Thought Experiments: Thinking through the consequences ⚗️ *do read the intro first*
What are thought experiments? How do they help? + examples.
Hi, Ravdeep here. 👋
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There is a small town that has one very hard-working barber in it. The barber shaves everyone who does not shave themselves. He does not shave anyone who shaves themselves. So, does the barber shave himself? It doesn’t take long to see the contradiction: If he does, he can’t; if he doesn’t, he must. Such a barber can’t exist.This is an example of a ‘Thought Experiment’.
*Before you start reading this, I must warn you that this issue contains one certain experiment that you might find unsettling on an existential level. Only proceed forward if you’re equipped to handle it. Let’s begin!*
What are Thought Experiments? 🔬
Thought experiments are a means of exploring a concept, hypothesis or idea through extensive thought. When finding empirical evidence is impossible, we turn to thought experiments to unspool complex concepts. Thought experiments are usually rhetorical. No particular answer can or should be found.
The purpose is to encourage speculation, logical thinking and to change paradigms. Thought experiments push us outside our comfort zone by forcing us to confront questions we cannot answer with ease. They reveal that we do not know everything and some things cannot be known.
A brief history of Thought Experiments 📜
Thought experiments have been around since the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Using thought experiments as a mental model has enriched our intellectual findings and discoveries, ranging from philosophy to even quantum mechanics.
An early example of a thought experiment is Zeno’s narrative of Achilles and the tortoise which comes from ancient Greece, somewhere around 430 BC. We’ll discuss all these experiments in detail in the second half of this issue. In the 17th century, Galileo developed the concept further by using thought experiments to further strengthen his theories.
It was only in the 18th century that the notion of a thought experiment actually came into existence by a man named Ernst Mach who is commonly credited with introducing the word itself.
Our own ideas are more easily and readily at our disposal than physical facts. We experiment with thought, so as to say, at little expense. This it shouldn’t surprise us that, oftentime, the thought experiment precedes the physical experiment and prepares the way for it… A thought experiment is also a necessary precondition for a physical experiment. Every inventor and every experimenter must have in his mind the detailed order before he actualizes it. Even if Stephenson knew the train, the rails and the steam engine from experience, he must have, nonetheless, have preconceived in his thoughts the combination of a train on wheels, driven by a steam engine, before he could have proceeded to the realization. No less did Galileo have to envisage, in his imagination, the arrangements for the investigation of gravity, before these were actualized. Even the beginner learns in experimenting than as insufficient preliminary estimate, or nonobservance of sources of error has for him no less tragic comic results than the proverbial ‘look before you leap’ does in practical life.
Mach compares thought experiments to the plans and images we form in our minds before commencing an endeavour. Rehearsing a conversation before having it, planning a piece of work before starting it, figuring out every detail of a meal before cooking it - we’ve all done it sometime. Mach views this as an integral part of our ability to engage in complex tasks and to innovate creatively.
Types of Thought Experiments 📝
Prefactual - Involving potential future outcomes.
Counterfactual - Contradicting known facts.
Semi-Factual - Contemplating how a different past could have lead to the same present.
Prediction - Theorising future outcomes based on existing data.
Hindcasting - Running a prediction in reverse to see if it forecasts an event which has already happened.
Retrodiction - Moving backwards from an event to discover the root cause.
Backcasting - Considering a specific future outcome, then working forwards from the present to deduce its causes.
Examples of Thought Experiments ⚗️
These thought experiments are not proven and are just a way to get the mind to work on something that might or might not have an answer. So, take these with a grain of salt and force your mind to give it a thought on why these experiments were carried out in the first place. I’ll only be covering 4 here for brevity’s sake but will be putting out more by the end of this week.
Achilles and the Tortoise 🐢
This paradox was brought forward by Zeno in ancient Greece, which is one of his four paradoxes that are described by Aristotle in his treatise Physics. The paradox talks about a race between Achilles and a slow-moving tortoise. Achilles allows the tortoise a head start of 100 meters. Suppose that each racer starts running at some constant speed, one faster than the other. After some finite time, Achilles will have run 100 meters, bringing him to the tortoise's starting point. During this time, the tortoise has run a much shorter distance, say 2 meters. It will then take Achilles some further time to run that distance, by which time the tortoise will have advanced farther; and then more time still to reach this third point, while the tortoise moves ahead. Thus, whenever Achilles arrives somewhere the tortoise has been, he still has some distance to go before he can even reach the tortoise. Achilles can never get to the tortoise no matter how fast he moves or what the original distance was.
Verdict: Meh. Disproved pretty quickly although a good thought.
Russell’s Teapot 🍵
In an article titled "Is There a God?" commissioned, but never published, by Illustrated magazine in 1952, Russell wrote:
Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.
Further commenting on this analogy:
I ought to call myself an agnostic; but, for all practical purposes, I am an atheist. I do not think the existence of the Christian God any more probable than the existence of the Gods of Olympus or Valhalla. To take another illustration: nobody can prove that there is not a china teapot revolving in an elliptical orbit between the Earth and Mars, but nobody thinks this is sufficiently likely to be taken into account in practice. I think the Christian God just as unlikely.
Schrödinger's Cat 🐈
A very popular thought experiment featured heavily in the the hit TV show, Big Bang Theory. This is a somewhat simplified version of the virtual experiment:
A living cat is placed into a steel chamber along with a hammer, a vial of hydrocyanic acid and a very small amount of radioactive substance. If even a single atom of the radioactive substance decays during the test period, a relay mechanism will trip the hammer, which will in turn, break the vial of poisonous gas and cause the cat to die.
In the thought experiment, a hypothetical cat may be considered simultaneously both alive and dead as a result of its fate being linked to a random subatomic event that may or may not occur.
Verdict: Although this experiment was aimed at a paradox of quantum superposition, it can be boiled down to the old saying “What you don’t know, can’t hurt you”, but that would be ignorant of you.
Please do not watch the video for the next experiment if you’re prone to existential dread from watching dystopian things. It has a history of causing nightmares for people and according to the experiment, just knowing about it sets off a chain of events that might end up making you feel bad.
Roko’s Basilisk 🐍
I’ll just leave this here:
I hope you liked this issue as much as I did writing and researching it. I personally love thought experiments and my most favourite one’s called ‘Occam’s Razor’ that I almost use every day in my life (will write about that at the end of the week). I would definitely do a follow up to this, probably on Friday or the start of the next week. Or I can send out a few discussion mailers by Friday and we the community can discuss their take on these experiments. Let me know what you’d like by replying back to this email. Also, don’t sweat the Roko’s Basilisk, we’re already in a simulation, we just don’t know it yet 😉
Recommended website this week
Philosophy Games | A few games to make you think hard about philosophy and the consequences of certain actions.
Thank you and have a brilliant week ahead. Would be great if you could share the newsletter with your friends and family as that helps a lot and hit that little heart button!