The Importance of Thought Experiments

The Importance of Thought Experiments

Hypotheticals are a valuable truth-seeking tool

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Thought experiments are a very valuable tool for truth-seeking as they can lead you to uncharted territories of understanding, guiding your mind through the labyrinthine corridors of logic, ultimately unveiling profound insights that challenge assumptions and pave the way for fresh perspectives on age-old questions.

They are a great way to explore and flatten out inconsistencies in your worldview, as you may find that your answer to a thought experiment contradicts other beliefs that you also hold. For example, imagine if you held the view that democratic decision-making must always be respected, and then you were asked the following hypothetical question:

Imagine there are 5 people on an island, and 4 of them democratically decide to beat the other person up for their enjoyment, against his wishes. The man is not guilty of any crimes. Do you believe that their decision should be respected?

If you answered "No", then this contradicts your previous belief that democratic decision-making must always be respected. If you answered "Yes", then your barbaric answer is consistent with your barbaric belief that democratic decision-making must always be respected. Perhaps another hypothetical may cause you to reconsider this belief. Alternatively, you may just be a horrible person who subscribes to the law of the jungle.

Thought experiments can also help people clarify their beliefs to each other. For example, imagine two people who agree with the idea that a person can come to own land by homesteading it. Although they may seemingly agree on the principle, each person might be interpreting homesteading differently. The first person may think that "mixing your labor" with the land is enough to homestead it, even if nobody else realizes that you have done so. On the other hand, the second person may require that you erect an intersubjectively ascertainable border, such as a fence, to communicate your ownership claim over the land to other people.

Although both of these aforementioned people would agree with the statement that a person can come to own land by homesteading it, asking these two people to answer a thought experiment can highlight that their conception of homesteading is different. Consider the following thought experiment:

A man digs a hole in an unowned piece of land. He then covers up this hole. He then goes away from this piece of land, not having made any other modifications to it. Did he homestead this piece of land?

The first person would consider this to be a valid form of homesteading, whereas the second would not, because the man did not effectively communicate his ownership claim over the piece of land. In other words, it would be practically unknowable that this piece of land belonged to anybody. Had the man built a fence around the piece of land instead, it would have been easy for bystanders to identify that the land belongs to somebody.

Moreover, the way that people answer a simple thought experiment may offer you a decent insight into the way that they think. It is easy to identify people who let their emotions get the best of them because their answers will tend to be inconsistent with logic, whereas logical thinkers will attempt to iron out inconsistencies even if their answer is unpopular. For example, consider the following thought experiment about slavery:

A starving man knocks on your door and asks that you feed him. You tell him that you do not want to feed him, even though you have a lot of food in your house. Regardless, he claims that you must be legally obligated to feed him because he is starving. Is he correct?

An emotionally driven person may claim that you must be legally obligated to feed a starving man against your own will because they find it hard to conceptualize that slavery is unjustified as a result of being emotionally captured by the starvation factor. In contrast, a logically driven person will bite the proverbial bullet and consistently apply the fact that slavery is unjustified, meaning that they will argue that you must not be legally obligated to feed a starving man against your own will. Ostensibly, the emotionally driven person will be offended by the logically driven person's answer and immediately claim that they want people to starve to death, missing the entire point of the hypothetical.

Furthermore, a person's answer to this hypothetical and a single sentence explaining their answer could even allow you to make a well-informed prediction about their political views. Presumably, there's a good chance that a person who answers "No, the food belongs to you, and you have the right to exclude people from using it" is an anarcho-capitalist, whereas a much less ethically literate person who answers "Yes, you must feed the starving man because you caused him to be starving by hoarding food!" is likely to be a communist, despite the historical link between communism and mass starvation.

Similarly, the way that people react to your thought experiments can act as a litmus test for whether they are interesting interlocutors who can join you on your truth-seeking journey. Such people eagerly answer your thought experiments and even modify them or create new thought experiments so that you can consider other perspectives or possibilities. Others may display a lack of understanding of hypotheticals, highlighted by their inability to provide a reasonable answer to the following question:

How would you have felt yesterday evening if you hadn't eaten breakfast or lunch?

Such intellectually challenged individuals will keep repeating that they did eat breakfast as well as lunch yesterday, highlighting their inability to apply logic to a hypothetical scenario. Others may be able to answer such questions logically but choose not to do so because they are overwhelmed by the number of factors that they have to consider to provide an answer that satisfies them. They may also point out that not enough information has been provided in the thought experiment for them to properly answer the question. This is often a valid complaint, as people who ask others about thought experiments often leave out important details because they think that other people will take them for granted, or because they simply never considered them.

Finally, thought experiments are also a very useful tool in trying to ask questions about principles as they can be used to abstract away intrusive factors. For example, imagine that a celebrity that you hate has been falsely accused of committing a heinous crime. Even though you claim to not want people falsely accused of committing heinous crimes to be punished, you let your judgment of that celebrity cloud your judgment over this specific scenario, and you argue that the celebrity should be punished.

On the other hand, had you been asked whether a random person who has been falsely accused of committing a heinous crime should be punished, you would not have hesitated to have answered: "No, of course not!". In other words, although you previously answered this question based on your hatred of the celebrity in question instead of considering whether a person should be punished despite being falsely accused of a heinous crime, by substituting that celebrity with an unnamed hypothetical neutral person, you were able to give a more logical and less emotionally-driven answer. As such, thought experiments can be used to highlight inconsistencies in applying rules.