Saturday, July 10, 2004


Les idées expérimentales, comme nous le verrons plus tard, peuvent naître
soit à propos d'un fait observé par hasard, soit à la suite d'une tentative expérimentale,soit comme corollaires d'une théorie admise. Ce qu'il faut seulement noter pour le moment, c'est que l'idée expérimentale n'est point arbitraire ni purement imaginaire ; elle doit avoir toujours un point d'appui dans la réalité observée, c'est-à-dire dans la nature. L'hypothèse expérimentale, en un mot, doit toujours être fondée sur une observation antérieure. – Claude Bernard

LI has been pondering various ways of approaching the multitudinous subject of the thought experiment, soi disant. We have gotten some mail on this topic. The mail was puzzled – as in, what the hell is our point? So before we trace the geneology back to Socrates (both as mythmaker and myth), and make the usual grand historical tour in a paragraph, perhaps we should hatch an argument out of a diffuse discontent.

Okay. Fair enough. What is the problem, then, with thought experiments?

Here it is: the problem is that thought experiments often seem more like experimental designs than experiments. When Popperians (of the Karl, not the Mary, persuasion) talk of conjecture and refutation, or when Bernard talks of observation, or when we use that experiment on circadian rhythm that we pointed to in our last post, all are trying to indicate that experiment has a middle, material term. That material term – the content of the experimental process itself – is such that it creates a distinct point of reference different from the experimental design. I might say to myself, say, what are the circadian rhythms of human beings like? And I might then devise a way of denying human beings sunlight as a clever way of extracting those rhythms. But until I have done the work of actually plunging the human beings into darkened chambers or subterranean caverns, I haven’t performed the experiment. Whereas performance and experimental design seem to collapse together when, for instance, I want to make the argument that artificial intelligence is impossible to prove, and I come up with a story about a machine, an input of Chinese symbols, a person within the machine, and an output of English words.

My argument, then, is that a thought experiment lacks a performative dimension. And that depends, in turn, on the idea that thought doesn’t perform. I don’t like that supposition, but for the moment, this is the side I’m taking. Until I wiggle out of it.

Now, defenders of the thought experiment often use early ‘thought experiments in science and philosophy to make the point that there has always been something “like” the thought experiment. What they don’t do is ask what these early “thought experiments” were called by their creators. LI suspects that the conjunction of thought and experiment, as a lexical event is part of the prestige accrued by the experiment during the nineteenth century. When Zola, reading Bernard, decides to apply Bernard’s “experimental method” to writing – when he writes the “Roman experimentale” – we are crossing a threshold. It is about that same time that Mach coins the term “Gedanken-experiment.”

Before that moment, there were riddles, problems, demonstrations, etc. etc. Take the the Molyneux problem. When Locke considers it in the Essay on Human Understanding, he doesn’t compare it to an experiment – although Locke was very familiar with experiments, of course. The end of the seventeenth century was a veritable Island of Laputa, filled with experiments and projects.

This is Locke:
“So that from that which is truly variety of shadow or colour, collecting the figure, it makes it pass for a mark of figure, and frames to itself the perception of a convex figure and an uniform colour; when the idea we receive from thence is only a plane variously coloured, as is evident in painting. To which purpose I shall here insert a problem of that very ingenious and studious promoter of real knowledge, the learned and worthy Mr. Molyneux, which he was pleased to send me in a letter some months since; and it is this:- "Suppose a man born blind, and now adult, and taught by his touch to distinguish between a cube and a sphere of the same metal, and nighly of the same bigness, so as to tell, when he felt one and the other, which is the cube, which the sphere. Suppose then the cube and sphere placed on a table, and the blind man be made to see: quaere, whether by his sight, before he touched them, he could now distinguish and tell which is the globe, which the cube?" To which the acute and judicious proposer answers, "Not. For, though he has obtained the experience of how a globe, how a cube affects his touch, yet he has not yet obtained the experience, that what affects his touch so or so, must affect his sight so or so; or that a protuberant angle in the cube, that pressed his hand unequally, shall appear to his eye as it does in the cube."- I agree with this thinking gentleman, whom I am proud to call my friend, in his answer to this problem; and am of opinion that the blind man, at first sight, would not be able with certainty to say which was the globe, which the cube, whilst he only saw them; though he could unerringly name them by his touch, and certainly distinguish them by the difference of their figures felt. This I have set down, and leave with my reader, as an occasion for him to consider how much he may be beholden to experience, improvement, and acquired notions, where he thinks he had not the least use of, or help from them. And the rather, because this observing gentleman further adds, that "having, upon the occasion of my book, proposed this to divers very ingenious men, he hardly ever met with one that at first gave the answer to it which he thinks true, till by hearing his reasons they were convinced.”

