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Do Thought Experiments Tell Us Anything?

Freelance philosopher Julian Baggini invites us to consider the thought experiment.

Philosophers are often accused of having their heads in the clouds and contemplating questions that have nothing to do with real life. On that view the thought experiment looks like a typical philosophical method — speculative, ungrounded infacts and incapable of objectivity. Yet thought experiments are everywhere in philosophy. To give just one (rather alarming) example: imagine you meet a man who you are certain genuinely wants to be killed and eaten. Morally, what should you do? Are you obliged to fulfil his desire? Or forbidden from doing it? Is it your free choice? Do circumstances matter or is it an absolute? You might say such a thing could never happen; then again, perhaps it could. Either way, we can hardly design a scientific experiment to answer these questions. Yet a thought experiment — the part that begins “imagine if…” — gives us a way to think the question though. And the way we think about it may have wider implications. What, for example, do we do about people who want things that we believe are bad for them? Perhaps the thought experiment is the only tool we have to think about ethical issues. Even in more abstract realms, though, it’s very useful. A while ago we blogged about a thought experiment due to Max Black that might cause us to question Leibniz’s Law, a very venerable logical principle. We’ve also blogged about thought experiments in general as well as Thompson’s Lamp, Gettier Problems and no doubt quite a few others. But should we pause before we rush into these thought experiments? What, after all, can they tell us? Do they inevitably merely confirm our prejudices? Are they so simplified, so idealised as to bear little relation to reality? Are they just the work of pampered professors, relaxing in their studies, pretending to discover things without ever getting out of their chairs? Julian Baggini is a philosopher and the author of many popular books on the subject, including one about thought experiments. He edits The Philosophers’ Magazine, writes journalism for a wide selection of UK publications and appears on TV and Radio. Expect a stimulating evening’s discussion of how we think about those things that are hard to think about.


Dr Julian Baggini | talks | www


Date and Time:

30 June 2010 at 8:00 pm


3 hours



The Wheatsheaf
25 Rathbone Place

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Organised by:

Big Ideas
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Additional Information:

For more information, visit www.bigi.org.uk

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