CSS Colloquium: Mike Stuart, London School of Economics

A Different Use for Scientific Thought Experiments

2017.08.23 | Kristian Hvidtfelt Nielsen

Date Wed 22 Nov
Time 14:15 15:45


The past 30 years has seen an explosion of interest in the following question: how do thought experiments produce new empirical knowledge? I argue that, in fact, many of the most discussed thought experiments concern understanding, rather than knowledge. Scientific thought experiments illustrate, “invert ideals of natural order,” exemplify, and pump our intuitions. These achievements are epistemic, but they do not aim to increase knowledge. To explore this idea further, I will describe three main kinds of understanding that are increasingly picked out in the epistemological literature: explanatory, objectual and practical. Focusing on objectual and practical understanding, I show that scientific thought experiments have and continue to be crucial for generating scientific understanding. Then, using some new ideas recently propounded in epistemology and aesthetics, I attempt to explain how thought experiments can be used successfully to increase understanding in these ways. 

Lecture / talk