Thought Experiments & Critical Stance journals

Thought Experiment Three: Vat.

Thought Experiment Three: Vat. (Photo credit: Sinead Fenton)

Philosophy 130 – Ethics (Spring 2003)

Thought Experiments & Critical Stance journals

[ Students and professors, please read. ]

Journal 1:  Ch. 2: Exploring ethical issues via thought experiments.

“(A thought experiment is a mental exercise in which a researcher sets up an imaginary scenario and follows it to its logical conclusion in order to explore what might happen if the scenario came true.)  Although science fiction need not always involve ethical issues, it has proved to be one of the most suitable genres for exploring them, especially such problems as we believe may lurk in our future,” (p. 45).

One of my favorite ways to pass the time is to conduct thought experiments, like long-range social impact assessments of current events, or a reworking of history and how it would change the present (if that were possible).  For example, in a present-to-future thought experiment, I might ask what would happen if the U.S. attacks Iraq without the approval of the U.N.’s security council.  Will it mark the beginning of a) WWIII, b) America’s downfall, c) Orwell-style totalitarianism, d) the last time America or any other nation acts alone without facing global consequences (can select more than one)?  In a past-to-present thought experiment, I might consider the condition the world would be in now, had Jesus (of the Christian religion) never been born, had the Crusades/Spanish Inquisition never happened, so on and so forth.  Would we be more or less concerned with equality and civil liberties?

There is a saying that those who refuse to learn from history (in the past, in the making) are doomed to repeat it (now, in the future).  Trial-and-error learning adds to our knowledge-base of what cause results in what effect, and makes us more able to choose good causes (ones that result in good effects) and abandon negative causes (ones that result in negative effects).  Just as a man is not an island, but from birth and throughout life owes his experience to many humans and is interwoven with the universe — “now” is not an island, it is not isolatable from the rest of eternity, it did not pop in from out of nowhere, it does not pop out and end existence.  It is impossible to know all possible variations of outcomes unless your perspective is everywhere, every moment in eternity.  Regardless, we have the ability, however limited our perspective, to learn from the past and anticipate the future based on lessons learned, and it is highly useful, while we have this priviledge unrestrained, to tap into the potential of our ability “now” (using thought experiments) to improve all potential future nows.


Journal 2: Ch. 2: Acquiring critical distance, versus censorship.

“Children, as well as adults, all have a certain background that helps us process the stories we are exposed to, and this is where the influence of parents becomes important:  If parents and children usually communicate about the stories children are exposed to–or if parents are the ones telling their children stories–the children hopefully acquire a critical stance from the stories they will hear as adults.  This critical stance lowers the risk of their running out mindlessly to emulate some action that may look ‘cool’ on the screen,” (p. 57).

I was thinking about this in reference to the impact of Sunday School on my four year old.  Adults teach children over-simplified doctrine as if it is fact, and reenforce that it must be happily accepted as common sense if one wants to be a good boy or girl.  When it comes to teaching a child right and wrong, or how to be good, I don’t think religious beliefs should be part of that, because children internalize and form their identities to where being good means believing certain doctrine, so that later on they equate “bad” with asking sincere questions about what they have blindly believed since childhood.  Rather, I think a religious belief, or any other kind of belief, should be formed because it “resonates” as making sense about the universe we live in.

So, in order to gaurd my children from becoming unquestioning sheep–should I shelter them from Sunday School and all other human interaction, should I censor every idea that may enter their mind–or should I use these experiences as “teaching opportunities” in which to explain the various ways different people think about what is taught in Sunday School, on a t.v. show, on the playground, by other family members, in a story, etcetera–so that when they grow up they will be armed with “critical thinking”?  Yes, I think it is good to teach our children to think for themselves, from the get-go.

I don’t think children should be taught to quit asking “Why?” about everything–I don’t think the answer should ever be “wait until you’re older–you are too young to understand.”  We’re all older now–do we understand?  Are we still afraid to ask “Why”?  Is that why we are afraid to give our children honest answers to their questions?  After recently overcoming my equating “doubt” with “bad”, I decided that if my children are curious about any aspect of our universe, I am not going to make them stop asking “Why?”  I am going to keep answering until they get tired of asking.

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