of rotatory motion; or the two rival hypotheses respecting the nature of light, the one ascribing the phenomena to a fluid emitted from all luminous bodies, the other (now generally received) attributing them to vibratory motions among the particles of an ether pervading all space. Of the existence of either fluid there is no evidence, save the explanation they are calculated to afford of some of the phenomena; but they are supposed to produce their effects according to known laws: the ordinary laws of continued locomotion in the one case, and in the other those of the propagation of undulatory movements among the particles of an elastic fluid.

According to the foregoing remarks, hypotheses are invented to enable the Deductive Method to be earlier applied to phenomena. But161 in order to discover the cause of any phenomenon by the Deductive Method, the process must consist of three parts: induction, ratiocination, and verification. Induction (the place of which, however, may be supplied by a prior deduction), to ascertain the laws of the causes; ratiocination, to compute from those laws how the causes will operate in the particular combination known to exist in the case in hand; verification, by comparing this calculated effect with the actual phenomenon. No one of these three parts of the process can be dispensed with. In the deduction which proves the identity of gravity with the central force of the solar system, all the three are found. First, it is proved from the moon’s motions, that the earth attracts her with a force varying as the inverse square of the distance. This (though partly dependent on prior deductions) corresponds to the first, or purely inductive, step: the ascertainment of the law of the cause. Secondly, from this law, and from the knowledge previously obtained of the moon’s mean distance from the earth, and of the actual amount of her deflection from the tangent, it is ascertained with what rapidity the earth’s attraction would cause the moon to fall, if she were no further off, and no more acted upon by extraneous forces, than terrestrial bodies are: that is the second step, the ratiocination. Finally, this calculated velocity being compared with the observed velocity with which all heavy bodies fall, by mere gravity, toward the surface of the earth (sixteen feet in the first second, forty-eight in the second, and so forth, in the ratio of the odd numbers, 1, 3, 5, etc.), the two quantities are found to agree. The order in which the steps are here presented was not that of their discovery; but it is their correct logical order, as portions of the proof that the same attraction of the earth which causes the moon’s motion causes also the fall of heavy bodies to the earth: a proof which is thus complete in all its parts.

Now, the Hypothetical Method suppresses the first of the three steps, the induction to ascertain the law; and contents itself with the other two operations, ratiocination and verification; the law which is reasoned from being assumed instead of proved.

This process may evidently be legitimate on one supposition, namely, if the nature of the case be such that the final step, the verification, shall amount to, and fulfill the conditions of, a complete induction. We want to be assured that the law we have hypothetically assumed is a true one; and its leading deductively to true results will afford this assurance, provided the case be such that a false law can not lead to a true result; provided no law, except the very one which we have assumed, can lead deductively to the same conclusions which that leads to. And this proviso is often realized. For example, in the very complete specimen of deduction which we just cited, the original major premise of the ratiocination, the law of the attractive force, was ascertained in this mode; by this legitimate employment of the Hypothetical Method. Newton began by an assumption that the force which at each instant deflects a planet from its rectilineal course, and makes it describe a curve round the sun, is a force tending directly toward the sun. He then proved that if this be so, the planet will describe, as we know by Kepler’s first law that it does describe, equal areas in equal times; and, lastly, he proved that if the force acted in any other direction whatever, the planet would not describe equal areas in equal times. It being thus shown that no other hypothesis would accord with the facts, the assumption was proved; the hypothesis became an inductive truth. Not only did Newton ascertain by this hypothetical process the direction of the deflecting force; he proceeded in exactly the same manner to ascertain the law of variation of the quantity of that force. He assumed that the force varied inversely as the square of the distance; showed that from this assumption the remaining two of Kepler’s laws might be deduced; and, finally, that any other law of variation would give results inconsistent with those laws, and inconsistent, therefore, with the real motions of the planets, of which Kepler’s laws were known to be a correct expression.

I have said that in this case the verification fulfills the conditions of an induction; but an induction of what sort? On examination we find that it conforms to the canon of the Method of Difference. It affords the two instances, A B C, a b c, and B C, b c. A represents central force; A B C, the planets plus a central force; B C, the planets apart from a central force. The planets with a central force give a, areas proportional to the times; the planets without a central force give b c (a set of motions) without a, or with something else instead of a. This is the Method of Difference in all its strictness. It is true, the two instances which the method requires are obtained in this case, not by experiment, but by a prior deduction. But that is of no consequence. It is immaterial what is the nature of the evidence from which we derive the assurance that A B C will produce a b c, and B C only b c; it is enough that we have that assurance. In the present case, a process of reasoning furnished Newton with the very instances which, if the nature of the case had admitted of it, he would have sought by experiment.

