Thought Experiments & Assumptions
Updated: Jul 23, 2021
Can applying thought experiments to our own lives free us from the assumptions that limit us?
"Stop there! Your theory is confined to that which is seen; it takes no account of that which is not seen." — Bastiat
Imagine you are standing atop a hill in a tree-filled park, alone, in a landscape that looks—at present—devoid of human activity… And then, you pull out your cellphone. Suddenly, you are no longer in a tree-filled park; suddenly, you are no longer alone and your head is abuzz with human activity not just from one locality, but—with a mere swipe of the finger—potentially hundreds.
You will have just accomplished a feat that was not possible not too long ago. Each of the increments of this feat once seemed impossible, after all, and yet the accumulation of each one resulted in a materialization of the grandly fantastical, relegated now to the utterly mundane.
Now imagine now that you are standing in the same park, and instead of communicating with another individual in a geographical space, you could pull a device from your pocket and send a message to the war general or the inventor (or the person standing alone in a park) who stood there in a different time. What makes one more fantastical an idea than the other? Is it simply that the empirical rules we have as yet discovered have created the increments, the building blocks, to realize one and not the other? And if it is impossible, why? What is 100% true about the world that makes it such that this could never happen?
This illustrates the age-old idea of the thought experiment, codified in many ways over time in fields of science, philosophy, religion, politics and social theory. Thought experiments are useful for more than science fiction and for more than discovery and application of new ideas (though they are incredibly useful for this). We learn as much from what is not possible as from what is.
Thought experiments can help us separate the assumptions we make about ourselves, our lives, and other people from what we can determine to be absolutely true. In doing so, we can peel away layers of our own individual worlds like an onion, stepping into ever more raw realities that don’t leave us stuck in assumptions that we have been fed but that unnecessarily govern our lives.
So what, exactly, is a thought experiment? And how does one conduct one?
It is important to separate a thought experiment from the idea of pure imaginative play, as I discussed at length in earlier newsletters. Though both call upon many of the same components, the thoughts follow almost reverse patterns and might illuminate different things. Many thought experiments, like the scientific method, begin with very concrete empirical data, rather than fancy, and then move into fancy by stripping away assumptions.
For scientists throughout history, thought experiments have helped conduct experiments beyond what was possible in real-world conditions of the laboratory. It has allowed architects to envision buildings beyond the constraints of budgets. It has allowed social and political experiments that can be modeled or played out allegorically without toppling world systems through potentially messy trial and error. Essentially, thought experiments require a close analysis of what you know and the imposition of a set of conditions that are based in reality but arranged differently than one might expect.
This month, I encourage you to set aside some time to sit down, with a pen and paper, and perform thought experiments that apply to your own life. Remember, the important takeaway is what you learn from asking the questions, not whether your thought experiments arrive at definitive answers.
YOUR TASK FOR THIS MONTH (...should you choose to accept it)
Questions to guide your thought experiments:
If one seemingly impossible event occurs—all other things remaining equal—what would be the chain of results? (What if our pets could speak to us in human language?)
Thinking back to a moment when one of two things actually happened, imagine how life would have played out if the other thing had happened. (If I had taken a different train, who might I have met? If a different country had one this war, what would my country look like?)
Building on the previous question, if the second option indeed had happened, would any of the consequences have turned out the same anyway? Thus, are there some events that would happen regardless of what choice was made in a particular moment? (If I had made that basket, would the other team have still won the game?)
Look at models of past predictions. In what ways did reality deviate from these models, and what assumptions were responsible for this deviation? (For example, what are the ramifications of the invention of the computer? Is this what the inventors envisioned?) If you create the time to do any of these experiments, I would love to chat with you about your experience. Please send me a note! I'd love to help you push the boundaries of what's possible in your mind and to journey with you.
CONSTRAINTS TO ABUNDANCE
Instead of beginning with a goal and a dream of what might be possible, make a list of what seem to currently be the constraints to accomplishing a project (it is fine if you don’t know what the project is yet). Is it time? Money? People? Now, examine each constraint and imagine that it is no longer a constraint, but rather that you possess the desired aspect in great abundance. What does that open up for you? What would be possible if you worked from a place where your beliefs about constraints became pools of abundance for you to build something awe-inspiring? Once you complete the first round, notice what new constraints appear after your first draft emerges. Turn those constraints into places of abundance and iterate from there.
