Thought Experiments in Science, Philosophy, and Mathematics

Croatian Journal of Philosophy 7 (1):3-27 (2007)
Abstract
Most disciplines make use of thought experiments, but physics and philosophy lead the pack with heavy dependence upon them. Often this is for conceptual clarification, but occasionally they provide real theoretical advances. In spite of their importance, however, thought experiments have received rather little attention as a topic in their own right until recently. The situation has improved in the past few years, but a mere generation ago the entire published literature on thought experiments could have been mastered in a long weekend. Now the subject is beginning to flourish. Given the relative newness of the field, it might be useful to have several examples at one’s finger tips, so a number of great ones will be described. Attention will also be drawn outside physics and philosophy. In mathematics there is something analogous to thought experiments -- visual reasoning and picture proofs. I will look briefly at this class of thought experiments and try using them to make a case for possibly settling the continuum hypothesis. After this, I will return to thought experiments in the sciences and propose an account of how they work. Finally, I will end with a sketch of a topic I am currently working on, a kind of progress report which, I hope, will be an inducement to others
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