Top 5 Thought Experiments
The end of summer is a perfect time for daydreaming and exploring our self philosophies. So our team took to voting for the Top 5 Thought Experiments.
It concerns a farmer who is worried his prize cow has wandered off. When the milkman comes to the farm, he tells the farmer not to worry, because he’s seen that the cow is in a nearby field. Though he’s nearly sure the man is right, the farmer takes a look for himself, sees the familiar black and white shape of his cow, and is satisfied that he knows the cow is there. Later on, the milkman drops by the field to double-check. The cow is indeed there, but it’s hidden in a grove of trees. There is also a large sheet of black and white paper caught in a tree, and it is obvious that the farmer mistook it for his cow. The question, then: even though the cow was in the field, was the farmer correct when he said he knew it was there?
Another thought experiment that gets a lot of play in popular culture is what is known as the “infinite monkey theorem.” Also known as the “monkeys and typewriters” experiment, the theorem states that if an infinite number of monkeys were allowed to randomly hit keys on an infinite number of typewriters for an infinite amount of time, then at some point they would “almost surely” produce the complete works of Shakespeare. The monkeys and typewriters idea was popularized in the early 20th century by the French mathematician Emile Borel, but its basic idea—that infinite agents and infinite time will randomly produce anything and everything—dates back to Aristotle.
It’s a little known fact that Albert Einstein’s famous work on special relativity was spurred by a thought experiment he conducted when he was only 16 years old. In his book Autobiographical Notes, Einstein recalls how he once daydreamed about chasing a beam of light as it traveled through space. He reasoned that if he were able to move next to it at the speed of light, he should be able to observe the light frozen in space as “an electromagnetic field at rest though spatially oscillating.” For Einstein, this thought experiment proved that for his imaginary observer “everything would have to happen according to the same laws as for an observer who, relative to the Earth, was at rest.”
One of the oldest of all thought experiments is the paradox known as the Ship of Theseus, which originated in the writings of Plutarch. It describes a ship that remained seaworthy for hundreds of years thanks to constant repairs and replacement parts. As soon as one plank became old and rotted, it would be replaced, and so on until every working part of the ship was no longer original to it. The question is whether this end product is still the same Ship of Theseus, or something completely new and different. If it’s not, at what point did it stop being the same ship? The Philosopher Thomas Hobbes would later take the problem even further. If one were to take all the old parts removed from the Ship of Theseus and build a new ship from them. Then which of the two vessels is the real Ship of Theseus?
There has been no more influential thought experiment than the so-called “brain in a vat” hypothesis. This has permeated everything from cognitive science and philosophy to popular culture. The experiment asks you to imagine a mad scientist has taken your brain from your body. Then placed it in a vat of some kind of life sustaining fluid. Electrodes have been connected to your brain, and these are connected to a computer that generates images and sensations. Since all your information about the world is filtered through the brain. This computer would have the ability to simulate your everyday experience. If this were indeed possible, how could you ever truly prove that the world around you was real. And not just a simulation generated by a computer?
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