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MIND AS LABORATORY / Patrick Huyghe YOU ARE AN ALIEN. You have detected some motion at one spot on the planet Earth (it's the New York metropolitan area). The motions at first appear to be chaotic. At the highest resolution, you detect entities that are rectangular in shape (automobUes). You begin analyzing the vectors and velocities of the entities. There is a terrific data rate. What does your analysis reveal? First you notice a perfect diurnal rhythm—motion in during the morning, motion out at night. A broader scale analysis also reveals alternating five and two day cycles. You notice mating behaviors (car wrecks), and unexplained extreme events (traffic jams). When you focus in on individual entities, you find almost without exception that each entity performs some forward motion, then stops, does a little twiddle, and eventually goes off in another direction. These behaviors appear to be independent of temperature and all other environmental factors. The individual actions are unpredictable. These entities, you conclude, are alive. The experiment is complete. You have just designated automobiles living things, though you are well aware that they are not. The contradiction is significant. If you are Mick Pleass, a senior researcher in the College of Marine Studies at the University of Delaware who conceived this "thought experiment," you will be very cautious in drawing conclusions regarding the behavior of the marine microorganisms you have been observing. Their diurnal rhythms, alternating cycles, mating behaviors, and stop-twiddle-and-turn motions may not be quite what they seem. The thought experiment has pointed out a flaw in your reasoning and taught you a lesson in the process: different ways of viewing a subject can lead to different conclusions. But what concerns us here is not Pleass, really, or microorganisms, or an appropriate definition for Ufe for that matter, but thought experiments themselves. Taken literally, a thought experiment is nothing more or less than an experiment that you do in your head. It requires no test tubes, telescopes, or thermometers, no computers, calipers, or condensers, no magnets, microscopes or other machines. AU that's needed is that two-pound mass of ten bUlion neurons known as the brain. It's the mind as laboratory. And as such, it may be the greatest unsung tool of science, even greater than the paper napkin or back of the envelope at the lunch table. Now its day may have come. That's not to say that television has The Missouri Review · 45 dramatized the process in a thrilUng, fourteen-hour mini-series, nor has there been a ticker-tape parade in New York to celebrate its foremost practitioners. Recognition came somewhat quietly in 1986 in the form of a three-day workshop devoted exclusively to the subject and sponsored by the Center for Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh. That may not seem like much, but it was probably the first time in history that thought experiments have been examined as a topic in their own right. "As far as I know," says Gerald Massey, the professor of phUosophy at the University of Pittsburgh whose idea the workshop was, "no one has tackled the topic head on before now." It's about time too. People have been doing them for at least 2,500 years. The Greek nature phUosopher Heraditus of Ephesus was a dedicated practioner of thought experiments. So, later on, was GalUeo, though most people still think thathis mostfamous experiment, dropping those objects from the Tower of Pisa, was an actual physical experiment. More recently, Einstein's facUity with this technique made him famous in his own time. And now, the Pittsburgh workshop has revealed that many scientists in many fields still sometime forego the laboratory method in favor of thought experiments . Shocking? Not really, as science, after all, is a way of thought, not merely a body of knowledge, and thought experiments are a part of its rich panoply of methods. It's just that you don't hear about them very often. The method didn't even have a name until Ernest Mach, the nineteenth-century Austrian physicist, came along and baptized the genre, calUng them "thought experiments" orgedankenexperimenten. He liked them because...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
pp. 45-56
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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