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15 Philosophical Thought Experiments That Will Definitely Blow Your Mind

Philosophical thought experiments are hypothetical situations that are intended to help with the exploration of complex philosophical concepts and issues. These hypothetical situations frequently put our presumptions to the test, stimulate our curiosity, and highlight the boundaries of our understanding.

Philosophical thought experiments, which have been a crucial component of philosophical research for millennia and are still relevant and thought-provoking today, range from Plato’s Cave to the Trolley Problem.

This blog examines 15 of the most intriguing and perplexing philosophical thought experiments, which will test your understanding of reality and pique your interest in philosophy.

1. THE SHIP OF THESEUS

If a ship’s parts are to be replaced over time, is it still the same ship?

The Ship of Theseus, one of the well-known philosophical thought experiments, raises questions about the nature of identity and continuity over time. In the paradox, the question is whether a ship that has had all its components replaced throughout time is still the same.

On the one hand, asserting that the ship has not altered despite having some of its components replaced would make sense. After all, we still call it by that name, and the structure and goals it was intended for are still in place.

On the other hand, if the ship’s identity is based on its physical attributes, it would appear that the ship has changed. One can argue that the ship is now a totally distinct entity if every component is replaced.

This paradox highlights issues regarding the nature of identity and change, which have consequences beyond the context of ships.

It makes us wonder if something can endure significant change while remaining essentially the same throughout time and how we can tell when something has altered fundamentally enough to be the same thing no longer.

2. THE TROLLEY PROBLEM

Would you sacrifice one person to save many people?

trolley problem - adarsh badri - philosophical thought experiments
Photo: NYMag

The Trolley Problem is a famous ethical thought experiment that challenges the ethics of sacrificing one life to save many others. Typically, the hypothetical situation is as follows:

You’re standing next to a tram track, watching as a runaway tram approaches five people who are chained to the track and unable to escape. However, if you notice a nearby lever, the tram would be diverted onto a different track, killing the person connected to that track in its place. What do you do?

This puzzle challenges us to think about our moral responsibilities when we have the authority to make a choice that will cause someone’s death. The alternative that saves the most lives may appear logical. Still, it’s vital to consider the worth of each life and whether we have a responsibility to defend the rights of the minority.

The “right” decision may differ according to two central ethical doctrines. A consequentialist, for instance, would save the lives of the five people would be the ethically correct choice since it maximises total well-being.

On the other hand, a deontologist could contend that we have a responsibility to defend people’s rights and that doing so would be against the law.

The Trolley Problem has no apparent solution, yet it is a helpful tool for investigating ethical quandaries and the ideas that influence human decision-making.

3. ALLEGORY OF THE CAVE

Are we merely seeing the shadows of reality or the reality itself?

Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” is one of the well-known philosophical thought experiments concerning the nature of reality and knowing/knowledge. The allegory is as follows:

Imagine a group of people who have spent their entire lives chained up and facing a wall within a cave. They can only see the shadows of things that the fire behind them has cast onto the wall. They believe that these shadows are the only reality that exists.

If one of the prisoners were forced to turn around and face the fire, then that prisoner would experience a new reality and realise that the shadows were mere illusions. Let’s say that the prisoner is now allowed to leave the cave and come in contact with the real world outside. When they encounter the outside world, they would have come across another reality different from the cave and the fire.

Plato’s allegory makes us wonder if our perceptions of reality are accurate or only reflections of a more profound, underlying truth.

It implies that there might be truths that go beyond our current comprehension and that our opinions and knowledge may be constrained by the situations in which we find ourselves.

Many consider Plato’s Cave a defence of philosophical inquiry and the quest for knowledge. It implies that we might be able to learn more about ourselves and the world around us by challenging our presumptions and looking for the essence of truth.

4. THE CHINESE ROOM

Can a machine understand or mimic language?

chinese room - adarsh badri - philosophical thought experiments
Photo by Cherry Lin on Unsplash

In The Chinese Room thought experiment, the question of whether a machine can genuinely understand language or merely mimic it. This experiment is as follows.

