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.
The one thing I used to love about chemistry was its periodic table. It ticks all the boxes: clean, concise, clear, colourful and complete. I was not very good at chemistry – well, not the first time around, in my Dutch Grammar school. That was because I could not get my head around the idea that you have to learn the periodic table (and more besides) off by heart, in the same way
that youhave to learn your tables of multiplication. Second time around, in my UK school, I quickly made up for old laziness and became quitegood at it. So good, that they suggested I’d take a fifth A-level. Suggested is too weak a word, in fact. They wept (almost) and raved ( a bit). But I declined. I knew there came a point in chemistry where things become too abstract to my liking (which is when I get frustrated and have to put many hours in working through examples).
I would have loved one of the big mugs with the periodic system on it, but as you now understand, I
was not entitled(having dropped Chemistry after O level). Alas. So imagine my delight when I ran into the “periodic system of arguments” (see header image of this post). It has recently been constructedby a guy called Wagemans (Dutch or Belgian I assume), partly in collaboration with the university of Dundee. You might wonder just how I came across this? Well, from my previous post you know I had been going crazy over finding the right approach to finding and storing information about phil osophical subjects. There are lots of aspects to this question, but one I did not (much) touch on, is which tool to useto map arguments. Now if you think I might be a bitcrazy in my quest for knowledge, I am certainlynot the only one. There is a wonderful site where someone has been collecting and reviewing all mind-map software in the world. Here I came across OVA+ which is an ontology-based mapper for arguments. It is developedon top of an argument specification interface which these guys also developed. Specifications are useful because once everyone is using the same one, you can change tools without having to change your data. Like LibreOffice and Microsoft, because of acknowledged document interchange format specifications. generally
I started to play around with this tool, but found out quickly that it uses a classification of arguments which I was not familiar with. And that is how I eventually ended up with Wageman’s periodic table for arguments. Which, I will say it again, I am in love with. I could never remember the long list of types of logical arguments and fallacies with wonderful Latin names like “ad hominem” or “a Minore ad Majorem” because there seemed to be no structure to them. This periodic table of arguments is the structure: clean, concise, clear, colourful and (hopefully) complete. I have done a rehash of the information and papers, with information and pictures mixed in from other sources. If you like, you can have a look on the concepts-side of my blog: click here for a direct link.
The general idea is this.
- Take any argument, and decide on what is
statementto be proven, and what is the evidence; separate them out (write them in separate sentences if necessary). For instance: I am taking the washing inside because it it starting to rain. The statement “I am taking the washing inside” is what is to be proven(x); the reason I do this, the premiss, is because it is starting to rain( y).
- Next, decide on the subject and the predicates. Remember from school? The subject of the first sentence is “I”
,the predicate is “taking the washing in”. The subject of the second is “It” or “Rain”, the predicate is “starting to rain”.
- Next decide if the subjects are the same. They are not. Decide if the predicates are the same. They are not.
- That means this
argumentbelongs to the gamma-quadrant (=lower left) of the periodic table,which is of the form q(the to-be-proven statement, that I am taking the washing inside) is true because r(the premiss, that is is starting to rain) is true.
- Now decide what
kind ofstatements qand r actuallyare. The choices are: statementof fact(F), of policy(P= should, could, must) or of value (V). In this case, I would say that qis a policy statement, as it is my policy not to want to get the washing wet; whereas ris a statement of fact. This gives the argument the right to the colour purple (each 2-letter combination of F, P and V) has its own colour.
- Now we have a complete classification: this is a 2nd order subject argument with a fact and a policy, shortened as “2 sub FP”. It may be an argument from consistency (the only purple block in the lower left quadrant), but as Wagemans has not elaborated on that one yet, I cannot be sure (I have written to him about it but he is on holiday).
I am excited about this, because it works just like my old biology field guide of which I was inordinately fond as a child. I still miss it, but good old internet remembers it:
So, what have I learned? Well, there are people as mad as I am who spend their time constructing beautiful models out of chaos. Plus, I now have a method to recognise any argument and work out its internal structure, without having to resort to a long list of curious names which I cannot remember anyway. Great. One problem down, a million-minus-one-or-two to go.
- Take any argument, and decide on what is