Posts tagged ‘Thought Experiment’

March 22, 2015

Experience Machine


poor yorick

The Experience Machine or Pleasure Machine is a thought experiment put forward by philosopher Robert Nozick in his 1974 book ‘Anarchy, State, and Utopia.’ He describes a choice between everyday reality and an apparently preferable simulated reality as a refutation of ethical hedonism, the idea that people have the right to do everything in their power (that doesn’t infringe on others) to achieve the greatest amount of pleasure possible to them.

If the primary thesis of hedonism is that ‘pleasure is the good,’ then any component of life that is not pleasurable does nothing directly to increase one’s well-being. This is a view held by many value theorists (who study how, why, and to what degree people value things), but most famously by some classical utilitarians (who believe that the morally best action is the one that makes the most overall happiness or ‘utility’ (usefulness). Nozick argues that if he can show that there is something other than pleasure that has value and thereby increases our well-being, then hedonism is defeated.

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March 20, 2015

Pascal’s Mugging


In philosophy, Pascal’s mugging is a thought experiment demonstrating a problem in expected utility maximization. A rational agent should choose actions whose outcomes, when weighed by their probability, have higher utility. But some very unlikely outcomes may have very great utilities, and these utilities can grow faster than the probability diminishes. Hence the agent should focus more on vastly improbable cases with implausibly high rewards. The name refers to Pascal’s Wager (an argument by French mathematician Blaise Pascal that the potential cost of not believing in God is higher than the cost of believing), but unlike the wager does not require infinite rewards. This removes any objections to the dilemma that are based on the nature of infinity.

British philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s: ‘The greatest good for the greatest number’ formed the foundation of utilitarianism, which says that the morally best action is the one that makes the most overall happiness or ‘utility’ (usefulness). Pascal’s mugging points out that in extreme case this philosophy can fail. The term for this problem was coined by artificial intelligence researcher Eliezer Yudkowsky in the ‘Less Wrong’ internet forum and his original example was: ‘Now suppose someone comes to me and says, ‘Give me five dollars, or I’ll use my magic powers from outside the Matrix to run a Turing machine that simulates and kills [trillions of] people.’ Even though the chance of this actually happening is negligible, the threatened outcome is so large a rational agent must accede to the demand.

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February 4, 2014

Temporal Paradox

Grandfather paradox

Grays Sports Almanac by justin peterson

temporal paradox is a thought experiment where a time traveler goes to the past, and does something that would prevent him from time travel in the first place. If he does not go back in time, he does not do anything that would prevent his traveling to the past, so time travel would be possible for him. However, if he goes back in time and does something that would cause him/her to not make a time machine he would not travel back in the first place causing him to make one then go back and not make one.

A typical example of this kind is the grandfather paradox, where a person goes back in time to kill his grandfather before he had any biological descendant. If they succeed, one of their parents would never exist and they themselves would never exist either. This would make it impossible for them to go back in time in the first place, making them unable to kill their grandfather, who would continue to produce offspring and restart the situation. But if they fail, their grandfather would live and produce offspring. This has the same affect as prevailing.

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May 1, 2013

Intuition Pump

An intuition pump is a thought experiment structured to elicit intuitive answers about a problem. The term was coined by Daniel Dennett. In ‘Consciousness Explained,’ he uses the term pejoratively to describe John Searle’s ‘Chinese room’ thought experiment, characterizing it as designed to elicit intuitive but incorrect answers by formulating the description in such a way that important implications of the experiment would be difficult to imagine and tend to be ignored.

Searle’s experiment supposes that there is a program that gives a computer the ability to carry on an intelligent conversation in written Chinese. If the program is given to someone who speaks only English to execute the instructions of the program by hand, then in theory, the English speaker would also be able to carry on a conversation in written Chinese. However, the English speaker would not be able to understand the conversation.

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May 1, 2013

Trolley Problem

Philippa Foot

The trolley problem is a thought experiment in ethics, first introduced by British philosopher Philippa Foot in 1967, but also extensively analyzed by philosophers Judith Jarvis Thomson, Peter Unger, and Frances Kamm as recently as 1996. Outside of the domain of traditional philosophical discussion, the trolley problem has been a significant feature in the fields of cognitive science and, more recently, of neuroethics. It has also been a topic on various TV shows dealing with human psychology.

