Sunday, 18 January 2015

Top 5 Philosophical Thought Experiments That Will Blow Your Mind

As part of the Top 5 List series I thought I would look into philosophical questions that are really difficult to answer. Most of these have been used somewhere before but I've tried to make up one of my own to cut the mustard, let me know what you think!

Alone in a Room Conundrum

Having been unconscious after a blow on the head, you wake up being unable to remember anything. You are in a large room that contains 100 years worth of nonperishable food and running water, most likely outlasting you, should you decide to stay in the room. Initially, there is one more person in the room, they look panicked, worried that something is happening outside the room. They turn around and notice you as you raise your head, waking up from what seems to have been an ever-lasting coma, before which, you remember nothing. The person looks vaguely familiar but you don't know who he/she is. They run over to you and make sure you're ok but they're sweating profusely. They hand you a gun and tell you not to leave the room under any circumstances whatsoever until they return. 

They also give you a key to lock the door after they go, but once again they make it clear they will be back as soon as possible with more people, and tell you not to leave the room. You have no recollection of what life was before your coma and remember absolutely nothing of what it's like to be human within current society. The person never returns. Do you leave the room even after they've given you specific instructions not to? You can survive in the room if you want to, and the person's agitated state has left you extremely scared.

The Kill One to Save Many Debate

Many will have heard this one, but if you find it easy to answer I'll add in a little twister-mister to get you thinking.

You are placed next to a train track where two sets of track veer off away from one another. Next to you is a set of instructions which clearly detail that the switch next to you causes the train to travel down either of the two tracks. Strapped to one of the two sides are five hikers, down the other is one hiker. The train, on its current path, is heading towards the five people and will indefinitely kill them. Would you change the track alignment so that only the one hiker would die, while the other five are spared? A difficult one but an interesting virtual study was carried out which you can read up on here if you want to find out what the majority taking part decided to do. 

If you find this one easy to answer, then imagine the one person on one of the two sides of the track was your best friend. Would you sacrifice your best friend to save five others? And oh yeah, the train, as it currently stands, is heading towards the five hikers so you have to physically switch it to your best friend, knowing they will die when you do so.

Can you Prove Anything is Real?

So far we've had questions that come down to morals and personal disposition, but let's move onto some real paradoxes that haven't quite been answered yet.

The 'brain in a vat' paradox is something that even today leaves philosophers debating over the potential implications of the concept. Imagine a mad scientist of some sort has managed to cut you open and steal your brain, the brain being placed in Futurama-like fluid that sustains life. To your brain, the scientist hooks up a couple of electrodes which are then connected to a computer. Seeing as all of the information you take in about the world is filtered through the brain, this computer would be able to simulate your everyday experiences. With this in mind, is it conceivable that everything you're seeing is in fact not real, and could possibly all be generated by a computer? Could you prove that what you are experiencing right now IS real?

Further to this I thought I'd add a little question...if you were given a choice to use a computer simulator to simulate your wildest dreams for the rest of your life, would you take it? And if you did, would you truly be able to say you had done the things you were experiencing in the simulator? Bear in mind the simulator is so high-tech that the differences between real life and the simulation are unrecognisable. If yes, should you be punished for killing someone in the visual representation?

Achilles and the Tortoise

Going with the ancient Greek theme with this one! Imagine you could place your life savings on either a tortoise or the legendary Achilles to win a race. Obviously, unless you love self-deprecation, you would bet on Achilles to win, and if you were to give the tortoise a slight head start, you would probably still bet on Achilles.

However, if you were to give the tortoise a head start before beginning the race, Achilles would first have to make up the distance to where the tortoise started, but during this time the tortoise would have already moved, meaning Achilles would have to make up the distance to where the tortoise had got to, while he was making it to the first point. Logically, this would go on forever because no matter how far the distance to where the tortoise stands, the tortoise would have already moved while Achilles was trying to catch up. The reason is because any finite distance can be divided an infinite number of times, so no matter what Achilles does he will never be able to overtake the tortoise. Confused? Take a look at this Youtube clip for a visual understanding of what's going on, gorgeously narrated by David Mitchell

Troublesome Twins

A complicated one but perhaps we have the cure to wrinkles here. We'll call our identical twins Rod and Tod, one is a couch potato while the other one is a bit of an adrenaline junkie, choosing to travel in a spaceship through space at speeds which are close to the speed of light (crazy, I know!). Anyway, Tod travels for two years on the spaceship before returning to Earth, however to his shock his identical twin looks entirely different to himself, the main difference being that Rod has aged by about thirty years...has he arrived in a parallel universe somewhere far away? No, not at all.

Einstein's theory of special relativity explains that time does not exist in the singular, and can be experienced differently depending on the speed from which you observe the speed of light. This is the logical conclusion if you follow Einstein's theories, but is it true, does this really work? All studies so far have suggested that this is the case; particles placed in a particle accelerator and accelerated to speeds close to the speed of light age slower, their inner clocks don't run as fast - which is a strange concept but one we'll have to take on merit.

So there you have it! Five philosophical issues and thought experiments which have boggled the minds of many. If you enjoyed this post please let me know below, and if you feel I should have included any I've missed out, why not leave a comment saying why? Until next time.

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