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Pittsburgh Summer Program 4
A Summer Program in Philosophy of Science for Underrepresented Groups
Center for Philosophy of Science
University of Pittsburgh
July 13 to July 17, 2020

Thought Experiments in Science

John D. Norton

on Tuesday July 14, 10:30am - 12:45pm

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Please Think About this Problem

Thought experiments in science are remarkable, or at least they appear so. Through them, we can learn about the world, not by conducting a real experiment, but merely by imagining such experiments. This poses the problem that will be the focus of our meeting:

The epistemological problem of thought experiments in science:
How can merely experimenting in thought provide new knowledge of the natural world?

Please Do This in Preparation

1. Select a thought experiment that interests you. If you can, select one in a science, since that will be closest to the lecture and readings. Otherwise, select one in philosophy.

2. Decide whether the thought experiments succeeds in establishing the result sought.

3. If it succeeds, how did it do it? If it fails, why did it fail?

Be ready to explain your chosen thought experiment to the class.

Primary Readings

James Robert Brown and Yiftach Fehige, "Thought Experiments", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

John D. Norton, "Why Thought Experiments Do Not Transcend Empiricism" pp. 44-66 in Christopher Hitchcock (ed.) Contemporary Debates in the Philosophy of Science. Blackwell, 2004. Download

Secondary Readings

At various times, I have written accounts of different thought experiments in physics. Here are links to some of them for you to browse, as your inclinations lead you.

Here's an early survey of several of Einstein's thought experiments (and the first statement of the "argument" view):
"Thought Experiments in Einstein's Work," in Thought Experiments In Science and Philosophy, eds. T. Horowitz, G. J. Massey, Savage, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1991. 

This is one of Einstein's most famous thought experiments and, it turns out, one that is almost invariably misunderdstood. Find out what Einstein was really up to:
"Chasing the Light: Einstein's Most Famous Thought Experiment," Thought Experiments in Philosophy, Science and the Arts, eds., James Robert Brown, Mélanie Frappier and Letitia Meynell, New York: Routledge, 2013. pp. 123-140.

There is, in my view, no doubt as to the worst thought experiment in science, both for its misuse of the medium and the lingering confusion it has caused.
"The Worst Thought Experiment," Prepared for The Routledge Companion to Thought Experiments. Eds. Michael T. Stuart, James Robert Brown, and Yiftach Fehige.

Just what does it take to build an infinite lottery machine that chooses among an infinity of outcomes without favor? The thought experiment turns out to be much harder and more intriguing than I expected.
"How to Build an Infinite Lottery Machine," European Journal for Philosophy of Science, 8 (2018), pp. 71-95.
"How NOT to Build an Infinite Lottery Machine," manuscript.

For more, see my page on thought experiments.