The general form of the problem is this: Person A can take an action which would benefit many people, but in doing so, person B would be unfairly harmed. Under what circumstances would it be morally just for Person A to violate Person B’s rights in order to benefit the group?

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January 16, 2013

Utility Monster

The utility monster is a thought experiment in the study of ethics. It was created by philosopher Robert Nozick in 1974 as a criticism of utilitarianism (which argues that the morally best action is the one that makes the most overall happiness or ‘utility’). In the thought experiment, a hypothetical being is proposed who receives as much or more utility from each additional unit of a resource he consumes as the first unit he consumes. In other words, the utility monster is not subject to diminishing marginal returns with regard to utility, but instead experiences constant marginal returns, or even increasing marginal returns.

Since ordinary people receive less utility with each additional unit consumed, if the utility monster existed, the doctrine of utilitarianism would justify the mistreatment and perhaps annihilation of everyone else, according to Nozick’s argument. In his words: ‘Utilitarian theory is embarrassed by the possibility of utility monsters who get enormously greater sums of utility from any sacrifice of others than these others lose . . . the theory seems to require that we all be sacrificed in the monster’s maw, in order to increase total utility.’ This thought experiment attempts to show that utilitarianism is not actually egalitarian, even though it appears to be at first glance.

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June 17, 2012


ted stevens

bandwith and latency

IBZL (Infinite Bandwidth Zero Latency) is a thought experiment that asks: what will happen when bandwidth (the maximum speed of a connection)  is so great, and latency (delays) so small, that it no longer matters? What will be the applications and services that would most benefit from an IBZL connection to the Internet?

The IBZL program was started in the UK by the Open University (a distance learning and research university) and Manchester Digital (a digital media trade organization). ‘Infinite bandwidth’ and ‘zero latency’ are not meant literally; they are a shorthand for networks where bandwidth and latency cease to be limiting factors.

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February 6, 2012

Mary’s Room

Marys Room

Mary’s room (also known as Mary the super-scientist) is a philosophical thought experiment proposed by Frank Jackson in his article ‘Epiphenomenal Qualia’ (1982) and extended in ‘What Mary Didn’t Know'(1986).

The argument is intended to motivate what is often called the ‘Knowledge Argument’ against physicalism — the view that the universe, including all that is mental, is entirely physical. The debate that emerged following its publication became the subject of an edited volume — ‘There’s Something About Mary’ (2004) — which includes replies from such philosophers as Daniel Dennett, David Lewis, and Paul Churchland.

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January 19, 2012


robot chicken

Astrochicken is the name given to a thought experiment expounded by theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson. In his book ‘Disturbing the Universe’ (1979), Dyson contemplated how humanity could build a small, self-replicating automaton that could explore space more efficiently than a manned craft could. He attributed the idea to John von Neumann, based on a lecture von Neumann gave in 1948 entitled ‘The General and Logical Theory of Automata.’ Dyson expanded on von Neumann’s automata theories and added a biological component to them.

Astrochicken, Dyson explained, would be a one-kilogram spacecraft unlike any before it. It would be a creation of the intersection of biology, artificial intelligence and modern microelectronics—a blend of organic and electronic components. Astrochicken would be launched by a conventional spacecraft, like an egg being laid into space.

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June 23, 2011

Philosophical Zombie

philosophical zombie by mark hauge

A philosophical zombie or p-zombie in the philosophy of mind and perception is a hypothetical being that is indistinguishable from a normal human being except in that it lacks conscious experience, qualia, or sentience.

When a zombie is poked with a sharp object, for example, it does not feel any pain though it behaves exactly as if it does feel pain (it may say ‘ouch’ and recoil from the stimulus, or tell us that it is in intense pain).

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January 17, 2011

Schrödinger’s Cat

Schrödinger’s [shroh-ding-erscat is a thought experiment in quantum physics, usually described as a paradox, devised by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger in 1935. In the experiment, a cat is placed in a room that is separated from the outside world; a small amount of a radioactive element is in the room.

Within some time, say one hour, one of the atoms of the radioactive material may decay (because the material unstable), or it may not. If the material breaks down, it will release poisonous gas, which will kill the cat. The question now is: at the end of the hour, is the cat alive or dead?

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