Use of Thought Experiments

What is a thought experiment?

The term “thought experiment” got its significance in connection with the genius of last century – Albert Einstein.  Recently with the empirical evidence supporting the gravitational waves, there has been much wonder placed on how Einstein over a century ago, could use thought experiment to devise the theoretical basis for gravitation.

“A thought experiment is a device with which one performs an intentional, structured process of intellectual deliberation in order to speculate, within a specifiable problem domain, about potential consequents (or antecedents) for a designated antecedent (or consequent)” (Yeates, 2004, p. 150).

For mere morals like me – it is dreaming.   It is how Einstein conceptualized a problem and then solved it.  In the domain of theoretical work there are not many options to set experiments to prove things empirically.  So how is this different from inductive reasoning?  Maybe not.  It does involve coming up with a guess and then using the known methods and theorems and theories and facts – try to prove or disprove the guess.  Experts have written volumes on what is a thought experiment and the philosophical basis.  As far as my mind goes – it is simply asking “what if”

A related question is what do you have to believe {y} to be for {x} to be true?  This is a powerful way to frame the inquiry rather than asking what will {x} be? This roots into the distinction of the ends versus the means.  A rational and scientific inquiry cannot deal with what the end should be in isolation. For example, what the company should do?  What its goals should be?  That is purely driven by one’s aspirations. Aspirations and goals are based on one’s values and that where lies the rub. Scientific inquiry cannot address one’s values. Therefore, science is limited here.  What science can do is to logically show what means are workable versus others. So to frame a question as what would one assume for a given end, it is a manageable examination. So the next time if the question is should we double our revenue in 2 years, the way to deal is not to argue on whether you can or cannot. But shift it to – what you have to believe has to happen to double the revenues in 2 years.

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