[This post is the tenth in our series of Thinking in Action posts, the series being devoted initially at least to discussion of talks at the Cognitive Disability conference in NYC in September. The first post in the series is here and the posts run Tuesdays and Fridays. Transcript of clip beneath the fold.]
A common tool of the philosophical trade is the thought experiment, an imagined scenario that evokes certain kinds of reactions and responses. Imagine that none of the objects that you take yourself to see, hear, or feel in your daily life–water flowing from a tap, a car driving by, other people chatting at a nearby table–actually exist, and that all the experiences you have of them are generated by–take your pick–an evil demon, scientists who have “envatted” your brain, or The Matrix. Is that coherent? If not, why not? If it is a coherent thing to imagine, what does it tell us about our knowledge? our minds? ourselves?
Thought experiments play a central role not only in philosophical thinking in general but in thinking about morality and ethics in particular. Some philosophers have been critical of this kind of reliance, sometimes on the ground that such thought experiments are contrived, artificial, and unrealistic–they don’t have enough connection to the REAL WORLD to tell us much about anything. And surely if ethics and moral philosophy are to be of any use it all they should, at the end of the day, guide our actions. Others think that this simply misses the point of thought experiments, which is to help tease out common sense views of morality that tell us something about the structure and order to moral thinking, the principles that underly, or perhaps even should underlie, moral thinking and so, eventually, moral action.
There’s a different kind of worry that one might have about thought experiments, one that Sophia Wong articulates in a question that she posed to Peter Singer at the Cognitive Disability conference. In some ways, it’s just the opposite to the concern about thought experiments being too far removed from everyday life to usefully inform us about what to do, and it raises the sorts of questions about “the ethics of exclusion” that I’ve blogged on before–see the link beneath the fold for this:
There are a couple of things I found of interest here. Continue reading