It is thus perfectly possible, and indeed is a very common occurrence, that what was an hypothesis at the beginning of the inquiry becomes a proved law of nature before its close. But in order that this should happen, we must be able, either by deduction or experiment, to obtain both the instances which the Method of Difference requires. That we are able from the hypothesis to deduce the known facts, gives only the affirmative instance, A B C, a b c. It is equally necessary that we should be able to obtain, as Newton did, the negative instance B C, b c; by showing that no antecedent, except the one assumed in the hypothesis, would in conjunction with B C produce a.

Now it appears to me that this assurance can not be obtained, when the cause assumed in the hypothesis is an unknown cause imagined solely to account for a. When we are only seeking to determine the precise law of a cause already ascertained, or to distinguish the particular agent which is in fact the cause, among several agents of the same kind, one or other of which it is already known to be, we may then obtain the negative instance. An inquiry which of the bodies of the solar system causes by its attraction some particular irregularity in the orbit or periodic time of some satellite or comet, would be a case of the second description. Newton’s was a case of the first. If it had not been previously known that the planets were hindered from moving in straight lines by some force tending toward the interior of their orbit, though the exact direction was doubtful; or if it had not been known that the force increased in some proportion or other as the distance diminished, and diminished as it increased, Newton’s argument would not have proved his conclusion. These facts, however, being already certain, the range of admissible suppositions was limited to the various possible directions of a line, and the various possible numerical relations between the variations of the distance, and the variations of the attractive force. Now among these it was easily shown that different suppositions could not lead to identical consequences.

Accordingly, Newton could not have performed his second great scientific operation: that of identifying terrestrial gravity with the central force of the solar system by the same hypothetical method. When the law of the moon’s attraction had been proved from the data of the moon itself, then, on finding the same law to accord with the phenomena of terrestrial gravity, he was warranted in adopting it as the law of those phenomena likewise; but it would not have been allowable for him, without any lunar data, to assume that the moon was attracted toward the earth with a force as the inverse square of the distance, merely because that ratio would enable him to account for terrestrial gravity; for it would have been impossible for him to prove that the observed law of the fall of heavy bodies to the earth could not result from any force, save one extending to the moon, and proportional to the inverse square.

It appears, then, to be a condition of the most genuinely scientific hypothesis, that it be not destined always to remain an hypothesis, but be of such a nature as to be either proved or disproved by comparison with observed facts. This condition is fulfilled when the effect is already known to depend on the very cause supposed, and the hypothesis relates only to the precise mode of dependence; the law of the variation of the effect according to the variations in the quantity or in the relations of the cause. With these may be classed the hypotheses which do not make any supposition with regard to causation, but only with regard to the law of correspondence between facts which accompany each other in their variations, though there may be no relation of cause and effect between them. Such were the different false hypotheses which Kepler made respecting the law of the refraction of light. It was known that the direction of the line of refraction varied with every variation in the direction of the line of incidence, but it was not known how; that is, what changes of the one corresponded to the different changes of the other. In this case any law different from the true one must have led to false results. And, lastly, we must add to these all hypothetical modes of merely representing or describing phenomena; such as the hypothesis of the ancient astronomers that the heavenly bodies moved in circles; the various hypotheses of eccentrics, deferents, and epicycles, which were added to that original hypothesis; the nineteen false hypotheses which Kepler made and abandoned respecting the form of the planetary orbits; and even the doctrine in which he finally rested, that those orbits are ellipses, which was but an hypothesis like the rest until verified by facts.

In all these cases, verification is proof; if the supposition accords with the phenomena there needs no other evidence of it. But in order that this may be the case, I conceive it to be necessary, when the hypothesis relates to causation, that the supposed cause should not only be a real phenomenon, something actually existing in nature, but should be already known to exercise, or at least to be capable of exercising, an influence of some sort over the effect. In any other case, it is no sufficient evidence of the truth of the hypothesis that we are able to deduce the real phenomena from it.

