This essay will firstly explore what thought experiments really are and how they are used in philosophy today. Following from this, by using some of the most famous examples of thought experiments in philosophy, I will show you what great insights such tools can display and present, and how they act as such advantages. An insight in the great sense of the word, is the capacity to gain an accurate and deep understanding of someone or something. I will show that if and when you gain insight or an insight into a complex situation, such as a thought experiment, you can gain further accurate and deep understanding of it.
We can define a thought experiment as a philosophical tool to spark the intuitions of an audience. They are mechanisms of the imagination used to investigate the nature of problems. Established in the imagination, we set up a hypothetical situation, we then observe what appears, from there, we finally try and draw an appropriate conclusion. Across the globe, it is in broad agreement that thought experiments play a central role in a number of fields, these being, physics, sociology and that of philosophy. Philosophers rate thought experiments particularly highly as they hinder numerous features of our experience and evoke intuitions about it. It is in fact these answers that are able to adjust relevant theories in light of what we find. More often than not, thought experiments are communicated in a narrative style, regularly with diagrams to help explain their motives. The term was originally coined by physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach (Gedanken experiment). Mach desperately wanted to help ‘overcome habits of thought’ that can be a hinderance to scientific progress.
Quite possibly one of the most recognised and well known thought experiments used not just in the field of philosophy but also in moral discussion is that of the Trolly Problem. Philippa Foot constructed and discussed the Trolly Problem in her article ‘The problem of abortion and the Doctrine of Double Effect’. More recently however, a number of different versions of the ‘Trolly Thought Experiment’ have been put forward, most commonly by Judith Jarvis Thomson in 1985. The original is as follows; Imagine you are standing by some train tracks. In the distance you see a runaway trolly hurtling down the tracks towards five workers who cannot hear it coming, and will not be able to move out of the way in time. As this disaster looms you look down to see a lever which if pulled will divert the tram away from the unsuspecting workers. However on the other side of the track, is one lone worker, just as oblivious. So the question is, would you pull the lever, leading to one death but saving five? (Philosophers Tool Kit, 2004). This here stated is the core of the well known thought experiment known as the trolly dilemma.
In retrospect, thought experiments allow us to really consider the consequences of an action and then further contemplate whether or not the moral value shown (if any) is entirely determined by its outcome. This is particularly shown in the above discussed ‘Trolly Dilemma’. Since the outset of the trolly dilemma, it has consistently demonstrated that it is indeed an adjustable devise for guiding our moral intuitions. It has further been adapted to also be applied to various other scenarios, these being abortion, war, euthanasia and torture. This further insight of thought experiments into real world dilemmas has been used to spark debate and discussion about the much speculated difference between ‘killing’ versus ‘letting die’. Which is an incredibly important topic in society today. It has even appeared in one form or another in popular modern culture, such as the film “Eye in the Sky’.
It is intriguing that people regularly form judgements in such thought experiments that differ from the core principles they think they believe. In such a case as this, one can thus suggest that one might not actually believe the core principle in which they initially first set out to believe. Thus here is a further insight of thought experiments. If you are unsure about your opinion on a general principle regarding a specific subject matter, or do not have an opinion at all, a thought experiment can be devised in which it asks for your personal intuitions about such a subject and forces you to form an actual opinion. Albeit you failed to state a general principle, all is not lost, as you may well be able to conclude many particular judgements that, little by little, suggest a general principle that would lead to underlining those judgments. Thus leading to further insight into that particular subject matter.
Moreover, thought experiments, and in regards to the trolly example, provide further insight into challenging ones way of thinking. Somehow we can use moral maths as a way of making ethical decisions, for example, in an alternative version of the dilemma where the man standing on his own is ‘switched’ to an innocent child. This for most will result in a lot more of a challenging dilemma. Possibly evoking the thought that certain groups of people (innocent children, terrible yet great world shapers for example) have greater claim on social resources than others. This is because our emotional reasoning becomes involved and we therefore feel differently about killing a certain one in order to save five.
A further insight that can be gained by means of thought experiments is how they provide us with a different way in which we can see how our minds work. As humans we decipher everyday simple and more challenging problems differently in our heads, but these types of challenges are quite often theoretically impossible to solve this way due to the complexity. We have an answer to this problem however, in the form of thought experiments. An example of this comes from the ‘infinite monkey theorem’ also known as the ‘monkeys and typewriters’ experiment. That if you have a large number of monkeys hammering away at typewriters, one of them will eventually reproduce Shakespeare’s sonnets, by pure chance alone. What the composer of this thought experiment was really refuting was the theory of evolution. That evolution occurs purely by chance and not by intelligent design. (Lee, D. And Lee, V. (2017). The Monkey Typewriter Fallacy. ) This illustrates the nature of infinity, which is a bewildering concept for the human mind. One which still proves challenging to most today. Yet thought experiments give us insight into a different way of how our minds work and gives possible answers to such demanding concepts that otherwise would not be able to answer.
A more recent insight into thought experiments however, is that they have been used to shine an understanding of philosophy of mind and epistemology. Mary’s Room, for example, was devised to show insight into the fact that parts of philosophy, like that of physicalism, misses something that the ‘brain in the vat’ thought experiment is meant to grant – an updated example of the epistemic scepticism. Moreover thought experiments do have the advantage of letting us examine hypothetical situations and further analysing their results which cannot be shown by science. This can take place without the harm without harming any participants, whether that be people or animals, psychologically or physically. This is due to the fact that philosophical thoughts don’t have to be confined. Which in turn shows further insight into the main issue by narrowing down on the initial concern to the most essential parts. This is uncovered in the ethical thought experiment by Williams, where one can be precise about the reality of the problem and so is able to zoom in on what is actually important.
By the time a thought experiment is presented and officially put forward, they almost always work and are often more compelling than most real world experiments. We rarely, if ever, get a glimpse of failed thought experiments and thus gain great insight into the construction of the one presented to us. This is due to the fact that once understood, a thought experiment is usually so compelling and fascinating in itself that even where it would be possible to carry out criticism, the reader feels no need to do so. The established situation is captured as pertinent to the real world by revealing something in our experience that we did not see the importance of before. For example, by making us see empirical consequences of something in our existing representation.
To conclude this essay, I have explored a variety of insights and thus advantages to thought experiments, mainly through the use of examples (The Trolley problem, Infinite Monkey Theorem). To make this essay more understandable, I initially defined what a thought experiment is and the way in which I would be using the term ‘insight’. I have shown that firstly, insights can infact be gained by means of thought experiments, and have been since some of the earliest thought experiments were created. I then went on to discuss the definite insights that thought experiments display. From considering moral value and moral intuitions, to challenging ones way of thinking and being able to see different ways in which our minds work which leads to explanations on hard-to-grasp concepts. The number of insights displayed and explained in this essay goes to show how thought experiments are an advantage not just to philosophy but also many other fields of work too.