Intuitions in science : thought experiments as argument pumps

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This chapter presents and criticizes the two dominant accounts of thought experiments in science, due to James Robert Brown and John Norton; the mechanical thought experiment of Simon Stevin is used as an exemplar. The chapter argues that scientific thought experiments are strongly analogous to their ‘real’, actual physical, counterparts. In each kind of experiment, theoretical context affects which arguments are generated and/or thought to be sustainable on the basis of the states of affairs involved. The difference is whether the states of affairs are hypothetical and/or counterfactual rather than actual. This view is consistent with empiricism concerning scientific thought experiments. On such empiricism, the (good) arguments that it is possible to pump from thought experiments have premises grounded in experience, rather than an additional faculty.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationIntuitions
PublisherOxford University Press
Number of pages16
ISBN (Print)9780191669125
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2014

Bibliographical note

The same paper is also presented at: the 39th Annual Conference of the Philosophical Society of Southern Africa, Durban, Southern Africa, January, 2013, the 39th Annual Philosophy of Science Conference, Dubrovnik, Croatia, April, 2012, and the Philosophy Seminar, University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 26 April, 2013.


  • James Robert Brown
  • John Norton
  • Simon Stevin
  • empiricism
  • scientific experiments
  • thought experiments


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