, Volume 26, Issue 4, pp 451–466 | Cite as

Norton and the Logic of Thought Experiments

  • Michael T. Stuart
Original Paper


John D. Norton defends an empiricist epistemology of thought experiments, the central thesis of which is that thought experiments are nothing more than arguments. Philosophers have attempted to provide counterexamples to this claim, but they haven’t convinced Norton. I will point out a more fundamental reason for reformulation that criticizes Norton’s claim that a thought experiment is a good one when its underlying logical form possesses certain desirable properties. I argue that by Norton’s empiricist standards, no thought experiment is ever justified in any deep sense due to the properties of its logical form. Instead, empiricists should consider again the merits of evaluating thought experiments more like laboratory experiments, and less like arguments.


Empiricism Experimentalism John D. Norton Material theory of induction Thought experiments 



I’d like to thank John D. Norton, Nancy Nersessian, Yiftach Fehige, James R. Brown, Marco Buzzoni, Joseph Berkovitz, Catherine Elgin, Sören Häggqvist, Elke Brendel, Geordie McComb and an anonymous referee for comments and discussion, as well as audiences at the University of Toronto, Bonn and Pittsburgh. This research was supported by an Ontario Graduate Research scholarship, the Germany/Europe fund from the University of Toronto, and a postdoctoral fellowship at the Center for Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh.


