What Are Thought Experiments?

The mind of man is far from the nature of a clear and equal glass, wherein the beams of things should reflect according to their incidence; nay, it is rather like an enchanted glass, full of superstition and imposture, if it be not delivered and reduced.

- Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning, Bk. II, XIV, 9

Podcast of the Day

Philosophers often use elaborate thought experiments in their writing. Are these anything more than rhetorical flourishes? Or do they reveal important aspects of the questions under discussion. Julian Baggini, editor of The Philosophers' Magazine and author of a book, The Pig That Wants To Be Eaten, which surveys some of the most interesting and imaginative thought experiments philosophers have used discusses this topic with Nigel Warburton. David Edmonds introduces the interview.

Listen to Julian Baggini on Thought Experiments

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Short Article of the Day

Philosophers are often accused of engaging in armchair speculation, as far removed from reality as possible, inside the proverbial ivory tower. The quintessential example of this practice is the thought experiment, which many scientists sneer at precisely because it doesn’t require one to get one’s hands dirty. And yet scientists have often engaged in thought experiments, some of which have marked major advances in our understanding of the world.

Just consider the famous example of Galileo’s thought experiment demonstrating (rather counterintuitively) that two objects of different weight must fall at the same speed. (Contrary to popular belief, Galileo never actually climbed the leaning tower of Pisa to do this experiment – he didn’t need to...

Continue reading Massimo Pigliucci's article: What is a Thought Experiment, Anyhow?

Further Reading

Thought experiments are devices of the imagination used to investigate the nature of things. They are used for diverse reasons in a variety of areas, including economics, history, mathematics, philosophy, and the sciences, especially physics....

The primary philosophical challenge of thought experiments is simple: How can we learn about reality (if we can at all), just by thinking? More precisely, are there thought experiments that enable us to acquire new knowledge about the intended realm of investigation without new empirical data? If so, where does the new information come from if not from contact with the realm of investigation under consideration? Finally, how can we distinguish good from bad instances of thought experiments? These questions seem urgent with respect to scientific thought experiments, because most philosophers and historians of science “recognize them as an occasionally potent tool for increasing our understanding of nature....

Continue reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Thought Experiments by Brown & Fehige

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