AT a recent meeting Salisbury Democracy Café a thought experiment was proposed in order to discuss the question of transhumanism. So it might be fruitful and, perhaps, amusing to explore this philosophical device and some of the occasionally exotic examples.
So what, exactly, is a thought experiment? Basically it is an imaginary scenario designed to clarify an issue. One might say that it is similar to a laboratory experiment in that it attempts to remove variables in order to get to the heart of the matter.
Some of these thought experiments can seem ludicrous and once such is the ‘famous violinist’ devised by the philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson, which is intended to be part of her defence of abortion. In this situation we are asked to imagine that we have been kidnapped and attached to a famous violinist with a fatal kidney problem, whose survival depends on his staying attached to our circulatory system. Thomson hopes that we will agree that the violinist, no matter how important he is, doesn’t have the right to be plugged into our body and that we would be justified in unplugging him. This particular thought experiment is in response to anti-abortionists who argue that a foetus is a person from the moment of conception.
Another far-fetched thought experiment is one dreamt up by the American philosopher Robert Nozick, and referenced in another article on this blog called What’s it like to be a vampire? which itself is a kind of thought experiment, in which he asks us to imagine that we have the chance to be plugged into a machine that will guarantee us a life that is much more pleasant than our current real life. The twist is that, once we have made the decision, we cannot change our mind. In this situation Nozick hopes that we would not choose to be plugged into the machine, thus demonstrating that there is more to life than pleasure. Neither of these scenarios are feasible, although it is possible to imagine that at some time a virtual reality machine might be available to approximate the hedonist experiment. But their plausibility is not the point – their aim is to elucidate a desired response or to clarify a position that can be distracted by side issues.
Another thought experiment is the famous trolley bus. In this situation we imagine a trolley bus that, if it carries on the main track, will kill five people. Fortunately, there is a side track, which will mean that, if the trolley driver decides to take it, only one person will die. What should he do? This thought experiment is used to elicit all sorts of moral reactions and there are seemingly endless variations on the basic model.
So, there you have it. Thought experiments can be useful to help clear the mind and clarify ones position – at the same time they can seem to be so contrived as to have little real-world value. What do you think?