Top Ten Most Famous Thought Experiments

Thought experiments are mental concepts or hypotheses, often resembling riddles, which are used by philosophers and scientists as simple ways of illuminating what are usually very dense ideas. Most often, they’re used in more abstract fields like philosophy and theoretical physics, where physical experiments aren’t possible. They serve as some hearty food for thought, but given their complex subject matter, it’s not unusual for even the thought experiment itself to be nearly incomprehensible. With this in mind, here are ten of the most famous thought experiments, along with explanations of the philosophical, scientific, and ethical ideas they work to explain:

10. The Trolley Problem

One of the most well known thought experiments in the field of ethics is the “Trolley Problem,” which goes something like this: a madman has tied five innocent people to a trolley track. An out of control trolley car is careening toward them, and is moments away from running them over. Luckily, you can pull a lever and divert the trolley to another track. The only problem is that the madman has also tied a single person to that track. Considering the circumstances, should you pull the lever?

What it Means:

The trolley problem was first proposed by the philosopher Philippa Foot as a means of critiquing the major theories in ethical philosophy, in particular utilitarianism, the system which proposes that the most moral decision is always the one that provides “the greatest good for the greatest number.” From a utilitarian point of view, the obvious choice is to pull the lever, saving five and only killing one. But critics of this theory would state that in pulling the lever you become complicit in what is clearly an immoral act—you are now partially responsible for the death of the lone person on the other track. Others, meanwhile, argue that your mere presence in the situation demands that you act, and that to do nothing would be equally immoral. In short, there is no wholly moral action, and this is the point. Many philosophers have used the trolley problem as an example of the ways that real world situations often force individuals to compromise their own moral codes, and that there are times when there is no totally moral course of action.

9. The Cow in the Field

cow in the field

One of the major thought experiments in epistemology (the field of philosophy that deals with knowledge) is what is known as “The Cow in the Field.” It concerns a farmer who is worried his prize cow has wandered off. When the milkman comes to the farm, he tells the farmer not to worry, because he’s seen that the cow is in a nearby field. Though he’s nearly sure the man is right, the farmer takes a look for himself, sees the familiar black and white shape of his cow, and is satisfied that he knows the cow is there. Later on, the milkman drops by the field to double-check. The cow is indeed there, but it’s hidden in a grove of trees. There is also a large sheet of black and white paper caught in a tree, and it is obvious that the farmer mistook it for his cow. The question, then: even though the cow was in the field, was the farmer correct when he said he knew it was there?

What it Means:

The Cow in the Field was first used by Edmund Gettier as a criticism of the popular definition of knowledge as “justified true belief”—that is, that something becomes knowledge when a person believes it; it is factually true; and they have a verifiable justification for their belief. In the experiment, the farmer’s belief that the cow was there was justified by the testimony of the milkman and his own verification of a black and white object sitting in the field. It also happened to be true, as the milkman later confirmed. But despite all this, the farmer did not truly know the cow was there, because his reasoning for believing it turned out to be based on false premises. Gettier used this experiment, along with a few other examples, as proof of his argument that the definition of knowledge as justified true belief needed to be amended.

8. The Ticking Time Bomb

If you’ve paid any attention to political discourse over the past few years—or ever seen an action movie, for that matter—then you are no doubt familiar with the “ticking time bomb” thought experiment. It asks you to imagine that a bomb or other weapon of mass destruction is hidden in your city, and the timer on it will soon strike zero. You have in your custody a man with knowledge of where the device is planted. Do you resort to torture in order to get him to give up the information?

What it Means:

Like the trolley problem, the ticking time bomb scenario is an ethical problem that forces one to choose between two morally questionable acts. It is most often employed as a counter argument to those who say the use of torture is inexcusable under any circumstances. It’s also used as an example of the way laws—like those the U.S. has against torturing prisoners—will always be set aside given extreme circumstances. Thanks to its fictionalized use in television shows like 24, along with its constant position in political debates, the ticking time bomb scenario has become one of the most frequently repeated thought experiments. An even more extreme take on the problem was presented in a British news article earlier this year. That version proposes that the terrorist in question won’t respond to torture, and asks if one would be willing to resort to torturing the man’s wife and children as a means of extracting the information from him.

