About Thought Experiments

[content note: non-graphic mention of rape in second-to-last paragraph]

Thought experiments are useful.

Not all thought experiments, not in every form, not on every topic, i.e. not everything someone might call a “thought experiment” is inherently useful, valuable, or worth entertaining. A well-designed thought experiment however can increase understanding of a concept, explore new questions and perspectives, clarify otherwise murky aspects of various issues, and uncover flaws and contradictions in ideas[1].

Probably most important for a useful thought experiment is that something new can be learned through it. A thought experiment needs to present us with a new idea or a new perspective on an idea that lacks the biases of familiar perspectives. For example, there would be little value in re-inventing Maxwell’s demon, because this perspective on the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics is now well-explored, with much critical as well as supportive work already in existence[2]. A thought experiment on this topic would have to introduce something genuinely novel to be worthwhile.

Thought experiments are also very susceptible to the garbage-in-garbage-out problem: a thought experiment is only as useful as the experimenter’s understanding of a topic. Premises that reflect a misunderstanding or lack of knowledge will lead to faulty conclusions, and so do badly structured experiments. And sometimes, the flawed results can become highly influential, especially when they reaffirm already held erroneous beliefs. Descartes’ rationalist (in the counter-empirical, all-knowledge-comes-from-reason sense[3]) thought experiments stuck the world with Cartesian dualism[4], an incorrect worldview that infests many everyday concepts and many ideas about humans as individuals and as social actors. However, even when thought experiments have no connection to reality by design rather than through ignorance, the output is often garbage, because they are useless. Even though thought experiments are hypothetical and often quite unrealistic scenarios, the specific aspect that is to be evaluated in the experiment needs to be reflective of a real-world issue if it is to be of any use other than to entertain the experimenter.

A last essential feature of a well-designed thought experiment is clarity. Since the value of a thought experiment lies largely in providing new insights, making them inaccessible or muddled is counterproductive. This is especially so in situations where the thought experiment is already addressing a difficult issue that is e.g. very complex, or subject to strong cultural/emotional/intellectual/etc biases. A useful thought experiment reduces a problem to only the salient parts; takes principles, structures, or ideas out of their fraught or biased context and sets them into a new, neutral (because uncontroversial or else completely fictional) context; and/or creates scenarios in which empirically impossible separations of variables might be attempted. One of my favorite examples of a well-designed thought experiment is the Famous Violinist.

The Famous Violinist is a thought experiment at the core of Judith Jarvis Thomson’s essay exploring the ethics of abortion from a perspective that, in 1971, was novel to the debate over the ethics and legal status of pregnancy termination. The beauty of that particular experiment is the way in which it tosses out the cultural and religious ballast attached to reproduction, sex, and the control of female-assigned bodies that makes abortion such an intractable issue. It does so by creating a completely new context for the issue of whether or not a “right to life” supersedes the right to autonomy over one’s body: instead of “woman”, the person is “you”; instead of reproduction, the issue is a fatal illness; and sex is not anywhere in the picture at all. Similarly, it removes needlessly complicating variables from the discussion: by making the dependent dying person an adult with full human rights, the experiment shows the irrelevance of personhood to the issue. The essay also addresses many real-world scenarios and contingencies that follow both from the anti-abortionist conclusion (that right-to-life outweighs right-to-bodily-autonomy), and from the reverse[5]. The Famous Violinist thought experiment brought a new perspective to an ancient argument, it simplified it and removed it from emotionally and culturally loaded contexts, and showed its real-world applications and relevance, making it an incredibly useful thought experiment in moral philosophy.

Incidentally, it also answers the question “Do we discuss the hypothetical intra-uterine poet, or does emotion simply close down the discussion, in either direction?”[6]. We have discussed it already, 43 years ago. The career change from violinist to poet adds nothing to the conversation, so let’s stop beating a very dead horse, especially when doing so hurts those whose rights and bodies are being pontificated upon.

