8 Deep Philosophical Experiments Illustrated To Help You Understand Life

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Have you ever wondered how philosophers work? They often use thought experiments – short stories to bring out intuition. Basically, it isn’t possible to do these experiments in real life so they’re done in our heads. This way we can learn something new about the nature of reality, differentiate right and wrong, God’s existence and many more.

Below you’ll see experiments brought to life from various traditions. Actually, all these drawings are made using Paper 53 and iPad drawing app and an Apple Pencil stylus. Scroll down to see.

The missing shade of blue

 Thought Experiment: A man has seen basically all colors except a particular shade of blue. But he has other gradations of this color, and if he were to arrange them in his mind it would become clear that there’s a gap. Can he be able to fill this color using his own imagination?

Significance: Hume came up with this idea to show that we can learn through experience. So in that case, we shouldn’t be able to fill that shade of blue but it seems we can. It’s funny though,  many people thought the man’s sweater was the missing shade of blue. And so did you. Guess what? It isn’t. So I guess it isn’t so easy to fill the gap after all.

Source: Hume D.(1978) Philosophical essays concerning human understanding. London: A. Millar.

The experience machine

Thought Experiment: This machine gives you any experience you’d like. Want to become a famous jockey or writer? Would you like to have many friends? This machine will do it for you. It will make you believe it’s actually happening while in reality, you’re floating inside a tank with electrodes fixed to your brain. While in this machine, your life is preprogrammed to for maximum pleasure. But while in there you might think it is real.

Significance: It brings up the question whether happiness is actually more than pleasure. Mostly, we think pleasure is sufficient for happiness. This is called hedonism. But the experience machine challenges this idea. If pleasure were enough, you’d plug in yourself in an instant without thinking. But, in reality, most of us would hesitate. This according to Nozick is because we want more out of life. We have life goals and projects – living a fake life wouldn’t fulfill those. So, the bottom line is hedonism is wrong.

Source: Nozick R. (1974) Anarchy, utopia, and the state. New York: Basic Books.

Child at the well

Thought Experiment: It considers a child who’s about to fall in a well. Normally, you’d feel alarmed by this.  This wouldn’t be because you want a favor from the kid’s parents, praise from neighbors and friends, because you dislike the crying of the child, or because your reputation would suffer if you didn’t help the child. Mengzi, the philosopher, then concluded that the feeling of compassion is fundamental to human beings.

Significance: Mengzi,  hailed from China in the 4th Century BCE who followed the Kongzi tradition ( Confucius). He came up with the theory that humans have roots ( “sprouts”) of morality: ren (humanity/compassion), yi( rightness), ri (ritual propriety) and zhi(wisdom). These sprouts are present in all of us but they need to be cultivated and watered to grow and flourish. In conclusion, humans beings are innately compassionate.

Source: Mengzi (2008/4th Century BC). Mengzi: with all selection from traditional commentaries (trans. B. Van Norden). Indianapolis: Hackett.

Sleeping beauty

Thought Experiment: A sleeping beauty takes part in the experiment, whereby she is put to sleep by researchers. She’s told a coin will be flipped. Each time she wakes she is put back to sleep using a drug to forget her waking up.  Then they toss the fair coin. If it lands on tails, she is woken up briefly on Monday and Tuesday. If it’s heads, she’s only woken up on Monday. So, when she awakes on Monday what’s the possibility the coin landed on heads?

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Significance: So is the probability of landing Heads is ½? After all, the baseline chance is ½ and the beauty doesn’t receive any new information. Adam Elga thinks the beauty credence should be 1/3. Beauty doesn’t know whether it’s Tuesday or Monday, so she’d think it could be either. Given that when beauty awakes, P (Tails and Tuesday)= P (Tails and Monday)= P( heads and Monday). Then, the probability of each is 1/3.


Source: Elga A. (2009). Self-locating belief and the Sleeping Beauty Problem. Analysis, 60, 143-147.

Otto and Inga Visit the Museum

Thought Experiment: Both Otto and Inga need to visit the Museum of Modern arts. Unfortunately, Otto has Alzheimer’s and consults a notebook that he always carries with him. It says that MoMA is on the 53rd street. Inga consults her biological memory and concludes the same. Now, it seems that Inga has a belief on where MoMA is before retrieving it from her biological memory. But what about Otto’s case? Although it isn’t stored in the memory it is stored in a notebook. Can we say that Otto’s entry about the museum’s location is belief?

Significance: In this case, it seems what’s on Otto’s notebook is exactly the same as what is in Inga’s mind. So, if Inga’s memory of the location of MoMA is a belief, so is Otto’s memory even if it isn’t in his brain. You could argue that Otto’s notebook can be tampered with or probably stolen. But, Inga’s brain can also be manipulated e.g. when she’s drunk.

Source: Clark, A. & Chalmers, D.(1998) he extended mind. Analysis 58, 7-19

The Invincible Gardener

Thought Experiment: It’s about two men who return to their neglected garden. Flowers are blooming even though the garden is a bit wild. One of the men proclaims, “ There must be a gardener at work here!”. “ I don’t think so,” the other replies. To see who’s right they examine the land carefully  and even ask the neighbors , who haven’t seen anyone attend to the garden. They also check out what happens to gardens left without care. “You see,” says the skeptical one, “ there’s no gardener here.” The believer replies, “ The gardener is invincible, and if we look more carefully we’ll find the evidence, that he comes unseen and unheard. The other still maintains there’s no gardener. How can this be settled?

Significance:   Clearly, this is an analogy about the existence of God. The non-atheist sees design the atheist doesn’t. To what extent can we see some features of reality as evidence for or against God’s existence? Or is it two different ways of seeing things: as a wilderness or as a garden?

Source: Wisdom J. (1944/45) Gods. Proceeding of the Aristotelian society, 45, 185-206.

The Russian Nobleman

Thought Experiment: Upon inheriting estates, a young noble Russian man, intends to give his estates to the poor. Then, he realizes that his ideals might change. So, he puts his intentions in a legal document that can only be revoked by his wife. He even asks her to promise not to consent if he changes his mind later on. “If I lose those ideals , I want you to think that I cease to exist.” Now, suppose in middle age the Russian nobleman asks his wife to revoke his documents. What should she do?

Significance: It’s a puzzle about personal identity. Is the Old Russian nobleman the same as the young man? Should his wife be released from her promise?

Source: Parfit, D.(1984) Reasons and Persons. University Press.

The  Floating Man

Thought Experiment: This occurs severally in Ibn Sina ( Avicenna’s) writings. Just imagine, a man is brought into existence as an adult out of thin air, so he has no earlier memories. He’s floating in the air, eyes closed, he can’t hear anything, and his limbs and fingers are spread out so he doesn’t feel his own body either. Now, would this man be aware of himself?

Significance: The question being addressed here is whether we are the same as our bodies. Avicenna thinks otherwise – a floating man would be aware of something. It can’t be of any bodily experience and he doesn’t have any memories either. Therefore, awareness must be of his soul.

Source: Avicenna’s writings

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