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Norton and the Logic of Thought Experiments

Abstract

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.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Several other philosophers have discussed the relationship between thought experiments and experiments more generally, especially Buzzoni (2008), Gooding (1992, 1994) and Sorensen (1992). But none have tried to make this connection within the context of an empiricist account of thought experiments. While I am not committed to empiricism, I think this is an important and interesting project, and an extension of Nersessian's “empiricism without logic” (Nersessian 2007).

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Acknowledgments

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.

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Correspondence to Michael T. Stuart.

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Stuart, M.T. Norton and the Logic of Thought Experiments. Axiomathes 26, 451–466 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10516-016-9306-2

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Keywords

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