THOUGHT experiments, imaginary scenarios that shed light on real problems, have been a part of philosophy since Plato's cave. Often they are paradoxes intended to make us re-examine our assumptions or exercises that test the boundaries of a new theory. Fun, vivid, provocative, and sometimes strangely persuasive, they are moments of story and invention in the midst of logical argument; the prizes in philosophy's cereal box.
The popularizing British philosopher Julian Baggini, author of Making Sense: Philosophy Behind the Headlines and Whatâe(TM)s It All About: Philosophy and the Meaning of Life, has collected a hundred of them for this friendly book. All the undergraduate stoner favourites are here (How do I know I'm not just a brain in a vat? If all the cells in my body are replaced, am I still the same person?), as well as classics like Descartes' demon and Buridan's ass, and more contemporary specimens, such as Bernard Williams' illustration of moral luck based on the life of Paul Gauguin.
Baggini compresses each into a page or two, rewriting them chattily and bringing them up to date with a ton of pop culture references, from Kwik-E-Marts to zombies; The Matrix makes its inevitable appearance. Sometimes he's a touch too cute. But he subjects each case to a short analysis, pulling out the philosophical questions it raises without forcing the reader into an answer. In fact, his discussions often end with a question mark themselves.
The book very effectively shows how all kinds of problems and situations, from bank errors to adultery to suicide bombers, can be illuminated by philosophical examination. Without trumpeting the fact, Baggini ranges across the discipline, from ethics to epistemology, aesthetics to metaphysics, using appealing examples to raise serious questions: an ABM doles out $10,000 instead of $100 (is a victimless crime wrong?); an environmentalist travels by greenhouse-gas-emitting jumbo jet (must we practise what we preach?); an old buddy shoots Senator Smith because in college, Smith asked his friends to kill him if he ever voted Republican (do we have the right to make binding decisions on our future selves?); a weathered rock looks exactly like a Henry Moore sculpture (what defines a work of art?); a family's cat is run over (is it acceptable for them to eat it for dinner?).
You may have knee-jerk reactions to the situations set out above; in his discussions, Baggini forces you to stop and think about what your opinion relies on or implies. With a bit of prodding from the author, you can sometimes reason your way to a more defensible position. But often, the lesson is simply that things are more complicated than they seem. Especially in Bagginiâe(TM)s examples from medical ethics, clear-cut positions are to be distrusted.
The book does cheat a little: many of the entries, including most of those mentioned above, aren't thought experiments in the strictest sense, because they don't invent a scenario that is conceptually challenging in itself. For the moment, we can't do memory transplants; imagining what would happen after the operation forces us to examine what we think constitutes a person. Bank machines, on the other hand, do sometimes dispense too much or too little money, and there's nothing shocking about a computer error. In such cases, Baggini just retells a commonplace event and asks us to look at its consequences with philosophical spectacles on.
But it's hard to cavil much because this book is a strong invitation to think. It's a defence of the philosophical virtues, an engaging kick from lucidity and clarity at confused concepts, blurry language, self-interested moralizing. One doesnâe(TM)t want to argue with its aims.
A side benefit is that as well as showing what a philosophical approach to problems consists of, The Pig That Wants to be Eaten shares some professional tools: the point that facts are always under-determined by evidence (events can never be fully explained, which is why the courts ask for proof only beyond a reasonable doubt and conspiracy theories inevitably have some ground to stand on); vocabulary like the indeterminacy of translation and relevant similarity; enjoyable trivia like the difference between Nietzsche's eternal return and what happens to Bill Murray in the movie Groundhog Day. Even when the subject under discussion is familiar, the approach is instructive.
There are a few things this book doesn't do. Baggini says that a thought experiment is a way to strip down a problem to its essentials, removing all the contingencies real-world examples are burdened with. But thought experiments are not uncontroversial: some philosophers argue that when you pare down a situation, you inevitably shape it. As such, they claim, the technique itself is flawed; thought experiments are like loaded dice, and they reveal more about the assumptions of their inventors than about conceptual problems or the outside world.
Similarly, The Pigâe¦ doesn't consider the formal qualities of thought experiments. It doesn't explore how strange it is to have such imaginative, narrative moments in what's supposed to be the realm of pure thought and argumentation. Baggini doesnâe(TM)t wonder what kind of appeal thought experiments make to the reader or what sort of rhetoric they employ.
But those are questions for another day, another book. The Pig That Wants to be Eaten (the title comes from a disconcerting talking meal in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) aims to provoke thought and entertain, and it succeeds handily at both.âe"Damian Tarnopolsky
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