A non-Chinese-speaking person is locked in a room with a book filled with Chinese symbols and a set of instructions for manipulating the symbols.

A person from outside passes a note to him written in Chinese. The person inside the room responds to the note as per the regulations before passing the note back to the person outside.

It may appear that the person inside the room may understand Chinese to the person receiving the note outside. However, the individual within the room only follows instructions; they do not genuinely understand the significance of the messages they are responding to.

This experiment presents an interesting understanding of the nature of consciousness, artificial intelligence, and whether a machine can truly “understand” language like a human can.

It makes us wonder if knowledge and intellect come from simply adhering to rules and manipulating symbols or if something deeper in human consciousness enables us to comprehend language.

5. BURIDN’S ASS

Are we really free to choose?

This experiment is quite interesting. Buridan’s Ass illustrates the paradox in the concept of free will. It refers to a situation where a donkey (equally hungry and equally thirsty) is placed at the centre of a stack of hay and a pail of water. Both of them are equidistant from the donkey. Which one does it choose first?

The paradox claims that since the donkey cannot choose between water or hay, it dies of hunger. There are other versions of this story. Instead of water and hay, two equally sized pile of hay is placed at equidistant from the donkey instead of water and hay. The result: the donkey dies.

But is it as simple as that? Probably not. The donkey may eat first and drink later. Or drink first and eat later, and then drink again.

But these are just random—as it does not require us to be rational. We just need common sense.

While this paradox has been attributed to a 14th-century French philosopher Jean Buridan, the traces of Buridan’s Ass paradox are found in the Aristotelian era.

In On the Heavens (295-350 BCE), Aristotle writes: “…a man, being just as hungry as thirsty, and placed between food and drink, must necessarily remain where he is and starve to death”.

6. THE EXPERIENCE MACHINE

Would you plug into a machine that gives a perfect life simulation, not real experiences?

This philosophical thought experiments is as follows: Imagine there exists a machine that can simulate perfect life experiences, where one can feel and experience anything they desire without suffering any consequences.

They couldn’t tell the difference between the simulation and the real world since this ideal life simulation would be so believable. Then, this experiment asks whether you would plug into this machine and spend the rest of your life in the virtual world.

There are two schools of thought on it. Some argue that since the machine allows people to feel happiness and pleasure without negative consequences, they would plug into it. For them, regardless of whether an experience is real or not, it is the experience that counts.

Others contend that true experiences give life meaning and that sustaining in the virtual world would ultimately cause dissatisfaction.

The experience machine experience poses significant questions concerning the origins of pleasure, happiness, and the worth of genuine experiences.

It prompts us to wonder if we could forgo our actual experiences in favour of the appearance of joy and pleasure and whether such a sacrifice would eventually be worthwhile.

7. THE PRISONER’S DILEMMA

Should you cooperate or defect in a situation where your decision affects others and vice versa?

philosophical thought experiments
Photo: Britannica Encyclopaedia

The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a popular game theory scenario that explores how to strike a balance between self-interest and collaboration. The process is as follows:

Imagine that you and another person are both under investigation for a crime. You are both detained in separate jail cells and cannot communicate with one another.

The prosecution makes the same deal to both of you: in exchange for your cooperation and silence, you will both receive a reduced sentence.

However, if one of you betrays the other and comes forward with a confession while the other refuses to speak, the betrayer will get a reduced sentence while the other gets a harsher one. You will both receive reduced sentences if you both confess.

The dilemma is that it is reasonable to betray the other person regardless of what they do from a purely self-interested perspective. If the other party doesn’t say anything, confessing will guarantee a less penalty.

If the other party admits, admitting will, at the very least, result in a mild penalty, preferable to a harsher one.

However, instead of the lighter sentences, they would have received if they had cooperated, they each receive moderate punishments if both parties betray one another.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma experiment poses significant issues regarding the harmony of self-interest and collaboration.

It makes us wonder if cooperation is always the right course of action, even when it seems counter to our self-interest, and if betraying people ultimately serves our best interests.

