Experiments in Thought

Christopher Kitson

In May, IASH hosted a Susan Manning workshop bringing participants from a diverse range of disciplinary backgrounds together to explore the intersection between philosophy, science and literature by producing creative writing inspired by thought experiments. Postdoctoral Fellow Dr Christopher Kitson discusses the workshop and its context:

Thought experimenting, the practice in science and philosophy by which the contemplation of imaginary scenarios leads to novel conclusions and discoveries, has an illustrious history. Thought experiments have been used from Zeno’s paradoxes setting Achilles racing a tortoise and Galileo’s thought experiments of dropping balls from the leaning tower of Pisa, through their modern employments by Darwin and Einstein, up to their proliferation in the present day, when fields like quantum physics and analytic philosophy would be difficult to recognise without their paradigm thought experiments.

Despite their long history and frequent use, however, there remains something different about the thought experiment as a practice within these fields. It is, for example, controversial in philosophy. James Robert Brown and Kathleen Wilkes have attacked the epistemological claims of thought experiments, with Roy Sorensen and Tamar Gendler among others defending them. The debate centres around the issue of how the simple act of imagining things can provide knowledge independent of any empirical data. Thus, whilst important and even indispensable, thought experiments occupy a position which is in some ways uncomfortable: they are certainly a part of science and philosophy, but they seem to be nonetheless dangerously close to fiction. The world of thought experiments, then, can be thought of as a grey area, one in which conventional distinctions between fiction and non-fiction become more troublesome.

This grey area has proved to be a fertile territory for literary writers. My research at IASH focuses on the uses which literary authors have made of the philosophical and scientific thought experiment. For example, one of the very first modern science fiction novels, H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, presents itself as a kind of thought experiment. In the novel, we are introduced to a dinner party with guests casually discussing hypothetical "paradoxes." The protagonist then relates his journeys to the far future in which he sees the evolutionary changes which befall the human population. In doing this, Wells’ novel echoes the thought experiments which Charles Darwin and Fleeming Jenkin among others used to debate the theory of evolution. These debates were full of "imaginary illustrations" in which the changes to animal species across time were played out as hypothetical scenarios. In The Time Machine's speculative narrative, then, Wells takes over the practice of thought experimenting from Darwin and his contemporaries and pushes it into strange and revealing new places.

It was to explore this imaginative potential that the workshop was convened. The event was not primarily literary-critical in focus, but instead aimed to produce original pieces of creative writing inspired by philosophical and scientific thought experiments. It brought together just under thirty attendees, who, reflecting the subject matter, were drawn from a very diverse array of disciplinary backgrounds, from creative writing and art to astronomy and physics. I gave a few prefatory remarks and then the workshop proceeded by introducing a particular thought experiment, of which my co-host, Dr Jane McKie, would then lead a discussion. These discussions were wide--ranging, encompassing writing ideas, but also themes, associations and possibilities that the thought experiment suggested.

The first thought experiment to be discussed was that of Wittgenstein's beetle, which envisages a world in which everyone possesses a private box which has something called a “beetle” in it, yet no one can ever see anything but their own “beetle.” In reflecting on this thought experiment, the attendees touched on the privacy of experience, something which was to become an important note in the workshop. David Crieghton-Offord also interestingly associated the scenario to the aims of digital cryptography. Next the workshop considered an example of a literary treatment of the thought experiment, from Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse, in which Woolf's narrative performs a thought experiment imagining a table which is paradoxically unobserved. The passage prompted consideration of Woolf's play of presence and absence and its relationship to nostalgia.

The workshop then discussed the famous Schrödinger's Cat thought experiment. In Schrodinger's account, a quantum particle, which is held to exist in two states at once when unobserved, has its uncertainty scaled up until a cat is supposed to exist in both a living and a dead state until the box it is in is opened. Among the associations evoked by this was Neil Mulholland's intriguing linking of it to anchoritism, in which ascetics would immure themselves in the walls of a church, leaving no indication of whether they were living or dead. After this, Mary's Room, a thought experiment in which a scientist who has lived her whole life in a monochrome chamber but who nonetheless knows all there is to know about colour perception, emerges and has her first experience of a rose. This experiment was another recurrence of the ineffability of private experience. Pippa Goldschmidt linked the scenario to the blue flower, a recurring and multivalent poetic symbol. The workshop turned to a thought experiment on selfhood for the final discussion, namely Derek Parfit's thought experiment involving a person split into two, with each resultant person retaining identical memories and personality. Jennifer Williams brought up real cases of patients with brain injuries who seemed to have become split, behaving themselves like different persons within the one body.

At this point, the workshop broke up for into groups in order to discuss how the myriad ideas arising from the discussions could be put into stories or poems. After an hour’s writing time, the workshop reconvened over a glass of wine to read the pieces. The output was eclectic and ranged across genres. Its variety made it difficult to sum up, but some tendencies were discernible.  The poetry tended towards a vivid lyricism, perhaps influenced by issues of private experience which the thought experiment perhaps provides a unique way of philosophically addressing. The prose, for its part had often a magical realist tinge, much in evidence, for instance, in Joseph Walton's long short story “The Harvest.” It may well be that the thought experiment, itself often an attempt to defamiliarise the real world by altering or exaggerating certain variables, lends itself to such a generic sensibility.

The results of the workshop are being compiled and will be published on a dedicated Experiments in Thought page in which the pieces, along with recordings of them being read at the workshop, will be made available on the IASH site.