James Wilson has an article up at Aeon, looking at the trolley problem and other ethical and philosophical thought experiments. One of the things he discusses is the notion that many philosophers have, along with many fans of particular thought experiments, that they’re sort of like a scientific experiment. It’s not that unusual for someone philosophically inclined to tell me that X is true, and cite a thought experiment as evidence.
Many of you already know that I have serious issues with this view of thought experiments. I don’t think a philosophical thought experiment tells us anything about the external world or reality overall, and the notion that they do is fairly pernicious. It gives people misplaced confidence in a notion based on nothing but a concurring opinion from the author of the thought experiment.
In many ways, thought experiments demonstrate the power of narrative. If you want to sell people on an idea, tell them a story where the idea is true. A thought experiment does this. The most memorable ones can even have characters with names in them. Would Mary’s Room or the Euthyphro Delimma have the same punch if the key players weren’t named?
Now, some may make a comparison with all the Alice and Bob type descriptions used in physics. But these narratives are almost always used in a pedagogical fashion, to get across a concept that has already been worked out mathematically, and may have empirical evidence backing it up. In these cases, the narrative isn’t itself the main argument, it’s just a vehicle to get a concept across in a non-technical fashion.
There have been famous thought experiments in science that were used as arguments. Schrödinger’s Cat comes to mind. It’s original use was meant as a reductio absurdum, similar to Einstein’s “spooky action at a distance” argument. But reality turned out to be absurd.
Anyway, philosophical thought experiments typically only have their narrative. Does that mean they’re useless? I don’t think so. But we should understand their limitations. All they can do, really, is clarify people’s existing intuitions. That can be pretty useful, fulfilling the role of what Daniel Dennett calls “intuition pumps.” But that’s basically it.
So an ethical thought experiment may tell us about people’s ethical intuitions (although even here, check out Wilson’s piece for many of the issues), but they don’t fundamentally tell us what those ethics should be. Likewise the Chinese Room, Mary’s Room, or philosophical zombies, don’t tell us anything about their subject matter. They only flush out people’s intuitions about those subjects.
Unless of course I’m missing something.