Why Thought Experiments Do Not Transcend Empiricism

In Christopher Hitchcock (ed.), Contemporary Debates in the Philosophy of Science. Blackwell. pp. 44-66 (2002)
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Abstract

Thought experiments are ordinary argumentation disguised in a vivid pictorial or narrative form. This account of their nature will allow me to show that empiricism has nothing to fear from thought experiments. They perform no epistemic magic. In so far as they tell us about the world, thought experiments draw upon what we already know of it, either explicitly or tacitly; they then transform that knowledge by disguised argumentation. They can do nothing more epistemically than can argumentation. I defend my account of thought experiments in Section 3 by urging that the epistemic reach of thought experiments turns out to coincide with that of argumentation and that this coincidence is best explained by the simple view that thought experiments just are arguments. Thought experiments can err—-a fact to be displayed by the thought experiment - anti thought experiment pairs of Section 2. Nonetheless thought experiments can be used reliably and, I urge in Section 4., this is only possible if they are governed by some very generalized logic. I will suggest on evolutionary considerations that their logics are most likely the familiar logics of induction and deduction, recovering the view that thought experiment is argumentation. Finally in Section 5 I defend this argument based epistemology of thought experiments against competing accounts. I suggest that these other accounts can offer a viable epistemology only insofar as they already incorporate the notion that thought experimentation is governed by a logic, possibly of very generalized form.

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John D. Norton
University of Pittsburgh

Citations of this work

The Dome: An Unexpectedly Simple Failure of Determinism.John D. Norton - 2008 - Philosophy of Science 75 (5):786-798.
Thought Experiments.Yiftach J. H. Fehige & James R. Brown - 2010 - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 25 (1):135-142.
Thought Experiments: State of the Art.Michael T. Stuart, Yiftach Fehige & James R. Brown - 2018 - In Michael T. Stuart, Yiftach Fehige & James Robert Brown (eds.), The Routledge Companion to Thought Experiments. London, UK: Routledge. pp. 1-28.

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