In this blog post, we briefly touched on computer models and thought experiments.
There we said this:
“They are nothing more than automated thought experiments and prove no more than would a thought experiment. If you conduct a thought experiment in your mind, it proves nothing about external reality. If you want to learn how reality works, you have to study nature by performing experiments and collecting data.”
“Even if your computer model is based on valid assumptions and happens to correspond with reality, it still proves nothing. It is effectively a thought experiment delegated to your computer.”
But, do thought experiments have any value at all? Yes.
A thought experiment can be very useful. Not as a replacement for conducting experiments, but as part of a process of trying to reason through or illustrate the implications of something. Let me explain …
What is a Thought Experiment?
For the purposes of our discussion, a thought experiment is a mental process of thinking through the implications of a hypothesis. Usually by running through a simplified experiment in one’s mind.
This is basically a process of reasoning where one tries to analyze what might happen if one was to perform an experiment. It is not a substitute for performing the experiment, but it can be a useful precursor to running an experiment.
What is the point of doing this? It can be useful in reasoning through the possible implications of a hypothesis before one performs an experiment. This can help one plan an experiment or decide whether one should run an experiment in the first place.
For instance, suppose you have a hypothesis about the existence of a new kind of particle. You decide to think about how you might try to test for its existence. So, you think about the steps to experimentally verify that the particle exists.
You realize you will need a particle accelerator. So, you start thinking about how you are going to configure that particle accelerator in order to test for this exotic particle.
You deduce that you will probably need expensive equipment that you do not have. Perhaps you need a particle accelerator beyond the one you have access to. Or, you need to add extra detection equipment to the particle accelerator you have access to.
All this seems to suggest that you might not be able to test your hypothesis the way you were thinking about. Or, perhaps you can. But now you have some idea of how you might be able to do so. And what potential problems you might have to face if you want to detect this theoretical particle.
Sometimes a thought experiment helps you tease out the implications of a hypothesis. You might realize potential complications or ways in which you might be able to test your hypothesis. Or details that you might want to keep in mind when conducting experiments.
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