Is it, then, never allowable, in a scientific hypothesis, to assume a cause, but only to ascribe an assumed law to a known cause? I do not assert this. I only say, that in the latter case alone can the hypothesis be received as true merely because it explains the phenomena. In the former case it may be very useful by suggesting a line of investigation which may possibly terminate in obtaining real proof. But for this purpose, as is justly remarked by M. Comte, it is indispensable that the cause suggested by the hypothesis should be in its own nature susceptible of being proved by other evidence. This seems to be the philosophical import of Newton’s maxim, (so often cited with approbation by subsequent writers), that the cause assigned for any phenomenon must not only be such as if admitted would explain the phenomenon, but must also be a vera causa. What he meant by a vera causa Newton did not indeed very explicitly define; and Dr. Whewell, who dissents from the propriety of any such restriction upon the latitude of framing hypotheses, has had little difficulty in showing162 that his conception of it was neither precise nor consistent with itself; accordingly his optical theory was a signal instance of the violation of his own rule. It is certainly not necessary that the cause assigned should be a cause already known; otherwise we should sacrifice our best opportunities of becoming acquainted with new causes. But what is true in the maxim is, that the cause, though not known previously, should be capable of being known thereafter; that its existence should be capable of being detected, and its connection with the effect ascribed to it should be susceptible of being proved, by independent evidence. The hypothesis, by suggesting observations and experiments, puts us on the road to that independent evidence, if it be really attainable; and till it be attained, the hypothesis ought only to count for a more or less plausible conjecture.

§ 5. This function, however, of hypotheses, is one which must be reckoned absolutely indispensable in science. When Newton said, “Hypotheses non fingo,” he did not mean that he deprived himself of the facilities of investigation afforded by assuming in the first instance what he hoped ultimately to be able to prove. Without such assumptions, science could never have attained its present state; they are necessary steps in the progress to something more certain; and nearly every thing which is now theory was once hypothesis. Even in purely experimental science, some inducement is necessary for trying one experiment rather than another; and though it is abstractedly possible that all the experiments which have been tried, might have been produced by the mere desire to ascertain what would happen in certain circumstances, without any previous conjecture as to the result; yet, in point of fact, those unobvious, delicate, and often cumbrous and tedious processes of experiment, which have thrown most light upon the general constitution of nature, would hardly ever have been undertaken by the persons or at the time they were, unless it had seemed to depend on them whether some general doctrine or theory which had been suggested, but not yet proved, should be admitted or not. If this be true even of merely experimental inquiry, the conversion of experimental into deductive truths could still less have been effected without large temporary assistance from hypotheses. The process of tracing regularity in any complicated, and at first sight confused, set of appearances, is necessarily tentative; we begin by making any supposition, even a false one, to see what consequences will follow from it; and by observing how these differ from the real phenomena, we learn what corrections to make in our assumption. The simplest supposition which accords with the more obvious facts is the best to begin with; because its consequences are the most easily traced. This rude hypothesis is then rudely corrected, and the operation repeated; and the comparison of the consequences deducible from the corrected hypothesis, with the observed facts, suggests still further correction, until the deductive results are at last made to tally with the phenomena. “Some fact is as yet little understood, or some law is unknown; we frame on the subject an hypothesis as accordant as possible with the whole of the data already possessed; and the science, being thus enabled to move forward freely, always ends by leading to new consequences capable of observation, which either confirm or refute, unequivocally, the first supposition.” Neither induction nor deduction would enable us to understand even the simplest phenomena, “if we did not often commence by anticipating on the results; by making a provisional supposition, at first essentially conjectural, as to some of the very notions which constitute the final object of the inquiry.”163 Let any one watch the manner in which he himself unravels a complicated mass of evidence; let him observe how, for instance, he elicits the true history of any occurrence from the involved statements of one or of many witnesses; he will find that he does not take all the items of evidence into his mind at once, and attempt to weave them together; he extemporizes, from a few of the particulars, a first rude theory of the mode in which the facts took place, and then looks at the other statements one by one, to try whether they can be reconciled with that provisional theory, or what alterations or additions it requires to make it square with them. In this way, which has been justly compared to the Methods of Approximation of mathematicians, we arrive, by means of hypotheses, at conclusions not hypothetical.164

