Sunday, May 15, 2011

The only game in town

Thought experimentation doesn’t seem too dangerous. Nothing is likely to blow up in your face. With thought experiments, you don’t usually expose yourself to the sort of rays that cause cancer. Which is not to say that they are foolproof or that they can’t go wrong; for how long didn’t people believe that heavier object fell faster than lighter ones, or that the world was flat? But are thought experiments a legitimate modus operandi? Can they lead you anywhere?

Actually, if you want to make dramatic progress, they are your only option. Application of the scientific method has never resulted in any great leap forward. Every stride has only ever been achieved through imagination, creativity and lucid dreaming. Thought experiments are extremely powerful. Einstein is said to have arrived at his Theory of Relativity after he imagined himself riding on a beam of light. Other examples include Kekule’s benzine ring, the discovery of Velcro, television, the microwave oven, alternating current, coordinate geometry, chemical transmission of nerve impulses—eureka moments all. 

You’re bound to have come across thought experiments too, but maybe in another guise—perhaps as koan, haiku, riddles, puzzles and even jokes. To some degree, these are all thought experiments. If you think about it, the act of reading is itself a thought experiment. Consider how amazing it is that the inky squiggles that your eye perceives translate into a shared experience with their author. And it's all happening right inside your head! Reach up with your hand and grasp the back of it where the entire universe fits ever so snugly.

Science fiction provides a particularly good portal in terms of thought experimentation. Riverworld, Ringworld, Foundation and Chung Kuo—every tale starts off with, and flows on from, one or more ‘suppose ifs’: po statements that we accept for the duration in order to enjoy the story. We don’t worry about how likely or believable they are. This is great training. For example, take that premise that underlies the Matrix movies. Say that everything we perceived as real by our senses is not, and that the universe as we know it an elaborately constructed virtual reality world that we’re all hooked into. If that was so, you wouldn’t know the difference. No one can prove that anything is really out there.

Yeah, but hey, you say, it's real. I can smell it. Nope, that’s just molecules tickling some nerve ends and scooting upward from there into your grey matter. But I can touch it, you protest. Again, that’s just another set of electrical impulses traveling up, this time, from your fingertips. Et cetera and so on. Stick with me, as I pick away at the warp and woof of that insight.

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