2013-06-26

The Gnome Hypothesis

Yesterday, while arguing on the internet, I invented a new concept, which I have added to the Lexicon. I call it The Gnome Hypothesis. The gist of it runs something like this:

Suppose there is a nearby parallel universe inhabited by gnomes. If this is true, then they may live in a castle or a cave. Caves are more common than castles, so caves are the more likely scenario. If they do live in a cave, then they likely use a lot of torches and lanterns. Therefore, I assert that the gnomes who inhabit a parallel universe live in a cave and use a lot of torches and lanterns.

The appeal of the Gnome Hypothesis is that, like a real, scientific hypothesis, there is deductive logic involved. Unlike a real, scientific hypothesis, though, the Gnome Hypothesis is entirely dependent on the acceptance of a series of unknown assumptions.

Thus, I define the Gnome Hypothesis as follows: It is any chain of logic that is valid, but derived from imaginary assumptions. There are two subcategories of the Gnome Hypothesis.

Category "A" Gnome Hypotheses
A true, classic Gnome Hypothesis is one I'll call "Category A." In this version of it, the assumptions underlying the reasoning are pure conjecture in the same sense that a parallel universe inhabited by gnomes is pure conjecture. We have no underlying reason to believe that this is the case. We are simply imagining it.

While this sounds like something I am judging harshly, it need not be. I would suggest that the majority of cutting edge theoretical physics qualifies - initially, anyway - as a Gnome Hypothesis. A physicist will start by assuming a set of conditions that are mostly pure fantasy, and attempt to derive physical knowledge from those assumptions. For example, physicists have done great work by imagining what one would see if one were positioned at the event horizon of a black hole. Einstein himself theorized about what one would see if one were aboard a train travelling at the speed of light. Real, genuine advances in theoretical physics have unfolded this way. So Gnome Hypotheses are not all bad.

There is a crucial aspect of Gnome Hypotheses that are good, though. Physicists, having derived a set of conclusions from their hypotheses, next test these conclusions either in a laboratory, when possible, to determine their truth. If laboratory tests are not possible, as in the case of black holes, etc., then the conclusions are exposed to previously proven theoretical hypotheses to see whether the new ones conform to our existing body of knowledge. In either case, there is a test, and the truth is determined.

Popular Gnome Hypotheses, however, are never tested. Let's look at an example.

When I was a teenager, I used to park one of the family cars in front of the house. One day, though, I happened to park it beside the house rather than in front of it. My mother woke up, looked out her window (which faces the front of the house), and became worried that the car had been stolen. I quickly assured her that I had merely parked it in a different location, and all was right within a few tense minutes.

So, in this case my mother's belief that (a) she cannot see the car; (b) if the car were stolen, she would not be able to see it; (c) therefore, someone stole the car is an example of a Category A Gnome Hypothesis. It is a chain of logic based largely on pure speculation.

Category "B" Gnome Hypotheses
Now, we need to differentiate this case from the case of a person who engages in a valid chain of logic based on a set of assumptions that may or may not be true. That is, the assumptions are open to further investigation, but the logic proceeds with itself anyway.

It is easy to confuse a Category B Gnome Hypothesis with logic constructed for the explicit purpose of testing the validity of the assumptions. But in order to do that, additional assumptions are brought in to be reconciled with the assumptions of interest. For example, Peter might claim that gravity does not exist, and Paul would say, "Let us assume that there is no gravity; and yet, when you jump, you return to Earth. It must be true that some force is pulling you back down to Earth; thus what we observe is consistent with the view that the Law of Gravity exists."

A real Category B Hypothesis involves a claim that is both knowable and unknown. For example, Peter may state, "I believe the man walking over there is an Englishman." Paul would be committing a Category B Gnome Hypothesis if his response to Peter were along the lines of: "Let us assume that the man is an Englishman; if so, then he would speak English. But if I walk up to him and he speaks Russian to me, then he is a very peculiar Englishman indeed! It must be a puzzle, then."

In this case, what Paul says is convincingly probable, since, after all, an Englishman would be more likely to begin a conversation in English than in Russian. But there is no particular reason to venture a hypothesis such as this, since Peter and Paul may as well ask the man whether or not he is an Englishman. Or at least strike up a conversation with him to see whether they can otherwise infer that he is an Englishman.

In other words, instead of collecting data, Paul conjures up a story about what might be the case. Whether the observed man is English is a determinable fact. Paul may feel uncomfortable approaching the man, but in absence of asking him outright, all further conjecture is little more than a thought experiment. Perhaps it is entertaining as conversation, but it does not reveal much truth.

Conclusion
Well, I am sure you will read more from me about the Gnome Hypothesis in the future. For now, I thought I would merely define it, illustrate it briefly, and file it away for future reference.