7. Einstein’s Light Beam

It’s a little known fact that Albert Einstein’s famous work on special relativity was spurred by a thought experiment he conducted when he was only 16 years old. In his book Autobiographical Notes, Einstein recalls how he once daydreamed about chasing a beam of light as it traveled through space. He reasoned that if he were able to move next to it at the speed of light, he should be able to observe the light frozen in space as “an electromagnetic field at rest though spatially oscillating.” For Einstein, this thought experiment proved that for his imaginary observer “everything would have to happen according to the same laws as for an observer who, relative to the Earth, was at rest.”

What it Means:

In truth, no one really knows for sure. Scientists have long debated how this deceivingly simple thought experiment helped Einstein make the massive theoretical leap required to arrive at special relativity theory. At the time, the ideas in the experiment contradicted the now-debunked belief in the “aether,” an invisible field through which light was believed to travel. It would be years before he could prove he was right, but this thought experiment was somehow the “germ,” as he called it, for Einstein’s theory of special relativity, one of the ideas that first established him as a towering figure in theoretical physics.

6. The Ship of Theseus

One of the oldest of all thought experiments is the paradox known as the Ship of Theseus, which originated in the writings of Plutarch. It describes a ship that remained seaworthy for hundreds of years thanks to constant repairs and replacement parts. As soon as one plank became old and rotted, it would be replaced, and so on until every working part of the ship was no longer original to it. The question is whether this end product is still the same Ship of Theseus, or something completely new and different. If it’s not, at what point did it stop being the same ship? The Philosopher Thomas Hobbes would later take the problem even further: if one were to take all the old parts removed from the Ship of Theseus and build a new ship from them, then which of the two vessels is the real Ship of Theseus?

What it Means:

For philosophers, the story of the Ship of Theseus is used as a means of exploring the nature of identity, specifically the question of whether objects are more than just the sum of their parts. A more modern example would be a band that had evolved over the years to the point that few or no original members remained in the lineup. This notion is also applicable to everything from businesses, which might retain the same name despite mergers and changes in leadership, to the human body, which is constantly regenerating and rebuilding itself. At its heart, the experiment forces one to question the commonly held idea that identity is solely contained in physical objects and phenomena.

5. Galileo’s Gravity Experiment

One of the earliest thought experiments originated with the physicist and astronomer Galileo. In order to refute Aristotle’s claim that the speed of a falling object is dictated by its mass, Galileo devised a simple mental example: According to Aristotelian logic, if a light object and a heavy object were tied together and dropped off a tower, then the heavier object would fall faster, and the rope between the two would become taut. This would allow the lighter object to create drag and slow the heavy one down. But Galileo reasoned that once this occurs, the weight of the two objects together should be heavier than the weight of either one by itself, therefore making the system as a whole fall faster. That this is a contradiction proved that Aristotle’s hypothesis was wrong.

What it Means:

One of the most famous stories about Galileo is that he once dropped two metal balls off the Leaning Tower of Pisa to prove that heavier objects do not fall faster than lighter ones. In actuality, this story is probably just a legend; instead, it was this elegant thought experiment that helped prove a very important theory about gravity: no matter their mass, all objects fall at the same rate of speed.

4. Monkeys and Typewriters

Another thought experiment that gets a lot of play in popular culture is what is known as the “infinite monkey theorem.” Also known as the “monkeys and typewriters” experiment, the theorem states that if an infinite number of monkeys were allowed to randomly hit keys on an infinite number of typewriters for an infinite amount of time, then at some point they would “almost surely” produce the complete works of Shakespeare. The monkeys and typewriters idea was popularized in the early 20th century by the French mathematician Emile Borel, but its basic idea—that infinite agents and infinite time will randomly produce anything and everything—dates back to Aristotle.

What it Means:

Simply put, the “monkeys and typewriters” theorem is one of the best ways to illustrate the nature of infinity. The human mind has a difficult time imagining a universe with no end or time that will never cease, and the infinite monkeys help to illustrate the sheer breadth of possibilities these concepts create. The idea that a monkey could write Hamlet by accident seems counterintuitive, but in fact it is mathematically provable when one considers the probabilities. The theorem itself is impossible to recreate in the real world, but that hasn’t stopped some from trying: In 2003, science students at a zoo in the U.K. “tested” the infinite monkey theorem when they put a computer and a keyboard in a primate enclosure. Unfortunately, the monkeys never got around to composing any sonnets. According to researchers, all they managed to produce was five pages consisting almost entirely of the letter “s.”

