Susan Schneider interviewed by Richard Marshall
Originally posted February 14, 2014
Here is an excerpt:
3:AM: You make strong claims about thought experiments and find them valuable. Some philosophers like Paul Horwich disagree and find them misleading and useless. How can something imaginary lead to knowledge and enlightenment?
SS: Philosophers face a dilemma. On the one hand, philosophers often theorize about the nature of things, so it is useful to think of what might be the case, as opposed to what happens to be the case. For instance, metaphysicians who consider the nature of the self or person commonly consider cases like teleportation and brain transplants, to see if one’s theory of the self yields a viable result concerning whether one would survive such things. On the other hand, thought experiments can be misused. For instance, it strikes some as extreme to discard an otherwise plausible theory because it runs contrary to our intuitions about a thought experiment, especially if the example is far-fetched and not even compatible with our laws of nature. And there has been a movement in philosophy called “experimental philosophy” which claims that people of different ethnicities, genders, and socioeconomic backgrounds can come to different conclusions about certain thought experiments because of their different backgrounds.
I still employ thought experiments in my work, but I try to bear in mind three things: first, the presence of a thought experiment that pumps intuitions contrary to a theory should not automatically render the theory false. But a thought experiment can speak against a theory in an all-things-considered judgment; this is an approach I’ve employed in debates over laws of nature.
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