8. THE SORITES PARADOX

At what point does a small change in quantity lead to a change in quality?

sorites paradox - adarsh badri - philosophical thought experiments
Photo by jim gade on Unsplash

The Sorites Paradox is one of the philosophical thought experiments which ventures into the nature of limits and how we define them. Here is how it follows:

Imagine a mound of sand with a million grains in it. The pile of sand is unaffected by the removal of even one grain. Even if another grain is removed, it remains a sand pile.

This cycle continues until only a few sand grains are left. When does a sand mound stop becoming a pile? In other words, when does a small change in quantity cause a big difference in quality?

It poses significant issues regarding how we classify things, happenings, and experiences and if there is a definite line dividing one category from another. It also has ramifications for comprehending our decision-making processes and how we view the world.

The Sorites Paradox can be applied to other aspects of life, such as moral judgements, political categorisation, and scientific classification, and is not just applicable to sand or tangible objects.

The paradox forces us to reflect on the limitations of language and how the categories we employ to make sense of the world affect how we see it.

9. THE OMNIPOTENCE PARADOX

Can an all-powerful create a task it cannot complete?

omnipotence paradox - adarsh badri - philosophical thought experiments
Picture: GreatParadox

The “Omnipotence Paradox” is one of the philosophical thought experiments that challenge the idea of omnipotence, or that a being has limitless power. The philosophical thought experiment is as follows:

Is it possible for an all-powerful deity to create a task that it cannot complete? Even if it can come up with such a task, it is not all-powerful because it cannot do it. If it cannot create such a work, it is limited by its incapacity and thus is not all-powerful.

The Omnipotence Paradox poses significant questions regarding the scope of power and the nature of omnipotence. It questions whether a being can have endless power and makes us wonder if the idea of unlimited power is fundamentally paradoxical.

It also has ramifications for comprehending the characteristics of divine beings and the limits of human understanding of religious concepts.

10. PARFIT’S SPLIT-BRAIN

How do we define and measure consciousness, and how does it relate to our senses of self?

split brain - adarsh badri - philosophical thought experiments
Image: LinkedIn

Parfit’s Split Brain, another such philosophical thought experiments, explores the ideas of individual identity and consciousness in the context of split-brain patients. The steps are as follows:

Imagine a person having a surgical procedure where the left and right hemispheres of their brain are surgically separated from one another.

Then, a distinct visual stimulus—such as an image or word—is presented to each hemisphere. Each hemisphere controls the opposing side of the body; therefore, when asked to describe what they observed, the subject can only use one hand.

Parfit’s Split Brain raises questions regarding the basis of personal identity and consciousness. Which of the two brain regions best represents the true self when exposed to numerous stimuli and reacting in varied ways?

Do they have two separate selves, or are they still just one person with two minds? How is consciousness measured, how is it defined, and how is consciousness related to our sense of self?

The Split Brain experiment has implications for patients who undergo split-brain surgery for medical reasons. It also has broader implications for understanding identity, consciousness, and the relationship between the brain and the self.

The experiment fascinates people today and has been the subject of extensive philosophical and scientific study.

11. THE SWAMP MAN

What constitutes a person’s identity?

philosophical thought experiments
Image: Monstrokeuj – Swampman

The Swamp Man is a philosophical thought experiment exploring personal identity and what constitutes an individual’s identity. The instructions are as follows:

Imagine a person hiking in a remote swamp when a tree is struck by lightning, killing him instantaneously. At the same time, a bolt of lightning strikes a marsh, completely recreating the man’s physique down to the last molecule.

This copy, which did not exist before the lightning struck, holds the man’s memories and beliefs. Is this new being still the same person as the original person, or is it a completely different entity?

The Swamp Man experiment challenges our conceptions of what defines a human. It makes one wonder whether bodily continuity, memory, and consciousness are crucial components of personal identity.

It also makes us ponder if identity is a concept that outside forces can determine or whether it results from our own experiences and self-awareness.