§ 6. It is perfectly consistent with the spirit of the method, to assume in this provisional manner not only an hypothesis respecting the law of what we already know to be the cause, but an hypothesis respecting the cause itself. It is allowable, useful, and often even necessary, to begin by asking ourselves what cause may have produced the effect, in order that we may know in what direction to look out for evidence to determine whether it actually did. The vortices of Descartes would have been a perfectly legitimate hypothesis, if it had been possible, by any mode of exploration which we could entertain the hope of ever possessing, to bring the reality of the vortices, as a fact in nature, conclusively to the test of observation. The vice of the hypothesis was that it could not lead to any course of investigation capable of converting it from an hypothesis into a proved fact. It might chance to be disproved, either by some want of correspondence with the phenomena it purported to explain, or (as actually happened) by some extraneous fact. “The free passage of comets through the spaces in which these vortices should have been, convinced men that these vortices did not exist.”165 But the hypothesis would have been false, though no such direct evidence of its falsity had been procurable. Direct evidence of its truth there could not be.

The prevailing hypothesis of a luminiferous ether, in other respects not without analogy to that of Descartes, is not in its own nature entirely cut off from the possibility of direct evidence in its favor. It is well known that the difference between the calculated and the observed times of the periodical return of Encke’s comet, has led to a conjecture that a medium capable of opposing resistance to motion is diffused through space. If this surmise should be confirmed, in the course of ages, by the gradual accumulation of a similar variance in the case of the other bodies of the solar system, the luminiferous ether would have made a considerable advance toward the character of a vera causa, since the existence would have been ascertained of a great cosmical agent, possessing some of the attributes which the hypothesis assumes; though there would still remain many difficulties, and the identification of the ether with the resisting medium would even, I imagine, give rise to new ones. At present, however, this supposition can not be looked upon as more than a conjecture; the existence of the ether still rests on the possibility of deducing from its assumed laws a considerable number of actual phenomena; and this evidence I can not regard as conclusive, because we can not have, in the case of such an hypothesis, the assurance that if the hypothesis be false it must lead to results at variance with the true facts.

Accordingly, most thinkers of any degree of sobriety allow that an hypothesis of this kind is not to be received as probably true because it accounts for all the known phenomena; since this is a condition sometimes fulfilled tolerably well by two conflicting hypotheses; while there are probably many others which are equally possible, but which, for want of any thing analogous in our experience, our minds are unfitted to conceive. But it seems to be thought that an hypothesis of the sort in question is entitled to a more favorable reception, if, besides accounting for all the facts previously known, it has led to the anticipation and prediction of others which experience afterward verified; as the undulatory theory of light led to the prediction, subsequently realized by experiment, that two luminous rays might meet each other in such a manner as to produce darkness. Such predictions and their fulfillment are, indeed, well calculated to impress the uninformed, whose faith in science rests solely on similar coincidences between its prophecies and what comes to pass. But it is strange that any considerable stress should be laid upon such a coincidence by persons of scientific attainments. If the laws of the propagation of light accord with those of the vibrations of an elastic fluid in as many respects as is necessary to make the hypothesis afford a correct expression of all or most of the phenomena known at the time, it is nothing strange that they should accord with each other in one respect more. Though twenty such coincidences should occur, they would not prove the reality of the undulatory ether; it would not follow that the phenomena of light were results of the laws of elastic fluids, but at most that they are governed by laws partially identical with these; which, we may observe, is already certain, from the fact that the hypothesis in question could be for a moment tenable.166 Cases may be cited, even in our imperfect acquaintance with nature, where agencies that we have good reason to consider as radically distinct produce their effects, or some of their effects, according to laws which are identical. The law, for example, of the inverse square of the distance, is the measure of the intensity not only of gravitation, but (it is believed) of illumination, and of heat diffused from a centre. Yet no one looks upon this identity as proving similarity in the mechanism by which the three kinds of phenomena are produced.

