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What are mental experiments? Uses and examples

What are mental experiments? Uses and examples

June 24, 2024

The mental experiments are one of the many instruments we have created to understand and explain how the phenomena that surround us occur. Not only that, they have also been a pedagogical tool of great importance in the scientific area.

In addition, due to their characteristics, they have been the subject of debate in philosophy as well as in cognitive sciences, natural sciences or pedagogy. But, What exactly do we mean by "mental experiments"?

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What are mental experiments?

Mental experiments are hypothetical situations that are used to explain a situation or a phenomenon , through what would be the results, if the experiment actually happened.


In other words, a mental experiment is a resource of the imagination (it consists of narrating a fictitious situation), that has enough logic so that it is possible to imagine coherent results, so that these results allow us to explain something.

Gilbert & Reiner (2000) define mental experiments as experiments that have been directed mentally. That is, although there is no need to execute them (and in many cases there is no real possibility of doing so), yes they must include a hypothesis, objectives, results, in order to offer a series of logical conclusions about a phenomenon.

For being a resource of the imagination, sometimes mental experiments are confused with the analogical reasoning. However, the difference is that, while analogies are mainly characterized by making comparisons, mental experiments are characterized by posing a series of actions that are carried out figuratively.


Main uses in research

As we have said, mental experiments have arisen mainly from a specific intention or purpose: to understand how a phenomenon works, without the need to really experiment with it.

However, from this same intention others have been released, for example, the justify or refute the legitimacy of a philosophical, mathematical, historical, economic or scientific model (especially they have been used in physical sciences).

That is to say, mental experiments have three main uses: to explain, legitimize or refute explanatory models about the nature of a phenomenon. However, these two uses can be more specific according to the author who proposes them, or according to the theoretical and philosophical position that sustains them.

For example, they have been widely used not only in the physical sciences but in the philosophy of the mind and morals, in the cognitive and computational sciences , and in formal education. That is why they have also been considered a model for teaching, that is, a didactic tool.


In contrast to these uses and functions, mental experiments have also faced some criticism. For example, there are some who consider that they are simply intuitions , and as such, can not sustain enough rigor to be considered in terms of knowledge or scientific methodology.

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3 examples of mental experiments

Since the seventeenth century we can find examples of mental experiments that have had an important impact on our understanding of the world. Some of the most popular were conducted by Galileo, René Descartes, Newton or Leibniz.

More recently it has been discussed the role of mental experiments in the development of physics and quantum mechanics , for example, through the Schrödinger Cat experiment. Likewise, the importance of mental experiments in the philosophy of language and the philosophy of the mind has been discussed, for example, with Searle's Chinese room or philosophical zombies.

1. The Schrödinger cat

With this experiment, Schrödinger exposes how some principles of quantum theory clash with our most basic intuitions. It consists of the following: a cat is locked in a steel chamber , along with a counter that has a very small amount of radioactive substance.

There is a 50% chance that in one hour, one of the atoms will decompose and poison the cat. Also, there is a 50% chance that none of the atoms will decompose, which will keep the cat alive. Then, the most logical thing is that if we open the steel box an hour later, we will find the cat alive or dead.

However, and this is what Schrödinger exposes as a paradox, following some principles of quantum mechanics, after an hour the cat would be alive and dead at the same time. At least before opening the box, since for the mechanics the states overlap until the moment when an outside observer comes into play (It is this observer who modifies the states of things).

This experiment has gone through very different and complex explanations, but very roughly it has served to explain the counterintuitive nature of quantum mechanics.

2. The Chinese room

With this experiment, the philosopher John Searle questioned the possibility of creating artificial intelligence that is not only capable of imitating the human mind, but actually reproduces it .

The hypothetical situation he posed was to imagine that an English-speaking person, who does not understand Chinese, enters a room where he is provided with a written instruction in English to manipulate some Chinese symbols with a certain order. Under this order, the symbols express a message in Chinese.

If, after manipulating them, he hands them over to an outside observer, he would probably think that the English-speaking person who does not understand Chinese does understand Chinese, even if he does not. For Searle, this is how the operating systems of computers work (imitate the understanding but without reaching it).

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3. Philosophical zombies

Philosophical zombies are a widespread concept in philosophy and whose background we can trace in many theories. However, it was David Chalmers who proposed the following thought experiment: if there was a world exactly like ours, but instead of being inhabited by human beings, it is inhabited by zombies, those zombies (which are physically identical to us) they will still not be able to reproduce the human mind .

The reason: they have no subjective experiences (qualia). For example, although they can scream, they do not experience joy or anger, so Chalmers proposes that the mind can not be explained only in physical terms (as physicalism proposes).

Bibliographic references:

  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2014). Thought Experiments. Retrieved May 3, 2018. Available at //plato.stanford.edu/entries/thought-experiment/
  • Gilbert, J. & Reiner, M. (2010). Thought experiments in science education: potential and current realization. International Journal of Science Education, 22 (3): 263-283.
  • Oliva, J. (2008). What professional knowledge should we have science teachers about the use of analogies. Eureka Journal Teaching and Dissemination of Sciences. 5 (1): 15-28.

10 Psychological Experiments You Would Never Believe Happened (June 2024).


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