The Value of Multiple Working Hypotheses

07 December 2020 in Resource Center.

This resource summarizes and interprets a short essay published in 1890 by T. C. Chamberlin to exemplify how we can engage primary resources from scholarly periodicals for the learning of collaborative comprehensivism, learning in groups to comprehensively comprehend our worlds and its peoples. We will see that Chamberlin’s paper expounds the benefits and drawbacks of an important moral reform for our lives, namely, the value of multiple working hypotheses. We will then assess the implications of this moral reform for comprehensivist learning.

You can read Chamberlin’s paper in a six-page 1965 reprint at or on JSTOR (requires a free account) at or you can read the original five-page 1890 version on JSTOR at

T. C. Chamberlin (1843–1928)
T. C. Chamberlin (1843–1928)

The Moral Reform of Multiple Working Hypotheses

To develop our comprehensivism, our efforts toward learning that are “macro-comprehensive and micro-incisive” as Bucky Fuller put it in “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth”, we first need to find sources for our knowledge. In other resources, we have identified three sources for comprehensivist learning: Humanity’s great traditions of inquiry and action, Bucky Fuller’s Universe as “the aggregate of all of humanity’s consciously-apprehended and communicated experience”, and Wade Davis’ Ethnosphere as “the sum total of all thoughts and dreams, ideas and myths, intuitions and inspirations brought into being by the human imagination since the dawn of consciousness”.

In brief, Humanity’s traditions, the cosmic intellectual Universe of Bucky, and the Ethnosphere are the so-far-identified sources for our comprehensivist learning. From this enormous inventory of available wisdom, the aspiring comprehensivist now desires moral guidance to navigate and make sense of this our vast cultural heritage.

How are we to integrate all this knowledge? Should we accept it all? Should we reject some of it? How should we assess our rapidly growing knowledge? To guide us in answering these questions we would be aided by having criteria for reliable, dependable, or advantageous knowledge. Such criteria are called epistemic virtues. Warning signs for suspicious, unreliable, or dangerous knowledge are called epistemic vices. In order to make sound interpretations and judgments about the knowledge we, as comprehensivists, are rapidly accumulating, we need competent moral guidance.

This resource will focus on the moral reform urged by T. C. Chamberlin (1843-1928) in his 1890 essay “The Method of Multiple Working Hypotheses”. He indicates that it broadly applies to “investigation, instruction, and citizenship”.

Chamberlin asserts that “the thoroughness, the completeness, the all-sidedness, the impartiality” should guide the moral sense of our investigations. These are also epistemic virtues for comprehensivism.

Chamberlin presents his method as the highest approach to learning yet attained. I am not convinced of the incisiveness of his history of intellectual methods with its two predecessors, the ruling theory and the working hypothesis. However, as we will see, his application of this rhetorical device to critique these alternative epistemic virtues is powerfully apt.

In the epistemic virtue of the ruling theory, the investigator, the student, and the citizen choose their knowledge by adopting a ruling theory as their faithfully abided by true explanation. In the working hypothesis we adopt, provisionally, a proposed theory as our tentative but preferred explanation.

Chamberlin strongly criticizes both methods for suffering from the epistemic vice of “precipitate explanation”, theories put together with insufficient deliberation. It is a common affliction to this day. I, myself, admit to falling for this all-too-common vice from time-to-time. I’m sure you have been induced to premature conclusions as well.

Chamberlin diagnoses the epistemic vice of “precipitate explanation” as “the partiality of intellectual parentage” which we would now call confirmation bias:

The moment one has offered an original explanation for a phenomenon which seems satisfactory, that moment affection for his intellectual child springs into existence… There is an unconscious selection and magnifying of the phenomena that fall into harmony with the theory and support it, and an unconscious neglect of those that fail of coincidence…. There spring up, also, an unconscious pressing of the theory to make it fit the facts, and a pressing of the facts to make them fit the theory.

— T. C. Chamberlin

Chamberlin highlighted the learner who is devising their own novel explanations, but the same vice afflicts those who adopt the explanations of others as their ruling theory or working hypothesis. It is our affection for a theory or hypothesis that signals a dangerous epistemic vice which he characterizes as follows:

If I were to name the central psychological fault, I should say that it was the admission of intellectual affection to the place that should be dominated by impartial intellectual rectitude.

