The Aesthetic and Literary Qualities of Scientific Thought Experiments

In Milena Ivanova & Steven French (eds.), The Aesthetics of Science: Beauty, Imagination and Understanding (2020)
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Is there a role for aesthetic judgements in science? One aspect of scientific practice, the use of thought experiments, has a clear aesthetic dimension. Thought experiments are creatively produced artefacts that are designed to engage the imagination. Comparisons have been made between scientific (and philosophical) thought experiments and other aesthetically appreciated objects. In particular, thought experiments are said to share qualities with literary fiction as they invite us to imagine a fictional scenario and often have a narrative form (Elgin 2014). But philosophical discussions of aesthetics in science have focused mainly on the epistemic role of beauty and elegance when it comes to theories and mathematical proofs, and thought experiments have been widely overlooked. My aim in this chapter is to address how the aesthetic choices scientists make in the design of a thought experiment contribute to its function: to communicate, convince, or explain a theory or phenomenon. A key issue is whether any aesthetic features in science provide anything beyond catching our attention, or are at best, a mere heuristic aid. I respond to accounts that argue this way and show how formulation is important in scientific thought experiments and, similarly to literary fictions, there is more than one way of interpreting a thought experiment scenario. I end by considering which literary examples are most appropriate when making comparisons with thought experiments. As a result, the difference between representations in art and science raised in current discussions is not as stark as it has been made out to be, and science is a more heterogeneous practice than has been allowed. Part of the value of thought experiments in scientific practice includes the qualities they share with literary works.



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Alice Murphy
Ludwig Maximilians Universität, München

Citations of this work

What is a Beautiful Experiment?Milena Ivanova - 2022 - Erkenntnis 88 (8):3419-3437.
The aesthetics of scientific experiments.Milena Ivanova - 2021 - Philosophy Compass 16 (3):e12730.
Imagination in science.Alice Murphy - 2022 - Philosophy Compass 17 (6):e12836.
Bringing Thought Experiments Back into the Philosophy of Science.Arnon Levy & Adrian Currie - forthcoming - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science.

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Fiction as a Genre.Stacie Friend - 2012 - Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 112 (2pt2):179--209.
The wheel of virtue: Art, literature, and moral knowledge.Noel Carroll - 2002 - Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 60 (1):3–26.
Galileo and the indispensability of scientific thought experiment.Tamar Szabó Gendler - 1998 - British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 49 (3):397-424.

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