According to Dr. Whewell, the coincidence of results predicted from an hypothesis with facts afterward observed, amounts to a conclusive proof of the truth of the theory. “If I copy a long series of letters, of which the last half-dozen are concealed, and if I guess these aright, as is found to be the case when they are afterward uncovered, this must be because I have made out the import of the inscription. To say that because I have copied all that I could see, it is nothing strange that I should guess those which I can not see, would be absurd, without supposing such a ground for guessing.”167 If any one, from examining the greater part of a long inscription, can interpret the characters so that the inscription gives a rational meaning in a known language, there is a strong presumption that his interpretation is correct; but I do not think the presumption much increased by his being able to guess the few remaining letters without seeing them; for we should naturally expect (when the nature of the case excludes chance) that even an erroneous interpretation which accorded with all the visible parts of the inscription would accord also with the small remainder; as would be the case, for example, if the inscription had been designedly so contrived as to admit of a double sense. I assume that the uncovered characters afford an amount of coincidence too great to be merely casual; otherwise the illustration is not a fair one. No one supposes the agreement of the phenomena of light with the theory of undulations to be merely fortuitous. It must arise from the actual identity of some of the laws of undulations with some of those of light; and if there be that identity, it is reasonable to suppose that its consequences would not end with the phenomena which first suggested the identification, nor be even confined to such phenomena as were known at the time. But it does not follow, because some of the laws agree with those of undulations, that there are any actual undulations; no more than it followed because some (though not so many) of the same laws agreed with those of the projection of particles, that there was actual emission of particles. Even the undulatory hypothesis does not account for all the phenomena of light. The natural colors of objects, the compound nature of the solar ray, the absorption of light, and its chemical and vital action, the hypothesis leaves as mysterious as it found them; and some of these facts are, at least apparently, more reconcilable with the emission theory than with that of Young and Fresnel. Who knows but that some third hypothesis, including all these phenomena, may in time leave the undulatory theory as far behind as that has left the theory of Newton and his successors?

To the statement, that the condition of accounting for all the known phenomena is often fulfilled equally well by two conflicting hypotheses, Dr. Whewell makes answer that he knows “of no such case in the history of science, where the phenomena are at all numerous and complicated.”168 Such an affirmation, by a writer of Dr. Whewell’s minute acquaintance with the history of science, would carry great authority, if he had not, a few pages before, taken pains to refute it,169 by maintaining that even the exploded scientific hypotheses might always, or almost always, have been so modified as to make them correct representations of the phenomena. The hypothesis of vortices, he tells us, was, by successive modifications, brought to coincide in its results with the Newtonian theory and with the facts. The vortices did not, indeed, explain all the phenomena which the Newtonian theory was ultimately found to account for, such as the precession of the equinoxes; but this phenomenon was not, at the time, in the contemplation of either party, as one of the facts to be accounted for. All the facts which they did contemplate, we may believe on Dr. Whewell’s authority to have accorded as accurately with the Cartesian hypothesis, in its finally improved state, as with Newton’s.

But it is not, I conceive, a valid reason for accepting any given hypothesis, that we are unable to imagine any other which will account for the facts. There is no necessity for supposing that the true explanation must be one which, with only our present experience, we could imagine. Among the natural agents with which we are acquainted, the vibrations of an elastic fluid may be the only one whose laws bear a close resemblance to those of light; but we can not tell that there does not exist an unknown cause, other than an elastic ether diffused through space, yet producing effects identical in some respects with those which would result from the undulations of such an ether. To assume that no such cause can exist, appears to me an extreme case of assumption without evidence. And at the risk of being charged with want of modesty, I can not help expressing astonishment that a philosopher of Dr. Whewell’s abilities and attainments should have written an elaborate treatise on the philosophy of induction, in which he recognizes absolutely no mode of induction except that of trying hypothesis after hypothesis until one is found which fits the phenomena; which one, when found, is to be assumed as true, with no other reservation than that if, on re-examination, it should appear to assume more than is needful for explaining the phenomena, the superfluous part of the assumption should be cut off. And this without the slightest distinction between the cases in which it may be known beforehand that two different hypotheses can not lead to the same result, and those in which, for aught we can ever know, the range of suppositions, all equally consistent with the phenomena, may be infinite.170