— T. C. Chamberlin

Chamberlin has identified the epistemic vice of “intellectual affection” as a great danger in our investigations, in our learning, and in our civic life. It is the identification of epistemic vices that tends to spur researchers to new and better ways of knowing as Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison observe in their 2007 book “Objectivity”. Likewise, Chamberlin’s great advance in improving the scientific method also sprang from the recognition of an epistemic vice.

Chamberlin next proposes a remedy for the dangers of intellectual affection. His method of multiple working hypotheses impartially divides our affection among a family of possible explanations. If we diligently and conscientiously follow this method, our investigations may achieve an improved thoroughness and incisiveness of analysis as Chamberlin argues:

If all rational hypotheses relating to a subject are worked co-equally, thoroughness is the presumptive result, in the very nature of the case. In the use of the multiple method, the re-action of one hypothesis upon another tends to amplify the recognized scope of each, and their mutual conflicts whet the discriminative edge of each. The analytic process, the development and demonstration of criteria, and the sharpening of the discrimination, receive powerful impulse from the co-ordinate working of several hypotheses.

— T. C. Chamberlin

Chamberlin summarizes the benefits as follows:

When faithfully pursued for a period of years, [the method of multiple working hypotheses] develops a habit of thought analogous to the method itself, which may be designated a habit of parallel or complex thought. … The procedure is complex, and the mind appears to become possessed of the power of simultaneous vision from different standpoints. Phenomena appear to become capable of being viewed analytically and synthetically at once.

— T. C. Chamberlin

This is a powerful benefits statement for the faculties of parallel and complex thought, “simultaneous vision from different standpoints”, and viewing phenomena “analytically and synthetically at once”. The investigator, the student, the citizen, and the comprehensivist would significantly improve their mental acuity if they could achieve these mental dexterities!

Chamberlin warns of some drawbacks to the method. Since our language and procedures are predominantly linear, there are difficulties in expressing and investigating multiple hypotheses in a co-equal manner. Moreover, the process of weighing evidence for and against each of our multiple hypotheses “may degenerate into unwarranted vacillation”.

Chamberlin recommends his method beyond the sphere of investigation and learning:

I am confident, therefore, that the general application of this method to the affairs of social and civic life would go far to remove those misunderstandings, misjudgments, and misrepresentations which constitute so pervasive an evil in our social and our political atmospheres, the source of immeasurable suffering to the best and most sensitive souls.

— T. C. Chamberlin

Chamberlin concludes with a strong benefits statement for the method of multiple working hypotheses:

The total outcome is greater care in ascertaining the facts, and greater discrimination and caution in drawing conclusions.

— T. C. Chamberlin

Chamberlin has made his case, we need to assess its merits. Ought we reform our morality by adopting multiple working hypotheses as an important epistemic virtue guiding our assessment of knowledge? Why? Or why not?

Multiple Working Hypotheses and Comprehensivism

What is the value of Chamberlin’s method of multiple working hypotheses for someone practicing comprehensivism, working to ever more extensively and ever more intensively understand it all and each other?

I’ve already indicated how Chamberlin advocates for important qualities of comprehensivism. In particular, he emphasizes “the thoroughness, the completeness, the all-sidedness, the impartiality”. These are important epistemic virtues guiding our comprehensivism as well.

In addition, consider Chamberlin’s multiperspectival benefits statement for multiple working hypotheses, namely, that “the power of simultaneous vision from different standpoints [where] phenomena [can be] viewed analytically and synthetically at once.” Analytic means intensively focusing on the parts in depth and synthetic means extensively integrating the parts as a broadly considered whole. This is a powerful statement in support of the depth and breadth of comprehensivism though it fails to integrate Buckminster Fuller’s principle of synergy (the idea that the behavior of the whole is unpredictable from the behavior of its parts considered separately).

In addition, the method of multiple working hypotheses provides an efficient approach to learning. The comprehensivist guided by this approach can accumulate a large inventory of knowledge from Humanity’s traditions, from our communicated experiences, and from the Ethnosphere that can be compared and contrasted to “whet the discriminative edge of each”. Contrast this with the usual approach to learning which depends on building knowledge brick upon brick to ensure sound foundations at every step. The comprehensivist approach can produce more options or hypotheses to consider which provides more perspective, flexibility, and resilience.

If we diligently practice handling each of a family of hypotheses co-equally, we will neither overstate them nor lose sight of our ignorance. As we learn more and more and whet the discriminative edge of each against the others, our analytic and synthetic powers may grow. We may develop sophisticated understandings of the interrelationships of a vast array of hypotheses which the more specialized or pedantic learner never considers. We may even develop the ability to ask embarrassing questions of those whose context and experience hasn’t enlivened their imaginations with such diverse possibilities.

