Thursday, 19 May 2016

Thought Experiments

An interesting article about thought experiments here.

People do tend to ignore thought experiments. I get the strong impression that they think that thought experiments cannot tell us anything about actual reality. They are just riddles with no possible application to the real world.  To find out about reality we have to actually investigate it, not engage in armchair philosophising.

But this far from the truth.  As the article says:
Galileo devised a simple thought experiment that told us something profound about gravity. Take two weights, one light, one heavy. If heavier objects fall faster than light ones, as Aristotle said, then the lighter weight will lag behind. That implies that when the two are tied together, they will fall more slowly than the heavy weight alone. But together, they weigh more than the heavy alone, so they should fall faster. Wait, so is it faster or slower?

This is a great example which illustrates that just by thinking about something you can prove something necessarily must be true, or necessarily cannot be true. Just think that people for centuries thought that the rate at which objects fall is related to their weight. A simple thought experiment could have disabused them of this notion!

And this also disproves peoples' claim that only science tells us about the world and that philosophising is just a waste of time. Sorry, that just isn't true. George Berkeley in the early 18th Century advanced thought experiments showing the concept of absolute space was incoherent for example. But Newton's authority was too great, and he was simply ignored.  And it continues to this day. Some peoples' conviction that consciousness is wholly causally inefficacious for example.  Something which I have argued simply cannot be maintained as I argue here and here.

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