3. The Chinese Room

The Chinese Room is a famous thought experiment first proposed in the early 1980s by John Searle, a prominent American philosopher. The experiment asks you to imagine that an English speaking man has been placed in a room that is entirely sealed, save for a small mail slot in the chamber door. He has with him a hard copy in English of a computer program that translates the Chinese language. He also has plenty of spare scratch paper, pencils, and file cabinets. Pieces of paper containing Chinese characters are then slipped through the slot in the door. According to Searle, the man should be able to use his book to translate them and then send back his own response in Chinese. Although he doesn’t speak a word of the language, Searle argues that through this process the man in the room could convince anyone on the outside that he was a fluent speaker of Chinese.

What it Means:

Searle conceived the Chinese Room thought experiment in order to refute the argument that computers and other artificial intelligences could actually think and understand. The man in the room does not speak Chinese; he can’t think in the language. But because he has certain tools at his disposal, he would be able convince even a native speaker that he was fluent in it. According to Searle, computers do the same thing. They don’t ever truly understand the information they’re given, but they can run a program, access information, and give a clear impression of human intelligence.

2. Schrodinger’s Cat

Schrödinger’s Cat is a paradox relating to quantum mechanics that was first proposed by the physicist Erwin Schrödinger. It concerns a cat that is sealed inside a box for one hour along with a radioactive element and a vial of deadly poison. There is a 50/50 chance that the radioactive element will decay over the course of the hour. If it does, then a hammer connected to a Geiger counter will trigger, break the vial, release the poison, and kill the cat. Since there is an equal chance that this will or will not happen, Schrödinger argued that before the box is opened the cat is simultaneously both alive and dead.

What it Means:

In short, the point of the experiment is that because there is no one around to witness what had occurred, the cat existed in all of its possible states (in this case either alive or dead) simultaneously. This notion is similar to the old “if a tree falls in the woods and there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?” riddle. Schrödinger originally conceived of his theoretical cat in response to an article that discussed the nature of quantum superpositions, a theory that defines all the possible states in which an object can exist. Schrödinger’s Cat also helped to illustrate just how weird the rules of quantum mechanics really were. The thought experiment is notorious for its complexity, which has encouraged a wide variety of interpretations. One of the most bizarre is the “many worlds” hypothesis, which states that the cat is both alive and dead, and that both cats exist in different universes that will never overlap with one another.

1. Brain in a Vat

brain in a vat 387x400

There has been no more influential thought experiment than the so-called “brain in a vat” hypothesis, which has permeated everything from cognitive science and philosophy to popular culture. The experiment asks you to imagine a mad scientist has taken your brain from your body and placed it in a vat of some kind of life sustaining fluid. Electrodes have been connected to your brain, and these are connected to a computer that generates images and sensations. Since all your information about the world is filtered through the brain, this computer would have the ability to simulate your everyday experience. If this were indeed possible, how could you ever truly prove that the world around you was real, and not just a simulation generated by a computer?

What it Means:

If you’re thinking this all sounds a bit like The Matrix, you’re right. That film, along with several other sci-fi stories and movies, was heavily influenced by the brain in a vat thought experiment. At its heart, the exercise asks you to question the nature of experience, and to consider what it really means to be human. The idea for the experiment, which was popularized by Hilary Putnam, dates all the way back to the 17th century philosopher Rene Descartes. In his Meditations on the First Philosophy, Descartes questioned whether he could ever truly prove that all his sensations were really his own, and not just an illusion caused by an “evil daemon.” Descartes accounted for this problem with his classic maxim “cogito ergo sum” (“I think therefore I am”). Unfortunately, the brain in a vat experiment complicates this argument, too, since a brain connected to electrodes could still think. The brain in a vat experiment has been widely discussed among philosophers, and many objections have been raised over its premise, but there is still no good rebuttal to its central question: how do you ever truly know what is real?

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