A Review Of Catherine Z. Elgin’s ‘Fiction As Thought Experiment’

Scientific experiments are “tests under controlled conditions that are made to demonstrate a known truth, examine the validity of a hypothesis, or determine the efficacy of something” (Dictionary). Moreover, in “Thought Experiments”, by Roy Sorenson, Sorenson points out that “the aim of any experiment is to answer or raise its question rationally (Sorenson, 205). This shows that experiments are used to further one’s understanding of how something works. Furthermore, in “Literature as Thought Experiment”, by Catherine Z. Elgin, Elgin states, “Experiments often involve creating and using items that are nowhere to be found in nature” (Elgin, 4). By testing phenomena under specific and controlled conditions, scientists are testing phenomena out of their natural element. Thus, experiments are effective at controlling seemingly random variables in order to produce meaningful results. The example Elgin uses to demonstrate this involves genetically identical mice. In this example, mice were accidentally exposed to a chemical, and later these mice developed liver cancer. In order to find out if the accidental exposure to the chemical was the cause of the liver cancer, scientists ran a few experiments on genetically identical mice. In these experiments, the scientists put the mice in identical environments, but only exposed half of the genetically identical mice to the chemical, and left half of the genetically identical mice unexposed to the chemical. Since the mice were genetically identical, this isolated many outside variables, such as genetic and environmental factors. As a result, if the mice that were exposed to the chemical the second time developed liver cancer at a high percentage rate again, the scientists could reasonably assume that it is the chemical causing the cancer. This example shows that by using unnatural phenomena, such as genetically identical mice (there are no two genetically identical mice in nature, genetically identical mice are a product of science), one can still draw meaningful conclusions from experiments. In this example, scientists were able to draw meaningful conclusions from an example/experiment that could never occur in nature. 

This is relevant to thought experiments and fiction as thought experiments because Elgin thinks thought experiments operate similarly to the example of the experiment with the mice. According to Elgin, a thought experiment is used to “enhance understanding of the phenomena they pertain to” (Elgin, 1). This is what occurred with the experiment on the mice — the scientists were able to conclude that exposure to a certain chemical increases the likelihood that mice will develop cancer.

Thought experiments operate similarly to scientific experiments, yet the conclusion(s) one can draw from thought experiments differ from the conclusion(s) one can draw from scientific experiments. Thought experiments are “imaginative exercises designed to disclose what would happen if certain conditions were met” (Elgin, 8). Rather than running a scientific experiment with physical phenomena in order to draw meaningful conclusions about nature, thought experiments are imaginative tests used to draw meaningful conclusions about nature if such-and-such were the case. Since thought experiments require imagination, it is necessary for one to suspend his or her belief for the thought experiment to work. Suspension of belief is required because thought experiments, like some scientific experiments, do not occur in nature — they are controlled hypothetical scenarios used to draw meaningful conclusions, as was the case with the genetically identical mice. Thought experiments are extremely effective at controlling random variables and specifically isolating whatever it is that is being tested.

Elgin admits that every thought experiment does not succeed, but just because every thought experiment is not successful, it does not follow that all thought experiments are devoid of any substantive meaning. Throughout human history, a few thought experiments have succeeded with remarkable clarity and significant implications. For instance, Elgin points out that Galileo’s thought experiment about two different sized rocks falling “discredited the Aristotelian contention that the rate at which bodies fall is proportional to their weight” (Elgin, 10). This shows that the result of Galileo’s thought experiment was enough to discredit the traditional Aristotelian understanding of gravity.

Furthermore, Elgin admits that ‘Galileo’s thought experiment may actually discredit her analysis because exemplification requires instantiation’ (Elgin, 11). This means examples can only be of the same substance if they are to be accurately representative. Thought experiments are exactly that: thoughts. Thought experiments do not occur in the real-world; they are not composed of a physical substance. Rather, thought experiments exist in the mental realm and are composed of mental substances. Thus, thought experiments, a mental substance, are not accurate representations of events that occur in the real-world, which is composed of physical substances. As a result of this insight, Galileo’s thought experiment, which is a mental substance, about the two falling rocks does not represent the phenomenon of two actual rocks falling, which are physical substances, and thus does not actually discredit Aristotle’s theory.

Elgin responds to this objection by saying Galileo’s thought experiment represents “the rate at which bodies fall and the independence of that rate from the weight of those bodies are abstract properties” (Elgin, 11). This shows that Galileo’s thought experiment is not actually representing the falling rocks (physical phenomena); rather, it is representing the speed that the rocks are falling and the formula used to figure out this speed devoid of the weight of the rocks, which is an abstract mathematical concept (mental phenomena). Thus, Galileo’s thought experiment, a mental substance, is actually instantiating another mental substance, the abstract mathematical formula. Thus, Galileo’s thought experiment still stands after all. This demonstrates that similar to certain scientific experiments, thought experiments also involve phenomena that are not found anywhere in nature.

In the mice experiment, the genetically identical mice – which are a product of science, they are not found anywhere in nature – were successfully used in an experiment to test whether or not an accidental exposure to a chemical caused other mice to develop cancer. In this example, the elements of the experiment (the mice) were unnatural, yet the conclusions of the experiment yielded significant real-world implications. This example shows that it is possible to yield significant, real-world implications via an experiment that is using unnatural phenomena.