This has all the hallmarks of the kind of thought experiments that analytic philosophers go nuts over – in fact, one of those t-e’s, Frank Jackson’s Mary in the black and white room, is a variant. Molyneux was a mathematician, and the terms in which he couches his “problem”, the style, is a peculiar blend of mathematics and casuistry. Molyneux seems convinced that the answer to his problem lies in the reasons he gives for answering the problem. That bears a relationship to experiment, insofar as experimenters have reasons, but those reasons are hypotheses which, at least in the Baconian tradition, are put to some kind of test. That test is the performative dimension. Is the giving of reasons – is argument – the same thing as a test?

The grooviness of the Molyneux problem is that it did achieve performance – that is, there were operations on aveugles de naissance during the 18th century. One of Diderot’s most famous essays, Lettre sur les aveugles, is on just such an operation.

LI should note one amusing result of this notion of performativity. From the perspective of the history of the experimental method, the Schroedinger's Cat thought experiment has a unique place. The experimental design is such that its performance as an experiment would destroy its result as an experiment. Because we have learned to look at these things in terms of observation, we have ignored the performative dimension in which observation is embedded -- we have ignored, in other words, how experiments function. But if we restore the performative dimension to its place in a theory of experiment, then the Schrodinger's cat thought experiment -- and others of its kind meant to show the peculiar qualities of quantum mechanics -- should provide us with limit cases in which the form of experiment generates its own negation qua experiment. This is to be distinguished from thought experiments that are merely physically impossible, or that involve entities like possible worlds. The Schroedinger's cat thought experiment implies a contradiction in the very structure of the experimental method.

And that is all LI will say about that topic -- we've noticed that the amount of bs generated by a lay person speaking of quantum physics is in direct proportion to said lay person's ignorance. This could certainly be, if not a law, at least a rule of thumb.

Thursday, July 08, 2004


LI has always been extremely skeptical of the role of thought experiments in philosophy. Or – we have been skeptical that they are experiments. They are many things – imaginary experimental designs; fantasies; myths; and arguments; We’ve been pondering our issue with them since reading a post in Crooked Timber last week. The post responded to another post, one by Brian Leiter, about what is dead and living – in other words, what is faddish and what is uncool – in philosophy. The CT person took the opportunity to sound off about the Twin Earth “thought experiment” – and we thought, hmm, we’ve wanted to say something about the bogusness of thought experiments for some time.

So we went and looked up some of the literature. Since we are going to do this over the next couple of posts – and since our emphasis is going to be, at first, on the experiment part of the thought experiment – we’d like to point to a few links.

Here’s an article, from the Winter 2003 issue of the Journal for General Philosophy
of Science
that makes some salient comments on the limits of thought experiments in philosophy and in science.

There’s a famous argument by an Einstein scholar, John D. Norton, that thought experiments are arguments. A paper in which he develops this thesis is here.

Here’s a criticism of thought experiments in moral reasoning –especially Parfit’s moral reasoning – by Jerry Goodenough here .

To understand the difference between the design of an experiment and the experiment, we’d like to instance one experiment that bears some similarities with the kind of human experiments that epistemologists and personal identity people like to make.

In the 1960s, there were several experiments on people that seemed to show that humans have a 25 hour circadian rhythm. These experiments involved plunging people into sunlight deficient environments – deep in caves and such.

In 1999, a team at Harvard, led by Howard Czeisler, went over the data from these experiments. And they went over the experiments themselves. This is from the little Harvard news story:

“The experiments suffered from a serious flaw, however. Subjects were allowed to turn on lights, even if they were tucked away in caves or windowless labs. Several years ago, Czeisler and his colleagues discovered that ordinary room light can reset the pacemaker.
To avoid the resetting effects of room light and other cues, Czeisler, professor of medicine; Duffy, research fellow in medicine; and Dijk, assistant professor of medicine; and their colleagues tightly controlled their subjects' environment. For about a month, the 24 subjects—11 young men (mean age 24) and 13 older men and women (mean age 67)—were exposed only to very low levels of light, about one tenth that of ordinary room light. To prevent the pattern of light exposure from affecting the subjects' internal clocks, lights were turned on at progressively earlier or progressively later times of the day, essentially creating 20-hour or 28-hour days.
"The point was to decouple extrinsic cues from the internal pacemaker," says Czeisler. Despite the decoupling, body temperature, cortisol, and melatonin levels cycled on an average of every 24.18 hours. And they did so consistently among all subjects, showing the circadian pacemaker is as tightly controlled in humans as in other animals.”

