What is a Thought Experiment, Anyhow?

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What is a Thought Experiment, Anyhow?

Post by Philosophy Now » Fri Jan 12, 2018 2:44 pm

Our philosophical science correspondent Massimo Pigliucci asks.


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Re: What is a Thought Experiment, Anyhow?

Post by Noax » Sat Jan 13, 2018 1:37 am

The example experiment given is Galileo's thought experiment where it was deduced (without physical experiment) that different weight things must fall at the same rate, else logical inconsistencies result.
Pigliucci wrote: Let’s start with Brown’s position, which he claims to derive from two starting points: a Platonic view of mathematics, and a realist view of the laws of nature. Platonism in mathematics is the idea that certain entities – like numbers, and relations among numbers – are ‘out there’ independently of human minds. Numbers in some sense ‘exist’ regardless of the presence or ability of a mind to conceive them. Accordingly, mathematicians are akin to scientists: they do not invent things, they discover them. Similarly, following Brown, natural laws like say the law of gravity described by Galileo and later formalized by Newton are ‘real’ in the sense that they exist, again, independently of human observers.

What does all of this have to do with thought experiments? According to Brown, thought experiments are genuine examples of how the human mind can ‘perceive’ laws of nature by simply thinking about reality. This was the goal of rationalist (as opposed to empiricist) philosophers since Plato: to discover things about the world by sheer intellectual power, independently of empirical evidence, which was seen as unreliable.

In contrast, Norton has a very different take on the whole matter. For him, thought experiments are a form of argument, starting from empirically derived premises and reaching conclusions by deductive logic. In essence, Norton thinks of experiments such as Galileo’s as ‘if-then’ forms of reasoning, which yield valid results when the premises are empirically justified and the reasoning is logically correct.
I guess my comment is that I don't see the difference in the two (Brown vs. Norton) views. What difference does the Platonic existence of numbers make to what a thought-experiment is other than frame the same answer with different words? I don't find Norton's take on the matter to be 'very different' at all.

I for one have never accepted a distinction between different ontological views of anything.

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