Science, Now + Beyond

These thought experiments will make your head explode

Prepare to have your morals and mental faculties tested.

Chances are you’ve come across a thought experiment or two in your lifetime. Even more so if you’ve ever taken a philosophy or a theoretical class.

A thought experiment is a way to understand and engage with complex ideas in understandable concepts. A way to investigate the nature of things. You’ll find them across varied disciplines including economics, history, mathematics, and especially science.

Given their tie-ins with heavy theories, dressing them up in lively scenarios equips them with the best chance of engagement. Enough so that they’ve become popular fodder in pop culture – you don’t have to look farther than NBC’s The Good Place.

So charge up those critical thinking skills and try (or fry!) your brain cells with these doozies:

1. The trolley problem

A man in a black sweater is on a set of train tracks. As he moves away, another man dressed in a blue train costume comes knocking into him.
[Image description: A man in a black sweater is on a set of train tracks. As he moves away, another man dressed in a blue train costume comes knocking into him.] Via GIPHY
A train is barreling down the tracks where five people just happen to be. Somehow, you find yourself standing next to the railroad switch. Huzzah! You can save the group by switching tracks. However, on the other track is one person. Do you switch? 

We’re toeing into a world of moral and ethical philosophy here, and this particular experiment was posited in 1967. However, you’ll be surprised at how current this conversation is. Take self-driving cars. If you’re in the said car and a group of pedestrians step in front, should the car be programmed to barrel through or veer sideways, killing you?

Personally, I would take the utilitarian approach. One life over five. However, there are enough offshoots to this argument to make your head spin. What if the group of people are “bad”? Or what if the one person on the other track is a loved one? This is no easy decision to make. My throat’s already closing up thinking about this…

2. The experience machine

A cartoon boy in a yellow shirt is hooked into a machine via a helmet on his head. His eyes are wide and show flashing images.
[Image description: A cartoon boy in a yellow shirt is hooked into a machine via a helmet on his head. His eyes are wide and show flashing images.] Via Rick and Morty
We all want to be happy. We want to wake up to the sound of birds chirping, the sun shining (or the like), and find ourselves in a beautiful world with no troubles to be seen, relatively speaking. And you can have all this… in a simulation. 

Let’s say scientists can engineer your dream world. All you have to do is be plugged into a machine forever, never to wake. The life you “live” will be just as you want it to be and you won’t even know it isn’t real. Do you plug in?

This was put forward by philosopher Robert Nozick in 1974 as a way to refute ethical hedonism. Hedonism’s roots lie in the belief that life is to be spent in pursuit of pleasure and anything that doesn’t offer pleasure, does nothing to contribute to one’s well-being. Therefore, for someone to choose reality with all its issues over a simulation would defeat hedonism. 

My response would be a no. I love being happy, as undoubtedly so does everyone else. However, I’ve long come to realize that without the struggles and shitty moments, we’re hard-pressed to truly enjoy the good we have in life. Would I wish some struggles away? Yes. But a simulation is a simulation, and I couldn’t make the decision to go into it knowing that there’s still life outside of it.

3. The violinist

A pregnant blonde woman in a white shirt wags her finger and says "No uterus, no opinion".
[Image description: A pregnant blonde woman in a white shirt wags her finger and says “No uterus, no opinion”.] Via GIPHY
You wake and find yourself back to back with an unconscious violinist, a pipe connecting you both. Turns out, the violinist is dying of a fatal kidney ailment and the Society of Music Lovers found that only your blood can save him. Scientific jargon aside, you’re to be plugged in for nine months. If you remove the connection before that, the violinist will die. 

A highly unusual situation, no doubt, but look closer and you’ll see it parallel quite a common one – pregnancy. This experiment was posited in a moral philosophy paper by Judith Thomson as a defense for abortion. 

I would disconnect. It sounds horrible and it’s not an easy decision to make considering another person’s life lies in your hands but your life is your life, and in this instance, whatever you choose has to serve you best. Just my two cents.

4. Omnipotence paradox

A cartoon clip shows a yellow man in a white shirt reading off a piece of paper. He reads aloud "Would Jesus microwave a burrito so hot, that he himself could not eat it?"
[Image description: A cartoon clip shows a yellow man in a white shirt reading off a piece of paper. He reads aloud “Would Jesus microwave a burrito so hot, that he himself could not eat it?”] Via The Simpsons
Does an omnipotent being have any limits? Well, no, because then they wouldn’t be omnipotent. That being said, such a being should be able to use its power to overcome itself by, say, creating a rock that is too heavy for it to lift. If the being does so, it is omnipotent except now there’s a rock It can’t lift… ow, my brain. Paradoxes will keep you running in circles!

This falls within a family of paradoxes which came into being based around arguments around the term omnipotence and falls into religious debates concerning God, or God’s lack thereof.

My. Brain. Can’t. Handle. This.

We’re leveling God at our playing field. If God was to create such a rock and not be able to lift it, it could simply be that that is the very nature of the rock. The rock could then be removed from existence, thus showing a power higher than the very nature of the thing that cannot be overpowered.

Does your brain hurt too?

5. Prisoner’s dilemma

A cartoon clips shows a TV screen with a recording playing. In it, a dark-haired man in an interrogation room says "I really don't want to be a snitch." Off-camera, a man named Wiggum responds "Don't worry."
[Image description: A cartoon clips shows a TV screen with a recording playing. In it, a dark-haired man in an interrogation room says “I really don’t want to be a snitch.” Off-camera, a man named Wiggum responds “Don’t worry.”] Via GIPHY
Here’s a situation: you and your buddy are criminal gangsters. Unfortunately, you get caught but the prosecutors only have enough evidence to charge you for a small crime. Both of you have been placed in separate interrogation rooms, with no means of communication, and are given the same spiel which lays out three If-scenarios.

  • Both of you remain silent, and both of you will be charged for the lesser crime and serve one year.
  • You confess but your partner stays silent, meaning you will be set free and your partner will serve three years.
  • Both of you confess – that’s two years each.

What do you do? Do you confess just in case your buddy does too, or do you confess in hopes that your partner won’t? Or do you remain silent in hopes that they too remain silent?

This hypothetical draws from game theory showing why two rational individuals may choose to not behave rationally, AKA the path which leads to their best interest. It’s a risk versus reward situation. Personally, I’ve already had this conversation with my pals and we’re opting for Scenario A. Best be prepared folks, or well, not commit crime…

In spite of all the fun and games, thought experiments are an excellent way of using theory to flesh out real-world consequences and often serve as great allegories to certain situations which often seem too complex at first.