Nevertheless, I do not agree with M. Comte in condemning those who employ themselves in working out into detail the application of these hypotheses to the explanation of ascertained facts, provided they bear in mind that the utmost they can prove is, not that the hypothesis is, but that it may be true. The ether hypothesis has a very strong claim to be so followed out, a claim greatly strengthened since it has been shown to afford a mechanism which would explain the mode of production, not of light only, but also of heat. Indeed, the speculation has a smaller element of hypothesis in its application to heat, than in the case for which it was originally framed. We have proof by our senses of the existence of molecular movement among the particles of all heated bodies; while we have no similar experience in the case of light. When, therefore, heat is communicated from the sun to the earth across apparently empty space, the chain of causation has molecular motion both at the beginning and end. The hypothesis only makes the motion continuous by extending it to the middle. Now, motion in a body is known to be capable of being imparted to another body contiguous to it; and the intervention of a hypothetical elastic fluid occupying the space between the sun and the earth, supplies the contiguity which is the only condition wanting, and which can be supplied by no supposition but that of an intervening medium. The supposition, notwithstanding, is at best a probable conjecture, not a proved truth. For there is no proof that contiguity is absolutely required for the communication of motion from one body to another. Contiguity does not always exist, to our senses at least, in the cases in which motion produces motion. The forces which go under the name of attraction, especially the greatest of all, gravitation, are examples of motion producing motion without apparent contiguity. When a planet moves, its distant satellites accompany its motion. The sun carries the whole solar system along with it in the progress which it is ascertained to be executing through space. And even if we were to accept as conclusive the geometrical reasonings (strikingly similar to those by which the Cartesians defended their vortices) by which it has been attempted to show that the motions of the ether may account for gravitation itself, even then it would only have been proved that the supposed mode of production may be, but not that no other mode can be, the true one.

§ 7. It is necessary, before quitting the subject of hypotheses, to guard against the appearance of reflecting upon the scientific value of several branches of physical inquiry, which, though only in their infancy, I hold to be strictly inductive. There is a great difference between inventing agencies to account for classes of phenomena, and endeavoring, in conformity with known laws, to conjecture what former collocations of known agents may have given birth to individual facts still in existence. The latter is the legitimate operation of inferring from an observed effect the existence, in time past, of a cause similar to that by which we know it to be produced in all cases in which we have actual experience of its origin. This, for example, is the scope of the inquiries of geology; and they are no more illogical or visionary than judicial inquiries, which also aim at discovering a past event by inference from those of its effects which still subsist. As we can ascertain whether a man was murdered or died a natural death, from the indications exhibited by the corpse, the presence or absence of signs of struggling on the ground or on the adjacent objects, the marks of blood, the footsteps of the supposed murderers, and so on, proceeding throughout on uniformities ascertained by a perfect induction without any mixture of hypothesis; so if we find, on and beneath the surface of our planet, masses exactly similar to deposits from water, or to results of the cooling of matter melted by fire, we may justly conclude that such has been their origin; and if the effects, though similar in kind, are on a far larger scale than any which are now produced, we may rationally, and without hypothesis, conclude either that the causes existed formerly with greater intensity, or that they have operated during an enormous length of time. Further than this no geologist of authority has, since the rise of the present enlightened school of geological speculation, attempted to go.

In many geological inquiries it doubtless happens that though the laws to which the phenomena are ascribed are known laws, and the agents known agents, those agents are not known to have been present in the particular case. In the speculation respecting the igneous origin of trap or granite, the fact does not admit of direct proof that those substances have been actually subjected to intense heat. But the same thing might be said of all judicial inquiries which proceed on circumstantial evidence. We can conclude that a man was murdered, though it is not proved by the testimony of eye-witnesses that some person who had the intention of murdering him was present on the spot. It is enough for most purposes, if no other known cause could have generated the effects shown to have been produced.


