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Meditation Center Presents Part 22 of Mind-Body Philosophy Series

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By Frank Simons

One of the main tools employed in contemporary philosophy of mind is the thought experiment. Virtually all arguments against materialism and functionalism rely on appeals to thought experiments. Many thought experiments, in philosophy as well as physics, are designed to show that a particular theory will generate a clearly unacceptable conclusion under clearly imaginable circumstances. In this lecture, we’ll look at thought experiments in some detail.

The two requirements of thought experiments—a clearly unacceptable conclusion and clearly imaginable circumstances—are also potential weak points. A thought experiment from physics illustrates this point: Einstein wasn’t a fan of quantum mechanics. He didn’t like the essential and irreducible randomness at the core of the theory. He believed it must be leaving out some hidden variables behind the apparent randomness. Working with colleagues Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen, Einstein came up with an argument against quantum mechanics. They designed a thought experiment to show that quantum mechanics couldn’t be complete. Their strategy was to show that the target theory would lead to unacceptable conclusions under clearly imaginable circumstances. This is now known as the Einstein, Podolsky, Rosen (EPR) paradox.

If the relevant interpretation of quantum mechanics were right, separating two particles that had once been entangled in interaction would allow information about a random event performed at one point in the universe to reach us at a different point in the universe instantaneously. Information would travel faster than the speed of light. But nothing can. We’d have “spooky action at a distance,” Einstein said. That is unacceptable.

This thought experiment didn’t prove to be the knockout punch intended. Perhaps the unacceptable conclusion will prove to be acceptable. Perhaps information can travel faster than light.

Thought experiments often have that structure: in clearly imaginable circumstances, if the theory were right, you’d get an unacceptable conclusion, so the theory must be wrong. Although that can be a powerful argumentative structure, it does rely on those two important points. The clearly imaginable circumstances must truly be so, and the unacceptable conclusion must be so as well. In the EPR experiment, the question is whether the conclusion is unacceptable at all.

Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook Patrick Grim has provided his students with invaluable insights into issues of philosophy, artificial intelligence, theoretical biology, and other fields. Grim was awarded the university’s presidential and chancellor’s awards for teaching excellence and was elected to the Academy of Teachers and Scholars.

The Meditation Center presents Part 22 of the 24-part Great Courses series Mind-Body Philosophy, “Thought Experiments against Materialism,” at 5:30pm, Thursday, June 7, at the Center, Callejon Blanco 4. There will be an opportunity for discussion following the video.



Presentations of the Center are offered without charge. Donations are gratefully accepted.


Video Presentation

Mind-Body Philosophy Part 22: “Thought Experiments against Materialism”

Thu, Jun 7, 5:30pm

Meditation Center

Callejón Blanco 4

Free, donations accepted

044 415 156 1950



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