March 28:  Thought Experiment Day

Today is the birthday of Daniel C. Dennett, American philosopher, writer, and cognitive scientist, who was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1942.

Dennett wearing a button-up shirt and a jacketIn 2013, Dennett published his book Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking.  Dennett begins his book by acknowledging that thinking is hard work.  But just as a shovel makes it easier and more efficient for us to dig a ditch, thinking tools make cognition easier and more efficient.  

One specific category of thinking tools used frequently by philosophers is thought experiments.  Dennett calls them intuition pumps (a term he coined in 1980), the philosophical equivalent of Aesop’s fables.  These thought experiments present vivid vignettes, hypothetical situations that allow thinkers to explore and examine ideas.  Like parables, thought experiments are micro-narratives, making ideas more practical and easy to remember (1).

One ancient thought experiment comes from Plato’s The Republic:  

The Allegory of the Cave

Imagine three prisoners who have been chained in a cave their entire lives.  They are chained in such a way that all they can see is the wall of the cave in front of them.  Behind them, there is a fire and a raised walkway. As people walk along the walkway carrying things like books, animals, and plants, the prisoner sees nothing but the shadows of the people and the items they carry cast on the wall in front of them.  Because the prisoners see only the shadows, these shadows become their reality. When they see a shadow of a book, for example, they take the shadow as the real object, since it is all they know.

Imagine that one of the prisoners escapes his chains and leaves the cave.  Leaving the darkness of the cave, he is first blinded by the light. As his eyes slowly adjust and as he becomes more used to his new surroundings, he begins to realize that his former understanding of the world was wrong.  Returning to the cave, the enlightened prisoner tells the other prisoners what he has learned of the real world. The others, noticing that the returning prisoner is groping around in the darkness as his eyes readjust to the darkness, think he is insane. They can’t imagine any other reality but the shadows they see before them, and they threaten to murder anyone who would drag them out of the cave or annoy them with supposed insight into what a “real” book or a “real” tree actually looks like (2).

Plato’s Cave allows us to address and discuss the abstract ideas of knowledge versus ignorance and perception versus reality.  It doesn’t just tell us that philosophy will improve our lives; instead, it shows us: most of us live our life watching the shadows in the cave; philosophy and education, however, offer us a way out of the darkness and into the light of reason.

Today’s Challenge:  Pump Up Your Tired Thinking

What are some examples of philosophical questions that might be debated about universal topics, such as the nature of reality, of knowledge, of morality, of consciousness, of free will, or of government?  Research a specific thought experiment (see the list below).  Summarize the key elements of the thought experiment in your own words; then, discuss what specific philosophical ideas the thought experiment addresses.

The Whimsical Jailer, The Nefarious Neurosurgeon, Infinite Monkey Theorem, Buridan’s Ass, The Brain in a Vat, The Trolley Problem, Schrodinger’s Cat, Ship of Theseus, The Chinese Room, The Lady or the Tiger

(Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  You can’t do much carpentry with your bare hands and you can’t do much thinking with your bare brain. -Bo Dahlbom

1- Dennett, Daniel C.  Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking.  New York:  W.W. Norton & Company, 2013.

2-Plato’s Republic.  http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.1.introduction.html

 

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