Amuses

Thinking tools for everyone

Sometimes my current philosophy course reminds me of my Oxford days, where a professor’s claim to fame would consist in investigating a niche subject, like “beekeeping in the 4th century A.D.” I am not being fair. I love my own “niche” subjects but I lose my patience when others do the same. Ahem. Still, I find most of Philosophia interesting, even if, as I have explained before, a philosopher needs a cow’s bell to signal his position, for lack of maps and structure.

Today, however, was an exception. It was about thought-experiments. Now don’t get me wrong: I wanted to know about this. Thought-experiments as a tool, or as some would say, as a method. But that was not what the lecture was about. It was about an ongoing controversy between scientists and philosophers. Whether philosophical thought-experiments are essentially different from scientific experiments. Because scientists feel that the term “experiment” belongs to science and not to philosophers. Because philosophers should leave empirical (read: scientific) work to scientists. The cartoon below says it all. It is from existential comics, a fantastic source if you want to see philosophers laughing at themselves.

To me, this controversy is much like the analytic/continental divide. It only looks like a debate, but underneath it is all about funding. The scientists get much more, whereas philosophy has to get by on crumbs. Follow the money, Husband would say. Grossly unfair and not very sensible in the long run. And yes, philosophers need to speak up and defend themselves. Yet by itself, such a consideration does not make a topic interesting.

There was an interesting part to this lecture, the historical focus: how well-known philosophers like Galileo or Locke used thought-experiments, not just to argue their point, but also to draw attention to controversies or confusions. If you are into these historical figures, it must be wonderful to find new layers to their text. Somewhat like re-reading your favourite author, say Murakami (my personal favourite) and discovering a new meaning. However, I have no interest in Galileo or Locke, so it was all a bit wasted on me. Which, in a way, is good news. At least now I know there are topics in Philosophia that I can live without.

So what are thought-experiments, you might ask? Well, this was also my question, and it was not answered. That is not quite true. The lecturer did not. My fellow students did not seem to understand my unease with the general claim that thought-experiments are the designated instruments of philosophy. The professor in charge of the Skills seminar understood my objection well enough though, even tried to explain it to the class, but I don’t think anyone really cared that much. Maybe they were tired. It was the end of a long day. Never mind.

So now we are amongst ourselves :-), what are thought-experiments? You may look it up on Wikipedia, but let’s give you some nice examples. Ever heard of Achilles and the tortoise racing each other and Achilles not winning?

Or this one, the trolley experiment in ethics, where you get to decide who dies how in order to save lots of other people.

Now have a look at this sketch. This is from the world of business and no philosopher would – at first glance – think to call this a thought-experiment. But it is. Have a look. You must watch it to the end. It is about integrity.

Or this one, inspired by George Orwell’s animal farm. We all know how it ends: some animals are more equal than others.

I suppose you get the idea, without me throwing more books, cartoons, plays, paintings, riddles, poems, simulation models, fairy tales etc at you.

So what do I think thought-experiments are? Well, apart from lots of complicated questions about how our thoughts work, I think they are a means to an end. For the use of philosophers and non-philosophers alike to clarify whatever needs clarifying. Just like “real” experiments, the only restriction being that thought-experiments do not take place in the real world but in our imagination. I think there are no essential differences between a mental model, a guided meditation, a play, a painting or a mathematical formula IFF (if and only if) they are being used for instructional purposes. It does not matter who you are trying to instruct. It may even be yourself.

A thought-experiment has succeeded when it has clarified whatever it meant to clarify. Full stop. It also means that a philosopher (or any other person imparting information to a less knowledgeable audience) should try his or her utmost to provide clear thought-experiments, models, explanations. Because that is an important purpose of Philosophia: to clarify. If it does not do that, it might as well not be there.

On this slightly belligerent note, I conclude this post. Next, I will tell you about how things are going in the research project on the language evolution. As so many times before during this ReMa, I am learning things that I did not know I had to learn. It is still very recent as today I had to ask my professor to help sort out my group, so I am still sorting out my own thoughts. Plus, I am tired. I worked very hard these past few weeks. Next post, I promise.

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