12. THE UTILITY MONSTER

Should the happiness of one individual outweigh the happiness of many?

The Utility Monster is one of the philosophical thought experiments that explore the utility and how it relates to moral judgement. The procedure is as follows:

Imagine a being, let’s call it a Utility Monster, significantly more capable of experiencing joy and happiness than any other living creature. The Utility Monster enjoys and is happier than any other being at any given time.

According to utilitarianism, a moral theory that believes that deeds are ethically correct to the degree that they maximise overall happiness or “utility,” the Utility Monster’s preferences should be given more weight than those of other beings.

This implies that it would be morally acceptable to grant the Utility Monster’s wishes, even if doing so might harm others.

The Utility Monster experiment highlights concerns about the influence of personal preferences on moral consequences and tests our grasp of how to make ethical decisions.

It also draws attention to the dangers of a strictly utilitarian view of morality, which could lead to sacrificing many people’s well-being for the advantage of a select few.

The Utility Monster thought experiment explores the limitations and potential flaws of utilitarianism. This moral theory maintains that actions are morally acceptable to the extent that they maximise overall happiness or “utility.”

The experiment questions the idea that maximising overall happiness is always morally right by introducing the idea of a being that enjoys significantly more pleasure and satisfaction from any given experience than any other being does.

The Utility Monster experiment significantly impacts ethical theory because it forces us to consider how much personal preferences and rights factor into moral judgements.

It also raises the question of how we strike a moral balance between the interests of various individuals and social groups and whether such a balance can be reached.

Overall, the Utility Monster experiment is an intriguing and stimulating illustration of how philosophical thought exercises can upend our presumptions and encourage us to consider fundamental issues regarding the nature of morality and ethical judgement.

13. THE VEIL OF IGNORANCE

Would you create a fair society if you did not know your place in it?

veil of ignorance - philosophical thought experiments
Image: Wikipedia

This is my favourite!

The Veil of Ignorance is another philosophical thought experiment that invites participants to see themselves in an initial position of equality behind a veil of ignorance, not knowing their social status, abilities, or place in society.

Philosopher John Rawls proposed it.

This exercise aims to get people to consider the principles of justice that would be applied in this case without considering their own interests or social standing.

Behind the curtain of ignorance, people would choose justifications that would be advantageous to all, irrespective of their particular circumstances, thus establishing a “fair society”.

14. THE PROBLEM OF EVIL

If God is all-powerful and all-good, why does evil exist in the world?

problem of evil - adarsh badri - philosophical thought experiments
Image: Pixabay

The Problem of Evil conundrum poses the question of how to reconcile the existence of evil and suffering in the universe with the belief in an all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good God.

It is stated that if God is all-powerful and all-knowing, they can prevent or stop evil and suffering; if God is all-good, they would prefer to do so.

If God is all-knowing, then they is aware of all the evil and suffering in the world. Therefore, it would seem that the existence of evil and suffering cannot coexist with the existence of an all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good God.

There has been a lot of debate and discussion around the concept of evil in theology and philosophy.

15. MARY’S ROOM

Is there more to conscious experience than just physical processes in the brain?

mary's room - philosophical thought experiments
Image: Medium

Philosopher Frank Jackson propounded Mary’s Room to refute the physicalist theory of the mind-brain connection. The experiment is as follows:

Mary, a talented scientist, has lived her entire life in a room with a TV monitor in black and white. She knows everything there is to know about colour vision, but she has never seen colours.

After being let out of the room one day, she notices a red apple. Despite never having experienced colour vision firsthand, the question is whether Mary learns anything new about what it’s like to see red or if she already knew everything there was to know about it.

In the thought experiment, Mary already knows all the physical details of colour; therefore, whether she discovers anything new when she sees it for the first time.

If she does pick up new information, it implies that physicalism is not a comprehensive account of the mind-brain interaction and that conscious experience involves more than just the physical functioning of the brain.

If she doesn’t discover anything new, physicalism may be true, and all our experiences can be described in terms of physical processes.


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