All of this is to say that when e.g. a Richard Dawkins creates a “thought experiment” that is structurally and substantively trivial but for which he purposefully uses emotionally charged examples (which are also factually inaccurate and promote harmful ideas about rape[7]), people will criticize him and his “experiment”. And they will do so not to create taboos, or because they don’t understand its logic, or because they’re emotional. It will be because that specific experiment is worse than useless; it is so trivial it produces nothing of value, while the examples are so toxic they produce harm; it is sensible to reject that.

And doing so is not rejection of thought experiments. Rejecting useless or harmful forms of thought experiment is not rejecting thought experiments in general, not even on sensitive topics. Rejection and criticism of false premises, especially those that are already perpetuated as “common knowledge” despite their inaccuracy; of provocation for the sake of provocation, especially when the target is vulnerable to harm as a result of the provocation; and of endless rehashing of the same point over and over again is not a witch-hunt. It is not censorship, is not creating no-go zones, is not rejection of thought experiments in general. It’s the rejection of a shoddily structured and harmful attempt at edginess that contributes nothing new or valuable to public discourse on any of the topics touched upon.

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[1] Brown, J.R. & Fehige, Y. (2011). “Thought Experiments”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. [web]. Retrieved from here.

[2] Cohen, M. (2005). Wittgenstein’s Beetle and Other Classic Thought Experiments. [book]. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing Ltd. pp. 25-27

[3] Blanshard, B. (2014). “Rationalism”, Encyclopædia Britannica. [web]. Retrieved from here.

[4] Descartes, R. (1641). Meditations on the First Philosophy in which the Existence of God and the Distinction between Mind and Body are Demonstrated. Translation by Haldane, E.S. (1911).

[5] Thomson, J.J. (Fall 1971). “A Defense of Abortion”, originally published in Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 1(1). [web]. Retrieved from here.

[6] Dawkins, R. (Jul 30, 2014). “Are there emotional no-go areas where logic dare not show its face?”, Richard Dawkins Foundation. [web]. Retrieved from here.

[7] Miller, A.F. (Jul 29, 2014). “Richard Dawkins on Date Rape vs Stranger Rape”, Ashley F Miller. [blog] Retrieved from here.

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Rending the Tent: A Statement from the Secular Woman Community

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**UPDATED 2014-03-18 8:25 AM**

The Secular Woman Board of Directors and larger community hold a woman’s bodily autonomy to be out of bounds for debate, negotiation, or compromise. We therefore vehemently oppose any action which legitimizes, accommodates, invites, or welcomes anti-choice elements into the secular movement. We reject the argument that free inquiry demands consideration of anti-choice viewpoints. We reject the argument that the quest for diversity and growth in the secular movement means including those who question, deny, or advocate against the reproductive rights of women. We reject these arguments as forcefully as we reject the idea that the humanity of racial, ethnic, gender, or sexual minorities deserves closer examination by the secular movement.

Entertaining anti-choice arguments delegitimizes women’s humanity and bodily autonomy; which is why we have been disturbed and appalled to witness the President of American Atheists, David Silverman, commenting on the existence of secular anti-choice arguments during an interview at CPAC without providing any context as to the validity of said arguments. After acknowledging the arguments exists he stated that “You can’t deny that it’s there, and it’s maybe not as clean cut as school prayer, right to die, and gay marriage.” This statement served to position anti-abortion arguments as legitimate contenders alongside social justice arguments for marriage equality, etc.

Vision Statement: Secular Woman envisions a future in which women without supernatural beliefs have the opportunities and resources they need to participate openly and confidently as respected voices of leadership in the secular community and every aspect of society.

This resulted in reasonable and justifiable disagreement, backlash, and explanations by other atheists of why this statement dehumanizes women. Almost immediately after Silverman’s comment and the resulting push-back, JT Eberhard published a defense of Silverman and then Hemant Mehta* of the Friendly Atheist published a piece by Kristine Kruszelnicki of Pro-Life Humanists without any redress from Mehta.

