A thought experiments is a procedure of the imagination used to investigate the nature of things. Thought experiments consist of the use of hypothetical examples and counterexamples to prove or refute philosophical analyses or theories.
When contemplating imaginative suppositions, thought experiments are used to consider variations of an existing thinking or a line of reasoning. To use a thought experiment is to reason about an imagined scenario with the intention of confirming or disconfirming some hypothesis or theory.
The most interesting thought experiments are those which not only refute an existing theory but also suggest a new one which they lend rational support.
Thought experiments are employed to consider the implications of theories and to investigate the boundaries of concepts. They are well-structured exercises of the imagination in which test cases are envisioned with a view to establishing their conceptual coherence or their compatibility with some proposed theory.
Some academics passionately oppose the theoretical use of thought experiments as substituting imaginativeness for reality, but since philosophical argument is often concerned to ascertain exactly what is possible, it is hard to see how philosophy could do without thought experiments altogether.
The most famous examples of the use of thought experiments are,
- Galileo’s experiment on falling bodies
- Newton’s thought experiments that aimed to show the existence of absolute space
- Albert Einstein, Boris Podolsky, and Nathan Rosen‘s objection to the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics
- John Searle’s Chinese Room thought experiment
- Frank Jackson’s Knowledge argument
- Hilary Putnam’s Twin Earth thought experiment
For further reading, see “Thought Experiments in Science and Philosophy” by Melanie Frappier, Letitia Meynell, James Robert Brown or “Thought Experiments” by R. A. Sorensen or other books on the use of throught processes.