The celebrated speculation of Laplace concerning the origin of the earth and planets, participates essentially in the inductive character of modern geological theory. The speculation is, that the atmosphere of the sun originally extended to the present limits of the solar system; from which, by the process of cooling, it has contracted to its present dimensions; and since, by the general principles of mechanics the rotation of the sun and of its accompanying atmosphere must increase in rapidity as its volume diminishes, the increased centrifugal force generated by the more rapid rotation, overbalancing the action of gravitation, has caused the sun to abandon successive rings of vaporous matter, which are supposed to have condensed by cooling, and to have become the planets. There is in this theory no unknown substance introduced on supposition, nor any unknown property or law ascribed to a known substance. The known laws of matter authorize us to suppose that a body which is constantly giving out so large an amount of heat as the sun is, must be progressively cooling, and that, by the process of cooling it must contract; if, therefore, we endeavor, from the present state of that luminary, to infer its state in a time long past, we must necessarily suppose that its atmosphere extended much farther than at present, and we are entitled to suppose that it extended as far as we can trace effects such as it might naturally leave behind it on retiring; and such the planets are. These suppositions being made, it follows from known laws that successive zones of the solar atmosphere might be abandoned; that these would continue to revolve round the sun with the same velocity as when they formed part of its substance; and that they would cool down, long before the sun itself, to any given temperature, and consequently to that at which the greater part of the vaporous matter of which they consisted would become liquid or solid. The known law of gravitation would then cause them to agglomerate in masses, which would assume the shape our planets actually exhibit; would acquire, each about its own axis, a rotatory movement; and would in that state revolve, as the planets actually do, about the sun, in the same direction with the sun’s rotation, but with less velocity, because in the same periodic time which the sun’s rotation occupied when his atmosphere extended to that point. There is thus, in Laplace’s theory, nothing, strictly speaking, hypothetical; it is an example of legitimate reasoning from a present effect to a possible past cause, according to the known laws of that cause. The theory, therefore, is, as I have said, of a similar character to the theories of geologists; but considerably inferior to them in point of evidence. Even if it were proved (which it is not) that the conditions necessary for determining the breaking off of successive rings would certainly occur, there would still be a much greater chance of error in assuming that the existing laws of nature are the same which existed at the origin of the solar system, than in merely presuming (with geologists) that those laws have lasted through a few revolutions and transformations of a single one among the bodies of which that system is composed.

159 As is well remarked by Professor Bain, in the very valuable chapter of his Logic which treats of this subject (ii., 121), “scientific explanation and inductive generalization being the same thing, the limits of Explanation are the limits of Induction,” and “the limits to inductive generalization are the limits to the agreement or community of facts. Induction supposes similarity among phenomena; and when such similarity is discovered, it reduces the phenomena under a common statement. The similarity of terrestrial gravity to celestial attraction enables the two to be expressed as one phenomenon. The similarity between capillary attraction, solution, the operation of cements, etc., leads to their being regarded not as a plurality, but as a unity, a single causative link, the operation of a single agency. . . . If it be asked whether we can merge gravity itself in some still higher law, the answer must depend upon the facts. Are there any other forces, at present held distinct from gravity, that we may hope to make fraternize with it, so as to join in constituting a higher unity? Gravity is an attractive force; and another great attractive force is cohesion, or the force that binds together the atoms of solid matter. Might we, then, join these two in a still higher unity, expressed under a more comprehensive law? Certainly we might, but not to any advantage. The two kinds of force agree in the one point, attraction, but they agree in no other; indeed, in the manner of the attraction, they differ widely; so widely that we should have to state totally distinct laws for each. Gravity is common to all matter, and equal in amount in equal masses of matter, whatever be the kind; it follows the law of the diffusion of space from a point (the inverse square of the distance); it extends to distances unlimited; it is indestructible and invariable. Cohesion is special for each separate substance; it decreases according to distance much more rapidly than the inverse square, vanishing entirely at very small distances. Two such forces have not sufficient kindred to be generalized into one force; the generalization is only illusory; the statement of the difference would still make two forces; while the consideration of one would not in any way simplify the phenomena of the other, as happened in the generalization of gravity itself.”

To the impassable limit of the explanation of laws of nature, set forth in the text, must therefore be added a further limitation. Although, when the phenomena to be explained are not, in their own nature, generically distinct, the attempt to refer them to the same cause is scientifically legitimate; yet to the success of the attempt it is indispensable that the cause should be shown to be capable of producing them according to the same law. Otherwise the unity of cause is a mere guess, and the generalization only a nominal one, which, even if admitted, would not diminish the number of ultimate laws of nature.

160 Cours de Philosophie Positive, ii., 656.

161 Vide supra, book iii., chap. xi.

162 Philosophy of Discovery, p. 185 et seq.

163 Comte, Philosophie Positive, ii., 434–437.

164 As an example of legitimate hypothesis according to the test here laid down, has been justly cited that of Broussais, who, proceeding on the very rational principle that every disease must originate in some definite part or other of the organism, boldly assumed that certain fevers, which not being known to be local were called constitutional, had their origin in the mucous membrane of the alimentary canal. The supposition was, indeed, as is now generally admitted, erroneous; but he was justified in making it, since by deducing the consequences of the supposition, and comparing them with the facts of those maladies, he might be certain of disproving his hypothesis if it was ill founded, and might expect that the comparison would materially aid him in framing another more conformable to the phenomena.

