Tutor: Plebani Matteo
Supervisor: Crupi Vincenzo
Progetto: The epistemology of thought experiments and the problem of deviant realizations
The general aim of my research is to investigate the epistemology of thought experiments, with special attention to connecting the philosophical studies on the topic with the relevant psychological literature.
During my first year of research, I mainly focused on one of the problems that affect the reliability and the use of thought experiments as argumentative tools, namely the problem of deviant realizations. The problem concerns the interpretation of the scenarios described by thought experiments: since they are hypothetical and limited, it is possible to fill them in with details that are coherent with the original story but modify the intuitive judgment elicited by the thought experiment. The standard strategy used in the literature to deal with the problem of deviant realizations takes for granted that the possible deviant realizations don’t jeopardize the use of thought experiments: the participants in the debate tend to acknowledge the possibility of deviant realizations, but they do not thoroughly investigate whether deviant realizations really have a negative impact on the interpretation process of readers. Rather, they proceed to formalize the intuitions they elicit in a way that makes them deviance-proof. Instead, I suggest taking more seriously the problem that deviant realizations might distort our reasoning with thought experimental scenarios. I therefore propose to deal with the problem of deviant realizations from a broader pragmatic perspective and investigate whether and why readers misinterpret thought experiments in real life. To this aim, we should both look at the literature on linguistic pragmatics (as suggested by Pierre Saint-Germier), but also take into account the best psychological studies on text interpretation. As a result, we concluded that thought experiments are interpreted according to an anchoring and adjustment heuristic. Such heuristics do not provide an infallible interpretation method, but rather guide a process that, under the right circumstances, reliably provides the reader with the intended interpretation. The interpretation process is reliable enough to allow us to generally use thought experiments successfully. Moreover, the psychological literature provides us with information about the reasons why readers might interpret thought experiments in a deviant way, which gives us interesting normative guidelines for writing effective scenarios.
During my second year, I plan to extend my research to other related epistemological questions that concern thought experiments. In particular, while dealing with the problem of deviant realizations, I generally treated thought experiments as instruments providing some kind of factual evidence intended as an intuitive judgment elicited by the scenario in the reader. However, the question of how to account for thought experiments and how to explain how they provide new information about the world without any new data input is still open. With respect to this problem, often referred to as the dilemma of informativeness, I plan to investigate the different existing accounts of thought experiments, with particular attention to the mental-model account, according to which the manipulation of the scenario described by a thought experiment is non-propositional in nature. In particular, I will investigate the psychological angle on mental models in order to clarify their functioning and reliability.
Second, in order to better understand the functioning of thought experiments and the elements that jeopardize their correct use and interpretation, I plan on investigating different modes of presentations of thought experiments, such as virtual reality and videogames, that can be thought of as executable thought experiments. Once again, the psychological literature will provide interesting insight on how individuals process virtual reality and thought experiments in virtual reality.