USS-SWC univie: summer school - Scientific World Conceptions

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Thought Experiments

"There is no doubt that thought experiments of this type have led to the greatest transformations in our thinking, and have opened the most important paths of research."
Ernst Mach, "On Thought Experiments"

Are thought experiments epistemic miracles that enable us to learn about the world merely by reflections from the comfort of our armchairs? Or are they merely picturesque devices for clarifying and revealing to us what we already knew? Or should we conceive of their role in some other way? This summer school will examine thought experiments and their role in science and philosophy. It will consider general problems of principle concerning thought experiments as well as the place and function of exemplar thought experiments largely drawn from physical sciences, but from philosophy and mathematics, as well.

Specific Topics:

Typology of thought experiments
What are thought experiments? Why do some disciplines (philosophy, physics) have so many thought experiments, while others (chemistry, zoology) have none? Are there differences between thought experiments in philosophy and in science? Are some works of fiction (novels, plays, movies) a kind of thought experiment?

Function of thought experiments
What are the functions of thought experiments in philosophy and the physical sciences? Is their function illustrative/heuristic? Or evidential? Or "alethic refuters"?

Epistemology of thought experiments
How can a thought experiment be a reliable source of knowledge if the premises of a thought experiment are established via judgments that are non-inferential and based on intuitions? How can we assess the success and failure of thought experiments? What distinguishes mere "intuition pumps" from legitimate and successful thought experiments? What are intuitions and when, if ever, are they legitimate? We shall review several epistemologies of thought experiments including the Platonic view, the argument view and the mental modeling view.

The content and utility of particular thought experiments
We shall examine in detail some thought experiments in the physical sciences, including: Einstein chasing a beam of light, Maxwell's demon, the infinite lottery machine, the indeterministic dome, Galileo and inertial motion, Galileo and falling objects, Stevin and statics and possibly others. We shall also consider particular examples of thought experiments in ethics, epistemology, philosophy of mind and mathematics.












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