The doctrine now universally received that the earth is a natural magnet, was originally an hypothesis of the celebrated Gilbert.

Another hypothesis, to the legitimacy of which no objection can lie, and which is well calculated to light the path of scientific inquiry, is that suggested by several recent writers, that the brain is a voltaic pile, and that each of its pulsations is a discharge of electricity through the system. It has been remarked that the sensation felt by the hand from the beating of a brain, bears a strong resemblance to a voltaic shock. And the hypothesis, if followed to its consequences, might afford a plausible explanation of many physiological facts, while there is nothing to discourage the hope that we may in time sufficiently understand the conditions of voltaic phenomena to render the truth of the hypothesis amenable to observation and experiment.

The attempt to localize, in different regions of the brain, the physical organs of our different mental faculties and propensities, was, on the part of its original author, a legitimate example of a scientific hypothesis; and we ought not, therefore, to blame him for the extremely slight grounds on which he often proceeded, in an operation which could only be tentative, though we may regret that materials barely sufficient for a first rude hypothesis should have been hastily worked up into the vain semblance of a science. If there be really a connection between the scale of mental endowments and the various degrees of complication in the cerebral system, the nature of that connection was in no other way so likely to be brought to light as by framing, in the first instance, an hypothesis similar to that of Gall. But the verification of any such hypothesis is attended, from the peculiar nature of the phenomena, with difficulties which phrenologists have not shown themselves even competent to appreciate, much less to overcome.

Mr. Darwin’s remarkable speculation on the Origin of Species is another unimpeachable example of a legitimate hypothesis. What he terms “natural selection” is not only a vera causa, but one proved to be capable of producing effects of the same kind with those which the hypothesis ascribes to it; the question of possibility is entirely one of degree. It is unreasonable to accuse Mr. Darwin (as has been done) of violating the rules of Induction. The rules of Induction are concerned with the conditions of Proof. Mr. Darwin has never pretended that his doctrine was proved. He was not bound by the rules of Induction, but by those of Hypothesis. And these last have seldom been more completely fulfilled. He has opened a path of inquiry full of promise, the results of which none can foresee. And is it not a wonderful feat of scientific knowledge and ingenuity to have rendered so bold a suggestion, which the first impulse of every one was to reject at once, admissible and discussible, even as a conjecture?

165 Whewell’s Phil. of Discovery, pp. 275, 276.

166 What has most contributed to accredit the hypothesis of a physical medium for the conveyance of light, is the certain fact that light travels (which can not be proved of gravitation); that its communication is not instantaneous, but requires time; and that it is intercepted (which gravitation is not) by intervening objects. These are analogies between its phenomena and those of the mechanical motion of a solid or fluid substance. But we are not entitled to assume that mechanical motion is the only power in nature capable of exhibiting those attributes.

167 Phil. of Discovery, p. 274.

168 P. 271.

169 P. 251 and the whole of Appendix G.

170 In Dr. Whewell’s latest version of his theory (Philosophy of Discovery, p. 331) he makes a concession respecting the medium of the transmission of light, which, taken in conjunction with the rest of his doctrine on the subject, is not, I confess, very intelligible to me, but which goes far toward removing, if it does not actually remove, the whole of the difference between us. He is contending, against Sir William Hamilton, that all matter has weight. Sir William, in proof of the contrary, cited the luminiferous ether, and the calorific and electric fluids, “which,” he said, “we can neither denude of their character of substance, nor clothe with the attribute of weight.” “To which,” continues Dr. Whewell, “my reply is, that precisely because I can not clothe these agents with the attribute of Weight, I do denude them of the character of Substance. They are not substances, but agencies. These Imponderable Agents are not properly called Imponderable Fluids. This I conceive that I have proved.” Nothing can be more philosophical. But if the luminiferous ether is not matter, and fluid matter, too, what is the meaning of its undulations? Can an agency undulate? Can there be alternate motion forward and backward of the particles of an agency? And does not the whole mathematical theory of the undulations imply them to be material? Is it not a series of deductions from the known properties of elastic fluids? This opinion of Dr. Whewell reduces the undulations to a figure of speech, and the undulatory theory to the proposition which all must admit, that the transmission of light takes place according to laws which present a very striking and remarkable agreement with those of undulations. If Dr. Whewell is prepared to stand by this doctrine, I have no difference with him on the subject.

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