I Suppose: This Can Bring Our Thinking to Life
“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”
Aristotle (clever Greek)
"Perhaps, I suppose."
Rufio (Californian Pop Punksters)
The idea of thinking by hypothesis can sound overbearing, theoretical and highfalutin. But it’s a lot simpler and earthier than it appears. If we do it well, it can make us clearer and more open minded thinkers, save us time, and help us communicate our thoughts succinctly and concretely. It’s at the heart of rhetoric and the scientific method, and has been used by great thinkers since before our boy Aristotle. In my own small experience, whenever I’ve trained its application, I’ve seen some beautiful transformations in people's thinking. I hope you think it’s worthy of your attention.
When we have a hypothesis about something, all we are saying is: “This is what I suppose (about the matter).” That’s all. Nothing more intellectual or sophisticated than that. It is our first venture at an answer, our starting point in getting to a solution that we're happy with. We can apply it wherever we have a question or a problem or are ignorant, and where we care enough to want to get to an answer. We could be supposing anything, “This person will be the best future leader for the company,” “ this how evolution works,” or,” this is the best way to reform errant fraudulent MPs.”
Our supposition, or hypothesis, is a working answer that we hold gently and challenge hard. By giving ourselves a working answer, and making it as tangible as we can, we are giving ourselves something concrete to test with thinking and evidence: “Does it cover things completely? Is it consistent with observations? Does it make sense logically? Is it unequivocal with no vagueness or room for misunderstanding? Is it simple enough that it’s obvious when I explain it? Can I think of any exceptions that hole my beautiful hypothesis below the water line?” As we challenge our working answer with evidence and clear thinking, we expect it to change, just like the detective’s naive first guess in an episode of CSI. If we’re really hungry investigators or expansive thinkers, we're rarely happy until our first guess has been challenged and changed at least a couple of times.
As we go through this process, our hypothesis solidifies into a thesis; our supposition turns into our position on the matter. In some cases, we might even get to the verifiable truth: “This is whodunit,” “This business will be profitable,” “I can get to the South Pole by January.” In many situations, we’ll never know the truth and just have to run with our best thesis: “John will be the best Governor,” “This is the right incentive scheme,” “I should spend more time developing the next product rather than doing bespoke work the whole time.”
This approach, starting by stating what I suppose, has a host of advantages over just asking questions or musing distractedly. It forces me to be clear and concrete about what I think, which by itself highlights gaps and weaknesses, and so makes my thinking better. It turns my perspective into one of a humble investigator who welcomes challenge, as opposed to a blustering know-it-all or a vague wonderer. It gives me a focus for my investigation efforts or philosophical musings, where I can direct my challenges and grow my perspective. It enables me at any stage to know my current position on the matter, and how confident I am, being overt about where I’m ignorant or unsure. And if I work with others, which everyone does, I can communicate my position at any time, so that people can understand, challenge and contribute.
Using a hypothesis also has plenty of drawbacks but these are typically because of using it badly. First, people often get attached to their hypotheses and slip into trying to defend and prove them. This is very easy to do and very common. We’re all guilty of it, though it’s even easier to do if we don’t think by hypothesis, and so don't enjoy the self-challenging and welcoming of new insight that ensues. Second, once we’ve formed our hypothesis, we can get stuck in the process of challenging and reviewing, moving slowly and deliberately from our current position, and which can restrict us from taking a fresh look at the world, from a radically different perspective. This is why it’s always good to take a bit of time to explore and ponder before coming up with our first hypothesis, and to welcome the reality that there will always be other interesting and useful ways of looking at the world. A third drawback is that we can end up with something very unwieldy as we challenge every angle and grow our investigation. This is why we only roll out the full hypothesis testing approach when it really counts, such as working out why sales are tanking or whether we should open up in France. The rest of the time we can still benefit from the open, “I suppose” mindset. A fourth drawback is that there isn’t really a scientific or formulaic approach to coming up with a hypothesis in the first place. They just come to us, like thoughts do, as a return on musing. Einstein accepted this when he said, “The supreme task … is to arrive at those universal elementary laws ... There is no logical path to these laws; only intuition, resting on sympathetic understanding of experience, can reach them.” That's the daddy of science talking about intuition and musing. I find that kind of heartening.
I’m as strong a fan and advocate of using hypotheses as I am about using the scientific method that guided Newton, and as I am about the principles of analytical rhetoric that guided Madison and Martin Luther King. They go together because hypotheses are essential to analytical rhetoric, and to the scientific method that lies underneath it. I use one in every piece of work with every client that I have. I think I’ve got exalted company in Aristotle, Cicero, every mechanic or plumber who actually fixes your problem, every great fictional detective and, I suppose, some real ones too.