Thought Experiments: What Good Are They, Anyway?

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Author: Chris Edwards
Date: Summer 2021
From: Skeptic (Altadena, CA)(Vol. 26, Issue 3)
Publisher: Skeptics Society & Skeptic Magazine
Document Type: Article
Length: 6,542 words
Lexile Measure: 1300L

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A THOUGHT EXPERIMENT IS ONE THAT EXISTS PURELY in the mind and it differs in purpose from a scientific experiment because the object is to clarify analogical reasoning rather than to collect experimental evidence. The scientific community does not scoff at thought experiments, but rather treats them as being occasionally useful for clarification. Some of these experiments, partially through their flashy names, are now embedded in the intellectual lexicon. "The Trolley Problem" and "The Prisoner's Dilemma" get used quite a lot in ethics and economics. Yet, the thought experiment remains underused.

Thought experiments, when framed by scientific principles and shaped by logic, can clear up much of the confusion in what may broadly be conceived of as the problems inherent in the entire modern conception of knowledge and theories about knowledge. Scientific experiments exist to collect research data; thought experiments exist to help us collect our thoughts and correct our perceptions. As a scholar and teacher my interests are in the development of cross-curricular lessons and insights. Thought experiments function in a traditional philosophical sense by actually solving problems. However, they also, and probably more than any other teaching method, require students to think at a deep level in the subject of analogy. What is similar and what is different between cases? In addition; thought experiments always require students to study the situation in a meta-cognitive way, but challenging their own base assumptions involving the subjects at hand. They might be the key in breaking away from the passing-on-of-re-ceived-knowledge-and-skills educational model that still dominates.

Thought experiments come in different categories, and some experiments will overlap. Three of the most famous involve: (1) the concept of a future Singularity (the point where the universe itself becomes conscious); (2) the "Trolley Problem" (a riddle of sorts that engages one's emotional and cognitive reasoning skills); and (3) "The Prisoner's Dilemma" (a construct of game theory and is tied to rational choice).

Ray Kurzweil and the Singularity

The concept of a technological "singularity," established by the inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil in his best-selling 2005 book The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, consists of the notion that humanity and technology intertwine to move history in a specific direction. Kurzweil imagines a scenario where current trends regarding technological complexity will continue until they reach an inevitable singularity point where the universe will "wake up."

Kurzweil's prediction cannot be described as new but in order to analyze him and the flaws of his thought experiment he must be compared to the appropriate historical philosopher. It is tempting to compare the philosophy of Kurzweil with that of the Jesuit theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), since both men noted that the evolution of humanity and society trends toward ever greater levels of complexity. Kurzweil's ideas about predicting the future are also similar to those of Karl Marx, who believed that by understanding history it becomes possible to predict an inevitable future outcome. But, in fact, Kurzweil's philosophy is more analogous with that of St. Thomas...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A681541779