Thursday, 7 April 2011

Thought Experiments

[Note: This is primarily for those with analytic philosophers. For those of you with continental philosophers, the information below will be useful at philosophy gatherings, as you can ask an analytic philosopher to give you a thought experiment, which would make their whole day truly wonderful].

I’m not sure if continental philosophers do this, but my analytic philosopher loves sharing thought experiments. These sorts of thought experiments are not your typical, “If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, did it make a sound?” nonsense that non-philosophers undergrads throw around to try to look smart. Oh, no. These are like the following:

You are a conductor on a very heavy cargo train that is speeding along the tracks. Up ahead, the track splits into two sets of tracks; one veering to the east and one veering to the west. You can see that on the eastern tracks, a lovely, young woman is tied there against her will. But then, you see on the western tacks that ten lovely, young women are tied to the tracks, also against their will. You have no time to stop the train; you only have enough time to pick a track. Which one will you choose?
-        - (Originally by Phillippa Foot, but jazzed up by yours truly).

My policy on thought experiments used to be that I would play along and answer honestly. There is one problem with doing this, though: this is a trap! Whatever you say will be immediately countered with a “well, what about this!” Then, before you know it, they fire another thought experiment at you, because philosophers have a hard time just doing one at a time.

It is very important for you to not let resentment about this trickery get to you, or you will become embittered and lash out whenever you are presented with a new thought experiment. Instead, it is more helpful to set up boundaries. Here are some of our boundaries:

(1) No thought experiments after 5:00pm, unless I am not expected to give any answers.
(2) The only case in which a thought experiment might be shared after 5pm and an answer will be given, is when permission to break rule (1) is worked out ahead of time (i.e. he sometimes asks to share them on date night).
(3) Limit thought experiments to one at a time unless I give permission for more.
(4) If any of these are broken, I have permission to shut down and refuse to answer.

This seems like a very selfish step to take, especially for you non-philosophers who have not been in a relationship of some kind with your philosopher for very long. Because some philosophers will never get over their love for thought experiments, though, it is important to talk about boundaries before you get tired of feeling stupid and trapped. It will happen! Philosophers are just so excited about this stuff. You have to rein them in a bit sometimes.

~The Philosiologist~


  1. You should get your philosopher to create a wish list on Amazon. That way you can get them a book they want, but don't have to ask them about it. A very useful tool!

    I doubt your philosopher will mind: its ridiculously good fun-window shopping your way through all the books you want and adding them to your imaginary library.

  2. This post was just genius!! Esp. for those living with ethicists.

  3. My analytic philosopher is of the strain that asks, "So is this sentence grammatical? '[Convoluted sentence, often with oddly placed pronouns].'" Usually at the dinner table. I used to try to engage these, but now we have enough children that it's more fun to open the question to the floor and listen to him try to explain the grammatical issues to an eight-year-old who thinks the sentence would work better if it were about fairies.

  4. I'm not sure I understand how your rules are supposed to be applied.

    Suppose your philosopher begins giving a series of thought experiments at 4:45 PM on some day. Is the series automatically cut off at 5:00 or do you pursue the line of inquiry (initiated before 5:00) until it is concluded?

    Suppose your philosopher thinks of an interesting thought experiment at midnight. If your philosopher wakes you up (assuming that you go to bed at a reasonable hour) to present the thought experiment, does that violate your first rule? If so, then at what time does your rule reset? That is, every offered thought experiment is going to be after 5:00 PM of some day, but the spirit of the rule appears to be that thought experiments will only be entertained during "regular business hours," but you haven't specified a beginning hour.

  5. Jonathan, Since I get off of work at 5pm, it is very easy to keep my philosopher from starting a thought experiment before then. On the weekends, he is just careful to do his thought-experimenting before then. If he were to start one at 4:45pm, I suppose I would humor him and engage for a while, but at around 5, my reasoning capacities significantly diminish.

    My beginning hour would be 5:30am, because that's when I wake up, ready to reason. I will often entertain thought experiments and philosophy talk at lunch or during coffee breaks.

    Thank you for being technical about this. I'm sure I didn't answer your question thoroughly enough, but just know that my illogical system works somehow.

  6. I am a scientist, and my most detested thought experiment is the one about "gru". Ask your philosopher.

  7. One VERY important item in Foot's original thought experiment(s) is the fact that the train (or trolley) is ALREADY headed for the 10 people. The problem, then (and it is supposed to be a problem specifically for the consequentialist) is that (you) the individual operating the switch is supposed to decide whether it is morally permissible/obligatory to 'flip the switch'. Would this be an 'act of killing' the one person versus an 'act of killing' the ten? Or would it be an 'act of killing' versus 'letting die' the other ten, that is, if the switch operator lets the train go on its current course. You get the picture...

  8. Anonymous scientist again here: I was just informed by my philosopher that it should be "grue", and that the grue thing is not really a thought experiment like the train example. I still hate it.

  9. I love this! My husband is an analytic philosopher and I too have fallen prey to the thought experiment tricks! I am in tears from laughing! Thank you for sharing :) Love your blog!

  10. Anon 8:32- the killing/letting die distinction is a problem for deontologists, not consequentialists.