The epistemology of thought experiments: A non-eliminativist, non-platonic account
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Several major breakthroughs in the history of physics have been prompted not by new empirical data but by thought experiments. James Robert Brown and John Norton have developed accounts of how thought experiments can yield such advances. Brown argues that knowledge gained via thought experiments demands a Platonic explanation; thought experiments for Brown are a window into the Platonic realm of the laws of nature. Norton argues that thought experiments are just cleverly disguised inductive or deductive arguments, so no new account of their epistemology is needed. In this paper, I argue that although we do not need to invoke any Platonic insight to explain thought experimentation, Norton’s eliminativist account fails to capture the unique epistemological importance of thought experiments qua thought experiments. I then present my own account, according to which thought experiments are a particular type of inductive inference that is uniquely suited to generate new breakthroughs.
KeywordsThought experiments Galileo’s ship Platonism Empiricism
I am grateful to two anonymous referees, Malcolm Forster, Elliott Sober, Larry Shapiro, Reuben Stern, Michael Goldsby, Naftali Weinberger, and an audience at the Boulder Conference on the History and Philosophy of Science for valued comments on earlier drafts.
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