At this point, the President of Secular Woman, Kim Rippere, reached out to Mehta to see if he would interview her to give his readers the viewpoint that secular pro-choice is pro-life.  We were stunned at his response. While he supports abortion rights, Hemant said, he is not interested in doing an interview or providing a balanced viewpoint to his readers. He condescendingly suggested that he could put us in touch with his guest blogger directly, and that she would be “eager to have the debate.” Our assertion remains that basic human rights of women are not up for debate!

Value: We support every person’s right to bodily and sexual autonomy. Gender expression, sexual orientation, and matters of intimacy are for individuals to determine.

We at Secular Woman have no interest in debating and arguing about a woman’s right to make her own medical decisions. Our stance is clear: abortions should be safe, legal, accessible, and shame free. Spending our energy debating with 13 people about women’s bodily sovereignty is wasteful; instead we will put our energies toward education, advocacy, and breaking down barriers to care.

In light of our recent exchange, it bears remembering that Mehta was also unenthusiastic about the launch of our reproductive rights project, @AbortTheocracy. When the project launched, he wrote that the image was too strong, worrying that our critics would see it as a baby-killing party.

Value: We oppose all attempts to criminalize or limit access to comprehensive reproductive services such as contraception and abortion.

While it is not our contention that either Mehta or Silverman are personally anti-choice (indeed Silverman announced clearly his pro-choice position in a blog comment), this exchange between Mehta and Silverman’s comments on abortion makes obvious that at least some atheists are unclear on why entertaining women’s rights as an issue that can be up for debate alienates and harms women while simultaneously giving fodder to those who advocate denying women basic human rights.

We are left incredulous at the failure to understand, at the complete lack of repudiation of the oppressive stance their comments and actions validate, and the disconnect between these men’s personal pro-choice stance and their words and resulting behaviors. What seems to be lost on Silverman, Mehta and others is that debating women’s humanity is not an academic exercise because our right to bodily autonomy is far from settled, legally or socially.

Overall, we are exceedingly disappointed with the recent talk surrounding women’s rights in the atheist and secular communities.  Atheism is already struggling with anti-feminism and atheist leaders and writers uncritically giving voice to anti-choice views will serve to further push women to the fringes of the movement – if they even bother to join at all.

During a time when women’s rights are being viciously attacked by conservatives (especially religious conservatives) at the state and federal level, it is appalling to see that leaders of atheists organizations are reaching out to those who reject women’s right to bodily autonomy and appear willing to use women as a bargaining chip to advance the atheist movement’s growth and support the so-called big tent. Big tents have their limits! A tent that includes people who reject basic bodily autonomy for over half the population is not big enough to include anyone else who values human rights. We agree that the atheist movement should be big enough to embrace different viewpoints but we draw the line at viewpoints that reject the humanity of women.


*On March18, 2014 Kim Rippere received this from Hemant:

Hi, Kim — I just saw your post on Secular Woman (http://www.secularwoman.org/rending-the-te…oman-community/) and I realized there was a complete miscommunication on my end regarding your email.

When I read your initial email to me, I understood it to mean that Secular Woman wanted to interview *me* about *my* views on the pro-choice side and the right to choose. I said no because I didn’t feel like my positions on those issues needed any clarification (I’m strongly pro-choice) — and that’s why I suggested you interview Kristine instead.

Reading your post and re-reading your emails, I realize you were requesting that I interview YOU about those issues, to provide the opposing perspective to Kristine’s piece. (That also makes your subsequent email to me make a little more sense.)

1) My apologies for misunderstanding what you were requesting. Had I understood correctly, my answers would’ve been different.

2) I would be happy to provide you (or a member of your group) a forum on my site if you were up for writing a response. But what I’d be interested in posting is A) a rebuttal to the specific things Kristine wrote about and B) the facts/data behind why being pro-choice makes sense. As with all posts on my site, I’ll work with the writer with edits.

3) Given this misunderstanding, I hope you can clarify your post to reflect that — and not state that I rejected a pro-choice perspective on my site. That was never my intention.

Please let me know that you got this? Thanks.