Thursday, 8 December 2011

Thought Experiments

Back in the day when I was a boy philosopher the only thought experiment you might encounter was Locke's soul swap of the cobbler and the prince as a way of promoting the idea that what made you uniquely you were your memories, attitudes, abilities etc and not this all too solid flesh.

In eastern lore Shankara is supposed to have been debating a woman on the kama sutra but being a celibate was at a disadvantage so he arranged a soul swap with a multiwived nabob using his yogic powers. The wives noticing the increased interest of their jaded spouse suspected that this was the result of sorcery or yogic mischief. 'Look' they said, 'for a sadhu in trance and despatch him leaving him trapped in the body of the rampant rajah'. Shankara got back and reanimated his usual form in time to triumph in debate over the saucy housewife.

The moral of these stories is that fables do not function as 'intuition pumps' but merely serve to reflect underlying dogmas. Worse than that, they conceal this dogma by adding the spurious persuasiveness of the factitious. There is something in a story which disables the critical faculties and allows us to accept time travel, buttons which pause time, the salvific properties of obese folk and the like.

Instead of thought experiments let's try thinking.

2 comments:

ktismatics said...

I'm curious about how you view not just philosophical thought experiments but any sort of fiction. From Parmenides in your prior post:

"But that which I can think of and can speak of can be, "for it is the same thing that can be thought and can be". But if "It" can be then it is."

If, in a thought experiment, I can think time travel, then time travel "is"? If it "is" only inside of the experimental thoughtspace, is that good enough to regard it as real? Or is the factitious, that which is the product of human imagination, by definition unreal and therefore a sham and an illusion? Or are you mostly concerned about overextending metaphors from the fictional to the nonfictional realm, as if time travel had some parallel in the material world?

ombhurbhuva said...

The philosophical point that I was making was that potentiality is the energy in events. If you have clay with its properties and man with his properties you will have vessels. I am speaking from the point of view of Parmenides and Ishvarakrishna. They however go a little further and add that potentiality 'is' now because only what is can act or come to be. It is interesting that while this paradox was dissolved by Plato and Aristotle, it continued to be maintained by Advaitins. I would hold that there is a difference between what is potential and what is conceivable. The former is linked to actual properties, the latter is untethered.

To imaginatively insert yourself into a world is the lure of ontology and fiction. What can be, is, but at the same time truth continues to be stranger than fiction and we will readily accept in fact what we would repudiate in fiction. The sort of event and its frequency determines the outcomes that we will encounter. Being a president or the ruler of Thebes moves one from the scale of what can happen to the domain of the archetypal. It is not acceptable that a president can be killed by a single individual, that event requires chthonic forces. Obviously the underworld is involved.

You couldn't make it up or It could only happen in America or Ireland or somewhere else. This is not said in England as the 3rd. law of unflappabilitity forbids. That allows for anomalies like the Bensons q.v. being subsumed under the Anglican Lunatics Act of 1842

Now as to whether thought experiments are useful in philosophy my feeling is that the nearer they come to possible events the more useful they are. Science fiction seems pointless and Jane Austen scenarios ethically coherent and worth discussing. T.E's are a current fad. This too will pass.