02.113TS The Laboratory of the Mind

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The chasm between the humanities and the sciences that C.P. Snow documented in The Two Cultures might be bridged by considering a technique shared by humanists and scientists: the thought experiment. Reasoning from imaginary cases is common to almost every field of human inquiry. Some scientists are every bit as imaginative as poets; and some poets construct arguments as rigorous and exacting as those produced by a geometer. More puzzling than the fact that poets, physicists and lawyers are united in using thought experiments is the fundamental challenge of thought experimentation generally. As one historian puts it, it is “surprising that thinking about what there isn’t and how things aren’t should help us to learn about what there is and how things are.”

Plato’s story of the Ring of Gyges, which grants invisibility to its wearer, aims to instruct us about the nature of morality. Einstein reasons from examples about moving trains to argue about the relativity of simultaneity. Parfit imagines various tele-transportation scenarios to ask questions about the necessary conditions for the persistence of human identity over time. Any number of legal and ethical theorists have substantiated their arguments by asking variations of questions about fat guys and bridges, children and trolley lines. Whatever status one grants to particular thought experiments and to the cogency of the technique in general, the philosopher, the physicist, and the legal theorist all concur in employing the devices of fiction as an integral part of their reasoning.

Accordingly, this course studies the art of fiction in itself while also examining the history, role, and structure of a range of significant thought experiments in philosophy, physics, mathematics, and artificial intelligence. We will look at how imaginary cases structure investigations of the world; how the devices of fiction can be said to reveal fact; and how thought experiments work rhetorically and are regarded in disparate disciplines.

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Michael Reid