I hate thought experiments and hadn’t realised they were so popular within academic philosophy. I’m not sure it would’ve been enough to put me off doing the course if I’d known beforehand, but seriously? I’m sitting here screwing up my face at the thought of listening to a bunch of grow-ups pontificating about whatever it is they think about how they think they’d act in an imaginary situation…but anyway.
Why are they used at all? Well, they reckon, by controlling a narrative, we can isolate variables and then focus on key issues. In examining thoughts brought to light, we’re able to then consider if what we think is simply prejudice before reaching a conclusion. Some people do find them entertaining and enjoy playing the imagining game wherein they get to think about what they would like to think they’d do in the given scenario. It needs to be said that not all philosophers and thinkers are fans of the thought experiment and there are plenty of arguments against their efficacy out there. The ones I’m particularly resistant to are those which try to ascertain the moral compass of a person, the ones which usually involve thinking about how one would act or behave, and those designed to reveal unconscious bias.
Do thought experiments teach us how to think? I don’t think they do, although having endured over a week of reading and thinking about stuff I’d rather just roll my eyes at, I do have to say they may hold more value than I originally gave them credit for. Despite being seriously fucking irritated by them, I am able to see how new questions are more easily brought into the frame. It is definitely true, that we shouldn’t assume too quickly, and the thought experiment clearly offers a framework from which to begin the exploration of an issue. I think one of the problems I have is I already know we will always have an issue with unconscious bias, and even those who claim to be well-balanced are still likely to lean towards their original ideas.
Plutarch, the first-century Greek Historian/Philosopher told a story of how the ship of Theseus was kept in a dock in Athens after returning from his heroic journey from Crete where he had slain the minotaur. Over time, the ship began to rot and slowly had all of its parts replaced with new planks of wood. Plutarch then posed the question, is it still the same ship on which Theseus sailed back to Athens?” Believe it or not, philosophers of old were actually divided on the answer.
Thomas Hobbes, (1588-1679) the seventeenth-century English Philosopher, went one step further and over-complicated matters by adding to Plutarch’s thought experiment. Hobbes suggested a second ship had been constructed from the original rotting planks. Hobbes then asked, which, if either, was the real ship of Theseus?
If you’re like me, you could be sat there wondering who the fuck cares and asking how is any of it relevant to the eradication of global poverty…
The Ship of Theseus is a precursor to the subject of personal identity, and the bigger question here is, am I the same person I was twenty years ago? Issues concerning people being held responsible for their actions are also linked to the subject of personal identity. Within philosophy, there’s a question as to whether a person can change over time, and if they can, does that mean they’re not the same person from twenty or thirty years ago. The question seems to be especially relevant in the subject of ethics. An interesting real-world situation that comes to mind is the case of the man who went through sex reassignment after he was caught cottaging and then wanted his previous crimes struck from his record. Although for him the issue was more that he wanted his previous identity kept a secret. The reason he couldn’t keep his male past a secret was the fact the crimes he was convicted of could only ever be committed by a man. In fact, the whole arena of transgenderism is riddled with issues around personal identity and whether one remains the same person or is indeed somehow changed. The Self and the subject of personal identity are things I’m interested in, and I’m hoping the next chapter won’t have quite so many thought experiments to wade through.