I had taken quite a few courses in philosophy, but all I learned from them were long lists of great minds and what they think about the world. But somehow I didn’t feel quite satisfied. Was that it? Is philosophy just about knowing what others have thought before you? To know enough thinkers to have a name or two to drop in every single conversation? Then what’s the point, I wondered.
It was the first lecture of a course named philosophy of mind. The teacher decided to give a quick introduction to philosophy to get us started. Why on earth? I didn’t really understand… This wasn’t exactly a freshman course anymore so can’t we cut to the topic already. 😩
Then she said it. She uttered those words that still echo in my mind. And I was a complete ignorant, like a buffoon I felt afterwards. Why? For laughing at the matter. But I had never been so wrong in my life and I was about to realize it later on. What she said was to change the way I thought, for good: “Philosophers study the world with mind experiments”. 😱
Mind experiments? Let me laugh! 🤣 Why can’t you do some real experiments? To me, it sounded like philosophy was something that predates science and is no longer needed. But hold on! What is a mind experiment then? Well, we were asked to think of a world where cows had wings. What implications would it have? We came up with a list of things, for example, cows wouldn’t likely be herbivores because moving that kind of a mass up in the air would require more energy than what a cow could possibly get from grass. Or if they were herbivores, then trees would probably have some kind of a defense mechanism against cows that just fly and eat all their leaves.. And so on.
We were just guessing there and I left the class feeling perplexed. Later on I realized my biggest mistake. Thought experiments are not a laughing matter. They are far more than that. They let us study what cannot be studied with scientific approaches quite yet. How can you study a world with flying cows if you have no access to such a world? 😊
Thought experiments can be used to learn more about the world and to prove existing theories wrong. If you want to study if walking on two legs lead us to develop so highly sophisticated cultures, you might want to think of a world where we walk on four legs. Harnessing the fire is seen as a cornerstone in the development of the human race. Could we have ever learned to produce it on four legs? If we were unable control our front legs with the needed dexterity, we definitely wouldn’t have fire. And no fire means no sophisticated culture. Thus, we can deduce that walking on two legs definitely contributed to our cultural development.
The most fundamental tool for a philosopher is thought experiment. Without it, he would be nothing but a poser who would never question anything around him. So, just nourish your imagination and engage into the intellectual task of using your mind as the ultimate testbed for your theories. 😊