  1. Bishop M (1999) Why thought experiments are not arguments. Philos Sci 66:534–541CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bokulich A (2001) Rethinking thought experiments. Perspect Sci 9:285–307CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bostock D (2009) Empiricism in the philosophy of mathematics. In: Irvine A (ed) Handbook of the philosophy of science: philosophy of mathematics. Elsevier B.V, Amsterdam, pp 157–229Google Scholar
  4. Brown J (1986) Thought experiments since the scientific revolution. Int Stud Philos Sci 1:1–15CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Brown J (1991)[2011] The laboratory of the mind: thought experiments in the natural sciences. Routledge, LondonGoogle Scholar
  6. Brown J (1992) Why empiricism won’t work. Proc Philos Sci Assoc 2:271–279Google Scholar
  7. Brown J (2004) Why thought experiments do transcend empiricism. In: Hitchcock C (ed) Contemporary debates in the philosophy of science. Blackwell, Malden, pp 23–43Google Scholar
  8. Buzzoni M (2008) Thought experiment in the natural sciences. Königshausen & Neumann, WürzburgGoogle Scholar
  9. Buzzoni M (forthcoming) Thought experiments in philosophy. TopoiGoogle Scholar
  10. Carroll L (1895) What the tortoise said to achilles. Mind 4:278–280CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Conant J (ed) (1953) Pasteur’s and Tyndall’s study of spontaneous generation. Harvard University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  12. Davies D (2007) Thought experiments and fictional narratives. Croat J Philos 7:29–45Google Scholar
  13. Elgin C (2014) Fiction as thought experiment. Perspect Sci 22:221–241CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Franklin A (1986) The neglect of experiment. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Gendler T-S (1998) Galileo and the indispensability of scientific thought experiment. Br J Philos Sci 49:397–424CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Gendler T-S (2004) Thought experiments rethought—and reperceived. Philos Sci 71:1152–1163CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Giere RN (1988) Explaining science: a cognitive approach. The University of Chicago Press, ChicagoCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Godfrey-Smith P (2009) Models and fictions in science. Philos Stud 143:101–116CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Gooding D (1992) What is experimental about thought experiments? PSA: Proc Bienn Meet Philos Sci Assoc 2:280–290Google Scholar
  20. Gooding D (1994) Imaginary science. Br J Philos Sci 45:1029–1045CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Ichikawa J, Jarvis B (2009) Thought-experiment intuitions and truth in fiction. Philos Stud 142:221–246CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Kettlewell HB (1955) Selection experiments on industrial melanism in the Lepidoptera. Heredity 9:323–342CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Kettlewell HB (1956) Further selection experiments on industrial melanism in the Lepidoptera. Heredity 10:287–301CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Kettlewell HB (1958) A survey of the frequencies of Biston betularia (L.) (Lep.) and its melanic forms in Great Britain. Heredity 12:51–72CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Kösem Ş, Özdemir Ö (2014) The nature and function of thought experiments in solving conceptual problems. Sci Educ 23:865–895CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Laymon R (1980) Idealisation, explanation, and confirmation. In: Asquith PD, Giere RN (eds) PSA 1982, vol 1. Philosophy of Science Association, East Lansing, pp 336–350Google Scholar
  27. Matthews RM (2004) Idealisation and Galileo’s pendulum discoveries: historical, philosophical and pedagogical considerations. Sci Educ 13:689–715CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Miščević N (1992) Mental models and thought experiments. Int Stud Philos Sci 6:215–226CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Miščević N (2007) Modelling intuitions and thought experiments. Croat J Philos 7:181–214Google Scholar
  30. Nersessian N (1991) Why do thought experiments work? Proc Cogn Sci Soc 13:430–438Google Scholar
  31. Nersessian N (1992) How do scientists think? Capturing the dynamics of conceptual change in science. In: Giere RN (ed) Cognitive models of science. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, pp 3–44Google Scholar
  32. Nersessian N (1993) In the Theoretician’s laboratory: thought experimenting as mental modeling. Proc Philos Sci Assoc 2:291–301Google Scholar
  33. Nersessian N (2007) Thought experiments as mental modelling: empiricism without logic. Croat J Philos 7:125–161Google Scholar
  34. Nersessian N (forthcoming) Cognitive science, mental modelling, and thought experiments. In: Stuart et al. (eds) The routledge companion to thought experiments. Routledge, LondonGoogle Scholar
  35. Norton J (1991) Thought experiments in Einstein’s work. In: Horowitz T, Massey G (eds) Thought experiments in science and philosophy. Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, pp 129–148Google Scholar
  36. Norton J (1993) Einstein and Nordstrom: some lesser-known thought experiments in gravitation. In: Earman J, Janssen M, Norton JD (eds) The attraction of gravitation: new studies in the history of general relativity. Birkhauser, Boston, pp 3–28Google Scholar
  37. Norton J (1996) Are thought experiments just what you thought? Can J Philos 26:333–366CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Norton J (2003) A material theory of induction. Philos Sci 70:647–670CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Norton J (2004a) On thought experiments: is there more to the argument? Philos Sci 71:1139–1151CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Norton J (2004b) Why thought experiments do not transcend empiricism. In: Hitchcock C (ed) Contemporary debates in the philosophy of science. Wiley-Blackwell, Somerset, pp 44–66Google Scholar
  41. Norton J (2005) A little survey of induction. In: Achinstein P (ed) Scientific evidence: philosophical theories and applications. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, pp 9–34Google Scholar
  42. Norton J (2010) There are no universal rules for induction. Philos Sci 77:765–777CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Norton J (2011) History of science and the material theory of induction: Einstein’s Quanta, Mercury’s Perihelion. Eur J Philos Sci 1:3–27CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Norton J (2014) A material dissolution of the problem of induction. Synthese 191:671–690CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Norton J (Forthcoming) The material theory of induction.
  46. Popper K (1935)[2005] The logic of scientific discovery. Routledge, LondonGoogle Scholar
  47. Portides D (2011) Seeking representations of phenomena: phenomenological models. Stud Hist Philos Sci Part A 42:334–341CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Sorensen R (1992) Thought experiments. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  49. Stuart M (2015) Philosophical conceptual analysis as an experimental method. In: Gamerschlag T, Gerland D, Osswald R, Petersen W (eds) Meaning, frames and conceptual representation. Düsseldorf University Press, Düsseldorf, pp 267–292Google Scholar
  50. Thagard P (2014) Thought experiments considered harmful. Perspect Sci 22:288–305CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Weisberg M (2007) Three kinds of idealization. J Philos 104(12):639–659CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Center for Philosophy of ScienceUniversity of PittsburghPittsburghUSA

Personalised recommendations