Thought experiments have long been used by philosophers, scientists, and academics across all disciplines as a way to convey a very abstract idea or concept in a more playful or easy-to-grasp way.
Great thought experiments help shift our ideas and open our minds up to concepts or perspectives we may not have had previously. They allow us to expand our understanding while acting as food for thought.
Some of the greatest thought experiments have stood out for how well they exemplify this concept, and today we’re going to highlight the most famous ones of all time. From the Light Beam theory from Albert Einstein to the timeless nature of the Trolley Problem, these thought experiments offer highly fascinating scientific, philosophic, moral, and legal perspectives that will really make you think.
Perhaps one of the earlier thought experiments in history, this idea originated from famous historical figure, physicist, and astronomer, Galileo. Galileo wanted to refute Aristotle’s ideas that a falling object’s speed is dictated by its mass.
In Aristotle’s view, if a lighter and heavier object were tied to each other and dropped off a building at the same time, the bigger object would fall faster, which would cause the rope to become taut, allowing the lighter object to slow the heavier one.
To counter this, Galileo presented a simple idea; once dropped, the weight of the objects together would be greater than either individually, making both fall faster. This simple contradiction directly proved Aristotle’s theory wrong.
An interesting historical tidbit to note about the life and works of Albert Einstein is that his work on special relativity was actually spurred on by a much earlier thought experiment he had conducted when he was only a teenager. In his autobiography, he recalled daydreaming about chasing a beam of light that was actively traveling through space.
He theorized that if he could move with it at the speed of light, he would be able to view the light frozen in place. This famous early thought experiment from Einstein spurred the initial thoughts and ideas that would lay the foundation of his theory of relativity.
Perhaps the most famous thought experiment of all time, the proposed idea of the trolley problem presents the listener with a significant ethical and moral quandary. The idea has been presented with a few twists and variations depending on the teller, but the thought behind it is this; a villainous madman has tied a group of innocent people to a trolley or railroad track, and an uncontrolled trolley is barrelling down toward them.
You can save the group simply by pulling a level, but doing so will divert the car to another track that a lone innocent victim is tied to. So, do you choose to pull the lever? This theory touches on the ethics of utilitarianism, which typically prescribes that the most moral decision provides the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people.
Famous thought experiments, including Galileo’s Gravity Experiment, Einstein’s Light Beam Theory, and the Trolley Problem, have all managed to transcend their specific disciplines and ingrained themselves into our collective intellectual heritage. Each of them challenges core beliefs and underlying assumptions, all while providing key insights into ideas of ethics, morality, and even our understanding of the world around u