What is a Thought Experiment, Anyhow?

Our philosophical science correspondent Massimo Pigliucci asks.

Philosophers are often accused of engaging in armchair speculation, as far removed from reality as possible, inside the proverbial ivory tower. The quintessential example of this practice is the thought experiment, which many scientists sneer at precisely because it doesn’t require one to get one’s hands dirty. And yet scientists have often engaged in thought experiments, some of which have marked major advances in our understanding of the world.

Just consider the famous example of Galileo’s thought experiment demonstrating (rather counterintuitively) that two objects of different weight must fall at the same speed. (Contrary to popular belief, Galileo never actually climbed the leaning tower of Pisa to do this experiment – he didn’t need to.

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