September 25,2019 Facilitating Innovation

Thought Experiments

Thought Experiments

David Hume

Scottish philosopher, David Hume, applied one of the early thought experiments on a missing shade of blue.

” I believe it will readily be allowed, that the several distinct ideas of color, which enter by the eye, or those of sound, which are conveyed by the ear, are really different from each other; though, at the same time, resembling. Now if this is true of different colors, it must be no less so of the different shades of the same color; and each shade produces a distinct idea, independent of the rest. For if this should be denied, it is possible, by the continual gradation of shades, to run a color insensibly into what is most remote from it; and if you will not allow any of the means to be different, you cannot, without absurdity, deny the extremes to be the same.”

Missing Shade of Blue

“Suppose, therefore, a person to have enjoyed his sight for thirty years, and to have become perfectly acquainted with colors of all kinds, except one particular shade of blue, for instance, which it never has been his fortune to meet with. Let all the different shades of that color, except that single one, be placed before him, descending gradually from the deepest to the lightest; it is plain, that he will perceive a blank, where that shade is wanting and will be sensible, that there is a greater distance in that place between the contiguous colors than in any other.”

Sensory Experience

“Now I ask, whether it be possible for him, from his own imagination, to supply this deficiency, and raise up to himself the idea of that particular shade, though it had never been conveyed to him by his senses? I believe there are few but will be of opinion that he can: And this may serve as a proof, that the simple ideas are not always, in every instance, derived from the correspondent impressions; though this instance is so singular, that it is scarcely worth our observing, and does not merit, that for it alone we should alter our general maxim.”

Hume’s main conclusion was that man will always find, that every idea which we examine is copied from a similar impression. Yet, the conundrum is that it is at least conceivable that the mind can generate an idea without first being exposed to the relevant sensory experience. Hume created this paradox of a question without an answer so that he could mentally expand his thoughts to help further his thinking in different areas.

Thought Experiments Explained

A thought experiment is a deep dive into a specific question. Hence, it is an exercise that helps to change traditional thinking and focus one’s concentration. This focused concentration enables the ability to manipulate and play with ideas in entirely new contexts. Albert Einstein’s famous thought experiment was riding a beam of light. So this helped him conceptualize the speed of light and develop his general theory of relativity.

Thought experiments helps the mind unlock new insights by reframing everyday realities. The process facilitates exploring of unrelated thoughts which then creates analogies. It enables new ways to look at old problems.

State of Flow

Thought experiments help individuals to achieve the mental state of flow. The ability to focus on a question enables concentration. Once, a person achieves that level of concentration, they are then able to shift. This shift is moving from the thought experiment to the issue of what they are attempting to solve or design for.

Breaking Bias

Fantasy scenarios are also unlocked in thought experiments which enables greater imagination. There the mind can counter intuitive bias and perform “out of the box thinking.” These wild insights and ideas sprout the seedlings of disruptive ideas.

Correcting Mental Models

Thought experiments are the counter to biased thinking. Evolutionary heretics developed bias and mental models out of safety concerns. These concerns were then passed down genetically and kept mankind safe. These mental models sped thinking and also led to stereotypes and racism.

Creativity, however, is dependent on breaking out these mental models. The natural bias for humans is to default to their natural models. This provides a higher level of comfort of using the same tool over and over to solve different and more complex problems. “If you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

Flawed Logic

Mental models are extremely helpful with speed thinking. The new evolution of mental models is transferring them to artificial intelligence models. This creation of algorithms expedites routine processes and reduces redundancies through applied logic. However, at this point in technology, it is not a growing and thinking process. Meaning, these algorithms are based many times on flawed logic and a closed mind of the developer. Similarly, this resembles the issue with expertise. As a person builds experience, knowledge, and expertise they develop into masters of their craft. Then they stop the learning process and maintain their high levels of knowledge. At a certain point, however, fields advance and their knowledge stay stagnate. Thus, making the expert that doesn’t learn more dangerous than an amateur.

Practical Applications

  • Research the different types of thought experiments and create a backlog of ideas to explore.
  • Take an hour of your week to practice a thought experiment asking yourself the question. Wrestle with the idea and journal what insights you developed. Then document how your thought process worked during the experiment.
  • When you established a comfort level with the thought experiment process, try it with your team. Help guide them through the process and open up a dialogue with their insights.

Battle of Verdun

World War I was a travesty to both sides of the Allies and Axis that fought against each other. There was a unique point in history where warfighting technology had advanced so quickly and evenly across countries that competitive advantages couldn’t be gained. This resulted in a long and protracted stalemate as both sides fought fruitless battles.

War of Attrition

Midway through the war, the German high command went through a thought experiment to relook at the war effort. Consequently, they realized that the war had turned into a war of attrition and that they had to change their strategy. Their original strategy to take Paris turned into the strategy of killing as many French soldiers as possible to encourage their surrender.

Meuse Heights

The German Army decided to take the Meuse Heights. This was a sentimental French city that offered a strong defense and observation point for artillery. The goal of the initiative wasn’t to grab strategic land but to have the French decimate themselves trying to retake the heights. Known as the devil’s strategy to win the war via attrition. The modern-day example is kindred to Walmart killing smaller, local companies with low prices knowing that they can outlast their competitors.


Epstein, D. (2019). Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. New York: Riverhead Books.

Fogelin, R. (1992). Hume and the Missing Shade of Blue. Oxford: Oxford Scholarship.

Hume, D. (1740). A Treatise of Human Nature. London: Longmans, Green & Co.

Jankowski, P. (2016). Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Watson, M. (2018). Common Strategies and Practices Among Facilitators of Innovative Thinking in Organizations. Ann Arbor, MI: ProQuest.

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