Thought experiments & knowledge

Fiction as Method

arguing for an alternative route

Can thought experiments produce new knowledge? In their debate, ‘Do thought experiments transcend empiricism?’1 Norton and Brown each take up opposing positions. In my view, both overlook a viable third position in considering the role that thought experiments can play in gaining knowledge. In this short paper I want to argue for an alternative way to approach thought experiments.

According to Norton, a thought experiment is a direct expression of what the executor already knows about the world in the form of several premise, followed with a conclusion. He argues that new empirical knowledge is not possible without proof of an empirical experiment. Thought experiments are therefore always deducible to  the same structure as arguments have. On the other hand, Brown argues the epistemic value of thought experiments, as they possess the power to reveal a priori knowledge.

In my opinion, reducing thought experiments to mere arguments – even when paraphrased as ‘guided contemplations’2 — disregards the value of thought experiments in the process of gaining knowledge. On the other hand, I also reject the position of Brown; thinking of thought experiments as mystical portals to the Platonic world. Instead, I want to endorse the position of Letitea Meynell. According to Meynell, it is not the truth validation of thought experiments which matter; but how they are created and what function they fulfil.3

The how and why on thought experiments

Meynell describes her understanding of thought experiments as follows: “The best way to understand the content of thought experiments is to treat them as props for imagining fictional worlds.”4 She approaches thought experiments primarily as aesthetic objects, and in particular as concomitant to fictional worlds. A fictional world is a world of play; a pretend game, set up with associated rules obtained through so called ‘Principles of generation’.5 Principles of generation vary between conventions, psychological aspects, cognitive tendencies and limitations, background beliefs and aliefs 6 (associative linked content). Due to the use of these principles, thought experiments offer us insight about the structures of the world we live in.

A fictional world may contain both fictional truths as well as actual facts which are closely linked to the real world.7 By investigating how the fictional worlds of thought experiments come about, we can determine their content and assess the epistemic function of these experiments.

With this approach, Meynell takes into account our cognitive states and the ways in which we view the world. Her theory can provide insights into our motivations for the use of thought experiments  and how our thinking can unravel the natural world.  why we do use thought experiments and how our thinking can unravel the natural world.  Norton and Brown consider these important subjects only superficially.

As mentioned before, Norton argues that it is impossible to gain new empirical knowledge without the use of an empirical experiment. He therefore concludes that thought experiments are always deducible as an argument. I agree that thought experiments require empirical input somewhere along the process,8however, I contend the idea that because you can track down thought experiments as arguments they are arguments. I think Norton takes to little account on our thinking process, on how thought experiments give us insight our epistemic intuitions and maybe a too strict notion of the ways in which we can acquire knowledge about the world.

Fiction as the center of the world

If we embrace Meynell’s theory of thought experiments as props for imagining a fictional world, we could see fiction deployed as a method. As such, thought experiments function as pre-scientific concepts and intuitions that propose remote possibilities within a fictional world, 9 whilst simultaneously incorporating a network of existing scientific concepts and theories.

In considering the significance of fiction as method, in which “the objectively untrue is brought into operation within the everyday,”10a nice example is just around the corner. Due to the comfort of technology, our navigation skills are on the decline — it is likely that you make use of a GPS system to manoeuvre yourself from A to B.

Well, the point to which your GPS system is fixed is called Null Island. Null Island isn’t a place that one can visit, nor can see, because it is located at ‘zero-zero’; zero degrees latitude and zero degrees longitude. Null Island is a fictional locus from which our computers are able to determine our actual location. Through the use of empirically obtained data, a fictional world is created which we employ to navigate in real life.11 Fiction as the center of our world.

The end of the road

Fictional worlds are the perfect place for thought experiments to manifest; just like game playing, they are intersubjective and accessible. Within these fictional worlds, thought experiments translate abstract concepts into familiar situations, thereby exposing the structures of our thinking.  Above all, thought experiments are able to make our epistemic intuitions conscious. Therefore they are not only giving us insight about our thinking process, but also generate insight and knowledge of the real world. In extend I’m wondering about the possibilities of art and film and would love to research thought experiments as aesthetic objects even more. My conclusion is that thought experiments encompass more than linguistically illustrated arguments, and that using fiction as method is a valuable alternative, ushering perhaps a bumpy but nonetheless very interesting road for further exploration.