It is not uncommon to find a huge emphasis on thought experiments in applied philosophy.

Much of the hypotheticals thrown around in applied philosophy are usually an extreme hypothetical similar to the main issue, specifically attempting to invoke a contradictory feeling for the rule/principle it was arguing against; thus settling its case. An example would be Judith Thomson's guitarist example (how well it accomplishes the intended task is beside the point).

I am aware of the logical commitments that there are with a theoretical line/rule. If I were to impose a theoretical rule, I should be committed to it in every possible situation.

Having said that, I would argue that the use of extreme hypotheticals against a theoretical line should have some sort of restriction, especially in applied philosophy. Is there some sort of defense that can be provided for such a restriction, or is it merely a cost we have to pay for playing with abstract concepts in the practical domain?

  • It would be nice to have some examples of what you mean. It should be clear that the IF . . . THEN structure is called conditionals or hypotheticals. For instance, If you are a man then you are mortal. This structure can hold multiple contexts in regular English & doesn't always represent a Mathematical statement. Perhaps you realize some things explained in math class do not always apply to reality. Imposing a rule without exception is consistent. Moral rules ought to be in that format to be taken seriously for instance.
    – Logikal
    Aug 20 '19 at 17:12
  • By hypothetical I do not mean a hypothetical imperative but merely a thought experiment that is meant to invoke some thought about a scenario. I have given an example already in the passage of what kind of hypothetical I am talking about. Aug 20 '19 at 20:48
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    If one is offering a pragmatic guideline for applications rather than an absolute rule then extreme counterexamples (or even rarely occurring non-extreme ones) can be dismissed as moot. Criticisms of absolute principles are particularly common in ethics, see SEP.
    – Conifold
    Aug 20 '19 at 22:47
  • The example from Thomson you gave expresses not just any ole argument with any ole premises. That argument is a moral argument which is another category called normative ethics. Normative ethics deals with universal concepts / principles that are independent of any personal opinion, subjectivity, cultural beliefs, legal obligations, societal norms, etc. This is known as a proper morality topic at least in philosophy. So as long as you dont confuse this with psychology or human nature, Yes it means if the concept or principle is true then you ought to accept the entire argument.
    – Logikal
    Aug 21 '19 at 12:47
  • @Logikal I disagree. It's a subtopic in applied ethics which does not (or atleast should not) consider itself with hard theoretical principles to account for the cost of doing abstract thinking in the practical domain (allowing for physical constraints). Aug 22 '19 at 9:32

Are there limits to the Gedankspiel or thought experiment? First recognizing the nature of the particular thought experiment is helpful. For instance, if the reasoning starts out with assumptions prior to fact, then one must recognize further along in reason that the basis is counter factual. (See Thought Experiment for some additional types.)

But ultimately, the limit of what one has to recognize in thought experiments is that they are exercises in rationality, generally presumed to be detached from empirical evidence. Thought experiments are often NOT extreme hypotheticals, but rather hypotheticals incapable of being tested in reality. The classic example of the Gendankspiel is Einstein's envisioning himself traveling on a train moving at the speed of light, and asking himself, what would light look like? The question led him in developing mathematical theory which in turn eventually led to physical tests.

Anyone can attack a thought experiment by attacking the presumptions that undergird it. For instance, if one chooses to talk of possible worlds, one might argue against the existence of possible worlds. To some extent, attacking a thought experiment is simpler than attacking a proposition based on empirical evidence, because a thought experiment lacks something in the way of empirical support by definition. There are no fast and easy rules, because thought experiments are as varied as thought itself, so the particular vulnerabilities of any particular thought experiment are going to be tied to the quality of inference. If a thought experiment relies on informal logical fallacy, one has to find the specious reasoning.

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