The survey above omits a number of views.17 Most prominent of these is that of Mach (1906). He accounts for thought experiments as the manipulation of instinctively gained raw experience by a few simple schemes, such as variations of the conditions that determine the result. For example, he considers (p. 138) the distance above the earth of a falling stone. If that distance is increased in thought to the height of the moon we would still expect the stone to fall in some diminished degree, suggesting that the moon, composed of many stones, also falls towards the earth. The difficulty with Mach's view is that it is readily assimilated to nearly all viewpoints. I see his raw experience as supplying premises for the arguments that implement the manipulations. Nersessian (1992, p. 292) sees much in common between Mach's and her view. Gendler (1998, p.415) calls on Mach for help in one stage of her account. Sorensen (1991) finds an evolutionary epistemology in Mach. So I am not sure how to categorize it.
Bishop (1999) has proposed a most ingenious demonstration of why thought experiments cannot be arguments. He reflects on Einstein's celebrated clock-in-the-box thought experiment which was conducted in a classical spacetime. Bohr replicated it in a relativistic spacetime and recovered a different outcome. It is the one thought experiment, Bishop urges, but must be reconstructed as two arguments; so thought experiments cannot be arguments. In my view, the difficulty is that Einstein and Bohr do have two different, but similar thought experiments; and they correspond to two different, but similar arguments. We can convert the two thought experiments into one by ignoring the different spacetimes of each. The different spacetime settings are then responsible for the different outcomes. If that is admissible, then the same stratagem works for the arguments. Ignoring premises pertaining to the spacetime setting, the two arguments proceed from the same experimental premises. They arrive at different results only because of the differences in the premises pertaining to spacetime setting.
Finally I also correct a persistent confusion concerning my view. Some (e.g. Gooding, 1992, p. 283 and Hacking, 1992, p. 303) report that I demand the argument in a thought experiment must be deductive; others suggest the argument must be symbolic (or so I have seen reported in a manuscript version of a paper); and others (Boorsboom et al., 2002) that the arguments must be derivations within some definite theory. A brief review of what I have written will show that none of these restrictions are a part of my view, which allows inductive and informal argumentation and premises from outside any fixed theory.18
I have defended my view that thought experiments in science are merely picturesque arguments. Their epistemic reach can always be replicated by an argument and this is best explained by their merely being arguments. I also urged that thought experiments can only be used reliably if they are governed by some sort of logic, even if of a very general kind, and proposed that the natural evolution of the literature in deductive and inductive logic would extract and codify the implicit logic of thought experiments. So thought experiments are arguments, but not because thought experimenters have sought to confine themselves to the modes in the existing literature on argumentation; it is because the literature on argumentation has adapted itself to thought experiments.
This argument view provides a natural home for an empiricist account of thought experiments. In so far as a thought experiment provides novel information about the world, that information was introduced as experientially based premises in the arguments. The argument view may not be the only view that can support an empiricist epistemology. I have surveyed other accounts above and at least constructivism, mental modeling and experimentalism may support an empiricist epistemology. However I have also urged that these accounts are merely variants of the argument view, in so far as they are viable, and that fact may already account for their hospitality to empiricism.19
Arthur, R. (1999) "On Thought Experiments as a priori Science," International Studies in the Philosophy of Science, 13, pp. 215-229.
Bishop, M. (1999) "Why Thought Experiments are not Arguments," Philosophy of Science, 66, pp. 534-41.
Boorsboom, G. Mellenbergh, G. and van Heerden, J. (2002) "Functional Thought Experiments," Synthese, 130, pp. 379-87.
Brown, J. (1991) The Laboratory of the Mind: Thought Experiments in the Natural Sciences. London: Routledge.
Brown, J. (1992) "Why Empiricism Won't Work." pp. 271-279 in Hull et al. (1992).
Brown, J. (1993) "Author's Response" (to Norton, 1993) Metascience, 3 (new series), pp. 38-40.
Brown, J. (manuscript) "Peeking into Plato's Heaven," Prepared for Philosophy of Science Association Biennial Meeting, 2002, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Gendler, T. Szabó (1998) "Galileo and the Indispensability of Scientific Thought Experiments," British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 49, pp. 397-424.
Gooding, D. (1992) "What is Experimental about Thought Experiments?" pp. 280-90 in Hull, Forbes and Okruhlik (1992).
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