CONSTRUCTING A NEW SOCIETY
How do you think society should be structured? Go buy few different newspapers and cut out—indiscriminately—different lines from different articles. It is most effective if this involves news from (arguably) vastly different realms: five completely disparate countries, for example, or the subjects of science and art. Now, put these facts/ideas together and create a cohesive reality out of them (for they are all realities, purportedly, somewhere). What do you find is possible, and does it say anything about changes that might be made to improve your own society? Does it give you compassion for others in ways you hadn't yet considered?
YOUR EMOTIONS ON TRIAL
In a technique derived from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, essentially take your negative self-thoughts to court. Create a full prosecution and a defense of this negative impression, supporting both sides with evidence. Then, ask a jury of yourself to judge which side the evidence truly supports. Often, this will help you realize that your negative thought is based on a string of assumptions and may not be as difficult to shake as it once was.
FAMOUS THOUGHT EXPERIMENTS
Thought experiments (lovingly termed "gedankenexperiments" by Hans Christian Orsted in 1812) are credited with some of our most hallowed achievements in physics—Galileo's falling-bodies experiments, Einstein's theories of general and special relativity, Schrodinger and his sometimes-existent cat... Their domain is not relegated to this one very particular branch of science, however, nor was their inception likely any later than the inception of rational thought and imagination itself.
In fact, thought experiments have spanned innumerable strains of thoughts from ancient societies to modern models. Let’s take a few pivotal (but perhaps lesser-known) ones as food for thought:
“Turtles all the way down”
In 1988, Stephen Hawking relayed the fallacy laid bare by the idea that “It’s turtles all the way down!” This is based on a mythological idea that there is a World Turtle beneath a flat earth, and it is upon this turtle’s back that we all go about our lives. Beneath this turtle, however, theories posit that there is another slightly larger turtle. And beneath that, another even larger one. Turtles, all the way down… Via the concept of these turtles, Hawking warns scientists not to base one unproven theory on another, lest we one day find that our entire basis of reality is perched upon a tower of turtles.
Choose your own adventure
In 1971, John Rawls proposed a fascinating social experiment in A Theory of Justice. A group of people is taken to a yet-uninhabited country and told that they can create the rules of a fair society. They have the leeway to decide absolutely everything: economic structures, governments, etc. There is one catch: when they enter this society, they will have no control over things like their race, religion, class level, physical appearance, money, or gender. With this experiment, Rawls probes an important question about social justice: Would knowing you can end up in any position in society encourage you to create a more equal one?
Beetle in a box
The philosopher Wittgenstein proposed an interesting experiment involving a beetle in a box. It goes like this: Everyone gets their own closed box with their own beetle inside of it. You can look at your own beetle but will never get a glance at anyone else’s. People can, however, explain the nature of their beetles to other people through language, and you will simply have to form your understanding of their beetles based on what you are told. Wittgenstein, in this experiment, prods us to understand something about sympathy and empathy. Everyone is told they have a “beetle,” and they describe their “beetle” to others, but if you never see anyone else’s, do you really know if what is in your box is the same as theirs? Are some boxes simply empty and you were told that is what “beetle” means? Do some have apples? Do others have books? Do some have what we think of as beetles? Wittgenstein leads us to wonder, with this experiment, whether using the same words to describe something really creates an understanding of someone else’s life given that the only life you can truly experience is your own. What pain can we then feel for others? What right to judgment?
The issue of Grayscale Mary comes to us from a thought experiment by Frank Jackson in 1982. Mary lives in a confined room that is entirely rendered in black and white. In fact, she has never seen color with her own eyes, but she has access to all the information about it that she can possibly read. She knows, essentially, everything there can be to know from any angle about this thing we know as “color.” Then, suddenly, there is a glitch in the system and a color red flashes. We must now ask ourselves a question: Does she now know something about color that surpasses the knowledge she already had? What is the knowledge gained by experience that can never be conveyed through information?
What if... Thought Collections in Philosophy by Peg Tittle Learn To Think Using Thought Experiments: How to Expand Your Mental Horizons, Understand Metacognition, Improve Your Curiosity, and Think Like a Philosopher by Patrick King
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