, Volume 17, Issue 2, pp 203-217

What Are We to Think about Thought Experiments?

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Abstract

Arguments from thought experiment ask the reader to imagine some hypothetical, sometimes exotic, often fantastic, scenario for the sake of illustrating or countering some claim. Variously characterized as mental experimentation, imaginary cases, and even crazy cases, thought experiments figure into both scientific and philosophical arguments. They are often criticized for their fictive nature and for their lack of grounding. Nevertheless, they are common especially in arguments in ethics and philosophy of mind. Moreover, many thought experiments have spawned variations that attempt to both affirm and refute their original arguments. These emended thought experiments exhibit a variety of styles, details, and embellishments. A rhetorical analysis of these variations suggests a reciprocal influence between the arguers' selection of details and their philosophical commitments. I offer examples of this relationship from the variations on John Searle's Chinese Room thought experiment and Judith Thomson's unconscious violinist thought experiment.