Experiments and thought experiments in natural science

Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science 232:209-226 (2001)
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Abstract

My theme is thought experiment in natural science, and its relation to real experiment. I shall defend the thesis that thought experiments that do not lead to theorizing and to a real experiment are generally of much less value that those that do so. To illustrate this thesis I refer to three examples, from three very different periods, and with three very different kinds of status. The first is the classic thought experiment in which Galileo imagined that he had, by pure thought, demolished Aristoteles' dogma that heavier bodies fall more quickly than light ones. I will show that he was mistaken. The second is the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paper purporting to show that quantum mechanics must be incomplete in its domain of application. This thought experiment is a very good one, not because its conclusions are correct, but precisely because it was fruitful, leading to theory and, above all, to a real experiment. Finally I discuss the modern string theory of everything, which, while it is regarded as a physical theory by its instigators, shares some properties of the least successful sort of thought experiment

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