The moral LI draws out of this is that experimentation does not proceed without observation, except the way a drunk proceeds on an icy road on a windy 3 a.m. It is an old, Victorian moral, such as William Whewell might be happy to adumbrate – but it is nevertheless true enough to make one ask oneself: how is a thought experiment an experiment?

Wednesday, July 07, 2004


The appearance and expansion of Vampirism in the Democratic Party can be explained by: premature burials following cataleptic phenomena or highly contagious epidemics; folk beliefs and superstitions regarding the spitefulness of the dead; revenge of excommunicated persons; deaths by suicide for which villagers believed themselves responsible; the 'miraculous' preservation of bodies buried in places entirely without air, or in arsenic-rich soil; schizophrenics who fear being confined and become senseless; and porphyria, a hereditary blood disease frequently found in Transylvania...which causes cutaneous anomalies, dental malformations and creates a desire for blood – quote, oh so slightly changed, from “Deadly Fears: Dom Augustin Calmet's Vampires and the Rule Over Death” by Marie-Hélène Huet, Eighteenth-Century Life 21.2 (1997) 222-232

Is the reign of the vampire over? Kerry’s choice of Edwards as his v.p., instead of Gephardt, is a heartening sign. Is it the dawn, or is it some false resolution that, by clever cinematic manipulations, will keep us all in suspense? The idea of Gephardt did leave LI rather sick with dread. One feared the revenge of excommunicated persons; one feared the miraculous preservation of a political body that has led the Democrats to ten years of unparalleled defeat, and that erected itself, on embalming fluid and the most ancient of union bosses, to make various hideous attempts spread the reign of darkness and defeat over the party once again this spring.

Kerry has more than a touch of the vampire himself, and surely there was a struggle in his soul before he was able to chose the light – that is, Edwards. Vampiric Dems have a bond with each other – a bond of empty rhetoric, a bond of spurious virtue – that pulls them together, in a sort of cell. If any man symbolized this cell, it was Gephart; if any act symbolized the complete bankruptcy of the cell, it was the compact with Bush to attack Iraq. Gephart not only made the Iraq war politically possible for Bush, he helped manage the Democratic rout in 2002, gaining zero political credit for handing American security over to the fantasies of D.C.’s best and brightest. John Nichols, in the Nation, pretty much summed up the undead Gephardt:

“The collapse of Richard Gephardt's leadership of the House Democratic Caucus did not occur on November 5, when the party lost seats in an election where history and economic trends suggested that it should have gained them. That result was simply a confirmation of the crisis that had been evident for more than a year. From the first days of George W. Bush's selected-not-elected presidency, it was clear that Gephardt was unprepared to serve as the leader of Congressional opposition to a Republican president. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, he simply stopped trying. That doomed Democratic chances of taking over the House in 2002, as Gephardt failed to define an opposition agenda and took positions out of sync with his own caucus.

That was never more evident than on October 10 when, after Gephardt helped craft the resolution authorizing Bush to launch a unilateral attack on Iraq, the majority of House Democrats voted against the plan. In surprising result, 126 House Democrats opposed it with only 81 joining their leader Gephardt in supporting it.”

Edwards, who is not part of the Democratic vampire cell, is an excellent choice. It is what we were hoping for. Kerry, who is being held back, as a presidential candidate, by his extreme tediousness – he seems to model his oratory on Polonius’ – needs a person who can actually order eggs over easy and bacon without telling the waitress how historically important eggs and bacon are, and how he has always been for eggs and bacon in spite of voting against eggs and bacon, which was really a vote for eggs and bacon when looked at from a more elevated eggish point of view.

The ethics of integrity or the Baker at Dachau

    Throughout the 19th and 20th century, one stumbles upon the lefthand heirs of Burke – Red Tories, as Orwell called them. Orwell’s inst...