According to James Robert Brown’s article in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, thought experiments are “devices of the imagination used to investigate the nature of things.” (This definition makes fiction itself a grand and complex thought experiment, we may argue.) Among the more famous of such experiments are “Newton’s bucket, Maxwell’s demon, Einstein’s elevator, Heisenberg’s gamma-ray microscope, and Shrodinger’s cat”:
Schrödinger's cat. . . does not show that quantum theory (as interpreted by Bohr) is internally inconsistent. Rather it shows that it is conflict with some very powerful common sense beliefs we have about macro-sized objects such as cats. The bizarreness of superpositions in the atomic world is worrisome enough, says Schrödinger, but when it implies that same bizarreness at an everyday level, it is intolerable. . . . Einstein's elevator showed that light will bend in a gravitational field; Maxwell's demon showed that entropy could be decreased. . . . Newton's bucket showed that space is a thing in its own right; Parfit's splitting persons showed that survival is a more important notion than identity when considering personhood (“Thought Experiments”).
Thought experiments are just as important to philosophy, Brown observes, as they have proven to be to science: “Much of ethics, philosophy of language, and philosophy of mind is based firmly on the results of thought experiments,” and, to illustrate his observation, he identifies several of the more important philosophical thought experiments: “Thompson's violinist, Searle's Chinese room, Putnam's twin earth, Parfit's people who split like an amoeba.” (We might add the example of the philosophical zombie, discussed in a previous post, as well.)
Describing an early thought experiment, which appears in Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, Brown identifies three “common features of thought experiments”: “We visualize some situation; we carry out an operation; we see what happens.”
Like special effects, thought experiments can be conducted even when actual conditions or moral considerations make an actual experiment impossible or objectionable.
Occasionally, thought experiments might help to revolutionize scientific theory as well, according to Thomas Kuhn: “a well-conceived thought experiment can bring on a crisis or at least create an anomaly in the reigning theory and so contribute to paradigm change” (Brown). For additional benefits from, and some objections that scientists and philosophers have advanced concerning the use of thought experiments, those which were conducted by the likes of Newton and Einstein notwithstanding, check out Brown’s article (liked above).
We suggest that, before science, there were also thought experiments, called fiction (or, before fiction was recognized as invented rather than of an inspired or an empirical origin), as myths, folktales, and legends. Ancient Greek (and Egyptian and Norse) myths were of special significance in establishing the ways by which storytellers and their audiences (pretty much all of any society of the time) understood, thought about, and interpreted themselves and the world around them. Such stories, from time to time, also sought to investigate the possibilities of human existence and of nature. At such times as these, the myths became what we could call narrative or dramatic thought experiments. Even today, stories, especially in the fantasy and science fiction genres, continue to pose and conduct thought experiments about all aspects of human existence and nature itself. Horror fiction also conducts such experiments on occasion (as the popularity of the mad scientist, for example, suggests).
Brown’s analysis of Lucretius’ thought experiment led him to posit three features characteristic of all thought experiments: “We visualize some situation; we carry out an operation; we see what happens.” The what-if mode of envisioning stories (an abbreviated way of saying “What might happen if”), common, once again, to fantasy and science fiction (and to alternate history stories) virtually demands such an approach, at least at times, but horror fiction and literature in other genres can do so, too. In horror fiction, we might ask, “What if a chemical compound could, when ingested, cause abnormally large growth in the animals that had consumed it?” The result of this visualization of a specific situation, carried out by the telling of the tale, might be H. G. Wells’ The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth, in which the result is shown to be an imminent war between the haves (the “Children of the Food” and the have-nots (the “Pygmies”) to determine whether growth shall win out over the non-growth of the status quo.
Unhampered by modern science’s knowledge of natural laws, Greek myths (as well as those of other ancient nations) asked what-if questions with the abandonment that can result only from the naiveté of the abysmally ignorant:
- What if a person (or maybe a demon) could assume whatever shape it chose, for as long as it chose to do so?
- What if a person were of gigantic size and had a single eye in the middle of his forehead?
- What if a creature were half-man and half-horse?What if a creature were half-woman and half-fish?
- What if a horse, having wings, could fly?
- What if men and women lived forever and could rule over various aspects of nature?
- What if one man had the strength of twenty men?
- What if women could fight as good as--no, better than--men?
- What if a woman had a baby after being raped by the devil?
- What if God mated with a mortal woman?
- What if a house were haunted by a vengeful ghost?
Horror fiction asks similar (or, indeed, on occasion, identical) questions, but with an emphasis on the horrific:
- What if a person (or maybe a demon) could assume whatever shape it chose, for as long as it chose to do so? (It)
- What if a demon could animate a corpse? (Dracula)
- What if the spirits of the dead exist in some shadowy manner and can interact with humans? (The Turn of the Screw)
- What if a scientist could cause a body constructed of parts from corpses to live again? (Frankenstein)
- What if a man could change into a wolf and back again into a man? (The Howling)
- What if a woman, raped by the devil, gave birth to a son? (Rosemary’s Baby)
- What if a child abuser, torched by his victims’ parents, returned as a vengeful bogeyman? (Nightmare on Elm Street) \
- What if an extraterrestrial female came to earth, seeking a mate? (Species)
- What if vampires came to a small town in modern America? (‘Salem’s Lot)
- What if a modern-day Cinderella with telekinetic powers had a terrible time at the ball? (Carrie)
- What if myths were based upon true incidents or creatures? (Dominion)
- What if the earth were invaded by a Martian military force (The War of the Worlds)
- What if a scientist tried to create an intelligent, hybrid human-animal species? (The Island of Dr. Moreau)
- What if a brain could survive inside a decapitated head on life-support? (The Brain That Wouldn’t Die)
- What if an extraterrestrial creature, trapped in a block of ice, were thawed out by a group of scientists operating an arctic research laboratory? (The Thing)
These and countless other what-if questions allow writers to envision a situation that is improbable or impossible in nature or because of moral concerns, carry out a thought experiment (writing or reading the resulting story), and see what happens. Different genres appeal to different concerns and respond to different issues:
- Adventure appeals to the desire to escape and to explore new worlds.
- Detective and mystery stories appeal to the desire to solve a puzzle and to see that justice is served.
- Fantasy appeals to the desire for experience wonder and awe.
- Horror appeals to the desire to survive against seemingly impossible odds and to endure great losses and suffering.
- Science fiction appeals to one’s innate curiosity about the world and the desire to discern the realities behind appearances.
- Romance appeals to the desire to meet and marry Mr. Right.
- Westerns appeal to the desire for law, order, and justice, especially for the underdog.
Each genre of fiction is apt to pose imaginary (and imaginative) situations that, peculiarly appropriate to their own purposes, allow writers and readers to “carry out an operation” and “see what happens” with regard to the genres’ own special interests and concerns. As much as the myths, legends, and folktales of yesteryear, contemporary fiction, including horror stories, remains a vast and complex series of never-ending thought experiments that can draw upon not only science and philosophy but also theology, art, and all other cultural realms and practical aspects of human existence.
Brown, James Robert. "Thought Experiments.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2007.