Similarly, though thought experiments are solely composed of thoughts and occur in the mental realm – meaning they do not involve phenomena that are found anywhere in nature, rather, they involve abstract properties pertaining to the phenomena found in nature – the mice example suggests they can still be used to yield significant, real-world implications. Moreover, this shows that some thought experiments do have a significant meaning and do have important, real-world implications. This suggests that literature can be a thought experiment, as well, because, in works of fiction, authors create hypothetical scenarios that can be used to draw significant, real-world implications. This shows that thought experiments in fiction are neither different than an experiment on unnatural phenomena, nor are they different than normal thought experiments, such as the one put forth by Galileo.

Two further difficulties with Elgin’s view that literature is thought experiment are “most experiments and thought experiments, and most works of literature, work within a context of background assumptions” (Elgin, 25) and the argument from banality.

The first difficulty, “most experiments and thought experiments, and most works of literature, work within a context of background assumptions”, (Elgin, 25), shows that the efficacy of thought experiments rests on the strength of the initial background assumptions. If the initial background assumptions are faulty, then the thought experiment will also produce faulty results. Thus, thought experiments in fiction are limited to and do not provide any further information than what was already contained in the initial background assumptions.

The second difficulty is the argument from banality, as proposed by Carroll. This argument suggests that the function of thought experiments in fiction is to produce moral and ethical truths. However, as Carroll puts it, the results of thought experiments in fiction are nothing more than “truisms” (Elgin, 25). This means that thought experiments in fiction are only capable of producing results that are so obviously unoriginal, they are boring. Furthermore, “since such truths are banal, they are, for the most part at least, epistemically inert” (Elgin, 25). This suggests that, because the truths that are produced by thought experiments in fiction are so obviously unoriginal, they do not provide anyone with any new knowledge. Despite these apparent difficulties, Elgin’s view that literature is a thought experiment is still defensible.

In order to better understand how fiction is a thought experiment, Elgin puts forth the notion of “exemplification”. According to Elgin, “exemplification is the relation of a sample, example, or other exemplar to whatever it is a sample or example of” (Elgin, 11). This means that exemplification is the relationship between the example and what is being made an example of. In the case of the genetically identical mice, the experiment exemplified a path between natural mice and unnatural mice.

Furthermore, to properly understand the relationship between the example (the genetically identical mice) and what is being made an example of (natural mice), it is useful to examine how Roy Sorenson differentiates experiments from thought experiments. As previously mentioned, Sorenson thinks, “the aim of any experiment is to answer or raise its question rationally” (Sorenson, 205). Furthermore, Sorenson goes on to say, “A thought experiment is an experiment that purports to achieve its aim without the benefit of execution” (Sorenson, 205). The main difference between an experiment and a thought experiment, according to Sorenson, is that experiments are actually tested and tried out in the physical world, (the genetically identical mice were actually tested and tried), while thought experiments are never actually put to test in the physical world. Thought experiments purport to answer a question about the world if the world were operating under certain, specific conditions. While the mice example is not a thought experiment, nonetheless it sheds light on how experimenting on an unnatural object (genetically identical mice) can yield significant, real-world results. However, given this newfound understanding, one can see how Galileo’s thought experiment should be taken as a serious refutation of the Aristotelian notion of gravity, even though Galileo never actually put his thought experiment to the test in the physical world. In this example, the thought experiment exemplified a path between how the world is and how the world would be under certain, specific conditions.

Given that thought experiments purport to answer a question about the world if the world were operating under certain, specific conditions, one can see how this would apply to fiction, as well. This is because, when reading and understanding a fiction, the reader comes to see what is true in a fiction; that is, the reader comes to see what would happen if such-and-such were the case. A fiction may be a thought experiment by exemplifying a relationship between a specific example and what is being made an example of. In light of the result of the mice-genetically mice example, it matters not if the example/example-of involves unnatural phenomena. Moreover, in the passage quoted in the question, Elgin admits that ‘fictions cannot exemplify psychological properties, but says they can exemplify very abstract patterns which are instantiated by psychological properties and by properties that fictions themselves can have’ (Elgin, 16). Elgin is saying that there is no relationship between fiction (immaterial) and psychological properties (material). However, there is a relationship between fiction and abstract patterns, which are immaterial representations of psychological properties. There is a relationship between fiction and abstract patterns because both exist in the abstract — they are immaterial. Since psychological properties can be represented via abstract patterns, an author of fiction can create a story in which this abstract pattern is exemplified and instantiated. According to Elgin, when this occurs in fiction, “it is not a pattern of psychological features. But it is a pattern that is, or that may be, instantiated by psychological features” (Elgin, 17). Thus, there is a transitive relationship between fiction and psychological properties. That is, a relationship between fiction and abstract patterns, which are representations of psychological properties. This shows that literature is a thought experiment, but only with appeal to exemplification.

Works Cited

Elgin, Catherine Z. “Fiction as Thought Experiment.” Catherine Z. Elgin, Fiction as Thought Experiment – PhilPapers. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Feb. 2017.

“Scientific Experiment.” The Free Dictionary. Farlex, n.d. Web. 15 Feb. 2017.

Sorenson, Roy A. “Thought Experiments.” Google Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Feb. 2017.

You can read Elgin’s full article here.

 

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