The Folly of Being Neat : Epistemology of Thought Experiments in Retrospect

Tuesday Seminar
Event Speaker: 
Shinod NK
Event Time: 
03:30 PM to 05:00 PM
Event Venue: 
HSS Committee Room (MS 610)


Philosophers of science debated the epistemology of thought experiments (TE) over the last three decades to reach a stalemate. The philosophical scrutiny of TE has produced at least five mutually incompatible accounts for the epistemology of TE like platonism, argument view, mental-models, experimentalism, and fictionalism. All the above accounts attempts to answer the question “How then, relying exclusively up on the familiar data, can a thought experiment lead to new knowledge or new understanding of nature?” (Kuhn 1977, 63).

In this paper I have two negative theses and a positive one. In the negative theses I argue

(1) Thought experimentation is a heterogeneous activity, and hence, any attempt to reduce thought experimentation to one single epistemological account is doomed to fail.

(2) The central question of TE posed by Kuhn is not a novel problem but the old problem of Induction in disguise.

In the positive thesis, I discuss concept of a “trading zone” introduced by Peter Galison to explain messy laboratory practices of twentieth century physics that could not map on to the paradigm based explanations of Kuhn. I will then show that the epistemology of TE can be adequately account for by employing the idea of trading zone. The historical evolution of the debates on the EPR TE and Maxwell’s Demon will be employed to demonstrate the above points. I will close the discussion by considering some plausible objections.


Dr. Shinod NK is a post-doctoral fellow at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Delhi. His primary research interests are in the History and Philosophy of Science. He completed his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Hyderabad in 2015. His doctoral research was on the epistemological aspects of thought experiments in the natural sciences. Currently, he is studying the philosophy of computer simulation, and thought experiments in natural sciences with a focus on the evidential status of simulation practice. His publications include "Why Thought Experiments do Have a life of Their Own: Defending the Autonomy of Thought Experimentation Method" (2016, JICPR), "There, Russel Was Right: On the Status of Causation in Modern Science" (forthcoming, Gauhati University Journal of Philosophy)