Sep 30, 2011

A thought experiment

There are several maneuvers of thinking I learned from philosophy that have proved to be quite useful. These are tools of thorough thought that have been critical for me. Others may have learned them other places. I don't know that they're unique to philosophy, though they are substantive of philosophy for me, and part of how philosophy continues to have a presence in my life.

One is the inversion. (I don't know what the official name is, though presumably there is one). Thinking things backwards, or in reverse, or upside down. Mutatis mutandis. Slovoj Žižek, for everything that's problematic with him, demonstrates the power of this move all the time.

The second is the thought experiment. My philosophy profs could do these all the time, off the top of their heads, and I aspire to that. One used to sit on the table, swing his legs and say "suppose...."

It's the best way I know to take really abstract and complicated ideas, express them with some pith, and show how they work in a way that gets people to engage with them, try them out, and see how they work. Thought experiments are the hands-on museums of the philosophical world.

One of my favorites is so small it's almost quip size. From Ludwig Wittgenstein: People say it was natural to think the sun revolved around the earth because it looked like the sun revolved around the earth, but how would it have looked if the earth had revolved around the sun?

A good bulk of Wittgenstein's thought is in that.

I'm thinking of this because I've been trying to come up with a thought experiment posing the question about how belief is different in the condition of secularity, when it's a matter of choice (even when what is believed doesn't change).

What I came up with:

Imagine a society of people watching TVs that, to the best of their knowledge, only have one possible channel. They would have no explanation or justification for why they watch what they watch, just taking for granted that this is what it is to watch.

They then find out that one person in this society – the deviant, in sociological terms – has been watching another channel.

Even if everyone chooses to continue to watching what they've always watched (the orthodox channel, as it were), how is watching that channel different?


  1. Counter-question: if no-one believed there was any other channel, but it occurred to someone that, hypothetically, there COULD be more than one channel, - wouldn't that be the critical moment of transformation, from the ontological point of view? It is true that, once the hypothetical second channel was instantiated, then binaries like "orthodox" and "unorthodox" could come into play, and this would be important too, but in a more sociological way.

    Hasn't our conception of life on earth already been transformed by the hypothetical notion of life on other planets? If or when it's discovered, will that be more seismic in philosophic terms?

    That was a clever remark of Wittgenstein, but it's a bit unfair to medieval scientists because it makes them look stupid. They were quite capable of seeing that the earth might go round the sun, but the problem with moving from geocentrism to heliocentrism was that the moon definitely didn't look as if it was just orbiting the sun. The Ptolemaic system had been so elegantly simple, but Copernicanism always came with this built-in messy complication, so it wasn't until Galileo observed the moons of Jupiter that it became really irresistible.

  2. The Wittgenstein remark wasn't directed towards the medieval scientists & Ptolemy, I don't think, but the assumption that their theory wasn't theorized, but just "natural apprehension," which then has to be fixed by theory.

    I think the difference between an alternative channel and a hypothetical alternative channel would be the question of whether or it changed OrthdoxTV so that that felt like a choice.

    When I was a kid, and learned about how people in China used chop sticks, not forks, it did occur to me that my own fork use was contingent & not necessary. But, they were so far away & hypothetical, my fork use still felt natural & matter of course.

    I.e., the hypothetical alternative can be defended against more easily, it's very hypotheticalness making the other alternative feel natural and obvious, rather than an alternative.

    Imagined alternatives could still/do still unsettle though. For at least a minority of the population, they can be quite powerful. In both scifi & philosophy, for example.