How to Play With Philosophical Thought Experiments

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Think Like a Rocket Scientist" by Ozan Varol. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Have you ever conducted philosophical thought experiments? How can they help you reach your goals?

Philosophers aren’t the only ones who use thought experiments. Anyone who has a big task to undertake or a huge goal to reach can play with thought experiments. Think of them as a form of unstructured play that can unleash your curiosity and creativity, pushing you toward new ways of thinking and doing things.

Keep reading to learn how to use philosophical thought experiments.

Playing With Philosophical Thought Experiments

According to author and former rocket scientist Ozan Varol, achieving seemingly impossible goals requires unrestrained creative thinking. To spark that creativity, Varol recommends using philosophical thought experiments. A thought experiment is an imaginary scenario you create in your mind in order to think through an idea, often in the form of a hypothetical question. For example, in Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman proposes the thought experiment: What if Hitler had been born female? (Shortform note: Varol classifies thought experiments as tools for creativity, but that’s not their only application: They can also be used purely for fun or as an educational tool to get students thinking in new ways.)

Varol doesn’t recommend any specific thought experiments because the questions you ask should be unique to you and your areas of interest (for example, if you’re in healthcare, you might ask, “What would happen if we replaced human doctors with AI?”) Instead of following a specific formula, Varol recommends thinking of thought experiments as a form of unstructured play. Play is a valuable enterprise: It’s purposeless by definition, but that doesn’t make it useless. If you spend more time mentally playing by asking asking “Why?” and “What would happen if…?”, you may just stumble on a solution that puts your seemingly impossible dream within practical reach. (Shortform note: In The Gifts of Imperfection, author and researcher Brené Brown argues that play is more than just a helpful tool for creativity: It is literally essential to human happiness.)

However, according to Varol, the modern world discourages curiosity. Why?

  • It’s fundamentally disruptive to the status quo. 
  • It requires admitting that we don’t have all the answers.
  • It doesn’t promote efficiency (which is all about answers, not questions).

As a result, many of us gradually lose that childlike curiosity as we age. Varol argues that schools play a part in this because the American school system is designed to produce workers, not thinkers. (Shortform note: Many historians agree that the traditional American education system was created in response to the industrial revolution. Factories needed literate workers who could follow directions from authority figures, but pre-industrial workers were used to working on their own farms or in their own shops with little need to obey orders. Thus, schools as we know them sprang up as training centers to produce “punctual, docile, and sober” factory workers rather than independent thinkers.)

How Rocket Scientists Play With Thought Experiments

Varol notes that many famous scientists (like Einstein and Galileo) used philosophical thought experiments to drive their biggest discoveries. You may have heard of the famous “Schrödinger’s Cat” thought experiment, proposed by physicist Erwin Schrödinger, in which a hypothetical cat is locked inside a box with a bottle of poison that will open at an unknown time. It’s impossible to know when the poison will be released, which means it’s impossible to know whether the cat is alive or dead without opening the box to check. Thus, the cat can be considered simultaneously alive and dead until the box is opened. 

Varol describes how Schrödinger created this thought experiment to illustrate logical flaws in the “Copenhagen interpretation” of quantum physics, which held that “superpositions” (being in two states at once) were possible for quantum particles. The famous thought experiment poked holes in this theory by making it more concrete—intuitively, we know a cat cannot be both alive and dead, so the idea of “superpositions” must be similarly false. 

Can We Actually Learn Anything From Thought Experiments?

Philosophers are torn on whether the sort of “intuitive” solution that the Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment produces actually counts as “knowledge.” Some philosophers are Platonists (named for Plato): They believe that philosophical thought experiments can generate real knowledge the same way scientific experiments can. Thus, in their view, we can consider the conclusion of Schrödinger’s thought experiment—that, intuitively, we know that just as a cat can’t both be alive and dead, superpositions cannot be true—knowledge, because the experiment doesn’t have to take place in the observable, “real” world to be valid.

Other philosophers are empiricists: They believe that empirical experiments (using the scientific method) are the only way to generate new knowledge. In this view, all thought experiments can do is help us remember things we’ve previously learned by observing the physical world. Thus, in their view, we can’t consider Schrödinger’s conclusion accepted knowledge, since he hasn’t definitively observed that a cat cannot be alive and dead (or that superpositions don’t exist)—the experiment took place in his head, rather than the (observable) real world.

Varol doesn’t take an explicit stand on this debate, but we can infer that he believes in taking the best of both worlds: Use thought experiments to come up with new ideas, then test them in the real world to see how they hold up. We’ll learn more about how to test ideas in Principle 7. 

How You Can Play With Thought Experiments

Here are Varol’s top tips for using philosophical thought experiments to spark your imagination: 

1) Imagine yourself as a six- or seven-year-old child. You have no responsibilities, no bills to pay—your only job is to play and imagine. In those circumstances, where would your mind naturally wander? Remember, it’s all just play—you don’t have to commit to or implement anything you come up with during a thought experiment. There are no stakes. (Shortform note: Letting your mind wander like this may seem a bit pointless, especially if you’re not going to implement the ideas you devise. However, Essentialism author Greg McKeown argues that unfocused play is an essential precursor to creativity. Put differently, you simply cannot come up with new ideas unless you take the time to play.)

2) Let yourself feel bored. Varol argues that boredom is important and endangered. It gives the mind enough rest and space to expand and make new connections that it can’t make while distracted or laser-focused on a problem. To give yourself space for boredom (and, subsequently, creative inspiration) to kick in, try taking a shower, going for a walk, or spending time daydreaming. (Shortform note: Allowing yourself to feel boredom can be difficult because we’ve conditioned ourselves to expect constant entertainment through technology. As Cal Newport argues in Deep Work, ubiquitous technology has literally rewired our brains to be addicted to distraction.) 

3) Try combinatory play—the act of combining dissimilar things. Combinatory play is important for creativity. For this reason, many successful people dabble in diverse fields in order to help them develop ideas in their primary field. For example, Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull set up a program called “Pixar University,” in which employees can take classes in subjects like sculpting and juggling. 

To take advantage of combinatory play, collect insight and experiences from as many different fields as possible. Read books and watch films about subjects well outside your area of expertise. Try taking a class in or attending a conference on a new subject.

Combinatory Play Lowers the Stakes

Varol doesn’t touch on another reason combinatory play is so powerful: It lowers the stakes. When you work within your own area of expertise, you may feel extra pressure to succeed—however, when you work on something outside your area of expertise, no one expects you to perform well. That way, you can take the pressure off yourself to come up with an earth-shattering idea, which frees your mind to pursue innovative solutions for their own sake.

In Creativity, Inc., Catmull describes how Pixar University classes take advantage of these lowered stakes to promote team bonding. Employees in these classes are trying something outside their usual field, so they’re all automatically beginners. This allows employees to transcend the usual hierarchy and create social bonds with people they may not otherwise interact with in the company.

Philosophical thought experiments could be just the thing to unlock your creativity and help you reach your goals.

How to Play With Philosophical Thought Experiments

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  • How to solve problems like billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk
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Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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