Activity 13 - Understanding Thought Experiments in Philosophy
Welcome to Activity 13! Activity 13 will consider the philosophical skill of how to respond to thought experiments. This session, much like the previous sessions, is going to be challenging and will require some patience to wrap your head around the concepts. The guided age range is 10 - 15. This session will cover the following :
- To understand what a thought experiment is
- To understand what an argument, counter-argument and rebuttal is
- To understand why a thought experiment is used in philosophy
I have put some detailed instructions below to use alongside the video which might help you. Please remember, if you are struggling with some of the material below, make some quick notes and move on to another activity which will be easier to complete.
Task 1: What is Philosophy?
Philosophy is one of the oldest subjects in the world. It is thought to be the study of "deep questions" that science cannot answer.
Philosophical questions do not have a definite right or wrong answer.
For example -
What is 5 x 5 ?
Are numbers just an idea?
* PAUSE - 3:14
Can you think of two questions similar to the example above? I am looking for :
1. Non-Philosophical question
2. Philosophical question
Task 2: What is a thought experiment?
Philosophers can use thought experiments to answer philosophical questions. Non-philosophers might use tests/experiments to see whether their answer to a question is right or wrong. For example :
History - Examine a birth certificate
Scientist - Measure sea levels over different times
A philosopher cannot use a physical test or experiment to answer a philosophical question. Instead, they carry out thought experiments, that happen in their own mind. This involves imagining what might happen in a scenario that is linked to a philosophical question.
The Experience Machine:
- Imagine an "experience machine" that you can plug yourself into.
- If you are plugged in, you will always feel happiness and experience pleasure. You will never feel suffering or sadness.
- If you are plugged in, your body will not be physically doing or experiencing anything.
- You would only imagine your experiences, but they would feel real.
- Once you are plugged in, you would have to stay plugged in forever.
Question - Would you plug yourself into the machine? (Feel free to make notes).
Task 3: Argument, Counter-Argument & Rebuttal.
Step 1 - Grab a piece of paper. Draw a mind map with the question, "Should we plug ourselves into the experience machine?".
We need a bubble for the "YES" side of the argument.
And we need a bubble for the "NO" side of the argument.
Consider the below prompt questions -
- What are the benefits of being plugged in?
- Why might someone be more tempted to plug themselves in?
- Who might be more tempted to plug themselves in? Why?
- What would you miss out on by being plugged in?
- What is more important than being happy?
* TIP - Highlight any key words on your mind map, that make your argument stronger.
Task 4: Developing the argument further.
1) Initial argument - Putting forward what side of the argument we are on and why.
Point : "We want experiences to be real".
Example : "Choosing between a fake adventure and a real adventure".
Explanation : "A real adventure would be more fun".
2) Counter argument - To further "test out" and develop our ideas, we must also consider the alternative view point.
Point : "People who have lived their life with a lot of bad experiences might be more likely to plug themselves into the experience machine".
Example : "People who work a job they do not like, might plug themselves in".
Explanation : "This would help people to avoid a more difficult reality".
3) Rebuttal - This is a response to the counter-argument. This will defend our original argument.
Point : "We need negative experiences to appreciate happiness".
Example : "The lack of enjoyment from your job might make you appreciate other things in your life, such as family and friends".
Explanation : "Pleasure alone can have limitations. It is not worth us giving up our real lives for".
Extension : "Pleasure is not the most valuable thing."
*PAUSE 15:15 - Come up with your own PEE table considering the argument, "Should we plug ourselves into the experience machine?"
Checklist of what to include :
Task 5: Now it is your turn!
You are going to write up your own short essay including an argument, counter-argument and a rebuttal in response to this thought experiment -
"The Problem of the Ship of Theseus"
- The concept of identity
- Thinking about who you are
- Thinking about what it means to be human
Imagine there is a man called Theseus. He has a ship to sail around the world. Over the years, old parts of the ship were gradually removed and replaced with new parts. Eventually, the ship was made entirely out of new parts, known as Ship A.
During this, the old parts of the ship were being re-constructed to make another ship. This is Ship B, made entirely out of the old parts removed from the first ship.
Which one of these ships is the original ship? Are these ships the same?
Write a response to the following question: Which of the ships is the original ‘Ship of Theseus’: Ship A with the replaced parts or Ship B that was remade with the original parts?
See this work sheet for advice and guidance :