When this approach is combined with diverse groups of people engaging in dialogue to explore and assess our combined knowledge, our collective understanding may quickly develop new meanings, form new insights, and forge new possibilities. We may find that collaborating to broadly and deeply explore Humanity’s accumulated wisdom is more effective than more focused approaches to learning.

This, of course, is the idea of Collaborating for Comprehensivism: to bring a knowledge revolution to our citizenry through learning to make sense of it all and of each other by engaging the sources of comprehensivist learning guided by T. C. Chamberlin’s epistemic virtue of multiple working hypotheses.

But, there is a little problem hidden in this aspirational project statement. A basic principle for sound knowledge has been, until now, the assiduous application of the principle of non-contradiction. A comprehensivist co-equally and impartially considering, say atheism and theology, conservative and liberal principles, or even zero as the nothing that exists, runs smack into the problem that the principle of non-contradiction is sometimes in conflict with the principle of multiple hypotheses.

How can we resolve this conflict among our epistemic virtues? I think the answer comes from Buckminster Fuller who said, “Don’t try to make me consistent. I am learning all the time.”

Learning, investigation, exploration, and civic life are common situations wherein contradictory hypotheses may be encountered and must be co-equally and impartially explored if we are to take seriously Chamberlin’s moral guidance. It seems to me that the comprehensivist must learn to accept if not embrace contradictions, otherwise, we may commit the greater harm of prematurely winnowing our hypotheses.

Angela Cotellessa’s PhD thesis includes this wonderful quote from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself;
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

— Walt Whitman

It may be that our aversion to contradictions is misplaced. Forestalling contradictions may short circuit our explorations and compromise our comprehensivist learning. Our predilection for consistency may lead us to over-specialize or otherwise fail to consider the full range of possibilities. Chamberlin’s epistemic virtue of multiple working hypotheses may be the more important value for our learning.

In sum, T. C. Chamberlin recommended the epistemic virtue of multiple working hypotheses to better ascertain the facts and to improve our caution and our effectiveness in drawing conclusions. He recommends this approach to increase the thoroughness of our learning, to improve our ability to see from multiple perspectives, and to simultaneously see both analytically and synthetically. He recommends it as broadly applying to our “investigation, instruction, and citizenship”.

For the comprehensivist, striving to understand it all and each other, ought the method of multiple working hypotheses be a fundamental epistemic principle for assessing our knowledge? Despite its difficulties in accommodating our linear language and actions? Despite its danger of degenerating “into unwarranted vacillation”? Despite how it may burden us with conflicts, inconsistencies, and contradictions? Despite how it demands that we treat each of our favorite ruling theories and working hypotheses co-equally and impartially by putting them to the test with a battery of additional working hypotheses?

Should we apply the method of multiple working hypotheses as a primary moral principle in the practice of our comprehensivism despite its drawbacks and challenges?

This essay was written to provide ideas in support of the 16 December 2020 session of “Comprehensivist Wednesdays” at 52 Living Ideas (crossposted at The Greater Philadelphia Thinking Society).

Addendum: 1h 29m video from the 16 December 2020 event:

The Library of The Comprehensivist

Given its multiperspectivalness, its thoroughness, its integration of analysis and synthesis, and its thoroughness in more effectively drawing conclusions, and despite the fact that it includes a couple of statements against aspects of comprehensivism, T. C. Chamberlin’s 1890 essay “The Method of Multiple Working Hypotheses” is a great work for the library of the comprehensivist. I include it with R. Buckminster Fuller’s 1969 book “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth” and Wade Davis’ 2009 book “The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World” in my list of foundational texts for our emerging tradition of comprehensivism, our “wanting to understand all and put everything together” as Bucky put it in “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth”.

Our Library of Resource Center Essays

Posted by CJ Fearnley

Explorer in Universe.


CJ Fearnley

A long thread developed about this essay on Facebook. See

CJ Fearnley

My colleague, Dr. Rick Lippin, asked me for a simple language statement summarizing T. C. Chamberlin’s contribution to the moral reform of science.

I suggested this: To better refine the discriminative edge of scientific thinking, challenge yourself to first consider all reasonable possible explanations before designing experiments or drawing inferences.

Leave a Reply