What are we doing when we conduct ‘thought experiments’?

Displaced Hours is an out-of-print novel by Ace Boggess (Gatto, 2004). In this tale of magic realism, a professor develops the belief that he can insert his consciousness into other people’s bodies, whereby he briefly controls their actions and enjoys their experiences before returning to his own body. The mechanism for this consciousness shift is a haunted clock. The device “gave me everything I wanted,” he says. “There was nothing I couldn’t find in time. Now I used that clock like a wiretap or a hidden camera.” He takes the journey many times.

Book cover of Displaced Hours by Ace Boggess.

Another character in the novel calls the concept “cross-consciousness.” Whatever such experiences may properly be called, they allow the professor to “go anywhere and do anything” and thus turn his life into a series of philosophical “thought experiments,” especially of the ethical sort. That is: By granting him a temporary lease on life that is measured in minutes and is devoid of consequences, these experiences allow him to make choices that are ethically questionable and that he would not otherwise make. The professor refers to the haunted clock as an “ethical device” and a “morality machine” because “it set up an infinite number of hypotheses I could test to their extremes.”

Cross-consciousness experiences become increasingly alluring for him. They also lead him to madness.

“…I locked myself away like the changing werewolf in an old horror film, except that I was more dangerous in my cage than out. I think I might have said a prayer of some sort, but I doubt anyone heard it. These were idle words without repentance and just a few hints of remorse. I pulled my chair over as usual and opened the dome of the clock.”

—Ace Boggess, Displaced Hours

The novel makes me wonder what philosophers are really doing when we engage in “thought experiments.” When we provisionally consider a course of action, are we mainly curious to establish what it would feel like to take that action? Do we also need to know what the consequences would be for ourselves or others? Is the assumption that, if the consequences were bad, we would immediately end the thought experiment rather than stick around and take responsibility?

It also reminds me that there are many real-life consequences we never face because our actions cannot be tied back to us in a straightforward manner with evidence a detective could use. This happens for nearly all collective actions (as when a million people use a scarce resource that is denied to another million people, for example), and also for personal actions that no one else happens to witness or follow up on. By some twist of fortune, we often escape others’ prying eyes and don’t have to take any more responsibility for our choices. But in another sense, the lingering consequences are tied to us in (shall we say?) a “spiritual” sense. That’s because, after all, we were the ones who did it. Not some experimental personae. It was we who made the choice. We remember (even if no one else does) that we used our conscious minds to make the choice. We know this is true, even if there is little evidence in the material world that traces the current state of affairs back to us. We live with the knowledge of what we did.

3 thoughts on “What are we doing when we conduct ‘thought experiments’?

  1. Thanks for the post! Some good questions: “The novel makes me wonder what philosophers are really doing when we engage in “thought experiments.” When we provisionally consider a course of action, are we mainly curious to establish what it would feel like to take that action? Do we also need to know what the consequences would be for ourselves or others? ”
    Thought experiments are a recurring theme here on Episyllogism and below are some links to some of them:
    1. https://boblane.com/2016/03/28/scientism-and-the-isought-gap/
    2. https://boblane.com/2017/05/03/twin-earth-puzzle/
    3. https://boblane.com/2015/05/16/thought-experiments-2/
    4. https://boblane.com/2019/08/18/ss-thought-experiments/

    I suppose in a way every novel is a long thought experiment. “Imagine these characters facing these facts in this setting . . .”

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Philosophers are usually doing logic problems with thought experiments to bring out some problem to then write a paper about.
    Searle’s Chinese room, Putnam’s twin earth, and Jackson’s Mary the colour scientist are good examples.

    Like

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